Frank Gorshin may have built his stage reputation on his impeccable celebrity impersonations, but as an actor, it was his manic portrayal of the quizzical super villain The Riddler on TV's "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) that would endear him to generations of fans. After discovering his facility with mimicry at an early age, and honing his craft on the stages of the USO while in the Army, Gorshin embarked on an early career in film with small parts in such B-pictures as "Hot Rod Girl" (1956). Supporting roles in studio efforts like "Bells Are Ringing" (1960) and return visits to "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) throughout the 1960s increased his visibility. As the featured guest-villain on the pilot episode of "Batman" in 1966, however, Gorshin inextricably linked himself to a larger-than-life character he had no choice but to embrace in the years that followed. And there was no reason not to, as The Riddler was pure Gorshin - maniacal, mercurial, menacing and most definitely funny. A gifted actor beyond the camp of "Batman," he also impressed with a riveting performance in an episode of "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), and later, in stage productions of "Jimmy" and "On the Twentieth Century." The culmination of the gifted actor-impressionist's career came with his acclaimed portrayal of comedian George Burns in 2002. A bravura one-man stage show, "Say Goodnight, Gracie," provided the perfect vehicle for Gorshin, who continued to fine-tune the role right up until his passing in 2005.
Born Frank John Gorshin, Jr. on April 5, 1934 in Pittsburgh, PA, he was the oldest child of Frances, a seamstress, and Frank, Sr., a railroad worker. Gorshin had already begun to gravitate toward performing by the age of 12, an inclination that only grew stronger by his teenage years. As a student at Peabody High School, he worked part-time as an usher at the Sheridan Square Theater. It was there, while watching the films of James Cagney and Cary Grant that Gorshin discovered his facility with impressions. The aspiring performer's first professional job came in 1951, when at age 17 he took home first prize at a talent contest, earning himself a one-week engagement at Jackie Heller's Carousel nightclub where comedian Alan King was headlining. It was a moment of elation tempered by tragedy, however, as Gorshin's younger brother, Herman, had been struck and killed by a drunk driver just two nights prior to his scheduled Carousel performance. At his mother's insistence, Gorshin went on as planned, and his career in show business was officially underway. Upon graduating from Peabody, he attended the drama school at Carnegie Tech - later, Carnegie Mellon University - in addition to performing at various nightclubs and plays in the Pennsylvania area.
Gorshin entered the U.S. Army in 1953 and upon winning yet another talent show, was assigned to Special Services duty. This led to a tour of duty throughout Europe, where he entertained the troupes as part of the USO shows. During this time Gorshin was urged by an acquaintance to look up a film agent by the name of Alec Alexander when he returned to the States. After his discharge in 1955, Gorshin did just that. One year later, the young veteran arrived in Hollywood for his feature film debut in the William Holden-Deborah Kerr wartime drama "The Proud and the Profane" (1956). Off and running, the nascent film actor went on to pick up roles in a string of modest B-movies with such tantalizing titles as "Hot Rod Girl" (1956), "Dragstrip Girl" (1957) and "Invasion of the Saucer Men" (1957). A potentially tragic story of "the one that got away" came in 1957 when Gorshin was back in Pittsburgh visiting his family and his agent phoned him to rush back to Hollywood for a screen test on the Clarke Gable-Burt Lancaster naval drama "Run Silent Run Deep" (1958). After a marathon 39 consecutive hours on the road back to L.A., Gorshin, exhausted, fell asleep at the wheel. Upon waking in the hospital some four days later, the actor was informed that a Los Angeles newspaper had prematurely reported his death - prompting the studio to give the supporting role of Officer Ruby to comedian-actor Don Rickles.
Gorshin struggled over the next few years to land roles that would garner him notice, until his work doing spot-on impressions - his hilariously intense imitation of actor Kirk Douglas being among his most famous - both on TV variety shows and on the stages of Las Vegas garnered him broader recognition. He finally broke new ground with a turn in director Vincent Minnelli's musical-comedy "Bells Are Ringing" (1960), starring Dean Martin, in which he utilized a Marlon Brando impression for his role as a devoted method actor. Gorshin's unrestrained performance as an eccentric jazz musician opposite Connie Francis in the early teen-sex comedy "Where the Boys Are" (1960) facilitated his climb toward notoriety. Capitalizing on the momentum, he made the first of 12 appearances performing his comedic impressions on the premiere talent-variety program of the day, "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971) in 1961. Also on television, Gorshin landed scores of acting roles on such series as "The Defenders" (CBS, 1961-65), "The Untouchables" (ABC, 1959-1963), "Combat!" (ABC, 1962-67), "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (CBS, 1962-64/ABC, 1964-65) and "The Munsters" (CBS, 1964-66).
For all the memorable work that came before and after, it would be Gorshin's indelible recurring role as the green-suited arch villain, the Riddler, on the camp classic series "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68) that would endure as the comedic actor's legacy. With his gleefully maniacal laughter and mercurial mood swings, Gorshin's was by far the most dynamic evil-doer in Batman's rogues' gallery. For his 10 appearances on the pop-culture phenomenon - he also turned up in the 1966 feature film of the same name - Gorshin earned his first Emmy nomination. The attention Gorshin received from his role on "Batman" also had the beneficial ripple-effect of scoring him work as a headliner at several of Las Vegas' most popular casinos. It was a prolific time for Gorshin, who earned yet another Emmy nomination for his guest appearance on the iconic TV series, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69). In a thought-provoking episode titled "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," he gave a fully committed performance as Commissioner Bele - a bigoted half-white/half-black alien engaged in a duel to the death with another denizen from his home planet, identically-colored, albeit on opposite sides of his body.
Gorshin returned to the stage and made his Broadway debut in 1969 with the title role in the musical biography "Jimmy," based on the life of controversial New York Mayor "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker. As the new decade dawned he frequently appeared as himself on comedy-variety programs like "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" (NBC, 1967-1973) and popular TV game shows such as "The Hollywood Squares" (NBC, 1966-1980). Acting remained his bread and butter, however, with dozens of guest spots on popular action-drama series like "Ironside" (NBC, 1967-1975), "Hawaii Five-O" (CBS, 1968-1980), "S.W.A.T." (ABC, 1975-76) and "Charlie's Angels" (ABC, 1976-1981). The good-natured Gorshin briefly reprised The Riddler for the exceptionally silly "Legends of the Superheroes" (NBC, 1979) special, in which both members of the Justice League and the Legion of Doom attend a roast for the Dynamic Duo (Adam West & Burt Ward). Film and TV roles became more sporadic throughout the 1980s, although Gorshin turned up on the ABC soap "Edge of Night" (ABC, 1956-1984) and such primetime shows as "The Fall Guy" (ABC, 1981-86) and "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996). In one of his rare feature roles of the period, he figured prominently in director Penelope Spheeris' tawdry episodic dark comedy "Hollywood Vice" (1986), then went out on the road to tour nationally with a stage production of the screwball musical comedy "On the Twentieth Century" that same year.
Though not cast in the third film of the hugely successful superhero franchise "Batman Forever" (1995), Gorshin's definitive embodiment of the quizzical criminal clearly informed Jim Carrey's portrayal of The Riddler. He did, however, appear in another well-regarded film that same year, director Terry Gilliam's' science fiction thriller "12 Monkeys" (1995), in which he played a gruff senior psychiatrist evaluating a self-professed time traveler (Bruce Willis). Now in his mid-sixties, Gorshin still performed occasionally in nightclubs, and even dabbled with giving voice to such iconic cartoon characters as Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam for such animated shorts as "Superior Duck" (1996) and "From Hare to Eternity" (1997). A recurring role on the long-running soap opera "General Hospital" (ABC, 1963- ) as Reverend Love came in 1999, and he later returned to the superhero genre with a guest spot on the short-lived action-adventure "Black Scorpion" (SyFy, 2001). In 2002, the 71-year-old Gorshin appeared in Broadway's Tony-nominated "Say Goodnight, Gracie," perfectly embodying the late comedian George Burns in both voice and appearance. The award-winning performance was made all the more remarkable when one considered that Gorshin had never impersonated Burns prior to his taking on the role.
Unlike some formerly associated with the show, Gorshin embraced and appreciated his connection to "Batman" and the character of The Riddler. Happily, he agreed to participated in the amusingly nostalgic mockumentary "Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt" (CBS, 2003), which chronicled the backstage comedies and dramas behind the beloved series. In a similar vein, he lent his voice to yet another classic Bat-villain, Professor Hugo Strange, for several episodes of the animated series "The Batman" (The WB, 2004-08). Following a touring performance of "Say Goodnight, Gracie" in Memphis, TN on April 24, a seriously ill Gorshin was taken to a Los Angeles area hospital, where he remained for nearly a month until his passing due to lung cancer on May 17, 2005. He was 72 years old. One of Gorshin's final TV appearances occurred just days after his death in 2005 in an episode of the popular forensic procedural "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations" (CBS, 2000- ). Titled "Grave Danger," the episode was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who dedicated the installment to Gorshin's memory.
By Bryce Coleman