Contemporary accounts make it sound like watching the man perform on stage was like watching a man possessed: Fascinating and frightening, but a genius. He became world-famous and theaters billed him as the “Funniest Man on Earth.”
A later performer became an international superstar and said many times of himself, to interviewer after interviewer, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am.” Watching him was like watching a man possessed by the accents and mannerisms of any character. He also said, “There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.” His questioner in this particular case was Kermit the Frog.
The first paragraph concerns Dan Leno, who was born on this date in 1860. His name is largely forgotten now, and would be even more so, were it not for the belief of another actor, Peter Sellers, that he was possessed by the spirit of Dan Leno. Sellers claimed to not know himself and similarly disappeared inside every character he portrayed, often so completely that his friends often remarked that if he played “an Indian doctor, for six months after, he was an Indian doctor.” He is the figure in the second paragraph. Here he is with Kermit, in what may have been his most honest interview, aside from one with Michael Parkinson:
Leno was the most popular stage comic of the late Victorian Era and could be considered the first stand-up comedian. He performed pantomimes of character types as well as monologues, songs, and slightly risque jokes. He also danced and even won national dance competitions. He did anything for a laugh and applause and usually won both. The highest-paid performer at the time, his characters were usually working class, which was a revolutionary innovation.
For a year or two, he was the king of all media: he sold out theaters, recorded best-selling versions of his acts, and even published a weekly magazine with his name as the title. (The illustration seen at top.)
He was also, slowly but surely, losing his mind in front of his adoring audiences. After one performance, late in his short life, King Edward VII found Leno so amusing that he gave him a present on the spot: a stickpin. A tie pin. From then on, the actor considered himself royally blessed and thought that the time was now to make the transition from mere comedian to Shakespearian immortal (somewhat like the clip of Peter Sellers, above). He wore the tie pin everywhere, even on stage. He began stalking famous actresses and directors and producers to make personal requests that they participate in productions that only he seemed to be aware were imminent. He was institutionalized, and died at age 43 in 1904.
One story, from the Wikipedia entry about Dan Leno’s life, illustrates: In Camberwell asylum, “Leno told a nurse that the clock was wrong. When she stated that it was right, Leno remarked, ‘Well if it’s right, then what’s it doing here?'” Sad, true, and funny, all at once.
A fellow performer said that he thought the tie pin led to his undoing: “I really believe that King Edward’s kindness was the unconscious means of hastening Dan Leno’s mind over the borderline of insanity … Poor Dan had been fluttering outside the cage of the madhouse for some years, and the great honour and dignity which he received at the hands of the King just tilted the scales of divine injustice. He went inside.”
For a star in a profession populated with superstitious people, Peter Sellers found ways to outdo even the most superstitious: When one (successful) actor professed a superstition, Sellers added the habit (no green allowed on the movie set) to his own complicated set of habits. One superstition can be quirky and charming, especially when it accompanies a tale of success told self-deprecatingly. But an entire personality composed of quirks, one that makes career and personal decisions from inside a rigid complex of compulsive acts with little else to offer besides a talent for voices and fakery? Well, Sellers became even more famous for the number of former friends he left behind on movie project after movie project.
He consulted psychics and communicated with the dead through Ouija boards. One of the dead was Dan Leno. Knowing this, his agent sometimes made cash arrangements with Sellers’ psychic, Maurice Woodruff, who was quite famous in the 1960s for his spot-on guesses, erm, predictions. His agent would tell Woodruff the scripts that HE thought Sellers should accept, which became the movies Woodruff’s spirit world would recommend, which became the films Sellers acted in. The spirit of Dan Leno never requested a commission.
In a sometimes harsh article about Peter Sellers, a writer for Dangerous Minds recounts how easily Sellers could mistake the signs he was being given: “Woodruff was asked to suggest the initials of director Blake Edwards as being very important to him. Unfortunately, Sellers failed to connect ‘B.E.’ with the famous director. On his return to the Dorchester Hotel, Sellers was smitten by the sight of a beautiful, young blonde-haired woman at reception. When he inquired as to who this vision of loveliness was, he was told ‘Britt Ekland.’ Sellers recalled Woodruff’s prediction and married Ekland within days.” Blake Edwards of course directed Sellers in five Pink Panther movies.
Leno’s influence came through Sellers in a more conventional way, and film lovers have this to be grateful for: Stan Laurel. Laurel’s boyhood idol was Dan Leno, and his early music hall act was influenced by the legendary performer. (In photos of Leno, one sees a full-faced but closed-mouth grin that looks almost identical to Stan Laurel’s.) Decades later, according to interviews for a 1995 BBC documentary about Sellers, “The Peter Sellers Story,” Sellers used to visit Stan Laurel at his apartment in Santa Monica. (Laurel’s phone number was listed and he was well-known among Laurel and Hardy fans for answering their calls. A different era.)
Peter Sellers fought for a decade to get the novella “Being There” made into a film. First he had to convince the author, Jerzy Kosiński, to agree to make a film version. Then he had to re-make himself into a marketable star, as the wreckage of his past bad behaviors included enormous cost overruns to meet his many superstitious demands and directors and co-stars who would not speak his name in polite company. The financial success of the Pink Panther films helped, as did the publication of well-publicized rumors of a less demanding on-set actor. His not-so behind-the-scenes image as a performer who was losing his mind in front of an adoring audience was remedied. Both projects took up most of Sellers’ 1970s, but Kosiński eventually agreed to make the film, and a newly cuddly Peter Sellers, a star who would appear on “The Muppet Show,” emerged.
In the role that many cite as his most completely realized, Chance the Gardener in Being There is Dan Leno through Stan Laurel minus the Ouija board.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 20 asks, “For our final trio prompt of the year, write about any topic you wish, but make sure your post features a bookcase, something cracked, and a song you love.” I referenced a book and film, “Being There,” two uniquely cracked actors, and Schubert’s Eighth Symphony plays during the last video clip.
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