Stranger Than Walken: The Real Life Continental

The 1950s TV show you didn't know SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was spoofing. 

Yesterday’s Peter Pan live broadcast story led to a dinner conversation with a pal about how much we loved and missed Christopher Walken’s SNL character “The Continental.” My friend remarked that the sketch was so specific in its setup and rendering that it felt as if it must've been a parody of something, though as far as we knew, it wasn't. Eschewing dinner table etiquette, I whipped out my phone and did a quick Google search. And right there on the Wikipedia page for Walken’s hilarious recurring character, was a link to one Renzo Cesana, creator, writer and star of the short-lived television series The Continental.

Cesana was a wannabe performer from Italy who, in between infrequent acting gigs, started his own advertising agency in Los Angeles. In 1951, he was tasked with creating a 15-minute radio program for a shampoo company. This sponsored content (today we’d call it a media buy) was tailor-made to accompany The Lonesome Gal, a successful quarter-hour radio show in which a sultry sounding female DJ spoke alluringly to a horny male audience. Cesana reasoned that the female half of the audience would want their own sexy fantasy figure to whisper promises of love and adoration. The Continental was born.

The Continental aired at 11PM, where it didn’t perform particularly well. My guess? Exhausted homemakers didn’t keep the same late hours as lonely, undersexed males. Perhaps this is why, when Cesana successfully pitched a TV version in 1952, it aired at 12:30PM. Every weekday during their lunch break, bored, lonely housewives pressed their thighs together and let Cesana drip his European honey all over them.

Much like his wordless peer Korla Pandit, Cesana adopted the direct address approach, staring into the television camera, and therefore the eyes of his female viewers. He one-upped Pandit by using a subjective camera - the camera actually became a participant as The Continental invited the viewer into his abode, reassuring them with the line, “Don’t be afraid, darling. It’s only a man’s apartment.” And unlike Pandit, Cesana was a silver-tongued Lothario. He cooed to his audience in a thick accent as he spoke of how they made him feel, promised them jewels and champagne, and told them about the exotic locales to which he would take them. Hot stuff! Women swooned; husbands scowled.

Like a lot of early television experiments, the concept was a complete, insane original. No wonder that, even though its initial run lasted only four months, it made quite an impact. Spoofed by everyone from Red Skelton to Ernie Kovacs to Pepe LePew, The Continental burned his cathode ray sexuality into the pop culture consciousness something fierce.

You can read this whole MAD Magazine feature here.

The Continental resurfaced as a syndicated package of 13 episodes in 1954. And then he was gone. As of this writing, it appears that no video of the program survives. This means that, holy shit, not only was the SNL sketch based on a real show, it was based on nothing more than a 40 year-old memory. That’s impressive. Cesana died in 1970, amassing a respectable CV as a character actor, but forever associated with his swarthy, libidinous creation. Today, all that survives of The Continental are audio recordings. Cesana parlayed his TV fame into a recording contract, and since he couldn’t sing, Capitol Records got a couple albums’ worth of spoken song lyrics and monologues. The latter provides us with our only existing recordings of Cesana as his iconic character.