Marshall Efron, Funny Cog in the PBS ‘Dream Machine,’ Dies at 81


Marshall Efron, an actor and humorist who was a core figure in two of the quirkiest television shows of the 1970s, “The Great American Dream Machine” and the children’s program “Marshall Efron’s Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Sunday School,” died on Sept. 30 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J. He was 81.

His longtime writing partner, Alfa-Betty Olsen, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

At a time when “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” were among television’s top-rated shows, Mr. Efron made an idiosyncratic entry into the viewing public’s consciousness as a parody of a consumer affairs reporter on “The Great American Dream Machine,” a hodgepodge of a series that premiered in January 1971 on PBS, then newly formed and still known as the Public Broadcasting Service.

It was a freewheeling mix of short comic films, cartoons, musical acts, humorous sketches, investigative journalism and opinion pieces, and Mr. Efron, 5-foot-5 and weighing well north of 200 pounds, cut a distinctive figure on it. The New York Times once called him “the big man daintily wielding a satirical sledgehammer.” Another time, the newspaper described him as “the plump elf with the crab grass mustache.”

In one bit, Mr. Efron riffed on the United States Department of Agriculture’s grading of olives. “Which is the biggest — the giant, the jumbo or the extra large?” he asked.

In another, he parodied a cooking show by trying to prepare a Morton’s frozen lemon cream pie using the arcane, somewhat dubious-sounding ingredients listed on the box.

“Now we’re going to food starch modified,” he said midway through, shaking a white powder into his bowl. “What are the modifications? No one knows.” The bit ended with him holding up a Morton’s pie and saying, “No lemons, no eggs, no cream, just pie.”

The show, produced by National Educational Television and WNET in New York, lasted only two seasons. But it was much talked about in its day, and the list of soon-to-be-famous faces who turned up on it includes Chevy Chase, Henry Winkler, Albert Brooks and Penny Marshall.

Mr. Efron quickly returned to television in an altogether different vein with the “Painless Sunday School” program, which turned up on CBS’s Sunday morning lineup in late 1973. On that show, he single-handedly enacted stories from the Bible. In one episode, he was both David and Goliath. If the show was somewhat subversive for religious fare, it wasn’t disrespectful.

“Everybody thinks we outraged the fundamentalists, but it’s not true,” Ms. Olsen, who wrote the show with Mr. Efron, told The Boston Globe in 1981. “We received awards from church groups, and letters saying Sunday schools were using our show as part of their studies.”

Mr. Efron was born on Feb. 3, 1938, in Los Angeles. His father, Jacob, was an accountant, and his mother, Ida (Plotkin) Efron, was a homemaker. He grew up facing issues familiar to countless young people.

“School wasn’t much fun for me,” he told The Times in 1971. “I was short and fat, a lousy athlete, always the last to be picked for teams. The better team would get me as a handicap.”

“I started being funny as a kid to avoid being pushed around,” he added.

He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1959, then earned a master’s degree in English at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964. After an aborted run at law school he tried teaching, but he also began working with the International Theater Workshop in Los Angeles. Soon he was acting there and in the Bay Area.

In 1967 he moved to New York, and the next year he was on Broadway, playing several small roles in “The Great White Hope.” He also began doing satirical radio spots for the listener-supported radio station WBAI. During the 1968 student protests at Columbia University, he and his fellow humorist Paul Krassner (who died in July) pretended to be students and said they had taken over the station; some listeners who didn’t get the joke are said to have called the police.

Mr. Efron eventually got his own weekly program on the station, “A Satirical View,” and soon Al Perlmutter and Jack Willis, the executive producers of “Dream Machine,” came calling. “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” and, in England, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” had already experimented with fast-moving, absurdist variations of the variety show format, and “Dream Machine,” adding music and political content to the mix, was a forerunner of “Saturday Night Live,” which made its debut in 1975.

By the time “Dream Machine” appeared, Mr. Efron had also begun acting in movies, including the first feature by a young director named George Lucas, the science fiction thriller “THX 1138” (1971). He would continue to act and do voice work in films and television throughout his career. His voice credits included the series “The Smurfs” and “The Biskitts” in the 1980s and the animated films “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (2006) and “Horton Hears a Who!” (2008).

He is survived by a sister, Mary Efron.

Mr. Efron was a car fanatic. In the early 1970s his decorating scheme at his apartment on East 10th Street in Manhattan included the grill from a 1937 Ford truck.

“My dream of success has always been to have a new Cadillac on my own grease rack,” he told The Times in 1971.

In 1981 he reflected on his “Sunday School” series, which ran from 1973 to 1977 and was rebroadcast into the 1980s.

“I don’t think we felt we were getting away with anything,” he said. “If you look at the Bible as it’s written, there is wit, a humor, a freshness, a liveliness to it. Those people who think it’s grim are wrong.”

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