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Frank Fontaine

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Actor
Born:
April 19, 1920 in Cambridge, MA
Death:
August 4, 1978 in Spokane, WA
Biography
Actor/singer Frank Fontaine was born in 1920 in Cambridge, MA, into a performing family -- his father was a circus strongman, while his mother was a trapeze artist. But he came to specialize more in schtick than feats of physical prowess; he also had a magnificent singing voice that he cultivated. Fontaine began getting some movie work in the late '40s, with a small role in the MGM musical Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), and he also turned up on variety programs on the DuMont Network at the end of the 1940s. It was with an appearance on The Jack Benny Program in April 1950, however, in which he played a somewhat inebriated bum, dubbed "John L.C. Silvoney," that he began having a lasting impact on mass audiences. Fontaine's comic voice actually sounded disheveled, and with his mangling of standard syntax, coupled with an intermittent zany laugh, his first show working opposite Jack Benny became a highlight of the season.

Over the next two years, he became so well known working with Benny that when he turned up in 1952 as a host of a variety series called Music Hall, audiences were already in on all of his mannerisms, and laughed with him as he flashed the goofy voice, and the look that went with it (which Benny later admitted made it impossible for him to look directly at Fontaine when they were working together on radio, because he would laugh uncontrollably). No less a figure than satirist Stan Freberg picked up on Fontaine's mannerisms, mimicking them in a 1952 cartoon in the role of "Pete Puma." Fontaine appeared in more movies, including Lloyd Bacon's Call Me Mister and Frank Capra's Here Comes the Groom (both 1951) -- some of these were drunk characterizations, and others were zany comedic roles with other attributes. Fontaine also did at least one commercial for Plymouth in the early '60s, advertising the car-maker's self-adjusting brakes, playing a bewildered service station owner lamenting all of the brake-job business he was no longer getting.

But it was in 1962 that Fontaine carved a permanent place for himself in the popular-culture firmament for a generation. That year, he started a series of regular appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show, as part of what was called "The American Scene Magazine," portraying "Crazy Guggenheim" in a series of sketches built around Gleason's character of "Joe the Bartender." Gleason would start the sketch and after a short discussion he would call "Crazy Guggenheim" out and there would be Fontaine, wearing his goofy expression and disheveled hat, reveling in his telltale laugh and mannerisms, relating some kind of inebriated shaggy-dog story; but the sketches would often end with Fontaine flexing his vocal muscles and displaying a fine tenor voice on some sentimental old ballad. In a sense, the combination anticipated the work of Jim Nabors, whose twangy country-bumpkin voice would give way to a rich, fine singing voice. The year he started with Gleason, Fontaine recorded an LP entitled Songs I Sing on The Jackie Gleason Show (ABC Records), which topped the U.S. album charts in 1962. The following year, he released a follow-up LP, More Songs I Sing on The Jackie Gleason Show (ABC), and Sings Like Crazy (Decca Records), and he ultimately released at least a half-dozen LPs. He was much less frequently seen on television, possibly due to overexposure, after Gleason dropped the "Joe the Bartender" spot in 1965. Fontaine died of a heart attack in 1978, at the age of 58. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi

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