Superstar that he was, Tony Bennett, who died Friday at the age of 96, was a regular presence on television throughout his long career. It was an “MTV Unplugged” special in 1994, as Frank Sinatra was bringing the curtain down on his own career, with guests k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, that made Bennett the hip Italian saloon singer of choice among a generation that largely wouldn’t have noticed him before, or much before — the singer had been the year before nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, for “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” from his Fred Astaire songbook album “Steppin’ Out,” and appeared as a presenter alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea at the awards show. The “Unplugged” soundtrack went platinum and won two Grammys. A second MTV special, in 2021, found him alongside Lady Gaga, who gained as much cred from the association as he got from her.
Over the years, there were innumerable appearances on variety shows, talk shows, tributes and telethons, whole concerts. There were the “Kennedy Center Honors” in 2005; “Tony Bennett: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song,” in 2017; an episode of Costello’s “Spectacle” in 2008; a gag appearance on “American Idol” as a failed hopeful. Deep in the 20th century were spots on “American Bandstand” and “Shindig!” From 1951 until 2023, whatever the ups and downs of his career, as he transformed himself from a pop to a jazz singer, not a year passed when you couldn’t find Bennett onscreen, performing or being interviewed — or, once in a while, acting.
It was common for popular singers of his time — as it still happens in ours, if less commonly — to take a crack at acting. There was Sinatra, obviously, and Dean Martin and Doris Day, who were as big on screen as they were on record — but also Dinah Shore and the Andrews Sisters, Mel Tormé and Merv Griffin, Frankie Laine and Perry Como. Bennett’s most significant big screen role was in the 1966 star-stuffed “The Oscar,” as Hymie Kelly (a name that, funnily enough, suggests Jewish and Irish roots, but not his own Italian heritage), the best friend of antihero Stephen Boyd. It was beginning and end of his serious acting career, but many more appearances followed, usually as himself, mostly on television, sometimes with a few lines of dialogue, almost always with a song.
Bennett’s scripted TV credits include “The Simpsons” (three times), “Cybill” (in bed, or on it, with Cybill Shepherd and Christine Baranski, singing an a cappella “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as Shepherd scats around him), “Entourage,” “Blue Bloods” (duetting with Carrie Underwood) and “30 Rock,” where he sings “Just in Time” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” at Liz Lemon’s wedding; his walking onto camera — one had assumed, at first, to be hearing him as merely background music — as the episode concludes is a sweet sort of gag.
His biggest such appearance was also his first, a 1959 episode of “The Danny Thomas Show,” a “Jazz Singer” variant where he plays Danny’s cousin Stevie, who, to the dismay of Stevie’s continually weeping mother and Danny’s Uncle Tonoose (Hans Conreid), wants to quit the family dry goods firm for a life in show business. Tonoose wants Danny, himself a nightclub entertainer, to talk him out of it.
Bennett gets a little comedy to do, but his part is mostly dramatic, as he argues for his future. It’s the sort of ripe stuff they used to whip up around John Garfield back at Warner Bros., and, if Bennett is a little stiff in it, he’s also endearingly serious and committed. (And he sings, of course, in the big voice of his youth, two numbers, “Without a Song” and “From This Moment On.”)
“This is Broadway,” says Danny, testing him, “the big time, not Toledo… Do you realize who your competition is? Can you buck Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine?”
We know the answer to that.