Dick Gautier, best known as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart, passed away this week at age 85, so I thought it would be appropriate to give him a proper acknowledgement. In comedy, the “straight man” doesn’t always get their due; if they do their job right, they make it look easy, and their partner gets all the laughs, but it takes great timing and delivery to set up a joke, and Gautier was good at it.
In 1966, Batmania was in full roar, Adam West’s Batman dominating not only the ratings but also the popular culture to a degree not seen before in the 20th century. Naturally, the other networks hoped to cash in on this fad with their own entries, and so it was that on Monday, January 9, 1967 (thank you, Wikipedia!), two new superhero comedies debuted as mid-season replacements; Mr. Terrific on CBS at 7:30 and Captain Nice on NBC at 8:00. Neither show succeeded in capturing Batman‘s audience and both shows were canceled at the end of the season.
As an 8-year-old neophyte nerd, I thought Mr. Terrific was, well, terrific. One of the key characters on the show was Hal Walters, played by Dick Gautier; he had the thankless task of playing second banana and straight man to the ostensible hero. Stephen Strimpell, a former attorney and distinguished stage actor, played “weak and droopy daffodil” (to quote the theme song) Stanley Beamish, a timid nebbish who happens to be the only man in America that the super energy pill will work on. In his civilian identity, Stanley and Hal were co-owners of a service station; much of the comedy in the show derived from Stanley’s attempts to keep his superhero life a secret and Hal being pretty oblivious about it.
A few years later, Gautier got to play a superhero.
The US Department of Labor wanted to use Batman in a commercial about the equal pay law in 1973, Adam West declined to reprise his role, so Dick Gautier took on the part. He did such a good job of imitating West that most people don’t even notice the recasting. In an interview some time later, Gautier said “they called me in, hoping I’d fit into the Batman costume. I could and did and then I imitated Adam’s peculiar cadence of delivery and they bought it. Let me rephrase that, as I said, there was no money.”
Around the same time as Mr. Terrific, Gautier made his Get Smart debut as Hymie the Robot, a role he only played in six episodes, though he made enough of an impression that he remains a favorite character among fans of the show.
In 1975, Gautier starred as a not-very-bright Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten, a sitcom created by Mel Brooks and a concept he would revisit a couple of decades later with Men in Tights. Despite the Brooks pedigree and a solid cast including the Love Boat‘s Bernie Kopell (who also played the KAOS villain Siegfried on Get Smart), future Hee Haw Honey Misty Rowe, Eight is Enough‘s Dick Van Patten, Henry Polic II (the Scarecrow/Jonathan Crane on Batman), Ron Rifkin (Alias) and a parade of guest stars including Sid Caesar and Dudley Moore, When Things Were Rotten didn’t get the ratings ABC hoped for. After the show was unceremoniously canceled after 13 episodes, Gautier did guest spots here and there, then transitioned into voice work, most prominently as Hot Rod/Rodimus Prime in the ’80s Transformers cartoon series.
He also indulged his lifelong hobby (which he described as therapy), drawing cartoons. In the ’90s he wrote a series of books on cartooning and caricature. I know I have one of them around here somewhere, but I’ll be darned if I can find it now. Apparently, being a comedian, impressionist, singer, actor, and good-looking wasn’t enough for him; he had to also be a talented artist. So unfair.
Dick Gautier continued to work up until just a few years ago (his final TV appearance was on Nip/Tuck in 2010), and appeared occasionally at Transformers conventions until his health declined.
A few years ago, I had a brief correspondence with his daughter Denise (the result of a case of mistaken identity, my email address having been erroneously included in a group of her high school alumni); I got the opportunity to ask her to tell her dad how much I enjoyed his work, especially the much underappreciated When Things Were Rotten. If I’d had any sense, I would have thought to invite him to be a guest speaker at the Comic Art Professional Society, but I didn’t realize he still lived in the area.
Rest in peace, Mr. Gautier, and thanks for the laughs.