November 24, 2020

Orson Bean, Free-Spirited Actor of Stage and Screen, Dies at 91

After finding success on television and Broadway, he established a progressive school and later wandered around America as a late-blooming hippie.

The actor and comedian Orson Bean in 1980. Early in his career he was ubiquitous on television, but he then took a long hiatus.
Credit…Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times

Orson Bean, the free-spirited television, stage and film comedian who stepped out of his storybook life to found a progressive school, move to Australia, give away his possessions and wander around a turbulent America in the 1970s as a late-blooming hippie, was killed in a traffic accident on Friday in Venice, Calif. He was 91.

His death was confirmed on Saturday by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office. Capt. Brian Wendling of the Los Angeles Police Department said Mr. Bean was struck by a car while crossing the street.

Early in his career, in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Bean, a subtle comic who looked like a naïve farm boy, was ubiquitous on TV. He popped up on all the networks as an ad-libbing game-show panelist (a mainstay on “To Tell the Truth”), a frequent guest of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” a regular on drama anthology shows and, in 1954, the host of his own CBS variety show, “The Blue Angel.”

He also starred on and off Broadway, made Hollywood films, founded a society of Laurel and Hardy aficionados, amassed a fortune and was blacklisted briefly as a suspected Communist.

In 1964, captivated by a progressive-education theory, he created a small school in Manhattan, the 15th Street School, that made classes and most rules optional, letting children pretty much do as they pleased. For the remainder of the decade Mr. Bean devoted himself to the school, paying its bills, covering its deficits and working harder and harder.

He was often seen on five television panel shows a week, squeezed in nightclub acts and a Broadway show, married (for the second time) and added more children to his growing family. But he felt overwhelmed by the trappings of success and by turmoil in a nation caught up in conflicts over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of leaders and a political drift to the right.

“We were having babies and the money was rolling in so fast we had to push it out,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times years later. “We had a four-story townhouse and a live-in maid. We loved it, but I was starting to freak out. I became convinced that the country was going fascist.”

Believing that America’s generals were planning an imminent coup d’état, Mr. Bean abandoned his thriving career and moved his family to Australia in 1970. He became a disciple of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and wrote a book about his psychosexual theories, “Me and the Orgone.” (Orgone is a concept, originally proposed by Reich, of a universal life force.)

When the book appeared in 1971, Mr. Bean returned to America with his wife and four children. For years he led a nomadic life as an aging hippie and self-described househusband, casting off material possessions in a quest for self-realization.

“We were so sure we didn’t want to be possessed by things and so intent on not having them that we gave away almost everything we owned,” he wrote in a 1977 Op-Ed in The Times. “We entered what I now call our late hippie stage. We tossed the kids into the van, bummed around the country, sponging on our friends and putting the kids in school wherever we happened to light.”

In his dropout years, as he recalled in a memoir, he experimented with psychedelic drugs, communal sex and other excursions into self-discovery. His peripatetic family collected driftwood and books, and at night read aloud to one another. When he had to, Mr. Bean scratched out a living by making commercials and doing voice-overs for animated films.

By 1980, he was bored with inactivity. Moving back into the public spotlight, he reappeared in television movies, soap operas, game shows and episodic series. Over the next three decades, he took recurring roles in “Murder, She Wrote,” “Normal, Ohio” and “Desperate Housewives.” He also appeared in many movies, notably “Being John Malkovich” (1999), in which he played the eccentric owner of a mysterious company.

While he eventually performed in some 50 television series and 30 films, he may be best remembered for his appearances on early panel shows, which, in contrast to the greed, noise and kitsch of many modern game shows, were low key, relatively witty and sophisticated.

“We were much more intelligent then,” Kitty Carlisle Hart, a frequent panelist with Mr. Bean, told The Times in 1999. “It sounds like an awful thing to say, but it’s true.”

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