Friday, October 23, 2009

Don Lane – The Lanky Yank

I used to watch Graham Kennedy’s “In Melbourne Tonight” in the early ‘60’s, which I and thousands of Australians would tune in and watch. Graham was "The King" of Australian television.

After his show was cancelled Don Lane eventually was given the opportunity to star in his own show. Don was nicknamed “The Lanky Yank” and he quickly became a well loved and not to be missed TV presenter. He had a fairly pleasant singing voice, could dance (sort of), but being so tall he seemed a bit awkward when dancing. When he teamed with Bert Newton (who was the straight comic relief on the Graham Kennedy show) the magic came alive. They were like too peas in a pod. They would ad lib and bounce jokes off each other.

And when Bert dressed up as different show biz personalities this was humour at its best. Seeing Bert dressed up as Kiss was not to be missed, and when he was dressed up as Demis Roussos (and doing a very good impersonation singing (?) and the real Demis walked in and tapped Bert on his shoulder, the look of sheer terror on his face had to be seen to be believed. It was so bloody funny.

Bert "dressed up" for one of the funny skits with Don.

Don Lane was born in New York City to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. He was raised in The Bronx, New York where he attended DeWitt Clinton High School and was classmates with Judd Hirsch and Gary Marshall.

He began his working life as a nightclub performer and singer, usually doing a mix of comedy and singing. He appeared at many clubs in Hawaii, Los Angeles and New York. He briefly appeared on one episode of the Ed Sullivan program in the late 1950s as one half of a double act. He was drafted into the US Army in the early 1950s and was commissioned as an Officer and served in the Artillery and he later toured for two years entertaining the troops.

He says that he took his stage name 'Lane' from Frankie Laine. He worked alongside Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr, Wayne Newton and many others. Don also played Prof. Harold Hill in the Las Vegas production of “The Music Man”.

Irish comedian Dave Allen presented a talk show on Sydney television for TCN-9 in 1965. He left the show abruptly - some say he was fired for his trademark anti-Catholic humour. Nine producer John Collins looked for replacement hosts to fill in for the rest of the season, and found Lane working in the well-known nightclub the Copacabana in Hawaii. While in the United States, John Collins asked Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton if there was anybody he should consider as a replacement; Newton's answer was "Don Lane".

...................Bert Newton and Don Lane.

Lane was given the host's chair for six weeks. He planned to base his version of the show on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Lane's run was variously referred to as "The Tonight Show", "Tonight with Don Lane" and "Sydney Tonight". Within a month, Nine settled on Lane as permanent host, with the result that his initial six-week contract was extended to forty weeks. Celebrities, including Robin Williams, Billy Connolly, Dame Edna, Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers and Kiss all appeared on The Don Lane Show.

Don Lane and Graham Kennedy on a split screen.

Lane forged an enduring partnership with Bert Newton, an Australian comedian and entertainment personality. Newton had hitherto been strongly identified with Australian TV icon Graham Kennedy. Both Lane and Newton maintain that the first time they met was on-air, during the first episode of the Don Lane Show. Each describes that there was instant 'chemistry', and that they never made any deliberate attempt to build the relationship; it just happened.

Don and "Moonface" dressed up as Laurel and Hardy.

It is widely believed that Lane christened Bert “Moonface”, but Bert later claims that he and writer Mike McColl-Jones made up the nick name and from this the nickname stuck.

Newton took much pleasure in sending up Lane's singing, sometimes by playing his records at half-speed while miming Lane's performance. Lane sometimes responded in kind by "sending up" Newton's own record, The Bert and Patti Family Album.

Don Lane, Jimmy Hannan, Mike Walsh and Bert Newton.

Uri Geller, Doris Stokes and broadcaster Kevin Arnett regularly appeared on The Don Lane Show discussing psychic and paranormal themes. On one occasion Skeptic and debunker James Randi was invited onto the program. A heated exchange occurred at the end of the interview, which led to Lane saying, "We’re going for a commercial break and you can piss off. We'll be back with Diana Trask." Lane then walked off the set, sweeping the props from the small table, to audience applause. The aftermath of the event led to a national and personal apology to Randi, which was televised through the Nine Network.

That incident with Don Lane and James Randi.

The Don Lane Show ended on 13 November 1983. His final episode ran for two and a half hours and featured such stars as Sammy Davis, Jr., Phyllis Diller, and David Bowie, also musical appearances by John Farnham and Colleen Hewett. After the conclusion of The Don Lane Show he moved back to The United States for two years, living in Los Angeles. Don was once the highest paid man on Australian television and won an astounding 15 Logie Awards during his long career.

Don Lane with his pal Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1985 Don had remarried and his son PJ was born.

Don Lane was married twice, once to Gina in 1964 and later to Jayne Ambrose in 1983. Jayne worked in the Sales Department of Channel 9. They had one child a boy nick named PJ. I have the book “Never Argue With A Mug” the autobiography Don wrote with Janise Beaumont. This is an extract about how PJ got his name.

Quote “We had a discussion about names and I suggested Jacob Isaacson - Jacob after my dad and Isaacson of course being my real last name. Jayne shook her head. “No it’s too biblical”. And then we talked around that and I said “Okay I’ve got an idea, “why don’t we give him a good nickname and that will suffice. I know you’re not a big fan of Jacob, but I’d like my father’s name to be in there somewhere, so how about Phillip Jacob Isaacson? We can call him PJ, because that will make him different from all the other kids at school”. And Jayne was fine with that. So he was PJ right from the start. Unquote.

...............Phillip Jacob (PJ) Isaacson.

By 1987, Don was back in Australia as a personality for Network Ten, hosting programs like You've Got to Be Joking, Late Night Australia and the 1987 presentation of the TV Week Logie Awards.

In 1993, Lane made a guest appearance on the very last episode and closing segment of the comedy program The Late Show on Australia's ABC network. He also hosted American NFL broadcasts, which included live broadcasts from Super Bowl XXVII and Super Bowl XXVIII. Don also covered NCAA basketball for the ABC and was a colourful commentator for the NBL on the Foxtel Network.

............Don hosting NCAA Basketball.

Then in 1994, Lane hosted two specials for the Nine Network, The Best of The Don Lane Show. Each special was two hours dedicated to the most memorable moments from The Don Lane Show.

Don Lane was honored in a 1996 episode of “This is Your Life” dedicated to him and his career in television. The episode featured tributes from John Farnham, Billy Connolly, Bert Newton, and Gary Marshall.

In 2007 Don Lane released his "tell all" auto-biography entitled “Never Argue with a Mug”. The book follows Lane's career and explains show-business scandals in detail that he had personally experienced.

See I do have Don's book."Never Argue With A Mug.

In June, 2008 it was announced that Don Lane was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and had been living in a care facility. News of Lane's condition was saddening for the entertainment community in Australia who view him as a TV legend. The news explained the lack of public appearances Don had made since his induction into the TV Week Logie Awards Hall of Fame in 2003.

Don died from a dementia-related illness on Thursday morning on the 22nd October, 2009, his manager Jayne Ambrose said.

Lane was charismatic and funny until the very end, his close friend and biographer Janise Beaumont says. "He didn't want this to happen, but he was still Don," Ms Beaumont told Macquarie Radio.

"And pretty much up to the end he was very tactile ... he loved hugs, he still could make eye contact, still be funny, still be charismatic.

PJ Lane, Don’s son had been booked to sing at an Alzheimer's Australia

charity concert at Toorak's Track Centre tonight to honour his father. PJ Lane gave up a promising basketball career in the United States and Europe to move to Sydney to be with his father, he told Woman’s Day magazine in June. Five months ago, he said his father was still in good spirits and making jokes but he had decided to relocate closer to his father as his dementia was expected to worsen.

Don with one of the 15 Logies he has won.

Two shows that stood out in my mind was the concert for Darwin in 1975 (Darwin is at the top end of Australia and in 1975 it was flattened by a cyclone), and a show was performed at the newly finished Sydney Opera House to rise donations for the Darwin Appeal. Don performed a song called Trouble with such panache and gusto that it was a show stopper.

The other was an on-air unscripted session with Sammy Davis Junior which overran the Don Lane show by a full hour (commercial free) and was one of the greatest live shows I have witnessed on TV.

Don always finished his show by circling his face with a finger which meant “I love your faces”.

I saw Don Lane when he performed at one of the local clubs. His act was perfectly poised with singing, dancing with a bunch of chorus girls and antidotes from his TV show, including all the “goofs’” he and Bert got up to on his show. It was a show well worth attending.

Don was a true gentleman of the stage and screen. He was a entertainer who loved his audience and respected them, on and off the stage. He was a great host who made the term “A Lanky Yank”

a compliment of the highest honour. Like many of the entertainers

I have blogged about. Don’s legacy as a great entertainer will be remembered for generations to come.

I’m concluding this blog with a video clip of a ‘roast’ that was filmed about Don and this roast was performed by Paul Hogan (he of Crocodile Dundee fame). It’s fairly long but very funny.


Peter said...

Just in case you have forgotten Wazza, we are still stuck in Victoria from about a year ago!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Peter said...

PS, good post on Don Lanes passing.

Merle said...

Hi Warren ~~ Great post and you found some really good photos. I
really liked Don Lane and it is a pity we don't have a similar show
as The Don Lane Show. Nice pic of PJ
also. The video was beaut too.
A really good post, as usual.
Take care, my friend, Love, Merle.