By Paul Zollo | July 3, 2011
Billy Beck, one of the greatest of the great sad clowns, is gone. And an era is over.
He’s one of those guys you’ve seen in movies and TV for years and likely never knew his name. Most recently he appeared in the forgettable Zombie Strippers, but you’ve seen him in famous movies like Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie and Micki and Maude, as well as in hundreds of TV shows through the decades, including Bewitched, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Twilight Zone, The Monkees, E.R., and The King of Queens. He was a regular on several shows, including Lou Grant, playing the photo editor on several episodes, Falcon Crest (as Charles) and also on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, on which he made many return appearances as the quirky Lt. Trask.
But to many of us, he’ll be most fondly remembered as a sad clown, the character he invented in the streets of Paris in the 1940s and portrayed on the stage of the famed Cirque Medrano, along with Buster Keaton and other legendary sad clowns.
He died just nights ago on June 29 at the age of 90. Though he became famous for being one of this town’s most resonant character actors, he was also a gifted cartoonist, painter, photographer and, of course, clown.
“This was fun, more fun than acting,” he told me in an interview on a spring day in 2006 when we did a photo shoot. It was the first time in more than 40 years that he put on his clown costume and make-up, and though he was reticent at first to delve back into the character he abandoned lifetimes ago, he gave into my polite persistence, and agreed.
Being his first voyage back in time to playing the tramp since he was a young man, it was a momentous occasion sparked with the joy of his longtime love of clowning, but also with some sorrow at all the years which have passed since his Parisian clowntime youth.
Born in 1920 in Philadelphia, as a kid he loved nothing more than drawing, and drawing clowns was one of his specialties. Like millions, he was drawn to the poetic pathos epitomized in Emmett Kelly’s sad clown character – this great comic paradox, a funny man forever frowning – and he used to spend a lot of time drawing, cartooning and painting that character. He also loved the famous sad clowns of the silent movies, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton especially, both of whom he got to know.
He also was a natural performer – he enjoyed acting onstage and clowning off – and was a serious painter. He also was a devout lover of women, and when not sketching clowns he was painting nudes, and also creating stark photographic portraits of lovely women. One of the best things about acting, he said, was getting to work with so many beautiful women.
During World War II, he was stationed in France, and whenever he had the opportunity, would go to Paris to see Buster Keaton and other legends and who performed at the Cirque Medrano. It was while he was still in the army that he fashioned his own Emmett Kelly-inspired tramp costume and make-up, and when the war was over in 1945 he stayed in Paris. Asked why, he said, “The city is beautiful, the language is beautiful, the women are beautiful – why would I leave?”
He started as a street performer and also a street artist in Paris, doing sketches and painted portraits. Soon he was performing on the stage of the famed Cirque Medrano, which led him to perform at venues and celebrations throughout Paris for the next 15 years.
But his love of cinema created in him a yearning to go to Hollywood and act in movies. And in 1960 he made the move, buying a small house on Robinson Street in Silver Lake, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In Hollywood, though he never intended to be a TV actor, he was steadily employed as an actor, appearing in every kind of show TV created, as well as soon landing his first big film role, that of Office DuPont in Irma La Douce (1963), which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
From there on he was rarely unemployed – often as a deranged slasher-guy in horror films. That this famous clown should be so in demand as a monster amused him. “I guess I just have one of those faces,” he explained. “I was just grateful to have a job.”
A quick perusal of his IMDB pages shows he had more than a job – he had five consecutive decades of non-stop work – unusual for an actor, but especially one in Hollywood. His resume contains the entire history of television.
When he had a chance, he would sometimes do small appearances at the Moose Lodge in Burbank or other venues to perform some vaudevillian comedy. But he never donned the clown make-up through all these years, until I cajoled him to do so. “Well, there wasn’t any demand for it,” he explained. “And also, maybe I wasn’t sure I could still do it. That was a long time ago, after all.
It was at the Burbank Moose Lodge in March of 2006 that we met. I was there thanks to my friend Amy O’Neill, another legendary actress and gifted clown. It was an Evening with Billy Beck, during which his lucky fans bathed in stories of his early clowning days, and saw many historic slides, as well as some great solo vaudeville sketches.
Afterwards, jazzed by the ecstatic response of the audience, he agreed to do a photo shoot in his clown character. But underneath his bonhomie, I could sense his reticence.
Still, he invited me to his Silver Lake home for our photo shoot on an April morning in 2006, which he cheerfully agreed to do over the phone, but admitted to me later was the cause for some consternation.
“I just didn’t know if I still had it in me,” he said afterward, “to play the tramp again. Just putting on all the make-up and the costume, it’s a lot of work. And then to take off the make-up. But I really enjoyed doing this.” When asked if he’d consider another shoot, he laughed and said, “Don’t know about that. But this one was good.” We never did do another.
On that day, however, he had endless ideas, and in his overgrown backyard and out in the sunny streets in front of his hillside home, we took more than 300 shots. He brought out an ancient souvenir of Parisian vaudeville – a prop violin which has a little hinged door that opens to the body, out of which he'd pull sheet music as a gag.
Pretending to play this violin as I happily snapped many photos, he smiled at passersby who stopped in their tracks to take in his act. Like a true performer, he relished the attention.
We spent about an hour shooting, after which he reclined deeply into the leather easy chair behind his big iron desk, and admitted to being exhausted. But happily so.
“I’m tired,” he said, “very tired. I’m an old man! But that was fun. Just like old times.”
My interest in those old times led him to lead me through his remarkable home, which overflowed with his love of art: bookshelves packed with thousands of books, and walls filled from floor to ceiling with his own paintings, sketches and photographs as well as a lifetime of souvenir circus and vaudeville posters and photographs, big maps of the world and much more. And that’s just what was visible. In back rooms were crates and boxes of the treasures he’s collected over the years, and never abandoned.
Now like Chaplin, Kelly, Keaton and the other clowns he emulated, his life is over. But fortunately for us, his spirit – whether inhabiting a clown or a monster – lives on endlessly in the abundance of performances which are forever preserved in the movies and TV shows he did. It’s also preserved this series of photographs I was lucky to take, of the late great Billy Beck, the man and the clown. So long Billy. And thanks.
BECK, Billy (Frank Billerbeck)
Born: 9/28/1920, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Died: 6/29/2011, Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
Billy Beck's westerns - actor:
Branded (TV) - 1965, 1966 (Bert Gibbons, Mouse)
Gunsmoke (TV) - 1966 (Tonkins)
Silent Tongue - 1993 (petrified man)