Edgar John Bergen (February 16, 1903 September 30, 1978) was an American entertainer, and easily the most famous ventriloquist of the 20th century.
Self-taught from the age of 11, Bergen became a professional performer as a teenager, complete with commissioning a professional woodcarver to create his most famous character, Charlie McCarthy. He went on to become a star on Vaudeville and in film shorts before landing a regular engagement (on a recommendation from Noël Coward) at the upscale Manhattan restaurant the Rainbow Room. There, Bergen attracted the attention of a couple of NBC radio producers, who booked him an appearance on Rudy Vallée's popular variety program The Royal Gelatin Hour in 1936.
That appearance turned out so well that the following year Bergen became the headline act on The Chase & Sanborn Hour, which proved a top-rated series for the network. The admittedly unusual circumstance of a ventriloquist performing on the nonvisual medium of radio was easily countered by Bergen's flair for playing comic characters that could get away with the kind of moderately risqué gags which got other performers banned in that era. (In fact, the show was such a ratings powerhouse that Orson Welles's competing series on CBS, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, had to be sustained at network expense without sponsorship for months until its classic radio adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" led to the infamous mass panic that boosted its profile.) Bergen continued on the series (later cut to a half-hour and retitled The Chase & Sanborn Program) through 1948, then moved over to CBS and The Charlie McCarthy Show from 194956.
Bergen never had a sustained series again after The Charlie McCarthy Show ended, but continued to perform (with and without his dummies) in various guest spots on radio and television and in films. He even played Grandpa Walton in the Pilot Movie for The Waltons. Along the way, Bergen served as an inspiration for younger performers, such as the great puppeteer Jim Henson. When the The Muppets sang "Consider Yourself" to Bergen and Charlie during their guest appearance on The Muppet Show, the puppeteers meant every word of it. Sadly, that episode, and his subsequent cameo in The Muppet Movie, proved to be Bergen's final major media appearances before his death from kidney disease at the age of 75. The original Charlie McCarthy dummy resides at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.
Bergen was married to model and actress Frances Westerman from 1945 until his death. They had two children, including actress Candice Bergen.
Works Edgar Bergen appeared in with TV Tropes pages:
- Fun and Fancy Free (1947) as Himself/Charlie McCarthy/Mortimer Snerd
- I Remember Mama (1948) as Peter Thorkelson
- Bachelor Father (1 episode, 1962) as Himself/Charlie McCarthy/Mortimer Snerd
- The Littlest Hobo (1 episode, 1964) as Hjalmer
- Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1 episode, 1964) as Kenner
- Burke's Law (3 episodes, 196465) as George Smith/Horton Galbraith/Clyde Olsen
- Don't Make Waves (1967) as Madame Lavinia
- Police Story (1 episode, 1975) as Mr. Farber
- The Muppet Show (1 episode, 1977) as Himself/Charlie McCarthy/Mortimer Snerd
- The Muppet Movie (1979) as Himself/Charlie McCarthy
Tropes displayed in Edgar Bergen's work:
- Country Mouse: Mortimer Snerd, whose hayseed clothes, buck teeth, and simple-mindedness contrasted with Charlie McCarthy's formal attire and lively wit.
- Deadpan Snarker: Charlie McCarthy
- Fake Irish: Bergen, who was of Swedish extraction, gave Charlie McCarthy a slight Irish lilt.note
- High-Class Glass: Charlie McCarthy sported a monocle along with his trademark morning suit and top hat.
- Playing Against Type: Bergen had straight dramatic roles in such films as I Remember Mama and the TV movie The Homecoming (the latter the pilot movie for The Waltons).
- Self-Deprecation: Bergen knew very well that he was not the most skilled ventriloquist around, and his Charlie McCarthy often jabbed that he could see Edgar's lips moving.
- Charlie McCarthy, or expies of him, can be seen in a lot of classic 1930s and '40s animated cartoons.
- The voice and appearance of Looney Tunes character Beaky Buzzard (and, to a lesser extent, Cecil Turtle) was based on Mortimer Snerd.
- Bill Cosby did an imitation of Mortimer Snerd in one of the routines ("Special Class") from his Wonderfulness album.
- While not mentioning Bergen by name, Woody Allen's 1987 film Radio Days lampshaded the oddity of a ventriloquist performing on radio.
- The Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled" parodied the act with the one-shot comedy team of Arthur Crandall and Gabbo, with Gabbo the dummy being even snarkier and meaner than Charlie McCarthy.
- Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: W. C. Fields served as one to Charlie on The Chase & Sanborn Hour, which carried over into the 1939 film You Can't Cheat an Honest Man.
- Straight Man and Wise Guy: Edgar and Charlie, respectively.
- Virtual Celebrity: Despite being a character created by Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy existed in the same space as other celebrities of his era. Not only did he interact with other radio personalities as if he were also a real person, but he was credited as himself in films and there were magazine articles describing his activities just with like any other celebrity. Some people who heard him on the radio didn't even realize he was a wooden dummy!
- What The Hell, Casting Agency?: A radio show... headlined by a ventriloquist? Nonetheless, it was a smash hit.
- What Could Have Been: Rankin/Bass Productions approached Bergen in the 1960s about creating a weekly Stop Motion animated series starring him and his puppets, and even produced an unaired pilot episode, but health problems ultimately prevented Bergen from committing.