Gorshin was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Roman Catholic parents Frances, a seamstress, and Frank Gorshin, Sr., a railroad worker. At the age of 15, he took a part-time job as a cinema usher at the Sheridan Square Theatre.
He memorized the mannerisms of the screen stars he saw and created an
impressionist act. He was still in high school when he obtained his
first paid employment, which he secured as the prize in a Pittsburgh
talent contest in 1951: a one-week engagement at Jackie Heller's New York
nightclub, Carousel. His parents had insisted that he take the
engagement, even though his 15-year-old brother had been hit by a car
and killed just two nights before.
When Gorshin left the Army, he returned to public performance, and
in 1956, he became a prolific film actor. He also appeared as an actor
and a guest on television shows, including twelve guest spots on The Ed Sullivan Show (his first being the same night The Beatles and Davy Jones debuted, early in 1964). He was a popular act at nightclubs, notably those of Las Vegas, where he was the first impressionist to headline the main showrooms. He was also the first impressionist headliner at the Empire Room of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Gorshin's slender athletic build, wide mouth, and pale eyes under
strong brows were ideal characteristics for screen henchmen. In 1957,
he fell asleep at the wheel of his car after driving from Pittsburgh
for 39 hours without sleep. He was on his way to a Hollywood screen
test for the part of Officer Ruby in Run Silent, Run Deep. He sustained a fractured skull and spent four days in a coma; a Los Angeles newspaper incorrectly reported that he had been killed. The role went to Don Rickles
On April 8, 1957, Gorshin married Christina Randazzo. They had one
son, Mitchell, and later separated but remained married until his death. In his final years his companion was the actress Haji with whom he lived at the Beverly Garland Hotel in North Hollywood when he was not performing on Broadway or touring.
He was nominated for an Emmy (Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy) for his best remembered role as The Riddler in the Batman
live action television series. The character was costumed in a light
green body suit decorated with question marks, lavender cloth eye-mask,
and lavender gloves and belt, or sometimes a bright green dress suit
decorated with question marks, with a black shirt, green tie, and black
bowler hat, also decorated with a question mark. Gorshin's portrayal of
the character included a high deranged cackle, inspired by that of
Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death (1947). He also had a memorable role in the 1969 Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"
as the half-whiteface, half-blackface Bele, for which he was again
Emmy-nominated. Prior to that, he was a dramatic actor, often playing "tough guys" like those played by one of his favorite targets of impressions, James Cagney, whom he was said to resemble. He did take a comic turn, though, as the bassist Basil (paired with singer Connie Francis) in Where The Boys Are (1960), and played a boss-behind-bars for laughs in Otto Preminger's comedy Skidoo (1968).
Gorshin played a villain in the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
In the feature-length episode "Plot to Kill a City", he played
interplanetary assassin Seton Kellogg, a master of planning who leads
his gang, the Legion of Death, to force a worker to sabotage an antimatter reactor near New Chicago in order to obliterate the entire area. Kellogg is aided by an alien bodyguard, Varek (played by Anthony James),
who is capable of altering his molecular structure to pass through
walls, a result of radiation absorbed when "his homeworld thought
they'd won a nuclear war."
Gorshin died on day of the DVD release of the TV movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt.
Gorshin appeared as himself (parodying his role as the Riddler) in this
2003 special that reunited some of the actors from the Batman series. Gorshin voiced villain Hugo Strange in an episode of The Batman
animated series, which aired in the series' second season on the WB.
Gorshin died a few days before the newest incarnation of The Riddler
first appeared in The Batman. After Gorshin's death, Strange was voiced by Richard Green. Gorshin also voiced the characters Marius and Lysander in the computer role playing game Diablo II.
His last TV appearance was in "Grave Danger", an episode of the CBS-TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation which aired two days after his death; the episode, which was directed by Quentin Tarantino, was dedicated to his memory. While he was known for his impressions, his role on CSI was as himself. His final performance was in Memphis, Tennessee, doing the Tony-nominated play Say Goodnight, Gracie.
He finished his performance and boarded a plane for Los Angeles. In LA,
he was met by an ambulance which took him to the hospital, where he
later died on May 17, 2005, at the age of 72 from lung cancer, emphysema and pneumonia. He is interred at the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh.