As a swivel-hipped rock and roller, Conrad Birdie had a lot of living to do, the unknown actor Dick Gautier sang in the 1960 Broadway smash Bye Bye Birdie. At first a reluctant leading man, Gautier played many roles, including cabaret singer, stand-up comic, character actor and caricaturist. He was best known to TV audiences as Hymie The Robot on six episodes of the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry-created spy spoof Get Smart, culminating in Hymie’s role as best man at the wedding of Don Adam’s bumbling spy to Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99. Gautier died “quietly” Friday in Arcadia, California, his ex-wife, psychologist Tess Thompson, posted in a brief Facebook announcement.
Birdie was Broadway’s early attempt at dealing with the seismic changes rock and roll was bringing to popular music, which until then had been shaped primarily by the musicals from Times Square and Tin Pan Alley. Michael Stewart’s book and the score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams took off from the recent drafting into the U.S. Army of Elvis Presley, whose pelvis famously had to be hidden from viewers of the Ed Sullivan Show.
An established saloon singer, Gautier himself was no fan of the new music and turned down offers of the role from Strouse and director/choreographer Gower Champion, until it was explained to him that the show was a satire of music that was reducing hordes of teenage girls into screaming masses. And satire it was: Birdie is a beer-guzzling, talent-challenged, motorcycle jockeying nitwit in need of a hit when his down-and-out agent (Dick Van Dyke) and secretary (Chita Rivera) come up with the plan to have one all-American girl plant “One Last Kiss” on the soldier boy during a live broadcast of Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show.
“Dick Gautier plays the primitive singer with pompadour, sideburns, gaudy costumes, a rugged voice and a contemptuous vulgarity that are funny — a good, unsubtle cartoon of hideous reality,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, capturing both the essence of the performance and Broadway’s growing terror of the genre. “It needs work,” Atkinson concluded. Audiences disagreed, making a hit of a show whose score included “Put On A Happy Face,” “Kids,” “One Boy,” “Hymn For A Sunday Evening” (better known simply as “Ed Sullivan”) and “How Lovely To Be A Woman,” along with the others mentioned. (The hit 1963 film starred Van Dyke and Janet Leigh, along with Ann-Margret; Jesse Pearson played Birdie.)
A strappingly handsome dark-haired man with a dimpled chin and a glint in his eyes, Gautier was a perfect fit for Hymie The Robot, who first appeared on Get Smart as a KAOS operative — they were the baddies — until Agent 86 (Smart) treated him deferentially and Hymie switched to CONTROL. Hymie had the look of an International Male catalogue model, except for the blinking motherboard that covered most of his chest. In addition to six episodes of the series, Gautier reprised him in the 1989 telefilm Get Smart, Again!
Gautier also starred as Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten, an unsuccessful 1975 sitcom, and appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Patty Duke Show, Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. His film work included Ensign Pulver in 1964; Divorce American Style (1967), Fun With Dick And Jane and Billy Jack Goes To Washington (both 1977). His work as a scripter included Maryjane (1968). Later in life he appeared as a voice actor in Galtar and the Golden Lance, G.I. Joe, The Transformers, The New Yogi Bear Show and The Addams Family. He was also a regular celebrity on such game shows as The Match Game.
Gautier had a second career as an artist, working as a book illustrator and writing The Creative Cartoonist in 1989. In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters Denise and Chris and son Rand; four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.