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Orson Bean, free-spirited actor of stage and screen, dies at 91

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 2/9/2020 Robert D. McFadden
Orson Bean sitting on a table: Mr. Bean (pictured in 1980) worked at Boston nightclubs early in his career. © Marilynn K. Yee/New York Times/file Mr. Bean (pictured in 1980) worked at Boston nightclubs early in his career.

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 Friday in Venice, Calif. He was 91.

His death was confirmed Saturday by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, which said it was investigating his death as a vehicle accident. Mr. Bean was struck and killed by a car Friday while crossing the street, Captain Brian Wendling of the Los Angeles Police Department was quoted as telling reporters.

Early in his career, in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Bean, a subtle comic who looked like a naive 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 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 the United States 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.

By 1980, he was bored with inactivity. Moving back into the public spotlight, he reappeared in TV 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.

Mr. Bean was born Dallas Frederick Burrows on July 22, 1928, in Burlington, Vt., to George and Marian (Pollard) Burrows. His father, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a Harvard campus police officer. His mother, a cousin of President Calvin Coolidge, killed herself when Mr. Bean was a teenager.

After graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 1946, Mr. Bean was drafted into the postwar Army and served with occupation forces in Japan.

He was an accomplished magician, and after being discharged he changed his name to Orson Bean and worked Boston nightclubs with tricks and gags that evolved into comedy routines.

He was blacklisted for attending two Communist Party meetings, but that blew over and hardly slowed his career. Nightclub work in Baltimore and Philadelphia finally landed him in New York at the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard, joining a comedic pantheon that included Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and, a little later, Woody Allen.

Fame followed him onto the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and Merv Griffin shows. He was on “The Tonight Show” so often that he became a vacation substitute for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. He appeared on “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One,” and other television drama series, and starred on Broadway with Jayne Mansfield in the 1955 comedy “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and with Melina Mercouri in the 1967 musical “Illya Darling,” based on the movie “Never on Sunday.”

Mr. Bean married actress Jacqueline de Sibour in 1956. They had a daughter, Michele, and were divorced in 1962. He and his second wife, Carolyn Maxwell, were married in 1965, had three children, Max, Susannah, and Ezekiel, and were divorced in 1981. He married actress Alley Mills in 1993 and lived for many years in Venice, Calif. His son-in-law was Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who died in 2011.

Survivors include his wife and his four children.

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