Ernie Kovacs
Comedian, actor, writer
Born: January 23, 1919, in Trenton, New Jersey
Died: January 13, 1962, in Los Angeles
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2019-20: Performing Arts

He wasn’t a poet, yet Ernie Kovacs is often cited for inspiring others. He wasn’t a scientist, yet he is remembered for being experimental. He wasn’t an inventor, yet he is acknowledged for pioneering much of the zaniness we see on TV today.

Raised in Trenton by parents with Hungarian roots, Kovacs graduated from Trenton Central High School. His first performing role came at age 16 in a local production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” After high school, he attended acting school in Manhattan and performed in summer stock in Vermont.

Returning to Trenton, Kovacs landed a job as an announcer at local radio station WTTM. He spent nine years at the station, developing a penchant for over-the-top stunts, such as broadcasting from the cockpit of an airplane. During this time, he also tried his hand at directing for the Trenton Players Guild and wrote a column for the Trentonian newspaper.

In 1950, WPTZ, an NBC affiliate in Philadelphia, gave Kovacs his first shot at television. He hosted two cooking shows and quickly was made host of a pioneering morning news-and-weather show, “Three to Get Ready,” a progenitor for NBC’s “Today” show. “Three to Get Ready” served as a showcase for Kovacs’s on-camera antics, including a run through downtown Philly in a gorilla suit.

In the ensuing years, Kovacs had various talk and comedy shows on CBS, the DuMont Television Network and NBC. Often the programs were based around comedy sketches featuring a cast of oddball characters of Kovacs’s creation, including the lisping poet Percy Dovetonsils and the bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite. Kovacs also pioneered comic visual effects and elaborate visual gags, such as smoking his ubiquitous cigar underwater. (He spewed a mouthful of milk to replicate the smoke.)

Kovacs did some of his best work on TV specials in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, including a landmark half-hour program that featured only sight gags and special effects, but no spoken dialogue. Kovacs also appeared in numerous movies, most notably “Operation Mad Ball” (opposite Jack Lemmon); “Wake Me When It’s Over” (for which he was top-billed); and “North to Alaska” (as a con man who attempts to swindle gold miner John Wayne).

Kovacs was at the height of his fame in 1962 when he died in an automobile accident. It wasn’t until after his death that Kovacs’s genius was formally recognized with an Emmy Award for one of his TV specials. He is hailed today for his influence on generations of TV hosts and comedians, including Johnny Carson, Chevy Chase, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.