Frank Gorshin was the most skilled celebrity impersonator in Hollywood
He was so good at aping other actors it was "weird and eerie."
In the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," Frank Gorshin plays a man of two faces, split black and white. In reality, Gorshin was a many of a thousand faces. The public remembers him best as the Riddler on Batman, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination in 1966.
"The trouble with me is that I sometimes do get so interested in [the] portrayal of a character that my wife never knows who I am bringing home to dinner and often when I get home she wants to know who she is entertaining tonight," Gorshin told columnist Jack Meredith in a 1967 profile.
Gorshin might have brought home the Riddler for dinner. Mrs. Gorshin could just have easily expected to dine with John Wayne, Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Ward Bond, Burt Lancaster and Bela Lugosi. They were all impressions in the arsenal of the ace impersonator.
Batman tapped into his skill. In the episode "Death in Slow Motion," we first see the Riddler dressed as Charlie Chaplin, doing his best mustache wiggle as "The Tramp."
Gorshin's technique was physical — he threw his entire body into an impression, not just his voice. "The entire body, arms, legs, feet, hands, gestures, all become the original," The Detroit Free Press observed of his act in 1969. "It is a weird and eerie performance."
"What makes Gorshin different is that he does a caricature analysis of them, much as a cartoonist adds zip to the character he draws by accentuating some characteristic of the individual," The Windsor Star wrote in 1967.
In his early 30s at the time, as his career was peaking, Gorshin claims he was shy and introverted as a schoolboy. He stepped into celebrity mimicry because he "didn't want to be an engineer or accountant."
One critic wrote: "Frank Gorshin can do more things better than almost anybody in Hollywood. He is not only an outstanding dramatic actor, a singer, dancer, and comedian, he is also a master mind [sic] who makes other impressionists fade almost to insignificance."
Gorshin had no explanation for his innate talent. "It just happens," he told The Tracy Press in 1967. "For example, I saw Kirk Douglas in a movie and came out of the theater mimicking him. But it wasn't a planned thing."
The subjects of his impersonations were just as impressed.
Edward G. Robinson, the Hollywood legend of gangster film fame and one of Gorshin's most frequent routines, said, "Frank Gorshin's impression of me differs from others in that it is not superficial and shallow, merely imitating the voice. He seems to get inside the character he is imitating, producing depth of impression."
The only riddle then is why a man of such supreme talent never landed a spotlight starring role of his own. The answer might be simple — he had to much fun slipping into hundreds of different skins.