Dr. Zaius shows up quite a bit in the pop culture world, whether it’s The Simpsons doing a Planet of the Apes musical or comedian Dana Gould showing up in full make-up and regalia as the Chief Defender of the Faith on TV shows and live events. But what about the man who brought him to life, Maurice Herbert Evans? Besides playing Zaius in Planet and Beneath, he was, of course, also Maurice, father to Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha Stephens on Bewitched.
He was born June 3, 1901 in Dorchester, Dorset, England. In his youth, he made his first appearance in a stage production of Far from the Madding Crowd. Professionally, he made his professional stage debut in 1926 at the Cambridge Festival Theatre and, in 1934, became a part of the Old Vic Company, being given the opportunity to play Hamlet, Richard II and Iago, among others. In 1927, he appeared in no less than 14 productions, but then found himself out of work along with people like Laurence Olivier, and yet found himself cast in a “tryout” of the James Whale directed Journey’s End by R.C. Sheriff. Roles continued throughout the ’30s and into the ’40s.
On April 6, 1935, England’s Daily Herald did a profile of the actor, noting that “his love for the theater developed at an early age; the theatrical reference books state that his first public appearance was as a boy singer. It wasn’t. It was as musical director of one of his father’s amateur productions in Dorchester of adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels. Young Maurice Evans, in Eton collar and with carefully parted and brilliantined hair, was no musical prodigy, however, for his post of musical director (strictly honorary) demanded no more of him than that he should play the pianola in the intermissions. After that, of course, the Eton collar and the brilliantined hair led Maurice to become a choir-boy and he duly sang in public as per reference books.”
Interestingly, by the time America entered World War II, he had moved here and actually enlisted in the United States Army and was eventually put in charge of an Army Entertainment Section in the Central Pacific, which produced entertainment for the troops stationed in the Pacific. He even produced what was referred to as the “G.I. version” of Hamlet, edited in such a way that it would appeal to the troops. In 1945 he would bring that unique take to Broadway. From there, he continued finding himself cast in a variety of shows and produced others that he did not star in. Needless to say, the stage was his life.
Speaking to The Boston Globe on October 23, 1955, he shared, “I try to entertain the public as well as possible. I never worry about what the critics will say. I try to satisfy myself and my own standards, which, I must admit, I never do … I rake leaves to forget television. The strain of one night on television, one show which can never be polished or corrected or done again, is as bad as four months on the road. [And] now that the cost of going on the road is so exorbitant, television is my only way of reaching all those people who just don’t get to the theatre in New York.”
He starred in a couple of dozen feature films, including The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953), The War Lord (1965), where he worked with Planet of the Apes director Franklin L. Schaffner for the first time; Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979). Besides Bewitched, on television he also played The Puzzler on the Adam West Batman televisions series, and was in the Columbo episode Columbo: Forgotten Lady in 1975.
In 1966, the Stockton Evening and Sunday Record wrote of him, “What’s going on here? One of the best portrayers of Hamlet, an actor of inestimable stature — and now it’s Batman and Bewitched?”
Evans quickly spoke up to the reporter: “No unkind words, please, about Bewitched. Thanks to Bewitched, my credit is vastly improved Since when was it possible for actors to get any credit at all? As a man of Shakespeare, I was compelled to pay cash, like any wandering gypsy of an actor has since the dawn of time. Ah, but an actor in a successful series is a man of affluence, a solid credit risk. What more singularly appropriate series on television for an actor weaned on Shakespeare?
“Shakespeare,” he added, “would have loved Bewitched, which is, after all, a perfectly routine domestic comedy except for the magic and fantasy. Nothing Shakespeare loved better than magic and fantasy. What is Hamlet if not rooted in fantasy? Take away Hamlet’s confrontation with his father’s ghost and the play, without his melancholy brooding over that meeting, is reduced to one brief act. Without the ghost there might not have been a Hamlet at all.”
As to Batman, he reflected, “I talked to Buzz Meredith and Roddy McDowall [before Planet of the Apes] about the show and both have done rather well in villainous roles. They advised to do it — and hang my friends who look aghast at the thought. Couldn’t care less myself. Must think of one’s credit rating, you know.”
The question of his choice of roles came up again in a July 1967 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader, in this case regarding his portraying Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes. “There is no further opportunity for an actor of my type to function as I did in the past, and I do not like to be idle,” the then-66-year-old said. “I took this part for spiritual reasons of keeping busy. Otherwise you get slack, fat and lazy.”
Here’s how the makeup process was described: “He is in the make-up chair from 6 to 9:30 am.. Two men apply a latex rubber snout with spirit gum. It extends from brow to upper lip, sticking to his eyelids by exposing his blue eyes. Next comes a rubber chin piece, then hair applied in patches to his head and the backs of his hands. Finally, black polish on his fingernails. The ape jaw contains a visible row of teeth in front of Evans’ own. At lunch on cut up steak, halibut or spaghetti, the food tends to lodge between the rows of teeth. Evans pries it loose with the chopsticks he uses to feed himself. His drinks melt the rubber as he sucks iced tea through a convalescent’s bendable straw. Some days there are nearly 100 ape actors on the set, a fact that has taxed Hollywood’s make up manpower. Noontime passersby gawk at them, feeding in their dressing rooms.”
“You feel like the animals must feel in the zoo,” said Evans.
In February 1968, he offered more on the film to Las Cruces Sun-News: “It’s an interesting idea — a story mixing science fiction and a rather terrifying parallel about what is going on in the world today. It is about astronauts landing on a planet on which apes are infinitely superior to to humans; where the gorillas treat humans as we humans here and now treat animals. It has a shocking ending. You want to see it.
“It is always gratifying for an actor to have disguises,” Evans elaborated. “There’s nothing more boring than being yourself. Laurence Olivier, particularly, likes nothing better than to put on a beard or a false chin, and stop being the world’s great actor-personality. And it’s a challenge. Here you are, wearing a face that they tell me took almost 10 years to create, and I’m supposed to be a real orangutan: I’ve got false teeth that stick out at least an inch in front of my reel teeth. If the camera angle gets too high, the director yells, ‘Black it out!,’ and they come over and put spirit gum on my real teeth, because they were showing behind my ape teeth. Now I’ve got a mouth full of gum and a latex face, gummed against eyelids and nose and chin, and I’m supposed to register facial expressions. I can hardly move. But this accursed thing we call the wide screen is like a microscope and I’ve got to act with my face.
“In order to bring out an expression on that face, I had to over-register in a way that would make Lee Strasberg (head of Actor’s Studio) throw up. But I did it. And they say the results in the movie are effective.”
Maurice Evans, who had returned to Britain by the end of the 1960s, eventually retired and died on March 12, 1989 at the age of 87.