Past The Eyebrows Darkly
By Lou Blodgett
Many devotees still gather at the gates of the Arbor Valley mausoleum on the outskirts of Los Angeles in early September to observe the anniversary of the inception of a particular Saturday afternoon cartoon, ‘Squirrel Crew’, and the participation of character actor Cyrus ‘Corky’ Malcolm in it.
As the public eventually understood, Corky may have played alongside animated characters, but he was quite human.
Yet, he was able to blend in, during the pre-Ghostbusters/Roger Rabbit era, before CGI, with everything wrapped in blue but the faces, in some productions. Corky created a mesh between those two worlds, and was at home in both. He was as comfortable around Marlon Brando as he was with Scooby-Doo.
I believe that it is time to revisit this man on this fiftieth anniversary of that first episode of the groundbreaking show, where he played the role of ‘Boris’, the human mentor who dispensed both peanuts and sage advice to a pack of ne’er-do-well rodents with hearts of gold. Tongues have been loosened and new information has come to light about this little known television actor since the ‘tell all’ Playboy interview of Hermey the Elf back in August ’05.
Born with eyebrows that inexplicably hovered, Corky seemed perfect for cartoon work, but initially, considering where he was born, he was at his best when bucking bales of alfalfa or overseeing Saturday applesauce production at Malcolm’s Apple Farm, (sold in four states) in Cedar Ridge, Iowa.
Mercifully, scant new information has come to light of the seamier aspects of Corky’s later life. This is the man who spent three days in an Esperan provisional jail for the unsolicited act of shrub watering, while rehearsals for his Artaud in repertory was put on hold. I won’t speak of the side projects he had while he was a creative consultant for ABC, such as promenading along Venice Beach wearing a large button that said: “I’ll Wiggle The Eyebrows For A Sawbuck”, and hustling tourists on the pinball machines in a nearby arcade.
Instead, this article will center on Corky’s early life, closer to when he’d been the child with floating eyebrows rather than when he was the troubled man with the same.
He was born into a Cold War Iowa which sadly had its own arbitrary social standard, namely, that eyebrows should have a more static existence. Eventually, though, the populace of Cedar Ridge became accustomed to Corky, looking on his eyebrows as just another thing, placed though they were, an inch from the face, and two inches up. Perhaps as a result, when Corky went out into the wider world, he resisted being defined by his eyebrows. But, Malcolm was a complicated man, claiming later that they were his best feature. Either way, rumors were rife, especially since everyone, including he, wondered how they came to be in such a state. There was a lost weekend, one truly lost, where some said that he was taken to Area 51 for a study. And there is enough talk that it is believed to be true, that in the summer of ’81 he spent time cosseted at the Pasadena labs of Lockheed, where they tried to back-engineer those furry things that typically reside firmly on one’s forehead. But, I will center on his early career, and leave what happened later to back issues of tabloids.
Sadly, no photographs are provided in this biography, since that would be difficult, if not impossible, due to time concerns and the scant resources available to this author. Scanning with the use of a video camera, 'dazzling’ stills off into MovieMaker, downloading frames onto a thumb drive, then taking it all to the internet bay at the local library is for the birds.
To provide a picture of Corky, as inadvisable as Hermey The Elf’s Playboy interview was, the description of his colleague’s face is useful.
“You could just do yourself in, looking at that face. The humanity. With that dramatic two-part season-ender of Squirrel Crew in ‘67, I was just slayed. Fetal position on the shag. Face leaking like a sponge. Perhaps I was projecting, though. We had just finished principal photography of a claymation production of ‘Borodino’.”
But, isn’t that valid, the inclination to project, considering the Saturday afternoon, Kool-Aid slurping audience? And, there was plenty to project onto Corky’s face, especially, one can imagine, during those times when he would wave a ruler slowly between his forehead and those eyebrows, creating sparks to entertain his female cohort during study hall.
However, most wonder how the live-action/animation mix was achieved, pre ‘Roger Rabbit’.
“He ‘blended in’,” said Sparky, who played ‘Short Tail’ in the famous series, and now hoards turquoise jewelry in the hollow of an undisclosed tree in Santa Fe.
“It was proprietary information, and we squirrels could never get it out of them, even when we plied them with martinis. Do you really want that ring you're wearing?”
At least, one can assume, some are still privy to the details of how the blend was achieved. But, how did Corky himself do it?
To say, like many, that Malcolm ‘played a single note’, is mean and simplistic. What we see, especially in those early days, was Malcolm basing himself around a single note through expression. Anticipation, surprise, dismay, curiosity and extreme discomfort. A spectrum of nuance, and, either way, better than Scott Baio.
Simply for the purpose of going back, I was able to find Mark Selfer, whose career followed a path roughly similar to that of Malcolm’s, and at times converging. A contemporary from Ames, he gives us a glimpse of both the beginning and end of Malcolm’s career. I spoke to him where he now lives, at a meat-lover’s artist colony on the north face of Mount Lonesome.
“I nailed him with an orange peel during lunch break at a speech tournament up in Cedar Falls, like, in ‘59. It wasn’t the eyebrows. We were actually trying to get a good look at them, although we weren’t sure exactly what we were seeing. We just thought he should be acting, and not in poetry. He was doing Walt Whitman. We thought that was pretentious. Plus, he was an ‘Applesaucer’.”
And, yes, Corky can be found there in the ‘Applesaucer Yearbook’, 1960 issue. Next to his photo, it is mentioned that Corky was voted ‘The Most Likely To Win A Debate Against Khrushchev’.
“I got him good with that peel,” Selfer continued. “Looked like he got a welt on his ear. On set, (of the movie custom made for Malcolm, ‘Race the Oblong Circuit’) we talked about it and laughed and laughed. Then, when we went to location in Bakersfield, I was talking to Mumford (the director) as they set up a stunt. I had something to suggest about going what I thought was Brechtian, like replacing the sound of engines with that of grocery carts, and this tangerine comes out of the blue, smacking me on the side of the neck. ‘Mum’ falls down laughing, conference over, I’m looking around, and I still don’t know who threw it. But, I’ve narrowed the list of suspects down to one.”
Selfer also addressed the phenomenon that was the eyebrows.
“With Corky, after a short while, your eyes only returned to the eyebrows with remembrance and perhaps a bit of surprise. You were just dealing with ‘Corky’ most of the time. He was brilliant, charismatic, and had a good arm.”
It’s no secret that despite having a bankable feature, Corky was paid less in the early animation projects, such as ‘Race’. He was up against the cartoon payscale. Drawn characters were paid less, if at all. They don’t require sports cars, mansions, or even watering. Information about the rare occasions when cartoon characters are paid is kept under wraps, but it is known that Penelope Pit-Stop (of ‘Wacky Races’) was paid, and residual checks were written for Wilma Flintstone from the same account.
“The studio lent Wilma out sometimes,” said Betty Rubble, who currently lives on in ‘Reruns’, a gated community north of Palm Desert. “So, she was probably in a couple of episodes of Wacky Races when Penny had zip-a-tone neuralgia. She had to get something for her kick. She didn’t get much from our production, I can tell ya that. I mean, she always had to wear those rocks around her neck. Lime stones! I mean, what anniversary is that? Outdoor shots, in the Mojave, and, oh! a ton of lime stones around your neck.”