A certified comic genius, Ernie Kovacs' great accomplishments lay in his sublimely creative, way-ahead-of-its-time television work; he was seldom shown to best advantage in films. Born in New Jersey to Hungarian immigrants, Kovacs was an unremarkable student, though he excelled in high school theatricals. A serious bout with pleurisy ended his training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After working with a ragtag theatrical troupe, Kovacs attained his first radio work as an announcer for Trenton's WTTM. As the station's director of special events, the mustachioed, cigar-smoking Kovacs gained a fan following by staging such zany events as lying on a railroad track as a train approached, informing the listeners at home how it felt to be so close to death! He inaugurated his television career at Philadelphia's WPTZ in 1950, where he stretched the limits of the primitive medium with wild sketches, nonsequitur sight gags and trick photography. He carried this innovative spirit into his first network program, 1952's Kovacs Unlimited.
Though none of his subsequent TV projects ever achieved the high ratings that they deserved, Kovacs was the object of an intense cult worship, comprised mostly of people who were sick to death of boob-tube banality and who thrived on Kovacs' willingness to experiment. In 1954, Kovacs married singer Edie Adams, who frequently starred in his TV endeavors; she also assisted him in his feverish efforts to reclaim his two children from a previous marriage who'd been kidnapped by wife number one. While generally master of his own domain on television, Kovacs was at the mercy of Hollywood typecasting when he began his film career with Operation Mad Ball (1957). He portrayed so many obnoxious Army officers that at one point he took out a trade paper ad, imploring "No More Captains--Please." His own favorite film was the offbeat Five Golden Hours (1961), in which he portrayed a larcenous professional mourner who meets his match in professional widow Cyd Charisse.
After completing his last film, Sail a Crooked Ship (1961), Kovacs concentrated his efforts on his ABC-TV monthly specials, wherein he transformed the running gag into an art form, brought inanimate objects to life, "visualized" the musical compositions of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mahler, and hawked Dutch Masters cigars between the acts. The audacious brilliance of Ernie Kovacs came to an abrupt, tragic end when he was killed in an auto accident at the age of 42.