Carl Ballantine, a wonderfully clever magician and comic actor, has died at age 92.
Ballantine was known to 1960s sitcom-watchers as Lester Gruber on McHale’s Navy, which starred Ernest Borgnine.
But well before that, Ballantine made his reputation as a unique magician in nightclubs and on TV talk shows. He was one of the first magicians to poke fun of the idea of magic, and jokingly give away some of the secrets of magic tricks as he performed them. He kept up a steady stream of funny, self-deprecating patter as he did so. Check out this clip (pardon the poor quality):
“Aw, this takes a lot out of an artist. Of course, it doesn’t bother me too much.” Great stuff.
Ballantine had a big influence on Steve Martin, who also began his career as a comic magician. Martin told The Los Angeles Times, “Carl Ballantine influenced not only myself but a generation of magicians and comedians. His was also the most copied act by a host of amateurs and professionals.”
Ballantine was an original — swift, smart-alecky, never giving exactly the same performance twice. He cultivated the public image of a hustler-trickster eager to please. In fact, he was an intelligent, thoughtful man. He’ll be missed.