Ernest Edward "Ernie" Kovacs (January 23, 1919 – January 13, 1962) was an American comedian, actor, and writer.
Kovacs's visually experimental and often spontaneous comedic style influenced numerous television comedy programs for years after his death. Many individuals and shows, such as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Saturday Night Live, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Jim Henson, Max Headroom, Chevy Chase, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Dave Garroway, Uncle Floyd, and many others have credited Ernie as an influence. Chevy Chase thanked Kovacs during his acceptance speech for his Emmy award for Saturday Night Live.
Some of Kovacs's unusual behaviors include having pet marmosets and wrestling a jaguar on his live Philadelphia television show.
When working at WABC (AM) as a morning-drive radio announcer and doing a mid-morning television series for NBC, Kovacs claimed to dislike eating breakfast alone while his wife, Edie Adams, was sleeping after her Broadway performances. His solution was to hire a taxi driver to come into their apartment with his own key and make breakfast for them both, then take Ernie to the WABC studios.
While Kovacs and Adams received Emmy nominations for best performances in a comedy series during 1957, his talent was not recognized formally until after his death. The 1962 Emmy for outstanding electronic camera work and the Directors' Guild award came a short time after his fatal accident. A quarter century later, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. Kovacs also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television. In 1986, the Museum of Broadcasting (later to become the Museum of Television & Radio and now the Paley Center for Media) presented an exhibit of Kovacs's work, called The Vision of Ernie Kovacs. The Pulitzer Prize–winning television critic, William Henry III, wrote for the museum's booklet: "Kovacs was more than another wide-eyed, self-ingratiating clown. He was television's first significant video artist."
Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident in Los Angeles during the early morning hours of January 13, 1962. Kovacs, who had worked for much of the evening, met Adams at a baby shower given by Billy Wilder for Milton Berle and his wife, who had recently adopted a newborn baby boy. The couple left the party in separate cars. After a light southern California rainstorm, Kovacs lost control of his Chevrolet Corvair station wagon while turning quickly, and crashed into a power pole at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards. He was thrown halfway out the passenger side, and died almost instantly from chest and head injuries.
A photographer managed to arrive moments later, and graphic images of Kovacs's dead body appeared in newspapers across the United States. An unlit cigar lay on the pavement, inches from his outstretched arm. Years later, in a documentary about Kovacs, Edie Adams described telephoning the police impatiently when she learned of the crash. An official cupped his hand over the receiver, saying to a colleague, "It's Mrs. Kovacs, he's on his way to the coroner – what should I tell her?" With that, Adams's fears were confirmed, and she became inconsolable. Jack Lemmon, who also attended the Berle party, identified Kovacs's body at the morgue because Adams was too distraught to do so.
After attending funerals for Hollywood friends, Kovacs had expressed his wishes to Adams that any funeral services for him be kept simple. In keeping with his request, Adams made arrangements for Presbyterian services at the Beverly Hills Community Presbyterian Church. The active pallbearers were Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Billy Wilder, Mervyn LeRoy, and Joe Mikolas. Kovacs's father and brother, Andrew and Tom, respectively, served as honorary pallbearers. The attendees included George Burns, Groucho Marx, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Buster Keaton and Milton Berle. There was no typical Hollywood-type eulogy, but the church's pastor paid tribute to Kovacs, adding that he once summed up his life in two sentences: "I was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1919 to a Hungarian couple. I've been smoking cigars ever since."