He would have turned a hundred this year. Gordon Hathaway. Sonny Drysdale. Raise a glass (better still, as Gordon advised on his Heigh-Ho Madison Avenue album, hoist some “Martinis and Miltown”). Or offer a heartfelt “Boola boola” as raccoon-coated Sonny did on more than one episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Steve Allen, it’s been persuasively argued, was the first hip spy in the house of TV, abetting the earliest visitations by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Kerouac, Frank Zappa, the Collins Kids and countless other outsiders to millions of American living room; he “had the true spirit of a comic anarchist fluttering like a red flag in his soul,” wrote James Wolcott.
Louis Nye (1913-2005) was among the more subversive offerings of Allen’s late-Fifties/early-Sixties show. Appearing weekly in skits and ‘Man on the Street’ bits, Nye’s Gordon Hathaway wasn’t merely funny, batting his eyes, cocking coy smiles, dropping Mad-Ave and Greenwich Village jargon into his exchanges with Allen. He was a cultural signifier of a half dozen things that, much like race and ethnicity, official America found too taboo to talk about. He was a louche aesthete and style cat, an uninhibited wit who couldn’t tell you who won last week’s big game, who was maybe gay, who hung with bohemians and cracked about getting high. Walking into frame in his thin tie, button-down Gant and Tyrolean hat, Gordon (whose shtick was usually written by Allen staffers Stan Burns and Herb Sargent) confounded prevailing notions of how guy-hood was supposed to play. If Lord Buckley was the Fifties’ avatar of the Sixties, Gordon Hathaway was, in his own way, the coal-mine canary that brought news of much that society would eventually accept and respect.
Nye’s brief (1962) run as Clampett banker Mr. Drysdale’s playboy son Sonny was juicy if wildly anachronistic; The Beverly Hillbillies’ writers wrote the eternal college student as a prancing refuge from the Thirties. It was as Gordon Hathaway that Nye killed, with heavy doses of sly and silly—not just on Allen’s show, but on singles like “Teenage Beatnik” (“I like to cha-cha in my Bermuda shorts” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPh6fxIxBiM) and LPs like Heigh-ho Madison Avenue and Here’s Nye in Your Eye, where the proto-Mad Men tropes fly fast and furious (“Let’s toss it down the well and check it for splash”). If you can find the latter set, dig “Hipster in a Bank” and be set free.