George Gaynes was a wonderful man, and an old family friend. Longtime readers of this blog will recognize him as Matt Gaynes’ father. Most people know him from his film and television roles: John Van Horn, “The Tongue,” singing Some Enchanted Evening from the street to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie; Commander Lassard in the Police Academy movies, crusty Henry Warnimont in Punky Brewster; Frank Smith, the mob boss threatening Luke and Laura on General Hospital, and—perhaps his finest work—Serybryakov in Luis Malle’s film of Andre Gregory’s production of Uncle Vanya, entitled Vanya on 42nd Street.
But in many ways, George’s life was infinitely more fascinating than a cold collation of his film credits. He was a tireless storyteller, and he had fantastic stories, all true: born in Finland when it was part of the Russian empire, his birth recorded in the old-style Julian calendar, George survived a great many things that would have humbled a lesser man: a mother who remarried and divorced with avid rapidity, and who ultimately became the toast of French café society between the wars; a brutal slice of World War Two involving escapes, internments, and an overall sense of duty to fight for what he believed; the loss of a son. But through it all there was fundamental love, quick and splendid humor, tremendous backbone (a quality his son and daughter both inherited) and a capacity for great and tender kindness. He was a gentleman, with old-school European manners underlying an impeccable and abiding moral code.
I knew the family because I grew up in the same New York apartment building, and their son, Matthew, was my age and my best friend. I have had the pleasure of staying in touch with George, Allyn Ann Mclerie (his wife, an actress and star in her own right), Matt and Iya and Iya’s daughter Niki over the years.
As an elderly man, George wrote a brief autobiographical essay to set the record straight on the story of his life. Upon his death in February, his daughter Iya asked me to give it a slight edit for brevity. This was handed out last week at the memorial service in Santa Barbara celebrating his life; I publish it here with Iya’s permission.
The words that follow are George’s, the story is George’s. My edits are, as they should be, invisible.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
by George Gaynes
This document is intended to convey to my survivors and to the press, the real story, albeit in an abridged form, of my origins, my life, and my career. It is not intended as a panegyric for my accomplishments, nor is it a self-congratulatory account of my achievements. Just a story, the main thrust of which is to inform whoever has an interest on the subject of my life with exact details, both personal and professional. So, here are the facts.
This document is for filing purposes at the present time, to be trotted out upon my demise if deemed necessary for an obituary. In fact, I would request that it be consulted. In other words I am acting as my own public relations agent.
I was born George Jongejans on May 16th, 1917 (May 3rd, per the old-style Julian calendar) of a Dutch father, Gerrit Jongejans and a Russian mother, Iya Grigorievna Gay, in Helsingfors (now Helsinki) Finland, where they had met. My father, from a middle class family in Alkmaar, Holland, was working for the American Tobacco Company in Finland. My mother was the daughter of a prominent Saint Petersburg artistic, and aristocratic, theatrical producer, writer, and actor named Gregory Gay. He was divorced from his wife, Anna Novikova, also an actress, who was descended from a prominent Eastern Russian family with Tartar origins in the Golden Horde. Both had worked in the Imperial Theaters. Anna Novikova had remarried to an Imperial government functionary, George Wouitch.
The latter had been assigned to the then Grand Duchy of Finland for government duties. Finland declared its independence during the two Russian revolutions that year. There was fighting in Helsinki, and my mother had to dodge bullets when going out to buy milk.
A year or so after my birth my mother and father moved to Holland, where my mother stayed through the end of World War 1. The marriage proved incompatible very early; in 1920 my mother moved to Paris, where her mother and stepfather had preceded her. She sent for me some weeks or months later. In 1923 my mother married an Englishman, Sir Robert Abdy, Bart.; this marriage lasted for six years. During that time my mother established herself as one of the reigning beauties of Paris and international café society, a social swirl that continued through the ‘30s.
In 1926 I was sent from Paris to an English private elementary boarding school in preparation to becoming a proper English public school boy. I even successfully passed the entrance exam to attend Eton. However, in 1930, after the divorce in 1929, my mother followed the advice of a school friend from her all-female Swiss finishing school and put me in a high school (collège) in Lausanne, Switzerland. There I lived in a pension with a Swiss family for seven years. In 1937 I graduated from junior college (gymnase). I had been singing throughout my school years; my voice had changed into a bass baritone register, and as it had become my intention to follow a theatrical career, I went to Milan, Italy, to study music and opera.
From 1937 to 1940, when I made my operatic debut at the Teatro della Triennale in Luigi Dallapiccola’s one act opera Merlin, I lived in Milan, returning intermittently to my mother’s home in Paris. World War II hit its stride in May 1940 with the German invasion of Holland, Belgium and France. As a Dutch subject my residence in Italy became insecure, and I left just the day before Italy’s declaration of war on June 10, 1940. I headed through Switzerland back to France, but Paris had been taken, so with difficulty I joined my mother in Vichy, where she had gone for health reasons. We took off together for Biarritz and the Spanish border. With her British (by marriage) and my Dutch passports we attempted to leave for England through Spain and Portugal. This proved unsuccessful, and we crossed to Monaco, where we resided for the best part of two years, always trying throughout that time to find some way to leave for England.
Finally, with the total occupation of France by the Germans in 1942, we each separately found our way on foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, where she and I were subjected to some months of internment. In 1943 we were able to get to London through Gibraltar, courtesy of the British Embassy in Madrid.
I got to London first, joined the Royal Dutch Navy, was assigned to the British Navy, and took part in the invasion of Sicily, as well as actions in Italy, Albania, Greece, and the invasion of the South of France. In 1945, after the German surrender, I spent a year in the German seaport of Emden as part of the British occupying forces.
My mother got to London after I had already left. There, she joined the Free French Forces, was assigned to an American medical unit, and landed with them in Normandy on D-Day. Her language skills were invaluable as an interpreter, and she ended the war in Paris with the Russian Soviet Medical Mission.
Returning to Paris in 1946 I resumed my operatic training, and was engaged in 1947 at the Mulhouse, Alsace, followed by an engagement in Strasbourg the following year. Lazslo Halasz, founder of the New York City Opera, heard me in audition each one of those years and brought me to New York for the City Opera 1949 fall season. As company basso, my most prominent role was Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Virgil Thomson, then music critic at the New York Herald Tribune, found me “the best Leporello of the decade.”
That same year, the producers of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Consul, Chandler Cowles and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., cast me in the role of Mr. Kofner in the original production at the Barrymore Theater.
The following year, 1950, by an arrangement with the New York City Opera, I was given the opportunity to play the role of Jupiter in Cole Porter’s Out of This World at the Century Theater, courtesy of the producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayres. The same thing happened the next year with Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolf Green’s Wonderful Town, in which I played the lead against Rosalind Russell and, later, Carol Channing. During a rehearsal for Wonderful Town, the director, the legendary George Abbott, advised me to change my name to one more appropriate to a Broadway performer; though I was still under contract and performing at the City Opera during this period, the experience of being part of Wonderful Town offered possibilities that opera could not. In the midst of a medley of names floated by the assembly, Leonard Bernstein took with particular enthusiasm to George Gaynes, a partial anagram of Jongeyans, the phonetic simplification of Jongejans I was then using. I opened with Gaynes on the marquee.
During this season I fulfilled my contract with the New York City Opera at the same time I was appearing on Broadway. I worked in both to the fullest extent I could; standbys took over in each when I appeared in the other. I believe such a shuttle still remains unique in the annals of Broadway and opera in New York City.
In 1953, during the run of Wonderful Town, I met my future wife, Allyn Ann McLerie. We married at Christmastime that same year, and remain married to this day. Allyn Ann is a Broadway and film star with a very fine career behind her. We had two children: a daughter, Iya, born in 1955, and a son, Matthew, born in 1958.
The opera work faded into the background and finally ceased altogether as I became more heavily involved in nonmusical theater, films, and television. In 1967, André Gregory invited Allyn Ann and me to Los Angeles, to join the Inner City Repertory Company, a nontraditional integrated theater group subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts. We opened with a landmark production of Moliere’s Tartuffe. The Company only lasted one season, but we became residents of Los Angeles, and worked in a great many films, plays, soap operas and other television shows. For many, my most memorable television show remains the series Punky Brewster with Soleil Moon Fry in the 1980s. But I continued to do theater whenever I could, joining Claudette Colbert in the Jerome Chodorov comedy A Company of Two, both in Los Angeles and on tour.
The 1980s also saw the Police Academy series; I play Commandant Lassard in all seven, thanks to the original director Hugh Wilson and producer Paul Maslansky.
And in 1982 I had the good fortune to be cast as the fatuous soap opera star in the film Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning and Jessica Lange, directed by Sidney Pollack.
In 1991 I joined André Gregory’s Uncle Vanya project, in which a group of actors gathered at the New Victory theater in New York in long-running public rehearsals. The result of this collaboration was ultimately filmed by Luis Malle under the title Vanya on 42nd Street. It was Malle’s last film; he died a year or so later.
In 1995 I played the role of Judge Samuel Sewell in Arthur Miller’s film version of The Crucible. The role, not in the original play, was written for the film.
Allyn Ann, throughout the years, kept on working as well, notably in various projects with Robert Redford, and in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. My son Matthew, a champion kayaker, graduated from UCSB with a degree in physics; he was killed in a road accident while on a kayaking expedition in India in 1989. Iya, who has a law degree from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, has held various posts in Santa Barbara city government; her daughter, Niki, has had two daughters, making us great-grandparents.
With best regards,