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Harvey Lembeck

Harvey Lembeck as Cpl. Rocco Barbella in The Phil Silvers Show
Born April 15, 1923(1923-04-15)
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Died January 5, 1982 (aged 58)
Los Angeles, California, USA
Spouse(s) Caroline Dubs
(19??-1982; his death) 2 children

Harvey Lembeck (April 15, 1923 – January 5, 1982) was an American comedic actor best remembered for his role as Cpl. Rocco Barbella on The Phil Silvers Show (a.k.a. Sgt. Bilko) in the late 1950s, and as the stumbling, overconfident outlaw biker Eric Von Zipper in the Beach Party movie series during the 1960s. He also turned in noteworthy performances in both the stage and screen versions of Stalag 17. He was the father of actor/director Michael Lembeck and actress Helaine Lembeck.


Early life

Born in Brooklyn, Lembeck started his career right out of New Utrecht High School, as a dancer at the 1939/40 New York World's Fair. He was one half of an exhibition dance team known as The Dancing Carols. His partner, Caroline Dubs, would become his wife.

The son of a Brooklyn button manufacturer, Lembeck yearned for a career as a radio sports announcer. Following his discharge from the service at the end of WWII in 1945, he attended New York University, obtaining a degree in radio arts in 1947. However, he chose the stage as a career upon the advice of one of his instructors, Prof. Robert Emerson, who had seen him perform in college plays.


1940s and 1950s

Two weeks after graduation, Lembeck won the key role of Sam Insigna in Mister Roberts, which he played on Broadway for nearly three years, winning runner-up honors to James Whitmore as New York's best new actor of 1948.

Lembeck made three motion pictures for 20th Century Fox, Fourteen Hours, You're in the Navy Now, and The Frogmen, all released in 1951. He went back to Broadway as Army Air Force Sgt. Harry Shapiro in Stalag 17, which he subsequently played in the Billy Wilder – directed film version, earning the Theater Owners of America's Laurel Award for outstanding comedy performance and best possibility for stardom. During this period (1952 – 54) he also made nine other movies mostly playing military roles.

In 1954, he returned to Broadway again, appearing in the play Wedding Breakfast. His stint with Phil Silvers' popular Sergeant Bilko series began in 1955. Lembeck played Bilko's sidekick, Corporal Rocco Barbella. The show ran for four years.

1960s and 1970s

In the 1961-1962 television season, Lembeck played a theatrical agent, Jerry Roper, in the ABC sitcom The Hathaways, starring Peggy Cass and Jack Weston as "parents" to the performing Marquis Chimps.

Having spent a great deal of his adult life in uniform, Lembeck once again donned Navy togs in the 1962-1963 season to co-star with Dean Jones in the NBC sitcom Ensign O'Toole. He co-starred with Steve McQueen in Love with the Proper Stranger and then spent part of the early 1960s playing the lovable bad guy Eric Von Zipper in seven American International Beach Party films, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. (He did not appear in the second "beach" film, 1964's Muscle Beach Party.) The Von Zipper character, leader of the Rat Pack motorcycle gang, was a parody of Marlon Brando's role in The Wild One. Among other things, Von Zipper displayed a notable penchant for pronouncing his judgments on others by saying "Him, I like", or "Him, I do not like". In 1964 he also co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

In 1964, Jack Kosslyn of the Mercury Theatre asked Lembeck to take over his actors' workshop. Lembeck took this opportunity to create his comedy workshop. Initially working with comedy scripts, he soon ran out of good comedy material and found that improv was a wonderful tool to teach and exercise comedy. He realized that the improv method, new in the early 1960s, was one of the best ways to develop actors' comedy instincts. Lembeck returned to the theatre to star as Sancho Panza on Broadway and in the first national company of Man of La Mancha. President Lyndon Johnson chose this company to give a command performance at the White House.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Lembeck became a mainstay on television, making over 200 guest appearances, including Ben Casey, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Route 66, The Monkees, Night Gallery, It Takes a Thief, Chico and the Man, Vega$, All in the Family, and Mork and Mindy.

Lembeck also had the joy of directing the road companies of Stalag 17 and Mister Roberts, along with the revues A Night at the Mark in San Francisco and Flush in Las Vegas.

Later life

Lembeck continued to perform and teach up until his death from a heart attack on January 5, 1982, aged 58, in Los Angeles. In an interview taped shortly before his own passing in 1985, Phil Silvers said he was shocked and saddened by the untimely passing of Lembeck, and missed him terribly.

Theatre appearances

  • Mister Roberts (2/18/48; Alvin Theatre) - Insigna. Also appearing: Karl Lukas, Tige Andrews, Murray Hamilton (all from The Phil Silvers Show)
  • Stalag 17 (5/8/51, 472 performances). Also appearing: Robert Strauss, Allan Melvin, Bob Shawley (all from The Phil Silvers Show; Strauss and Lembeck appeared in the filmed version.)
  • Wedding Breakfast (11/20/54-2/26/55, 113 performances, Forty-eighth Street Theatre) - Norman
  • Phoenix '55 (with Nancy Walker)
  • Oklahoma! (3/19/58-3/30/58; 16 performances, New York City Center)—Ali Hakim
  • Man of La Mancha—Sancho Panza (touring company, also performed at the White House for Lyndon B. Johnson)

Selected filmography

External links

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