Sunday, December 5, 2010
FAMED CARTOON ACTOR DEAD AT AGE 86
1960s cartoon actor and animal rights activist Edmund “Squiddly” Diddly died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure at his home in Yorba Linda, CA, according to his publicist. He was 86.
Edmund Diddly was born Edmund Alexi Didlinovich on January 23, 1924 in Brooklyn, NY. His parents, Josef and Elena, emigrated to the U.S. from Russia two years earlier. Josef was a street performer, but his lack of talent made him an utter failure as a breadwinner. He was virtually ignored by the public, except when pelted with rocks garbage by neighborhood children. Elena was forced to take work as a kitchen drudge and part-time whore in order to make ends meet. It was not until Edmund began to display his natural ability for singing, dancing, music and juggling at the age of 3 that the Didlinovich family’s fortune began to change. Upon realizing that Edmund was a musical prodigy that could play virtually any instrument at a virtuosic level, Josef incorporated him into the family’s act. Edmund’s talent immediately astounded audiences, with crowds routinely blocking traffic to watch him perform. Edmund’s father retired from performing to become his son’s manager and agent.
This ultimately led to Edmund being signed to the “Old Mac” vaudevillian theater as a featured performer, where he enjoyed a successful 8-year run. It was there that the theater’s manager, Gus MacWalters, dubbed Edmund “Squiddly Diddly”. The moniker would haunt Diddly for the remainder of his career. He wrote in his 1981 memoir ‘Diddly Dearest’: “Everyone thinks it was just a cute nickname. Even I didn’t make anything of it at the time, heck, I was just a kid. Of course, now I know just how racist it really was. Folks now don’t realize how tough it was back then. If you were colored, or Irish or a squid, you were viewed as less than human. Sure, it was OK for you to entertain them. But you could never be allowed forget that you weren’t one of them. That name was their way of reminding my father and I exactly who we were... a joke. Dad didn’t have the backbone to do anything about it; we needed the money.”
The popularity of Diddly’s vaudeville act led to numerous guest appearances on radio and eventually his own show, “The Maxwell House Squiddly Diddly Comedy Hour” in 1937 for RKO, the first radio show ever to star a mollusk. As America entered into World War II, Diddly attempted to join the Navy, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. Diddly instead served by entertaining the troops in several USO tours.
After the war, Diddly returned to his radio show and managed to gain small parts in feature films such as “The Big Sleep”, “The Stranger”, “Operation Burma” and “Duel in the Sun” but a major starring role continued to elude him. Diddly began to question his father’s effectiveness as a manager. When he was passed over for the part of Dave Goldman in Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” in favor of John Garfield, a part he had openly campaigned for, Diddly knew had he to fire his father. “It was a tough decision, but ultimately the best thing was for him to go. I think he often tried to sabotage my career because he resented the fact I’d gone so much farther than he ever did.”
Josef Didlinovich committed suicide by leaping into a deep fat fryer in 1979.
The 1950s brought little success for Diddly, while yielding more controversy. In 1952, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked to identify friends and colleagues in Hollywood that were members of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. Without hesitation, Diddly offered the committee the names of several prominent producers, directors and actors, who were blacklisted as a result. When asked during a 1984 interview with the Village Voice why he chose to name names, Diddly replied “Because fuck ‘em.”
Diddly’s career continued to flounder into the 1960s and the burgeoning television era was especially unkind. He launched several attempts to find an audience with a number of family sitcom vehicles: “The Squid and Me”, “Diddly Knows Best”, “Make Room For Diddly”, each failing miserably. Many viewed these shows as hackneyed rip-offs of the popular shows of the day, but Diddly thought otherwise: “I did most of those shows with Betty White, who was still everybody’s sweetheart at the time. But nobody wanted to see us in a martial setting or watch me ‘get’ their girl. America just wasn’t ready to have an inter-species relationship beamed into their homes.”
His prospects severely diminished, Diddly took to performing in small jazz clubs and dinner theatres for several years, until fortune finally came his way. After seeing one of his club shows in 1964, producer Josef Barbera approached Diddly to star in a segment of the “The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show”. Barbera felt that the show could utilize Diddly’s immense musical and comedic talents, while introducing him to a whole new audience: kids. Diddly’s first reaction to Barbera’s offer was less than gracious. “I told him to go fuck himself,” said Diddly, “me, become a shill for crappy toys and cereal? Not on your life.” But Diddly had a change of heart once his agent reminded him of his mounting debt and tax problems.
Premiering in September 1965, the show “Squiddly Diddly” was set in an aquatic theme park called Bubbleland. Diddly played a comedic riff on himself, starring as an aspiring musician that longs to hit it big and makes numerous attempts to escape the park. Bubbleland’s administrator Chief Winchley, played by veteran character actor John Stephenson, routinely foiled Diddly’s plans. Though mildly popular during its initial run, “Squiddly Diddly” lasted only 27 episodes, due in no small part to the acrimony caused on the set stemming from Diddly’s massive ego and vitriolic nature. Diddly thought very little of his co-stars and other contemporaries;
- On Secret Squirrel: “Shit, ‘Secret Squirrel’ my ass. Let’s just say the number of nuts that little queen held in his cheeks on a regular basis wasn’t a secret to anybody.”
- On Atom Ant: “I could never figure out how that sawed-off little runt saw so much gash.”
- On Pepe LePew: “A cheese-eating, frog douchebag.”
- On Winnie Witch: “Roll her in some flour, find the wet spot and you’ve got yourself one helluva Friday night.”
- On Wally Gator: “Fuck that guinea moron.” (Editor’s note: Wally Gator is not of Italian heritage, but is in fact, German-Irish.)
Barbera and producing partner William Hanna were forced to fire Diddly. The show’s cancellation left Diddly once again shoved onto Hollywood’s D-List. He was able to regain some popularity when reruns of his show were aired syndication as a part of the Hanna-Barbera produced “Banana Splits” program in early 1970s. “Splits” was hosted by a quartet of spacey, but lovable characters: Eddie “Fleegle” Finnerty, Anthony “Bingo” Bingham, Elliot “Drooper” Putrillio, and Mustafa “Snorky” Aziz. But behind the scenes, few knew about the world of drug-fueled self-destruction in which the Splits inhabited, a world Diddly soon found himself hopelessly mired in. “I met them at Marty Krofft’s place sometime in ‘71”, Diddly recalled. “The show was doing well and Sid and Marty often had people over to celebrate. Acid was still big then and coke was just starting catch on. It was no big deal... it was a party drug. In fact, Snorky got his name ‘cause that’s the sound he’d make every time he did a bump... ‘Snork! Snork!’ That kid tried to shove Bogotá up his trunk pretty much every night. But it was Drooper that introduced me to heroin. Once he put a dose a’ that shit in my tentacle... man, I thought I’d made out with Jesus.”
Thus began Diddly’s downward spiral into the morass of drugs and debauchery where he would spent most of the 1970s. Diddly made only a handful of TV guest appearances during this period on shows such as “The Love Boat”, “Fantasy Island”, “Hello Larry”, “Cannon”, “Alice” and “Baretta” and any money he earned from these roles or residuals he received the “Splits” syndication run went into the pockets of drug dealers almost instantly. He also engaged in many other deviant acts on the seedy Banana Splits convention circuit. “Look, I’m not gonna lie,” Diddly said, “I’ve shot more than my share of ink into groupies over the years. But hey, they were throwing their junk at me. I mean, what would you do?”
The party abruptly ended in 1980 when Drooper died of a heroin overdose in a suite at the famed Beverly Hills hotel Chateau Marmont. His death became literally a sobering wake up call for Diddly. A few weeks later, he checked himself into the Bodies in Toon Wellness Clinic. “I did it for my kids”, said Diddly, “I knew BiT had gotten Andy Panda off angel dust back in the day and nobody talked about it, but everybody knew Bugs had been in and out of there for years. Mickey, too.”
It was during his stint in rehab that Diddly decided to put his life’s story on paper. Published in 1981, “Diddly Dearest” was a surprise hit with readers and critics, no doubt because it brimmed with tawdry backstage tales of the cartoon community. “Dearest” competed that year with another book about Diddly, Kitty Kelley’s “Ego, Squid and Superego: The Unauthorized Biography of Squiddly Diddly”. The mere mention of Kelley’s book was known to provoke seething rage in Diddly. “My biggest regret in life is that I never had the chance to sock that peroxided cooze in the jaw”, said Diddly.
Hoping to capitalize on the success of “Dearest”, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films struck a deal with Diddly to film a musical biopic version based on the book. Though it was extremely ambitious and benefited from a lavish budget, “The Squid Singer” unfortunately failed to generate much interest from audiences and was voted 1983’s worst film of the year by critics.
This catastrophic embarrassment sent Diddly’s career into a tailspin that would last nearly a decade and a half. Other than coverage of his occasional arrests, Diddly’s appeared only on the media’s radar when used as the punchline of late-night talk show jokes.
But there was one Hollywood wunderkind who thought he could teach an old squid new some tricks and save his career. In 1996, director Quentin Tarantino, fresh off of the success of his startling, slice-of-crime films “Resevoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”, set his sights on adapting Elmore Leonard’s noir novel “Rum Punch” for the screen into his third feature “Jackie Brown”... and set his heart on casting Diddly as the lovelorn bail bondsman Max Cherry. “Well, of course I was a huge fan of the ‘Squiddly Diddly’ show, alright? Even though that was comedy show, back then you could tell he had the gravitas to play a much deeper role, okay? Over the years I kept tabs on him, heard all of the stories, right? But I knew someday I cast him. The studio was nervous when I brought him in, but I told (Miramax studio chief) Harvey (Weinstein), ‘look, there’s only a few people that can play this part: God, Buddha and Squiddly Diddly. Unless you can get a hold of the first two, Squiddly’s my guy, alright? SD came in and rocked the table read... I mean he fuckin’ owned it. I knew we’d have a hit on our hands... until SD tried to renegotiate his contract.” Diddly, acting as his own agent reportedly told Weinstein to call him when he was “done trying to Jew down the price on his stars” and walked off the set. He was never asked to return. His role eventually went to Robert Forester.
After the “Jackie Brown” debacle, Diddly decided to officially retire from show business. In more recent years, he turned his attention toward animal activism. He worked extensively with PETA, regularly participating in protests of animal testing facilities and being arrested several times. Despite his efforts to stay sober, Diddly would continue to be chased by his demons. Diddly’s 2002 appearance on the celebrity episode of the game show “What’s Your Problem?” is notable for his drunken interruption of the host’s sign-off where he urged his audience to spay and neuter their pet fish. It became an internet sensation, raining further humiliation on the actor. In Diddly’s last print interview with LA Weekly in 2007 brought on more controversy when he referred to Squidward of “Spongebob Squarepants” as “a little light in the tentacles, if you know what I mean.”
Diddly is survived by his 4th wife Connie and his 7,943 children (5,537 from a previous marriage), including his son, Grammy award-winning recording artist P.Diddly.