Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
While he’s often left off the list of original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, Broadway/film/voiceover actor George Coe spent several mostly uncredited episodes as an SNL cast member in its debut season. Though his list of onscreen appearances almost tops 130 titles, Coe – who ties with Michael McKean as SNL’s oldest cast member at his time of hire – only made occasional drop-ins on the show serving as announcers, hosts, judges, and other roles of authority that called for an older and wiser delivery that Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd were all too young and wild to provide.
Years after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan, Coe got his big break with the 1963 cabaret show “Money,” which ran for a year and garnered the Queens native – who played 22 different roles in the show – immediate attention and Broadway work in the original casts of What Makes Sammy Run? (1964), and Stephen Sondheim’s Mame (1966) and Company (1970) followed by parts in Telemachus Clay, Shout from the Rooftops, and Red Roses for Me. In 1968 he also produced, directed, and costarred in the Ingmar Bergman short-film parody The Dove (which included Madeline Kahn’s first onscreen appearance), which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject: Live Action.
By the time SNL premiered in 1975, Coe had also scored small TV roles on the legal drama For the People (1968) as well as daytime NBC soaps The Doctors (1963) and Somerset (1971-1972). Lorne Michaels cast his new NBC comedy show a few years later, and NBC brass stipulated the reliable Coe be in the starting lineup to balance out Lorne’s younger, greener picks. Despite NBC’s insistence on Coe as an SNL cast member, he was used sparingly during the first season and only appeared in eight episodes, not including guest appearances in 1978 and later 1986 when his former For the People costar William Shatner took his turn as host.
Coe had no recurring characters, but he perfected the art of the commercial parody spokesman for “Golden Needles” (an “amazing new scientific breakthrough that combines the ancient art of Chinese acupuncture with the modern convenience of Haitian voodoo”), “Jamitol” (as an uninvolved husband opposite the overworked and exhausted Jane Curtin), or the “Ambassador Training Institute” – “Just send three hundred thousand dollars and the name of the country to which you’d like to be ambassador to…” His one celebrity impression was gossip column megalomaniac Walter Winchell in a 1976 Untouchables parody sketch.
- with Jane Curtin in “Jamitol”
Though Coe went mostly unnoticed on SNL, his career as a film actor, voiceover artist, and television mainstay has included bit parts in films like The Stepford Wives (1975), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Bustin’ Loose (1981), The Entity (1982), Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), Blind Date (1987), The Mighty Ducks (1992), The Omega Code (1999), Big Eden (2000), and most recently as the father of Adam Sandler’s character in Funny People (2009) and the voice of Que and Wheeljack in 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. In television he’s shown up in the 1975 special How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as well as series Hill Street Blues (1983), American Playhouse (1984-1985), Family Ties (1986), Simon & Simon (1886), L.A. Law (1986-1991), The Golden Girls (1988), Murphy Brown (1990), and almost 50 shows since the early 1990s including Murder, She Wrote, Home Improvement, The West Wing, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Grey’s Anatomy, and Wilfred. Fans of his current roles as Victor on Two and a Half Men as well as voicing the elderly heroin addict butler Woodhouse on FX’s Archer may not be aware, but the 84 year old has been around a while and may never have settled in any one place for long enough to be recognized, but he’s never stopped working, which as anyone in the business knows, is a triumph all its own.