Severn Teakle Darden Jr. (November 9, 1929 – May 27, 1995) was an American comedian and actor, and a founding member of The Second City Chicago-based comedy troupe as well as its predecessor, the Compass Players. He is known from his film appearances for playing the human leader Kolp in the fourth and fifth Planet of the Apes films. His live comedy improv skit under the character of “Walther von der Vogelweide” was influential with two generations of comic performers.
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, he attended the University of Chicago, where he was a “campus legend” according to poet Paul Carroll. Darden’s offbeat and intellectual sense of humor was a major element in the style of The Second City at that time, and is evident throughout his work. Carroll described him as a combination of surrealistic New Orleans and tough, caustic “Chicago Style” comedy. An example of his offbeat humor is the way he squeezed the phrase “Know thyself” into the seven-character limitation of a New Mexico license plate: NOYOSEF.
Darden was a core comedian in Paul Sills’ Compass Players, the first improvisation theater in the US; it performed around the Chicago area during the mid-1950s. Sills went on to found The Second City in 1959 and brought in many of the comedians from Compass Players, including Darden.
He was present at the February 12, 1964 Acid Test organized by the Merry Pranksters in Compton, California. He participated with the experimental artists collective “The TeePee Video Space Troupe” (aka “The TP Video Space Troupe”) organized by filmmaker Shirley Clarke.
Darden appeared in various movies and television series. A signature performance is in the comedy The President’s Analyst; there he plays a major role as Kropotkin, a Soviet agent with a laid-back persona, much like Darden’s own. He played a junk dealer in another early film, Luv (1967), based on the play of the same title by Murray Schisgal), which also starred Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Elaine May, and Nina Wayne. He also played the cold-hearted Kolp in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
Among his early TV roles were the artist Karpathia in the Car 54 Where Are You? episode “Toody and the Art World”; a toy manufacturer in an episode of The Monkees; and Dr. Herb Chisholm in a 1976 episode of the sitcom The Practice. He appeared in “Never Con a Killer,” the 1976 pilot for the crime drama The Feather and Father Gang.
Darden was later featured in the 1985 comedy Real Genius as a highly respected, but befuddled college dean, and in 1986 in the Off-Broadway improvisational sketch comedy show Sills & Company, directed by Paul Sills.
After triple heart bypass surgery, he lived in semi-retirement in Los Angeles; he then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1992, where he died of congestive heart failure at age 65. His interment was at Lake Lawn Park and Mausoleum in his hometown of New Orleans.
This faux university lecture was developed by Darden while with the Compass Players. It was first performed as a solo act in 1959 at the Gate of Horn music club. According to his New York Times obituary, this routine was influential with two generations of comedians.
Darden assumes the character of a German-accented speaker, Prof. Walther von der Vogelweide (borrowing the name of the famous medieval poet). An announcer introduces the lecture as A Short Talk on the Universe, and the professor begins as follows: “Now, why — you will ask me — have I chosen to speak on the Universe, rather than some other topic. Well, it’s very simple: there isn’t anything else!” The lecture is loaded with digressions and double-talk about time, space, etc., ending with questions from the audience on which he improvises.
This was another Prof. Walther von der Vogelweide lecture (with the assistance of the rest of the Second City cast). The subject was “free will and necessity in the light of […] Oedipus Rex”, or “what would have happened to Oedipus if he had read the book before going on the journey”. The professor plays the role of Oedipus and refuses to perform the acts that would lead to his fate, but finds that despite his apparent agency the other characters respond in ways that produce the same results.
In the first scene, Oedipus encounters his father Laius, knowing that if all goes according to the book the two will get into a brawl, and he will commit the serious sin of killing his own father. Aware of this, Oedipus is very deferential to Laius, only to find that the father is extremely touchy and hostile to anything that smacks of sycophancy. Despite Oedipus’ continued deference and protestations, Laius becomes increasingly angry and finally suffers a fatal heart attack.
In the next scene, the Sphinx energetically tries to wheedle him into answering her riddle correctly, which Oedipus does not want to do. At one point she says, “Think of the power—of the glory—”. He responds, “I don’t need power and glory, I’m a full professor.”
In the last scene, Oedipus is on the very point of gouging his eyes out when he suddenly stops and says “Wait a minute.” He has realized something which he announces to the crowd: the actual results were due to chance or forced on him against his will. He explains how that applies to each “choice” and ends with “It’s not my fault!” The people murmur among themselves for a few seconds, then repeatedly shout in agreement, and his eyes are saved. The professor ends the sketch by saying, “So you see, my dear students, the lesson that we learn from this is that Man has free will, but tragic poets do not, and Art is not Nature.”
This sketch was originally developed for the Compass Players and revisited for Second City. It satirized the university and its students, presenting a possible explanation for the failure to introduce football. A typical coach teaches “Football 202” and struggles with the intellectual students. Darden plays Morgenstern, a student who states his field is the “history of arithmetic”. After the coach mentions the football positions called “ends”, Morgenstern asks where the beginnings for those ends are, because ends must have beginnings, according to Aristotle. The coach presents the football, and Morgenstern declares, “It’s a demi-poly-tetrahedron.”