On May 29, Film Chest released the complete and newly remastered series of “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” a campy Saturday morning show that was essentially a simian version of “Get Smart.” Movie Met was fortunate to be able to interview Bernie Kopell, who played the voice of Baron von Butcher in the show—a reprise, really, of his character Conrad Siegfried, from “Get Smart.” Kopell is probably best known for playing Dr. Adam Bricker in “The Love Boat,” the hit Aaron Spelling series that aired between 1977-1986. TV lovers may also remember him as Jerry from “That Girl,” a sitcom starring Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell.
Whenever you’re ready, we can jump into this. My main motivation here is making people aware of Wildlife Waystation, where Lancelot Link is residing after all these years, and getting the DVDs out there.
You know, "Lancelot Link" was pop-culture camp at a time when kitsch and camp were all the rage—the early 1970s. In your opinion, could the show have ever been made, or lasted even a full season, in any other decade?
I can’t tell you that. Anything in television you cannot guess, because when we started “Love Boat,” our biggest review in the L.A. Times was “it’s going to sink like the Titanic”—and it went on for 10 years, so there’s no way you can judge what the perception of the public is going to be. You just hope for the best and crank it out there.
Certainly “Lancelot” shook up Saturday morning programming, which was then mostly cartoons. And along comes along comes this little bit of live action—but, you know, the show was also cartoonish in nature.
Absolutely. And people didn’t realize that a chimpanzee could speak English.
[Laughs] Do you think the kids picked up on the fact that there were some similarities and crossovers with “Get Smart”?
Oh, I’m sure they did, because the way the whole thing evolved was, I met Mike Marmer and Stan Burns when I was doing “The Steve Allen Show.” They were his writers. So they developed a number of characters for me, and when it came time to be Siegfried on “Get Smart,” they were the writers who wrote my character—which was wonderful, because they knew me so well, and I knew them.
Anyway, when “Get Smart” was over, I was sitting with these guys and said, “Well, what the heck are we going to do now?” And Mike said—I think he just threw this out, just to be goofy—“Let’s do it with monkeys.” And that turned into doing it with chimpanzees, and they got wranglers to work with these chimpanzees and get them to do certain movements. My chimp wore a Hamburg hat, he wore a monocle . . . . How they got these chimps to do these things was amazing to me. And how did they get them to move their mouths as though they might be speaking? Well, some preferred peanut butter, some preferred chewing gum, some preferred a little piece of banana. And they got them to move their mouths enough so we could put the words into their mouths. We dubbed, in other words, like you would dub a motion picture. But it was a little different with chimpanzees.
Rumor has it that writers wrote on the fly and that voiceovers were often ad-libbed on the set to match the chimp’s lip movements. Is that true?
Well, we didn’t ad lib. The writers saw what the mouth movements were doing, and they fit their words ingeniously into the mouths of the chimpanzees, and we read the words into the mouths of the chimpanzees that the writers had written. But there was one instance where there was a very long speech that my character had and it went on and on and on, and at the end of it, the chimp gave a tremendous yawn.
So I said, okay, I’ll adapt that yawn into the speech, so it went something like this (shifts into German accent): You vill understand, you must pay attention to every single word I am speaking to you, because it is imperative that you go and get the enemies in an undignified position . . . Yahhhhhhhhhn . . . yawning at the end, which was goofy, but I had to adapt to what they did. So I did the Baron von Butcher, I did Creto, I did Indian Joe . . .
And Wang Fu?
Winnie the Pooh? No, I didn’t do that. Oh, Wang FU. Yeah, yeah. Dayton Allen and Joanie Gerber did all the other voices, and Dayton did Lancelot like Humphrey Bogart. I don’t know why he didn’t do it like Don Adams, but he sorta talked like this (launches into Bogie): Okay, sweetheart, we’re gonna get the bad guys. And it was just great fun to do, and especially to hang with Mike Marmer and Stan Burns, who had been Marines, by the way.
Anyway, the whole purpose that I’m all excited about this is that “Lancelot Link” remastered is out now in DVD form. It’s in beautiful condition. The remastering does a tremendous job, and it’s on sale now for $24.98 and 10 percent of the proceeds go to the Wildlife Waystation, where Lancelot is alive and still residing in his retirement. He has a whole harem of other chimpanzees, and he’s living a good life. And he’ll live a better life because 10 percent of the proceeds are going to Martine Colette—who is a saint. She takes in animals that nobody wants anymore. She’s done this work on her own for 36 years now.
Say, for example, people, Oh, let’s get a miniature bear, but to be safe let’s pull his teeth out and pull his claws out, and after a while they realize he’s an exotic, and he’s a lot of trouble and they say, Well, let’s give him up. Martine Colette takes these bears into the Wildlife Waystation. She provides for them for the rest of their lives. She takes in lions and tigers that the circuses don’t want anymore. You know, we share our planet with these animals, and she feels a responsibility to take care of them. I admire her, and she deserves the 10 percent proceeds of this very very funny DVD, “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.”
Now did you have any contact with any of the chimps, or was it all sound booth work?
It was all sound booth work. You go in there and it’s like, Beep beep beep, and on the fourth one you start speaking and they run the little clip. So there’s an art to it, and I must say I was pretty decent at it, because I’d done a number of them . . . but never through the mouths of chimpanzees [laughs].
Some of the plots were so close to “Get Smart” episodes, I was wondering: As a “Get Smart” cast member, did you have any input?
Well, yes. The analogy is like, if you’re paraphrasing or changing a line, it’s as though someone else has made the custom-made suit and you’re just lifting the cuffs of the suit. The heavy lifting is with the primary writing, and if you add something or edit something, that’s very nice, but don’t take too much credit because you haven’t originated the thing.
I started looking at your bio, and you’ve had bit parts in so many TV shows that are a part of American pop culture—series like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “My Favorite Martian,” “The Flying Nun,” “McHale’s Navy” . . .
Did you say “bit parts”? These were not bit parts. I may sound like I’m a big stickler on this, but there’s a tremendous difference between bit parts, feature roles, and starring roles, so I just want to be a little pain in the neck. These were more “feature roles.” Or I had starring roles. Like on the Marlo Thomas show, I was a recurring character. I was in the building that she lived in, and I was also a writer with Ted Bessell, her boyfriend. And Siegfried was certainly a starring role, and I did both of them at the same time, which was kind of amazing. Sometimes I did them both in the same week, so it was my schizophrenic period.
You also had a lot of one-shot guest appearances on so many shows, which was where I was going with that. You were on “Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Petticoat Junction,” for example.
I did all of those, and we called them the blank-kicker shows—fill in the word. These were the country shows, and there’s something very interesting about that to me. Paul Henning created these shows and they brought in tons and tons of money for CBS. And after a number of years, CBS took them all off—they would never do that today, because they were tremendous money-makers—because they didn’t want their network, the network of Edward R. Murrow, to be thought of as a rustic show network. These shows were kind of “Hee-Haw”ish—just having fun with exaggerated country types—but that’s what happened.
Wow. Where I was headed with this, you’ve been in so many shows that are now considered pop culture icons or phenoms that you’d have to say you’re an expert on the subject, as much as any academic. So, where would you put “Lancelot Link” in American pop culture? How would you situate it, or how would you explain it?
[Laughs] I don’t know. A show like that doesn’t really need any explanation. It’s just ridiculous. It’s silly. But it’s fun at the same time. It’s just something for pure entertainment. And that chimpanzees could walk and talk and be good guys and be bad guys . . . it just tickled people, and that’s the creativity that we had in mind when we did it. It’s a tickler.
TV has tried to incorporate chimps on a number of occasions. Jack Weston and Peggy Cass starred as a couple with three chimps as children in “The Hathaways,” which aired from 1961-62 and ran for 26 episodes. Remember that?
I remember “The Hathaways,” but they weren’t speaking. And Ted Bessell, who played Don Hollinger, on the Marlo Thomas show, he was offered a part on “The Chimp and Me.” It never really went anywhere, but he and his agent insisted he get top billing, so it became “Me and the Chimp.”
Well, “Me and the Chimp” lasted 13 episodes. “Lancelot Link” beat it with 17.
Now, have you visited the Waystation?
Oh yeah. You see all kinds of animals that she takes care of. It’s just extraordinary, because she has a conscience, which you don’t see much this day and age, because everybody is ranting about making a buck, making a buck in this lousy economy. It’s just really very problematic for so many people. And if it’s problematic for people, it’s problematic for animals as well.
So have you seen “Lancelot”?
I have not seen Lancelot, but my family and I—I have two boys, one is 14 and one is 9—we are going to see Lancelot and get a special visit.
That’ll be fun. Are you gonna do the voice too?
[Laughs] He never heard the voice! But I will say, you know, “Lancy, thank you for being such a good actor.” He’ll probably spit at me. That’s what they do for amusement. They either spit or pee on you. They love that.
[Laughs] Now, your fans probably identify you most with Adam Bricker on “The Love Boat.”
That is correct.
Is that the role that you identify with the most, or are there others that you think, in the back of your psyche, Yeah, that’s it?
Well, let me put it this way, Jim. Siegfried on “Get Smart” was my favorite, favorite, favorite. But I was making very small 1966 money. “Love Boat,” on the other hand, really set my lifestyle in a whole different way. I can live very nicely, I can provide for my boys, I can send them to private school. Public school is sort of out of the question these days, at least in Los Angeles, because there are too many kids to get a decent education and be paid attention to. So even high school, I’ve sent my kids to a private school, which is a burden so that I have to keep myself busy. In two weeks I’m gonna be 79, but I’m peppy, I play tennis twice a week, and I run after these boys. It keeps me occupied. And it’s a whole other world out there. You’ve gotta make it, or else you lose your home.
If you could go back and redo this show at all, and make an episode of "Lancelot Link" that maybe you just didn’t get to, what would that be?
I have no idea . . . because our writers were just so creative and so brilliant. I just loved being around them. They created characters for me that you may not do today. I was Japan’s foremost comedian. I was the richest man in the world—he helped people who were less fortunate than himself, like the Rockefellers, the Astors and the Vanderbilts, because they had less money than he did. And my Latino character. I played nothing but Latinos my first five years because I could do the accent.
But TODAY, these things are politically incorrect, because people with Latino backgrounds are doing their own thing. Japanese and Chinese people want to do their own thing. But actors will do things that are available to them. That’s what I did, I can’t do it any more, so I do other things.
Well you’ve had a great career. It’s been fun watching.
Thank you, Jim. It’s been fun doing.