It's not everyday that you are able to pick up the phone and talk to the person that you have watched and admired on your favorite television show for most of your life. Some say that it's impossible, but not for The Slime Society. Society Member Thomas Hendricks caught up with Les Lye in 1995, and we got this exclusive interview for you.
What were you doing before You Can't Do That On Television?
I began in radio. I went to radio school with... I guess you know Leslie Nielson. Who doesn't know Leslie Nielson? He was in the year ahead of me, and he went down to New York on a scholarship. With Leslie Nielson, the rest is history when he started doing comedy, but we were in the same one year course. I worked five years in radio in Toronto in the mid 1950's, and I came back to Ottawa and never left again.
I then did a show called Uncle Willy and Floyd, a local kid's show that went syndicated here in Canada, and that went on for twenty-two or twenty-three years. It was a really fun show, because I wrote it along with my partner. It ended up as a half hour sitcom for kids.
I missed radio for a long time and had done a few guest things. I used to do a two man radio show for years, but the other voice was me also. In the less sophisticated days, I used to pre-tape some of his dialogue and then talk on top of it, and then we'd sing a song together. Anybody who didn't understand tape would get into big arguments, and I'd get a phone call, "I just bet my friend ten bucks that there are two people." Then I'd say, "Well I'm sorry, but you lose." Then they'd say, "Yeah, but you were singing a song together.
So in a nutshell, that was my career. I was a movie critic for thirteen years on television, but it was the kid shows that really demanded most of my attention in the last twenty years.
In your own words, how did YCDTOTV begin?
Well, Roger Price had done a show very similar in Britain, and he came to Canada because like a lot of people in Britain, they feel they want to get to North America. He arrived at our station (CJOH) in 1978, and he liked what he saw as far as the set-up was concerned. He happened to be there when were doing a telethon for a local hospital, and I was in doing a character that I had been doing for years with another buddy of mine (on Uncle Willy and Floyd). He saw us in action and asked if he could speak with me after we got off the air, and that's how I got associated with the show
Roger had decided that he was going to do a program very much like the one he had done in England, and it was very successful over there. It was somewhat like the show we did over here - sort of based on Laugh-In. He showed a few excerpts from the show, and when I saw it, I said that I'd love to do a show like that where I'd be the adult and the rest would be all kids. After he showed me the excerpts, I said, 'Well, wait a minute; the only adult on the show you did in Britain was twenty-five years old, he was Black, and obviously a ballet dancer.' I laughed and said that I didn't fit into any of those headings, and he laughed and said that he wanted me to be the adult and the show and you're going to play a father, a teacher, a bad chef, and all of the characters were created for the show. That's how it began, and we taped our first inserts for the show back in January 1979.
There is a tape that Nickelodeon had made showing some of the highlights and bloopers from the show, and in one occasion they show the main characters that I played in various fast flashes and a lot of the kids that were on the show from the beginning. They show the first time I did anything in the studio as Ross - a name that I gave the to character (Ross Ewich = Raw Sewage), and he wasn't the Ross that everybody knows. I had no mustache, and my hair was gray. I guess after we did that, we decided he should look younger, so I began to have my hair dyed every month. They slapped on a mustache, and that was the beginning of Ross. Most of the characters that I did were supposed to be younger than I was at the time which was about 54 when it began. It was a local show when it first began, and it was only seen in Ottawa. Then it went to network in Canada.
Is that when it was Whatever Turns You On?
No, actually, that was a different show. We used a number of kids from that show, and it was basically the same show. Whatever Turns You On had a bit more of a plot, and it had Ruth Buzzi.
None of original episodes of You Can't Do That On Television exist, because it was a live show back then. In fact, one very sad story - about eight years ago, I got a letter from a woman, and then I phoned her. You see, in the first year when we were a local show, we used to go out and do things in restaurants. One of them was a pizza eating contest, and she had written to tell me that her son was one of the featured guests found in the restaurant for the contest, and she said that the kid was killed six months later and she wondered if we had the tapes of it. We looked all over, but none of the inserts from the early days were saved.
That's very sad, and a lot of people in the United States have questions about the pre-1981 shows, because they were never shown here.
Well what we did was tape a lot of inserts and then we did the show live. It included a guest...a band or some dancers. Then they'd have a contest and open the phone lines, but most of it was pre-taped. The first thing I ever did we don't have copy of, but I was a bus inspector down at a real bus stop in the snow in January of 1979. I did an old guy who belittled the kids, but I was dressed as a bus inspector, and none of that was saved which is unfortunate.
Did you create any of your own characters or were they all written for you?
That's a very good question, because Roger was the ideal producer. He left a lot up to the people involved in every aspect. The camera men were willing and often eager to contribute little gags, and he was always open to suggestions. When it came to characters, he would often give me a rough idea. He'd say, 'Now Barth is a cook. He's got to be a slob. He's got to be the worst looking mess, and his food is terrible.' Then he left it up to me and very good make-up person to develop the character physically. He was unshaven, and being a cook, he had cut himself and had bandages on hands and his arm. He was just the worst thing we could think of. Of course his apron was a classic, and we used it throughout the entire series. Actually, Barth was a cook in a summer camp on the local show, but then he got his own restaurant for network.
He preferred that I didn't do any impersonations. The doctor, of course, wound up as a Groucho Marx, but strangely enough, he did disappear in the last series of shows, and we created a dentist. They were just running out of doctor jokes and decided to just do dentist jokes, but for characters, Roger gave me a general idea. Then he'd leave it up to me, and I'd do the voices and characters. We very seldom had conflicts.
Were there any controversies regarding any of the characters that you played?
Well, when we first did Snake Eyes, we had done about ten bus scenes, and at the end of each one, Roger got me to take a gun out and fire it through the roof of the bus. (laughing) Nickelodeon said that we couldn't use them, because it was too close to the truth. I'm a little in the dark as far as editing is concerned with Nickelodeon, but they were always very good.
We made a number of personal appearance tours for Nickelodeon, and the most memorable one is an Easter egg weekend in Washington. Reagan was President, so I guess it was back that far - mid 80s. Anyway, we were there the whole weekend, and there were about 10,000 people on the White House lawn. I just couldn't get over how all the kids were astound and knew who we were. It was Alasdair, Vanessa, and Adam, and I was dressed as the dad, and only one group of kids didn't recognize us because they didn't get cable in the area they lived in.
What was the hardest part for you to play and why?
I guess Peter Cockroach was a bit difficult because of the length of the sketches. I had some of the phrases written on the counter, because there were no cue cards like a lot of other shows used, and by the way, there is a food critic here in Ottawa, and his name is Peter Cockrin, so that's where Peter Cockroach came from. After I had done the bit, I showed it to him and he laughed and laughed. That was one of the most difficult, because the rest of them just fell into place. One of them that disappeared was Blip, and that was simply because the video arcades were slowly disappearing.
How did Abby Hagyard come on to the show, and what was it like working with her?
I can't remember exactly when, but it wasn't long after we had gone network on Nickelodeon. I guess Roger decided that we really did need a female adult...especially for Dad to have a wife that he could be kicked around by. There were other instances where we did some fake commercial for a couple of seasons, but her biggest role was Mother - Valerie. It was interesting how we got names, because earlier none of them had names. It was Dad, Teacher, Principle; I don't think we ever gave Principle a name. With Dad, we just sat down one day, so I landed on Lance, because we had to find a name that would be farthest removed from a guy that looked like that. We just pick Valerie out of a hat sort of. Lance was a character that we sort of softened a little. They wanted him to ease off on drinking beer, but he still appeared to slightly drunk sometimes.
What did you do in 1988? A lot of people have wondered about what happened in 1988 when there were no shows.
Roger moved very suddenly to Toronto, and he phoned me as soon as he got there the next day, because when I went into the station they said, 'Roger's gone!' Anyway, he phoned me and said, 'Look. It may come to where we would have to do the show in Toronto. We'll get a whole bunch of new kids and do the show here. Will you come down to do it?' I said absolutely, but while he was waiting to make that decision and battling with the people in Ottawa, he did a some inserts for Turkey Television. I went down and did some things for Turkey Television, but then they got together and finally agreed that the show would be resumed. He came back to Ottawa, and the show went back into production as I recall with a whole new group of kids.
Yeah. We had a trivia contest where you had to guess which four kids did the 1986 season but also came to 1989 because they weren't too old, and I believe Stephanie Chow was asked to stay but refused.
Stephanie was very good. They didn't use her a lot, but she was very good. She was very small and looked a lot younger than she actually was. She went to the high school not far from where I am, but the story as to why she left is because she wanted to concentrate more on her piano. She was a very good pianist.
They (the 1989-90 shows) were very good shows - certainly different from before. I lost track with a lot of the kids, but I ran into Elizabeth Richardson recently. She took a television course here in Ottawa after she had gone elsewhere and done other things. She and Klea Scott were pals and were on a lot of the same shows.
So was the Adoption show actually banned?
That's the only one besides Divorce that I heard had any repercussion.
You haven't mentioned Alanis yet...
I know that everyone would kill me if I didn't ask about any sort of anything about Alanis.
That reminds me, and it's been said by others not as a put down. After she had been on the show for a while, I said to Roger, 'You're not using Alanis very much,' and he said, 'No, no, that's a thirty-five year old in the body and mind of a twelve year old.' I thought, 'Geez, he's right. She's really mentally mature.' And even then she knew what she wanted to do. She used to sing at a few of our little 'good-bye' parties which were fairly regular, because as soon as a boy's voice changed or a girl developed, they'd be gone. We'd have little parties to say good-bye to them, and Alanis would bring along her tape machine and sing. She was very good. To work with, she was fine. I had no problems with Alanis.
About three years ago, I was in the station, and I was walking down the hall. Alanis walked by, and I didn't acknowledge. I just wondered what would happen with my white hair and my white mustache - I looked a little different. She did walk by and I stopped and turned around, and she stopped and turned around and let a yell out of her, 'Les, oh my God!' She rushes up, throws her arms around me, and gives me a big hug. I complemented here one what she had been doing. She had been doing a lot in Canada...especially in Ottawa, so that was the last time I saw her.
Oh and after she left You Can't Do That On Television a year or two later, I phoned her and asked her if she would like to appear on my kids' show, Uncle Willy and Floyd. My partner and I did sort of Laurel and Hardy; we didn't look like them, but we did that sort of a show. We were the owners of a hotel, so I wrote a script for her, and she came and did a very good acting job, and she sang a couple of songs. That was last time that we worked together.
Just last night or the night before at the Canadian JUNO awards, she swept them, but she's off. She has a permanent residence in Los Angeles, so we all wished her well.
If YCDTOTV ever came back, would you do it?
I talked to Roger around Christmas, but the subject has never come up, but I would be interested in doing a show especially with some of the originals like Christine who was without a doubt the best of them all. She was with us the longest, because she stayed sort of short and was able to play sixteen when she was twenty. Anyway, I would definitely be interested in doing a show - just a special with the teacher now with white hair and retired in an old person's home. That reminds me off a great gag on the show that I really loved when they were taking pictures in the classroom, and I said (in Mr. Shidler's voice) 'There's Lisa Ruddy; she's a brain surgeon now. Fashion designer, Christine,' and Dougie Ptolemy said, 'Yeah, and there's the teacher - he's dead!' That was a great line, but no, I don't think they would even consider using me if they were to do the show again with new kids. Well, I don't know. I just don't think I could pass for anything other than what I am which is an elderly gentleman, but as I say, it would be great to do a special with characters as they are and now and what they're doing now and the kids all grown up. The possibilities are endless.
When I talked to Roger this Christmas, he down in Florida, doing something for Nickelodeon with Adam Reid, but what it was, I don't know.
It's amazing to think that with the exception of one person, the cast members are all adults now.
My guess at the youngest would be Amy Stanley. She was one of the youngest we had ever used, and I thought that if the show had continued on she'd be a star.
They wrote Christine's younger sister into one scene, and it was when Christine was shackled to the wall in the detention room. There was a puff of smoke, and what you saw was her sister. It looked exactly like her but ten years younger, and I said to Roger, 'You've got to use her. As soon as Christine leaves, we've got another Christine.' He didn't seem to buy it or wasn't that interested, so the little girl disappeared from our lives very quickly, but she was a dead ringer for her sister.
A part of my job includes checking facts of lists that people try to put up. That's sort of how I got into this whole thing. I would say, "No, no, Marjorie Silcoff never got slimed, and she was on the show for two years and did about ten episodes."
(Laughing) Oh, Tom, you've got to get a life.
(Laughing) I do have a life; I try to say that when I talk to former cast members. I just have a good memory. There are actually a couple of other people out there that know a lot more about the show than I do, so that makes me feel a whole lot better.
(Laughing) I was a little surprised that some adults...especially university students that I had met in the States who were fans. There were nineteen and twenty year olds who watched the show faithfully. I don't think it's showing anywhere now, but it might be in New Zealand or Australia. About a year and a half ago, my youngest daughter talked to her friend who is a nurse in Saudi Arabia, and she says that she never watches television there because it's all in Arabic, but she tuned in one day and saw me on a kid show in Arabic. I called the station to see if it was true, because I didn't see why she would lie. They had pirated the show since it was on in England and just added their own dialogue. We won't get any money from them, but it was sold at one time to Finland, Spain, Australia...it was pretty popular in Australia. The biggest success, of course, was in the States with Nickelodeon.
This has been fascinating, and we wanted to get this interview done some time this year, because it has been fifteen years since the show was first seen in the States.
It will be a number of chapters in my book. I don't know when I'll ever get around to it. I've got a lot of loose notes lying around about my lengthy career in radio and television. I guess You Can't Do That On Television would be one of the biggest highlights, because it was the only show that I was ever on that was seen all over the world. I'll make some notes just as soon as I get off the phone on some stuff that I had forgotten about...this will help me.
I certainly wish you luck on your book. I will really be interested in seeing that.
strong>On May 5, 2003, Zachary Houle had the privilege of interviewing one of the all-time greats in television history who just happened to be a major part of the show we all love. Over coffee at the cafeteria of an Ottawa Fitness Centre, Houle sat down with Les and asked him about his time on YCDTOTV.
Well, it may happen. I just got to get going...get it down on paper. I'm not the computer or word processor type. I'll do it on my own electric typewriter.
Zachary Houle: What can you tell me about working with the kids on the show?
Les Lye: I don’t know whether I can add anything new. … In the early years, Kevin Schenk was an original (cast member). If not, he came in during the second year.
ZH: Yeah, I hear he’s still around in town, has some kind of software company.
LL: He was very clever. I’ve told the story, and he knows it very well and I’ll tell it to the day I die. The only problem kid in the early years – and, for that matter, the later years – was Kevin. Yet he’s turned out to be one of the nicest young men of them all. He was a headache, but he was good. So we put up with him. (Laughs).
ZH: I’d imagine there was quite an eclectic mix of kids on the show. Different personalities.
LL: Oh, absolutely. One common thread, though, was that they were all, as far as I know, Grade A students. This was almost a necessity. Roger Price wouldn’t interfere to a degree with their schoolwork, yet he didn’t want anyone coming back at him saying, “Well, thanks to you, I failed.” So they were all good students.
They also had to be good and fast readers. Unfortunately, there was one case where I can remember … in the early years, there was a kid who was, I think, dyslexic. He really had trouble reading the scripts, but he was obviously a talented kid. He missed out, though.
But, you’re right, there was a wide assortment of personalities.
ZH: Some of them went onto bigger and better things. Obviously, Alanis is one example, but you have Klea Scott … .
LL: The first time I saw her (outside of You Can’t) was on a series that only lasted one season, which was a very good cop series. Brooklyn South. She had a big role in that, and then she was immediately released (from it) – it was not renewed. She moved to another series that had been going on. I can never remember the names of the damn things. I never think I watch as much (TV), anyway. But she was an FBI agent.
ZH: That might have been Millennium.
LL: It might have been. Then the next season, I think it folded, too. It had nothing to do with her. She ended up on another series that lasted only one year, and it was set in Hollywood, or Los Angeles. (It was about) homicide in Los Angeles.
ZH: Are you surprised … ?
LL: (Interrupts). I was never surprised about … . You know, I was never surprised about Alanis. She was a talented actress. I’ve told the story many times, but after she’d been around for a season, I said to Roger, “You’re not using Alanis very much.” And he said, “No, no. That’s a 35-year-old in a 14-year-old body.” I thought about it, and I thought that he was probably right. She knew what she wanted, and she made it.
And Christine: of all the kids on that show, she was probably the one that impressed me the most, maybe because she was there since the beginning. She was a complete natural; it was as if she’d been born in a TV studio. I don’t think she’d done any acting (before that), and she was completely playing herself. But she was a fast study, knew all her lines. Anyway, she wound up in a show working behind the camera.
ZH: If I could get back to Alanis for a second, I’ve heard conflicting stories about her leaving the show. Was there more to it than just the usual story that she was simply getting too old for You Can’t?
LL: Probably, she was getting busy singing wherever she could. So it may have been a bit of both things, because she certainly (had her heart set on singing) … and what were we to do? I invited her to do an Uncle Willy and Floyd show after she left (You Can’t). And she was very good. This was where I realized she was a good little actress.
The show turned out very funny. She played a high school student who wanted to use the facilities, a motel, for a benefit show. That motel was used in the last series of the (Uncle Willy and Floyd) show, one of the most elaborate sets built at CJOH. I remember we called her Sinala – Alanis backwards. And she was, “Ok, that’s fine. Sinala.” So we did a show on the stage, and she sang two songs she was singing at the time. One of them was a ballad, … but it was nothing like anything she did later.
She was singing all over Ottawa; she’d sing the national anthem at the football games. She was very good.
ZH: I’ve heard stories about you dying your hair for the show. Looking at you now, I would have never known you were in your 50s, watching as a kid.
LL: Oh, this is the reason. You weren’t supposed to.
In the very beginning, I used food coloring. But I’d have different colors for different characters. After awhile, I said to Roger, “I’m getting sick of dying my hair six times a day (with food coloring). I really should get it (permanently) dyed.” He said, “Go ahead, for heaven’s sakes! The show will pay for it.” And I was like, “Oh! (pauses). Oh, well, if you put it that way … .” (laughs).
This guy named Bernard, who was available for the station, a good hairdresser, did it the first time. It was April 7th, which was my wife’s birthday. They were doing a party for her, and I got home around suppertime with my new black hair. And, her first words to me were, “You can’t wash that out can you?” And I was like, “Um, no.” (laughs).
It was really black. Bernard, later, modified it somewhat to make it look more natural. But, for the next 10 years, my wife couldn’t wait until the show was over so I could let my hair go and let it be white.
ZH: Are there any particular shows that stick out in your mind?
LL: One show they only showed once was on Divorce. I had a copy of the Divorce show, so I’m going to have a look at it. There was a scene there with Lisa Ruddy, which is one of my favorites. I’m playing the dad and I have to tell her I’m getting a divorce, and she says something like, “Oh, dad! I’ll be with you, I’ll be on your side.” And I start to cry. She couldn’t help it, but she starts to laugh. We must have done 15 takes. She was desperate by the end, but I told her, “Ah, don’t worry about it. We’ve got lots of tape!” She goes, “I know, but I can’t help it!” Well, we finally got it and put it away.
But I must have a look at that. I didn’t know I had a copy. This gang of people (from the U.S.) brought me 17 shows, most of which I did have, when they came up to visit two years ago. I guess that’s one of them. I don’t know what the problem was with that episode.
The other story I tell about the censoring is that the first time we used Snake Eyes, Roger said, “We’ve got an old school bus and we’ll cut it in half. You’re going to be the bus driver. I don’t know why, but I think Snake Eyes would be a good name for him.” And I was, “Oh fine, I’ll wear dark glasses.” Roger was always very good about costumes and characterizations, and he’d say, “It’s up to you to do the character.” So, (I figured) Snake Eyes had to have a Southern accent. Roger says, “Oh yeah! That’ll be good!”
As you can imagine, it’s obvious that you have to do all the scenes all at once in the studio. So, for the bus scene, we must have done 10 or 12 of them all at once. And, at the end of each gag, Snake Eyes would pull out this great, big revolver and fire it into what would be the roof of the bus, which I did.
Nickelodeon sent it all back (with a memo): “Do it again, and don’t – for God’s sake – use the gun. It’s too real!”
ZH: Speaking of which, another crew member told me that the guns used on the show were, in fact, real. Roger was in the army had all of these guns that were used on the set. Is that true?
LL: It’s funny you mention that. We had at least three different directors over the years, and one of them was Brenda (Mason). All these things seem to tie together: Brenda was a student of mine at Algonquin College in Ottawa a couple of years before, when I’d taught a couple of semesters about speech and voice.
One day, Brenda said, “That’s it!” She came in from the studio. “Get those guns out of this studio now!” And course Roger says, “Well, wait a minute! Wait a minute! We’ve got stacks of phony, wooden guns and props over here.” But finally he just gave up. “Okay. Whatever you say.”
So there were no real, live guns anymore, anywhere near the studio. I don’t know whether he was in the army – he might have been an army brat.
ZH: What was it like to work with him? I’m getting Phil Spector-type mad genius vibes here. I’m hearing that a lot of people seem to have a lot of complaints about various things.
LL: Fortunately, he listened. This is sort of the same vein: often, the kids would go to him about the scripts and say, “Roger, we wouldn’t say that. What the hell does that mean? What the hell is that?”
And he’d go, “Well, that’s a British expression.”
“Well, what would you say?”
They’d then tell him, and he’d say, “OK. Change the script, write that in.”
He’d listen to the cameraman, too, and anyone else. Not that he’d necessarily agree, or make changes.
But, yeah, even I’d once in a while … . When I played the German Nazi guard, I had to tread lightly there. I had the German accent and the foreign thing. And I can’t quite remember how it came up, but (Kevin) Kubusheskie, I guess, is Polish and Roger had written some kind of gag (involving Kubusheskie and the Nazi guard).
And I said to Roger, “Roger, you can’t do that. Absolutely not! Kubusheskie is Polish and I’m a Nazi!”
(Imitating Roger) “Oh yeah, … hmmm. Well, OK.”
But, overall, I had no problems working with Roger. He had certainly several strong points. He had a good sense of humor. He knew jokes. He also had a facility for picking the right kids. He’d have an audition where he’d have 400 kids for the show, and he’d very seldom miss (picking the right ones).
He often broke his own rules. He said right at the beginning, “Nobody’s sons, daughters or grandsons are going to be on this show. Nobody connected with the program will be on.” So one woman who worked at the station, her son ended up on the show. It doesn’t matter, the certain name. Roger said to him, “You’re kinda dumb – which he was – so when you leave the room, run into the door.” I was there and Roger said, “Show him, Les. What you do is just come close to hitting the door, but you just hit it with your foot.” Needless to say, he didn’t. He ran face first into the door. (Laughs.) It looked great, but he could have busted his nose. He didn’t last very long.
ZH: Do you know where Roger Price went?
LL: Last thing I heard, he was living in France. But I’m not sure about that. Last time I heard from him was two years ago, when he phoned from Florida and Adam (Reid) was with him. I think he’s probably still working.
ZH: I understand he moved to France and took a year off the program in ’88.
LL: He was in Toronto. In fact, I went down and did stuff there for Turkey TV, and visited with him. I think he was gone for close to a year, and we’d kept in touch and he said, “Look, if I’m going to do (You Can’t) again, and it’s done here in Toronto, would you do it?” I said, “Of course, I’ll do it.” But, as it turned out, they talked him into coming back to Ottawa, and we picked up where we left off. That’s where we got the new cast of new kids.
ZH: In ’83, he was doing a show for PBS called Don’t Look Now!, so there was other things going on that seemed to conflict with his role on You Can’t. I’m curious as to what that might have been happening there.
LL: Yeah, I remember going into the studio one day, and somebody said, “You better have a look at this show on PBS.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s You Can’t Do That On Television, but with a different name and different characters.”
“Yeah, they got a teacher, and instead of slime they get them to walk the plank of a pirate ship.”
So I watched it and me and Geoff Darby had sold the idea (somewhere) – and they had a teacher, of course, and I think it was a female – and it didn’t work. But we still started shooting You Can’t Do That. The only crisis we really had was when Roger Price moved to Toronto (in ’88). He was going to work with CFTO in Toronto. …
In fact, there was another show (I did years later) that ended up on the air for a few episodes. He (Price) approached Fred Silverman, he was the big guy at NBC. Anyway, he approached Silverman with the idea, and he told me about it. He said, “What it is is that it’s an old folks home and, nearby, there’s a kid’s orphanage or whatever that’s been burnt to the ground. Their things have been all saved, but they have nowhere to live. So they moved in with the old people – you had the young kids and the old timers reacting and interacting.”
I said, “That sounds good.”
He said, “Well, I’ve got a part for you, probably, as a director (of the home) or something.”
So we approached Silverman.
One thing I remember is that Silverman – who’d seen You Can’t Do That – said, “How old is that guy on your show?” At the time, I was probably around 60.
He said, “You gotta get them at that age. If you get really old people, some of them might be great but they’re likely to croak on you.”
And, by the way, the show didn’t work because the writer was the guy who did The Waltons. They only did maybe a few shows, and it didn’t work or didn’t sell and that was the end of that. Joan Leslie, an old Hollywood glamour girl, she was in it.
But you always have ideas. I kept pushing him (Price) to do a You Can’t Do That On Television movie. The only other thing I would have liked to have seen happen is a You Can’t Do That On Television revival with the kids all grown up, and the teacher and all of those old guys I played either retired or dead.
I’d like to still do a reunion show, but they better hurry up and do it because I’m not going to be around forever, you know. Some ideas have been talked about: we’d have Barth working in a high-class restaurant. Some of the other characters would be in jail.
That reminds me, one of my favorite gags was with Doug Ptolemy. (Breaks into Teacher voice). “In 20 years, you’ll probably be looking at a yearbook and say, ‘There’s Lisa, now an undertaker. There’s Moose, brain surgeon. There’s Alasdair, an English professor.’ (Stops voice). And Dougie says, “And there’s the teacher – dead.” (Laughs). I thought that was one of the great lines.
ZH: You were just talking about an accident in the studio not long ago. Were there any other mishaps that took place?
LL: Another near-serious accident, one involving Christine (McGlade), was that they rebuilt the studio door on one of the sets out of very light plastic or polyethylene. It was so you could easily go through it, so you could quickly exit by walking through the door. They didn’t make that clear (to the cast, that you weren’t supposed to run through it). And I’m waiting from a distance as she runs to the door during a take, and she hit the door with a tremendous force. She went right, clean through it! Unfortunately, there was another door that was four or five feet beyond that – a real (metal) door. She luckily got her hands out, so she didn’t really hurt herself. She was OK. But somebody should have told her!
Another time, somebody brought in either a hamster or gerbil. As Ross, the studio director, I had to handle it. I had the thing in my hand, and it was a take. We’re taping. The damn thing bit me. It drew blood. So I held it up like this in front the camera, and the damn thing is hanging off me. I said, “Whoever owns this gerbil, come and get him immediately or else he’s going to meet God!”
Some kid comes running onto the set, yelling “Oh! Oh!” (Laughs.)
But, fortunately, there were no real accidents.
ZH: I’d heard they had Abby (Hagyard) in the kitchen set where there was this explosion, and the special effects guy got a little too gung-ho with the dynamite used in the scene.
LL: Oh yeah. It was a real blast. It scared the living hell out of Abby and Lisa (Ruddy), I think, who was in the kitchen with her. … . They probably used it in the show. The blast, though, had a little too much power.
ZH: You and Moose (Christine McGlade) had a really close relationship on the show, and I believe she said you two would develop sketches together that were grosser than anything on the show. What kind of stuff?
LL: Oh yeah. The kids wanted to relate (to me), but I didn’t want to become a second parent or a best friend unless they made a move. Some of the didn’t, so I didn’t infer and I let them have their fun off camera. The only time I found I had to do something that the director or producer should have been doing was during a pilot called UFO Kidnapped. They were so concerned with special effects that they weren’t giving the kids much direction.
So, more than once, one of them would say to me, “What am I supposed to do in this scene?”
I’d say, “Well, I’m not the director. But if you have no idea I can tell you what you probably should do.” So that worked fine.
That show, by the way, was where I established a very pleasant relationship with Klea Scott. Klea was in that pilot, and there was so much time spent shooting the movie. You’d wait and wait, so I’d brought in my ukuleles from Willy and Floyd, just to pass the time, and I start playing and singing some old song. (Starts singing.) Please don’t talk about me when I’m gooooone, oh honey. (Stops singing.) I look and Klea’s singing with me.
I go, “How the hell do you know that song, Klea?”
She says, “I know them all.”
“My mother plays the ukulele and sings them all the time.”
So I tested her, and she knew a whole bunch of the good ol’ songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. So that helped pass the time, and we later had Klea on Willy and Floyd.
I don’t know if any of the other kids knew, but I knew that she’d taken tap-dancing lessons. So I said, “Jeeze, Klea, you’re black and you’re a tap dancer. We’re going to have to work that into the script (for Willy and Floyd).”
And she said, “OK, sure.”
So one of the last scenes of the show she did is that we had a great big huge Afro wig (that I wore), and Liz, the make-up girl, darkened me, made me black. And I came in as her uncle Crazy Legs Turner.
Adam Reid was very talented. We used him on Willy and Floyd, and he was very good. He’s kept with it, acting.
ZH: That’s funny, because a lot of child actors just simply disappear after awhile, or turn to drinking or drugs.
LL: Dougie Ptolemy apparently had a small problem – I don’t know whether it might have been booze or it might have been drugs. He was great, though, because he was so small, short.
Every once in awhile, I run into a young man or woman that I don’t remember whatsoever, and they’ll say, “Yeah, I was on that show.” I met a guy at the airport, working behind the counter, who was on the show. I couldn’t remember him to save my life.
Of course, we went through a bunch of kids. Quite often, they’d be on a dozen shows, sometimes not even that. We had identical twins on one show and they never appeared again.
ZH: Was there a favorite character that you liked doing well above the others?
LL: Well I liked doing both Dad and Barth. They were such slobs. When I went on tour in the States, we used to go over and take over a school (for Nickelodeon). I think I did three or four. I’d go down usually as Barth. Mr. Wizard would be there, and four or five Nickelodeon stars. There was a stand-up comic with black hair, and he was pretty funny. I don’t remember his name or what his show was about. Provenza?
ZH: Yeah, that rings a bell.
LL: There was another guy, Marc Summers. He had a game show (Double Dare) on the network. I haven’t seen Marc in years, but I hear he’s doing very well. He’d usually be the MC when we’d take over the school.
I remember they’d get kids to send in why they wanted Nickelodeon to take over their school. And they’d pick them by location. So we went down to the American South, then near Detroit, then out west to Seattle, I guess it was. Anyway, I walked in as Barth into one of the classes:
(Breaks into character) “Hi kids, how are you doing?”
“Alright, Barth. What are we having for lunch?”
“Well, let’s see. What was the road kill of today? Squirrel? Badger?”
Anyway, in one classroom, there were a bunch of kids sitting right by the door. I come down and say, “Hi kids, any questions? Anything you’d like to know?”
One of the kids says, “Gimme your watch.”
“Gimme your watch.”
“What? Why would I give you my watch?”
“Well, why not? You got lots of money.”
He really stumped me.
“Sorry, but this is a keepsake I’ve got to keep because this is what my grandmother gave me before she died. I couldn’t possibly give it to you.”
Give me your watch. You never know … (Shakes head.) But they were great fun, those personal appearances.
We did go down on another occasion to appear before a (U.S. Senate) committee on children’s TV. Afterwards, I realized it was a mistake for me to get dressed as Dad. The kids with me were wandering through one of the government buildings, and we go into one of the committee meetings. Mr. Rogers couldn’t make it, so he sent his mailman from the show. Very nice fella. He didn’t tell me, but someone else said that Mr. Rogers didn’t like the show (You Can’t) at all.
Nickelodeon wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say to these people. I was dressed like Dad – a drunken bum – so I went in there, did a few gags that didn’t go over very well. That was a mistake. Most of the people in the committee room didn’t know who I was, either.
ZH: Thinking back to the Barth routine you just did a minute ago, The Simpsons must owe you a whole boatload of money for the character they swiped from you. The Homer-isms, to me, come from that.
LL: (Laughs). Yeah, I wonder. Which reminds me, you probably know that you can see You Can’t during Fatal Attraction, the opening scene. I was reviewing movies then for CJOH (on the side), so I went to see Fatal Attraction. I saw it and went, “Holy hell, nobody told me about this!”
So when I get back to the station, I phone Geoff Darby. Geoff, by the way, was one of my students at Algonquin, who climbed the ladder, and is now in a very fortunate position in some cable outfit making a bundle. But I phoned Geoff:
“Oh, hi Les. What’s up?”
”It’s a new movie … .”
“Oooohhhh! Oh yeah! I think I’ve heard of that!”
“You haven’t seen it?”
“There’s a scene where there’s You Can’t Do That. Moose and one of the other kids are getting slimed.”
“Oooohhh, yeah. I remember now. Last year, somebody phoned us and asked about using it and we said, ‘Yeah. Go ahead. Give us a thousand’ .”
I said, “Well, if I would have been in it (the scene), you would have been sued!”
But I wasn’t in it, and nobody contested it. It was Moose getting slimed in multi-color. And then, Michael Douglas, the father, said (in the movie), “Turn that thing off!” (Laughs).
ZH: I’m sure that was a common reaction around all of North America. (Laughs).
LL: I was always amazed we didn’t get more complaints. One of my favorite stories involves Dad. It happened right here at this gym, where I’ve been a member for 35 years. The first year I was on TV in ’79, an Ottawa policeman, a young guy, John, says to me here, “I saw that kids show you’re doing, and that father – that drunken bum, that slob.”
“I know who you’re doing. I know who it is.”
I said, “Wait a minute. I’m not doing anybody … .”
“Oh yes you are!”
I said, “John, I telling you … !”
“No, I’m telling you! I’ve rescued him a couple of times and I can tell you where he lives!”
“No! No! I don’t want to know!” (Laughs).
So there must have been a guy out there in Ottawa who looked a lot like Dad, this no-good, drunken bum. (Shakes head). John wouldn’t believe me that I didn’t know this guy. But, no, it was just a coincidence.
ZH: What other complaints did you get? Just people coming up to you?
LL: No, I never got anything personally. But I guess Nickelodeon would get most of them, and maybe CJOH. I think they were mostly fans and parents.
I got a nice letter from Australia when the show was first sold down there. It from was a married woman originally from Ottawa who’d married an Australian. She wrote in and said, “I was in the kitchen one day and heard the kids watching this new program. I recognized your voice. I come running into and the kids thought I was nuts. ‘That’s Ottawa! That’s Les Lye’.” Oh my God. Anyway, she wrote me and said she was coming back to visit. Could she drop in?
I said, “Absolutely. Just give me a phone call, here’s my phone number.”
So I met them at the station. She had two little boys and her husband. And that was the big moment of their lives, to look around and see some of the sets. I supposed it happened elsewhere, but they were really, really excited.
It (the show) was really popular in Australia. I think they bought it for a five-year run and then they bought it for another five. But the only way I’d know was if I was getting residuals.
ZH: But the show is described by many as a kids version of Saturday Night Live in that it was really edgy for its time, really envelope pushing. There must have been … .
LL: One show I hated – and still do – was on the subject of farting. Summer camp was the main scene and the kids blew the roof off! But that’s a personal thing. Alasdair was in it. Justin was in it. Justin was another kid I liked working with – Justin Cammy.
Another mistake was that we had Barth’s mom show up in one sketch. I really had trouble doing the high female voice. I couldn’t do the ‘Duuuuh – I heard that’ stuff. I wasn’t overly impressed with the finished product.
ZH: It’s been suggested, though, that you couldn’t do the show today out of political correctness. It appeared at the right time, the right place. The conditions were ripe for it …
LL: And yet, there was a lot said and done on television now that was never really thought of being done in those days. Especially language. You didn’t say ass, penis and certain words. But, to get back to your point, that’s a good thought. I’m not sure. I’d have to look at some of the shows and see what I thought about them. But I think they’d certainly be acceptable.
ZH: Do you have any regrets about the show?
LL: One of them, I luckily caught. I was a pirate on one episode, a one-shot. They gave me a knife about this long … . (Extends hands apart about the length of an arm).
ZH: My God.
LL: Of course, the back of this thing was really thick. But the blade was sharp. So when we taped, it was a close-up on me and I take the sword – and the kids are watching on set – and I stick my tongue out, and lick the sword. Well, of course, I used the back, thick side of the blade. Had I’d used the other side, it would have just sliced my tongue right in half. And the kids laugh.
Geoff was directing it. And I had second thoughts, so I said, “Geoff, what about that last scene?”
I left a pause, and Geoff said, “You don’t think we should use that last bit?”
I said, “For God’s sake, you show that then kids are going to watch this and think, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it’.”
I then said, “I want to make sure, I want to see that bit wiped from the tape.” Which I did. I made sure it was erased, so it could never be used.
Another time on Willy and Floyd, we had a show that was done partially live. I’m climbing up a ladder and all you can see by the time I get up is that I’m hanging off the pipes up above. I take a paintbrush and Willy says, “You got a good hold on that brush?”
“Good, because I need the ladder.”
And he pulls the ladder away, and all you see are my feet and legs hanging down.
I get a call immediately after the show, and this woman was really upset. She asked to speak to me.
“What’s the matter, ma’am?”
“My son is really upset because he thinks Floyd hanged himself.”
“Oh my good God! Well, put him on the phone.”
So my own voice is close to Floyd’s anyway, so I put him on the phone and go, “Billy? This is Floyd. How would you think that (I hung)?”
“Are you OK?”
“I’m fine. It was just a joke. I pretended I was just hanging onto a paintbrush and that was it. I’m OK.”
“Well … . OK.”
That made me think at the time, ‘Jeez, you never really know what kids are going to think,’ so you really gotta be careful.
ZH: What do you think of the show now, in terms of your career?
LL: Well, it was one of a couple of high points in my career for several reasons. It gave me so much opportunity to create some of these characters. As I said, Roger was very free thinking. And he’d leave a lot of thought to me in costuming and character. …
It really took him a few years, though, to get around to suggesting that I don’t do impersonations, because the Doctor was Groucho Marx. There was no doubt about that. He didn’t object at the time, but we ran out of doctor jokes so he said, “We’re going to get rid of the Doctor, and now you’re going to be a dentist.” That was when he said, “But he’s not … going … to … be …. W.C. Fields.” (Laughs.) He’d seen Willy and Floyd where I did a sort of W.C. Fields imitation.
I said, “OK, that’s fine, Rog.” I made him British and he still had a big nose, and that made it OK. Roger didn’t realize, though, that Blip was sort of based on a Canadian actor named Les Ruby. Les – I don’t know if you remember him or not – but he had a TV show where he owned a store, maybe a general store, and he sold lottery tickets. He had a funny laugh, so I thought I’d do my version of Les Ruby. I didn’t know Les until I met him at a banquet for Lorne Greene (just prior to his death). Les used to do a lot of Wayne and Shuster, a lot of character stuff, because he was bald and fat. … Les died not long ago.
I’m at that age now where, everywhere I turn, some old associate is gone.
ZH: You gotta be close to 80.
LL: 78. Yeah, I just celebrated the first anniversary of my heart attack. They (the doctors) called it a heart attack. The artery was somewhat plugged, so they did angioplasty. It was highly successful. So, I’m on medication. I’m diabetic, too. Adult onset. But the medication I’m taking is really working.
ZH: That’s good. You seem pretty fit, if you’re coming out here every day.
LL: Almost every day. So, all in all, I’m living the good life. … I’m glad the show came towards the end of my career, because it served as a good old age pension.