Ernie Kovacs was an innovative and absurdist TV comedian of the 1950s. In a series of local and national shows and specials, Kovacs introduced zany comic characters like the Nairobi Trio (three mechanical musicians in ape masks and derby hats) and the lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils. Playful and often surreal, Kovacs was loved by critics but not-so-loved by the audiences of his day -- none of his individual shows stayed on the air for more than a year. The two best-known versions of The Ernie Kovacs Show
ran from 1952-53 (on CBS) and from 1955-56 (on NBC). He is now regarded as a TV comedy pioneer who inspired offbeat comedians like Steve Martin
and David Letterman
. Kovacs also had a short film career, playing a corrupt policeman in the spy spoof Our Man in Havana
and a gold rush con man opposite John Wayne
in North to Alaska
(both in 1960). He was killed in a 1962 car crash in Los Angeles.