Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Top TV Moments: Victor Buono

Given these hypersensitive times, I’m not sure if “larger than life” is acceptable praise for Victor Buono. But if you’ve seen him in just about any of his classic TV roles, I think you’ll agree the description is apt.

At 6’3” and 300+ pounds, it would be hard for Buono not to bring an imposing presence to his characters. But his physical features were accentuated by a voice that could read every line like it was Shakespeare in the Park without microphones, even when the actual dialog was several tiers below that standard.

His imdb bio states that too much of his TV work “was squandered on hokey villainy.” Well, “squandered” is in the eye of the beholder. Hokey villainy is not that easy to pull off, as anyone who watched Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman in Batman and Robin could attest.

For me, whether the character was hokey or not, Buono was always worth watching.

Bronco (1959)
He’s hard to miss, so you’ll likely spot Victor Buono as a passenger in his TV debut in the episode “Night Train to Denver.” Just don’t look for his name in the credits – he was still an unbilled extra at the time.

Harrigan and Son (1960)
One day I’d love to see some full episodes of this courtroom drama about a son joining his father’s law practice. From what I’ve read it sounds like The Defenders with a lighter touch. 

It didn’t last long but it gave Buono his first steady work as Dr. Blaine, who consults with the Harrigans on their cases.

The Untouchables (1961)
Victor Buono looked like he was in his 40s when he was in his 20s, which gave an authority to his characters that belied his age. Watch in “Mr. Moon” how he commands a room full of older, hard-bitten gangsters, playing an antiques dealer with a supply of government currency paper to sell.

Batman (1966)
It’s a toss-up between King Tut and Egghead for the title of best Batman villain created for the series. Tut had a couple more cracks at taking down the Dynamic Duo, and Buono seemed to add more grandiose flourishes to his portrayal with each return. “King Tut’s Coup/Batman’s Waterloo” is my favorite – that’s the one where Tut sets his sights on making guest star Lee Meriwether his Cleopatra. “I can’t stand violence,” he says before preparing to boil Robin in oil. “But I like torture. It’s good clean fun.” 

The Wild, Wild West (1966)
Next to Michael Dunn as Dr. Miguelito Loveless, the most memorable repeat adversary for James West would have to be…well, we’ll let him handle the introduction: “Allow me to present myself. I am the Count Mario Vincenzo Robespierre Manzeppi; adventurer, poet, and lover of all that is corrupt, forbidden, and blasphemous.” 

Buono first appears as the crafty Count in season two’s “Night of the Eccentrics,” and made a second and final appearance later that same season. If Manzeppi sometimes seems like King Tut with a (slightly) less outrageous wardrobe, you’re not wrong. And yet, the oddest thing about “Night of the Eccentrics” is not Buono’s grandstanding, but the appearance of Richard Pryor as one of Manzeppi’s henchmen.

Night Gallery (1972)
Several Night Gallery episodes end with short comedic vignettes. Almost all of them are forgettable. “Satisfaction Guaranteed” is perhaps the best of the lot, even if there’s just one joke that most viewers will have guessed before its five minutes are up. Victor Buono plays a refined but demanding customer seeking to hire someone at a top secretarial agency. He rejects several seemingly ideal candidates, but takes an instant liking to the clumsy, pudgy girl who empties the office wastebaskets. “She is exactly what I want!” he says. But what does he have in mind? 

Man From Atlantis (1977)
One day I'll probably cover this series in more detail in my "Terrible Shows I Like" recurring feature. But for now, let's imagine the producers trying to cast the role of series villain Dr. Schubert. "We need someone who can play a mad scientist who uses mind-control bracelets to force other scientists to destroy the most powerful nations of the world with their own nuclear weapons." Was Victor Buono their first call? If not, he should have been. 

Backstairs At the White House (1979)
Here is yet another prestige miniseries from the golden age of the genre, that deserves to be seen again by a much wider audience. Over four episodes covering eight presidential administrations, the series revolved around the largely anonymous and forgotten lives of those who served on the White House staff. Victor Buono appears early on as President William Howard Taft. Ironically, here he plays the powerful leader of the free world, and for once he’s not so outspoken. To be faithful to how Taft was (and was portrayed in the book on which this series was based) he allows himself to be dominated by an ambitious and eccentric wife (played by Julie Harris).

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977)
By this time Buono was accustomed to being the most flamboyant member of every cast, but in “A Haunting We Will Go” he gets some scenery-chewing competition from Dina Merrill, Carl Betz and Bob Crane, all hamming it up as actors that share a dark secret, reuniting for a benefit performance.

Taxi (1980)
In “Going Home” Victor Buono, then age 42, played the father of Christopher Lloyd, who was also 42. The story has Jim Ignatowski going home to reunite with his wealthy father. Buono couldn’t out-eccentric Jim but he plays the straight man well, especially when Jim can’t stop commenting about his baldness, and his weight. 

Just one year after his Taxi appearance, Victor Buono died. Such a short life for someone so talented - but at least he seemed to enjoy himself while he was here. He even topped anyone who tried to make a weight joke by releasing Heavy, an album of comedic recitations including “A Word To the Wide,” “You Don’t Have to Be Fat to Hate Rome,” and the wonderful “Fat Man’s Prayer”.


  1. The moment I saw this title, I thought of Victor on "Night Gallery" at that secretarial agency, opening his briefcase showing a....haha! And of course his King Tut was the best. Loved him in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" too (shouldn't that be included with these classic tv shows? It was on the late late show enough :)

    Anyway, a great read... I remember being shocked when he passed and they said how old he was. Thought he was a lot older.

  2. Never knew he popped up in so many places. Always thought he was a great actor and wondered why I didn't see him in more stuff. His relatively early death explains it, somewhat.

  3. Victor Buono portrayed Satan in the uncut version of "The Evil," a 1978 horror movie that also featured Richard Crenna, Joanna Pettet, Andrew Prine, and Mary Louise Weller.

  4. You might also note that Victor Buono was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, where he introduced many of his comic verses.
    Buono made the rounds of the talkers of the time (Mike, Merv, Steve, Joey,et al.), but Carson seemed to get the most out of him.
    This was the period when NBC was running year-old Carson shows on weekends.
    Victor Buono was so popular here that even after his death, NBC would still repeat his appearances.

  5. I fondly remember seeing the middle & later parts of BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE, so I missed Mr. Buono's appearance there. I've recently bought the 40-year old miniseries on DVD, so I hope I get around to it soon.

    I haven't seen that Hardy Boys episode, but it's sad to note the year and know both Carl Betz & Bob Crane were gone the next year, passing even before Mr. Buono.

    I remember when NBC used to preempt Carson's show for a Christmas Eve special, which the TV Guide closeup noted was originally broadcast in 1973. It included Mr. Buono reading "The Night Before Christmas" (if I remember correctly). NBC reran the 1/2 hour special, just before broadcasting Mass from Rome, until the early 1980s, when it recorded a different Christmas special.

  6. Clarification: The "Going Home" episode of "Taxi" premiered on December 17, 1980. Victor Buono died on January 1, 1982.

    In any case, may he rest in peace.

  7. I remember seeing the end of a pilot where Victor Buono played "Mr. Heavener" and Roddy McDowall played "Mr. Heller", both arguing the eternal destiny of a woman who'd recently passed. I thought it was a nice way to bring 2 former BATMAN villains together, and this time Mr. Buono got to play the good guy.