Orson Bean, the free-spirited television, stage and film comedian who stepped out of his storybook life to found a progressive school, move to Australia, give away his possessions and wander around a turbulent America in the 1970s as a late-blooming hippie, died on Friday in Venice, Calif. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office on Saturday, which said it was investigating his death as an accidental vehicle accident. Mr. Bean was struck and killed by a car on Friday while crossing the street, Capt. Brian Wendling of the Los Angeles Police Department was quoted as telling reporters.
Early in his career, in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Bean, a subtle comic who looked like a naïve farm boy, was ubiquitous on TV, popping up on all the networks as an ad-libbing game-show panelist (a mainstay on “To Tell the Truth”), a frequent guest of Jack Paar and Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” a regular in playhouse dramas and, in 1954, the host of his own CBS variety show, “The Blue Angel.”
He also starred on Broadway and Off Broadway, made Hollywood films, founded a society of Laurel and Hardy aficionados, amassed a fortune and was blacklisted briefly as a suspected Communist.
In 1964, captivated by a progressive-education theory, he created a small school in Manhattan, the 15th Street School, that made classes and most rules optional, letting children run, scream and pretty much do as they pleased. For the remainder of the decade, Mr. Bean devoted himself to the school, paying its bills, covering its deficits and working harder and harder.
He often performed in five television panel shows a week, squeezed in nightclub acts and a Broadway show, married a second time and added more children to his growing family. But he felt overwhelmed by the trappings of success and by turmoil in a nation caught up in conflicts over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of leaders and a political drift to the right.
“We were having babies and the money was rolling in so fast we had to push it out,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times years later. “We had a four-story townhouse and a live-in maid. We loved it, but I was starting to freak out. I became convinced that the country was going fascist.”
Believing America’s generals were planning an imminent coup d’état, Mr. Bean abandoned his thriving career and moved his family to Australia in 1970. He became a disciple of the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and wrote a book about his psychosexual theories, “Me and the Orgone.” (The orgone was a pseudoscientific theory about a universal life force.)
When the book appeared in 1971, Mr. Bean returned to America with his wife and four children and for years led a nomadic life as an aging hippie and “househusband,” casting off material possessions in a quest for self-realization.
“We were so sure we didn’t want to be possessed by things and so intent on not having them that we gave away almost everything we owned,” he wrote in a 1977 Op-Ed in The Times. “We entered what I now call our late hippie stage. We tossed the kids into the van, bummed around the country, sponging on our friends and putting the kids in school wherever we happened to light.”
In his dropout years, as he recalled in a memoir, he experimented with psychedelic drugs, communal sex and other excursions into self-discovery. His peripatetic family collected driftwood and books, and at night read aloud to one another. When he had to, Mr. Bean scratched out a living by making commercials and animated film voice-overs.
By 1980, he was bored with inactivity. Moving back into the public spotlight, he reappeared in television movies, soap operas, game shows and episodic series. Over the next three decades, he took recurrent roles in “Murder, She Wrote,” “Normal, Ohio” and “Desperate Housewives.” He also appeared in many movies, including “Being John Malkovich” (1999).
While he eventually performed in some 50 television series and 30 films, he is often remembered for early panel shows, which, in contrast to the culture of greed, noise and kitsch of modern game shows, were low key, relatively witty and sophisticated.
“We were much more intelligent then,” Kitty Carlisle Hart, a frequent panelist with Mr. Bean, told The Times in 1999. “It sounds like an awful thing to say, but it’s true.”
Mr. Bean was born Dallas Frederick Burrows on July 22, 1928, in Burlington, Vt., to George and Marian Pollard Burrows. His father, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, was a Harvard campus police officer. His mother, a cousin of President Calvin Coolidge, killed herself when Mr. Bean was a teenager.
Mr. Bean graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in 1946, was drafted into the postwar Army and served with occupation forces in Japan. He was an accomplished magician, and after being discharged changed his name to Orson Bean and worked Boston nightclubs with tricks and gags that evolved into comedy routines.
He was blacklisted for attending two Communist Party meetings, but it blew over and hardly slowed his career. Nightclub work in Baltimore and Philadelphia finally landed him in New York at the Blue Angel and the Village Vanguard, where the pantheon included Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Woody Allen.
Fame followed him onto the Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen and Merv Griffin shows. He was on “The Tonight Show” so often that he became a vacation substitute for Mr. Paar and Mr. Carson. He appeared on “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One” and other television dramas, and starred on Broadway with Jayne Mansfield in the 1955 comedy “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and with Melina Mercouri in the 1967 musical “Ilya Darling.”
Mr. Bean married the actress Jacqueline de Sibour in 1956. They had a daughter, Michele, and were divorced in 1962. He and his second wife, Carolyn Maxwell, were married in 1965, had three children, Max, Susannah and Ezekiel, and were divorced in 1981. He married the actress Alley Mills in 1993, and lived for many years in Venice, Calif. His son-in-law was Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger who died in 2011.