Or­son Bean, free-spir­ited ac­tor, dead at 91


Or­son Bean, the free-spir­ited tele­vi­sion, stage and film co­me­dian who stepped out of his sto­ry­book life to found a pro­gres­sive school, moved 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, Cal­i­for­nia. He was 91.

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

Early in his ca­reer, in the 1950s and ’60s, 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 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, 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, 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.

“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, 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 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.


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