Edd Byrnes, who gained fleeting fame as Kookie, the ultra-hip, wisecracking parking attendant on the jazzy 1950s-'60s ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip, has died. He was 87.
Byrnes, who years later played the smooth-talking Vince Fontaine, a Dick Clark-like dance contest host, in Grease (1978), died unexpectedly Wednesday of natural causes at his home in Santa Monica, his son, San Diego TV news anchor Logan Byrnes, said on Twitter.
"It is with profound sadness and grief that I share with you the passing of my father Edd Byrnes. He was an amazing man and one of my best friends," he wrote.
On 77 Sunset Strip, Kookie parked cars at Dino's Lodge, a Hollywood nightclub that was owned by Dean Martin and served as a backdrop on the show. The club was next door to the private detective agency run by the suave duo of Stuart Bailey (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and Jeff Spencer (Roger Smith).
When he wasn't "piling up the Z's" (that would be sleeping), the finger-snapping Kookie was running a comb through his wavy ducktail, and Byrnes became one of television's first heartthrobs, in an Elvis kind of way. He elicited shrieks of delight from young female fans everywhere and parlayed that teen-idol fame into a gold record, "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb."
Recorded with actress Connie Stevens, the song (on Warner Bros. Records) made it to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May 1959.
At the peak of his popularity, Byrnes received more than 15,000 fan letters a week, exceeding the record that Warner Bros., the studio behind 77 Sunset Strip, had ever received for any star (yes, more than even Errol Flynn and James Cagney). The actor said he once appeared on 26 magazine covers in one week alone.
"As Kookie, I was one of the first young fellows on television, one of the first that the young could identify with," he said in 1969.
His contract prohibited Byrnes from accepting plum roles in such movies as Ocean’s Eleven, North to Alaska and Rio Bravo, and John F. Kennedy was said to have objected to having someone known as Kookie play him in the 1963 film PT 109. The role went to Cliff Robertson.
At one point, Byrnes walked off the show and retreated into a heavy drinking period. He returned in an "upgraded" role in May 1960, with Kookie now a partner in the agency and sporting a coat and tie.
After 77 Sunset Strip ended its six-season-run in 1963, Byrnes moved to Europe to star in a string of spaghetti Westerns and spy thrillers. He sporadically returned to Hollywood to capitalize on his Kookie notoriety.
In 1975, Merv Griffin signed Byrnes to host a new game show, and two half-hour pilots were filmed. NBC liked it but insisted on another host, and so Chuck Woolery got the gig on Wheel of Fortune.
Edward Byrne Breitenberger was born in New York City. After his alcoholic father died when Byrnes was 13, he took the surname of his maternal grandfather, a New York City fireman. He developed an interest in performing and after high school landed summer-stock work. At age 22, he set out for Los Angeles, arriving in September 1955, one day after James Dean died in a car crash.
Byrnes landed a number of minor parts, then was cast as a killer who compulsively combed his hair in Girl on the Run (1958), which effectively served as the pilot for 77 Sunset Strip. The actor was such a hit, producers decided to keep him around as another character, Gerald Lloyd Kookson III. His pre-Fonzie, cool-guy persona soon caught on like wildfire.
He also appeared in such films as Reform School Girl (1957), Darby's Rangers (1958), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Life Begins at 17 (1958), Up Periscope (1959), Yellowstone Kelly (1959), Beach Ball (1965), Michael Apted's Stardust (1974) and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) and on TV shows including Cheyenne, Maverick, Honey West, Mannix, Police Woman, Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island and Murder, She Wrote.
Byrnes was married from 1962-71 to actress Asa Maynor (she played the stewardess in the famous Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," starring William Shatner). In addition to his son, survivors include his longtime partner, Cathrine.
In his 1996 autobiography, Kookie No More, he detailed his addiction to drugs and alcohol.