With one or two different breaks, Edd Byrnes could have become a movie star. With the breaks he got, he became Kookie.
Byrnes, who died Wednesday at his Santa Monica home at the age of 87, never seemed to quite work out how he felt about that.
In the summer of 1958 he was 26, a little old for a struggling actor, when he landed a role as a hitman in the movie Girl On the Run, a detective drama starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Byrnes, then Edward Byrnes, played a psychotic hitman named Kenneth Smiley who compulsively combed his hair between hits. By the end of the film he had been sentenced to fry.
Meanwhile, in real life, the young ABC network decided Girl on the Run had potential as a TV series. So ABC aired it on Oct. 10, 1958, as the pilot for what would be renamed 77 Sunset Strip.
The show exploded. Not incidentally, young viewers loved the Byrnes character with his slick bad-boy hair. So ABC pardoned him from Death Row and installed him as a parking lot attendant who moonlighted as a hip, plugged-in street informant for the detectives with the badges.
ABC admitted this radical switch upfront. As an on-air preface to the first episode of 77 Sunset Strip, Zimbalist told viewers to forget Kenneth Smiley and welcome Gerald Lloyd Kookson III, soon to be known internationally as Kookie.
The late 1950s was a golden age for teen idols and impossibly handsome young men, maybe the last such age before rock ’n’ roll stars started to make “handsome” seem less critical. Thank you, Rolling Stones.
Byrnes was an impossibly handsome young man. Blue eyes, trim style, great cheekbones, looked great in anything, every hair in place. Put him in a lineup with Elvis, Fabian, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, that whole crowd, and he holds his own.
Kookie was a supporting character on 77 Sunset Strip. He made the most of those minutes, and his appearances amped up the fun. When he wasn’t combing his hair, he was delivering the TV version of hip jive talk, speaking in slang, calling all the old squares “Dad.”
He wasn’t Che Guevara. Next to other TV characters his age, he was still far out.
He cut a record with Connie Stevens in which she played an adoring young thing who wanted him to “stop combing your hair and kiss me.” In that sentiment, she spoke for much of young female America, a fantasy not diminished when Kookie replied, “Baby, you’re the ginchiest.”
The record sold a million copies and cracked the top 5. Byrnes followed it with an album that included several Kookie songs (“Kookie Cha Cha Cha”) and a Kookie-ized version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.”
Soon he was plastered all over magazine covers and getting more than 10,000 fan letters a week.
Unfortunately, while everything was breaking right for Kookie, the slightly renamed Edd Byrnes wasn’t so fortunate.
His movie dreams vaporized when his exclusive contract with Warner Bros. kept him from taking roles in Rio Bravo, Ocean’s Eleven, North To Alaska and The Longest Day.
He tested to play John F. Kennedy in P.T. 109, but it was reported that while Kennedy himself came from the impossibly handsome crowd, he didn’t want his screen character played by Kookie. Cliff Robertson got the role.
Kookie eventually went on strike at 77 Sunset Strip, walking away from the show until he was promised more money and a bigger role. He eventually got both, a pyrrhic victory. He returned as a partner in the detective firm, wearing a suit and tie, which was like sending Minnie Pearl out onto the Grand Ol’ Opry stage in a Chanel suit. It missed the point.
Happy as Connie Stevens was at the prospect of a kiss from Kookie, the man himself was enjoying the dream less and less. In his autobiography years later, Byrnes recited a sobering litany of alcohol and drug abuse that eventually helped end his first and only marriage.
After 77 Sunset Strip ended, he kept busy on the fringes. He guest-starred on dozens of TV shows. He made a beach movie, a couple of horror movies, several spaghetti Westerns.
He scored one hit film, as Vince Fontaine in the 1978 Grease, and he hosted the pilot of the new TV show Wheel of Fortune. NBC liked the show, didn’t like Byrnes. He was replaced by Chuck Woolery.
Periodically over the years he allowed that he was still seen as Kookie, and some of his last roles were winking cameos acknowledging that image. In 1987’s Back to the Beach, he played a valet.
He eventually kicked drugs and continued taking periodic guest-star roles on TV. He did some summer stock. He retired after the 1999 TV flick Shake Rattle and Roll, though he continued to make periodic appearances at celebrity events.
Rare would be the young actor anywhere, then or now, who wouldn’t take the deal thrown into Edd Byrnes’s lap in the summer of 1958. A year earlier, he was in nowheresville. A year after, he was a cool cat fighting off the kitties.
What wasn’t specified, except maybe way down in the fine print, is that he wasn’t just going to be Kookie for a little while. He was going to be Kookie forever.
Most young actors might still take the deal. Because even though Edd Byrnes titled his autobiography Kookie No More, no one who remembers Kookie, or his descendants like The Fonz, ever fails to think they were pretty cool.