Died: January 9, 2020.
EDD Byrnes, who has died aged 87, was one of TV’s earliest teen idols, first in the U.S. but later worldwide as TV sets spread, after he played the hip, handsome, jive-talking, hair-combing young car park attendant, Kookie in the popular Warner Brothers series, 77 Sunset Strip, from 1958-64. His finger-snapping gimmick featured in the programme’s kitschy but catchy theme tune – “77 Sunset Strip – (click click)” while the opening credits featured Byrnes alongside the two stars, Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Roger Smith, as Hollywood private detectives.
Kookie started off in the series parking the private eye Stu Bailey’s (Zimbalist’s character) sleek Ford Thunderbird convertible, and confusing Bailey with a mix of hip, beatnik or generally unintelligible lingo. He called Bailey “dad” or “daddio-o,” called people “cats”, called good people “the grinchiest,” lamented his lack of “Zees” (sleep), or his “germsville” (unwell) or even “the dark seven” (a depressing week). It sounds a bit tame now but it was half a century before hip hop, rap or Ali-G.
Such was Byrnes’s popularity – he used to receive 15,000 fan letters a week, mostly from teenage girls – that the series elevated him to the role of junior private detective to the two stars. He was famous a few years before the Beatles, and the screaming reception from teenage girls wherever he went, many of whom threw him their combs, often equalled that of another star with a similar pompadour hairstyle — Elvis Presley.
As late as 2005, when few of the later generations knew who he was, he came fifth in a list of “TV’s Greatest Teen Idols” by the U.S. magazine TV Guide. Mourning his passing, one friend commented: “Edd did more for the pocket comb/Brycleem industry than any advertising giant ever could! But then the Beatles showed up: end of Brylcreem and pocket combs for the American male.”
Byrnes felt he became typecast by the hipster Kookie image and that it cost him many later film roles, which went to other teen idols including Fabian and James Darren. A Warner Brothers contract prevented him from taking up an offer to appear in the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960) with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
He entitled his 1996 autobiography Kookie No More. But he did have another burst of fame in the classic 1978 movie Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, when he fit in perfectly with the film’s mood as the radio DJ and dance show host, Vince Fontaine.
He had already had a form of musical success when he and actress Connie Stevens had a 1959 hit single with the atrocious “Kookie, Kookie, Lend me Your Comb”, cashing in on his Sunset Strip role. It sold a million copies but, apart from his looks, Byrnes was no Elvis. He admitted he couldn’t sing, so the song was largely a spoken dialogue. In fact, it was reported that neither he nor Stevens had sung on the studio recording.
Failure to become a movie star in his own right led to a long spell of drugs and alcohol usage but he recovered in his early fifties with the help of a global 12-step programme, which shuns publicity. He died clean and sober after a suspected stroke, and fellow recovered addicts and alcoholics within the same programme said he had helped countless others to recover from alcoholism.
Edward Byrne Breitenberger was born in Manhattan on July 30, 1932, and brought up in what was then the rough Yorkville area on the Upper East side but now one of New York City’s most affluent neighbourhoods. His father Augustus, of German origin, was a violent alcoholic who died when Ed (he added the extra ‘d’ for his TV career and opted for Byrnes as his surname) was 13, leaving him as head of the family to help his mother, who did several jobs, his brother and sister. He worked as a shoeshine boy, delivered ice, coal or newspapers and became a taxi driver until a passenger hired him as a model but his boyish good looks brought him offers – from wealthy men – that he felt he couldn’t refuse for the sake of keeping his family.
It was then, he said in his autobiography, that he entered a twilight world of “art, wealth, sadism, limousines, sex for money, theatre and fine restaurants.” Having helped his mother, and with $300 in his pocket, he drove all the way across the country to Hollywood. He had never studied acting but his looks got him small parts, first in the movie Marjorie Morningstar with Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood, and various TV westerns including Cheyenne and Maverick.
In 1958, in a TV pilot title Girl on the Run, he played a psychopath murderer who kept combing his hair – a touch Byrnes himself came up with. After women watching the pilot raved about him, he was offered the role of Kookie in the follow-up series. 77 Sunset Strip. An opposite role, but it was all about his looks. And the comb.
Edd Byrnes is survived by his partner Catherine Gross, his son Logan Byrnes (from an earlier marriage), his brother, Vincent, and his sister Jo-Ann Breitenberger.