As an author, the characters you put on paper may have already lived with you for a lifetime. For Patrick Dennis, one such character was "Agnes Gooch". Years before Dennis wrote the novel "Auntie Mame", he had a secretary under his employ by the name of Marilyn Amdur. He used to summon her from the outer office by beckoning the name “Agnes Gooch”. As soon as she arrived, he’d start cracking jokes. “Now, Agnes,” he would tell her, “when you have company and you bring out a beautiful store-bought cake, make sure you put flour all over your apron, so they’ll think you baked it yourself!”
On both stage and screen, Agnes Gooch’s slip-on flats were filled by the ever-delightful Peggy Cass. As a means of simplification, however, the writers of the musical decided to combine the role of Norah Muldoon, Young Patrick’s fastidious nanny, with Mame’s secretary, Agnes Gooch. This made the new “Gooch” a far juicier role. Why, she even came complete with a show-stopping transformation in act two, which brought her from clown to cover girl (and, subsequently, back to clown). The role is usually played without much deference to subtlety. In other words: she’s a real scene-stealer. And, as you might expect, some of the actresses who have played Mame could barely contain their envy.
When Ann Miller was introduced to her Agnes Gooch, Ms. Laurie Franks, she immediately requested the girl be fired. The only reason Miller gave: “Her complexion’s too good.”
Thankfully for Franks, the higher-ups weren’t having it. They refused to terminate the girl despite their new star’s wishes. So, Ann Miller called their bluff— she said she wouldn’t sign her contract until Laurie Franks had been dismissed. Both teams went back to their respective huddles and, when they had emerged, the following compromise had been reached: Franks would not be fired; rather, she would be demoted. Instead of co-starring as Gooch alongside Miller, Franks was told she would now be playing the much smaller role of Cousin Fan. Because of Ann Miller, she’d gone from having the first solo in the show and her own song in act two to a throwaway bit part with only a handful of lines. Says Franks of the unceremonious occasion, “I gave my notice, but I had to stay for two months so they could replace me. It was breaking my heart to be out there playing Cousin Fan. It was really rotten.”
Another (more famous) Gooch that didn’t make the cut was none other than Madeline Kahn. She had won the prized role in the 1971 film adaptation starring Lucille Ball. As screenwriter Paul Zindel recalled, “Apparently they cast Madeline Kahn as Gooch without clearing it with [Lucille Ball], or not listening to her grumblings. The first time Lucy and Madeline met was at the very first rehearsal. They began to read and as Madeline spoke her first line, Lucy interrupted and abruptly said to her, ‘Listen, what kind of voice are you going to use in this?’ Madeline patiently said, ‘What do you mean what kind of voice am I going to use?’ To which Lucy responded curtly, ‘Well, you’ve got to use a trick voice here, why don’t you start using it right now. Let me hear the voice.’
“There was silence in the rehearsal room as Madeline coldly stated, ‘I will arrive at the voice after some rehearsal and building of the character.’
“Lucille Ball affirmed, ‘Oh, no. You use the voice now!’
Madeline Kahn was fired that same day.
Always an arbiter of class, Ms. Kahn told the press, “I didn’t take it as a personal insult or personal rejection. That’s just show business.”
Ruth Buzzi (of Laugh-In fame) was tested to replace Kahn, but it was eventually Jane Connell— the actress who’d originated the role opposite Angela Lansbury— who stuck the landing. When asked later about the subject of her replacing Madeline Kahn in the film, Connell mused, “I think the new breed of comedienne confused Lucy. Also, I suspect that she felt a little threatened by Madeline’s youth at the time.”
Gee, do you think?