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Carl Ballantine; 'McHale's Navy' actor was a leading comic magician; at 92

Carl Ballantine was best known for playing the supporting role of Lester Gruber on “McHale’s Navy,’’ a popular 1962-66 series. Carl Ballantine was best known for playing the supporting role of Lester Gruber on “McHale’s Navy,’’ a popular 1962-66 series. (Movie Star News)
By Dennis McLellan
Los Angeles Times / November 13, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Carl Ballantine, the comedy magician and character actor who was part of the World War II PT boat crew on the 1960s situation comedy “McHale’s Navy,’’ died Nov. 3 at his home in the Hollywood Hills. He was 92.

Mr. Ballantine died in his sleep of age-related causes, said his daughter, Saratoga.

As an actor, Mr. Ballantine was best known for playing the supporting role of crew member Lester Gruber on “McHale’s Navy,’’ the popular 1962-66 series that starred Ernest Borgnine.

“He was a natural; everything to him had humor,’’ said Tim Conway, who played the bumbling Ensign Parker on the show, where he first met Mr. Ballantine. “I only knew him from seeing him on “The Ed Sullivan Show,’ which I thought was the funniest thing I ever saw, the magic act that wasn’t working.’’

Indeed, it was as a comically inept magician variously billed as “The Amazing Ballantine,’’ “The Great Ballantine,’’ and “Ballantine: The World’s Greatest Magician’’ that he made his biggest impact as a performer.

In 2007, Steve Martin presented him with the Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Magic Castle in Hollywood.

“Carl Ballantine influenced not only myself but a generation of magicians and comedians,’’ Martin said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. “His was also the most copied act by a host of amateurs and professionals.’’

Magician David Copperfield is another longtime fan.

“Basically, Carl Ballantine created comedy magic,’’ he said. “The combination of magic and comedy had perhaps been done before, but he truly defined it.’’

Beginning in nightclubs in the early 1940s, the lanky Chicago native would walk out on stage in top hat, white tie, and tails.

“If the act dies, I’m dressed for it,’’ he would tell his audience.

At one point in his act, he would tear a newspaper page into strips, boldly insisting that he would restore the paper to its original state. Then he would stop to read the want ads.

He performed at the New York’s legendary Palace Theatre and in Las Vegas in the 1940s.

Born Meyer Kessler in Chicago, Mr. Ballantine learned his first magic tricks from his barber at age 9.

Exempt from military service during World War II because of back problems, Mr. Ballantine entertained he troops in England.

He performed his act for the last time at the “It’s Magic’’ show at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles last fall, said his daughter. “To great acclaim, I might add. His timing was still fantastic.’’

Mr. Ballantine appeared in a number of films, including “The Shakiest Gun in the West,’’ “The World’s Greatest Lover,’’ and “Mr. Saturday Night.’’

He was a regular cast member on the 1969 sitcom “The Queen and I’’ and the 1980 sitcom “One in a Million.’’ And he made guest appearances on numerous other series, sometimes appearing as a magician: He showed up on “Fantasy Island’’ as the Great Zachariah, on “Night Court’’ as the Fabulous Falconi, and on “Cosby’’ as the Great Ballantine.

He also did cartoon voice-overs and hundreds of voice-overs for commercials, including one for the California Raisins in which he voiced the Raisins’ talent agent, a Claymation character that resembled him.