By Ed Garea
Alan Young, the multi-talented actor-comedian most famous as the straight man for a talking horse in the ‘60s, died May 19 at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 96.
He was born Angus Young on Nov. 19, 1919, of Scottish parents in North Shields, Northumberland, England, near the Scottish border. His father was a tap dancer and his mother a singer. The family moved to Edinburgh when he was a child, where his father worked in the mines, and then to a community outside Vancouver, Canada.
In an aside, Young said the reason he legally changed his first name to Alan (as mentioned in his 2007 autobiography Mister Ed and Me and More!) was because Americans always made unflattering comments about it and often mispronounced it as “Agnes.”
As a youth, Young was frequently bedridden with asthma, spending his days listening to the radio, where he kept track of jokes and began writing his own comedy sketches. He began entertaining in Vancouver when he was 13. He got a job as an office boy at a local radio station. After slipping in a part for himself on a drama show when he was typing up the script, he became an actor.
By the time he graduated from high school, he had his own radio program, Stag Party, on the CBC network, but left to serve in the Canadian navy during World War II. While living in Toronto after his discharge from the service, Young was contacted by agent Frank Cooper – who also was instrumental in the careers of Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore – after Cooper accidentally picked up Young’s show through the static on his radio.
Cooper brought Young to New York to tell jokes on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame radio program in 1944, which led to Young being hired as a summer replacement on The Eddie Cantor Show. (The host was one of his heroes.) This led to his own show, The Alan Young Show on ABC radio, where his amiable, low-key style attracted a wide U.S. audience.
He also drew attention from Hollywood, with roles in such films as Margie (1946), Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949), and Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952), but they fared poorly at the box office and confined him to a television career. CBS brought the radio show to television as variety show, where his gentle comedic style, in contrast to the slapstick and old vaudeville of other variety shows, led TV Guide to name him “the Charlie Chaplin of television” in 1950. The fledgling Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Emmys to Young as best actor and to the show as best variety series.
In 1952, Howard Hughes, who had seen Young on TV, hired him for the lead in a film version of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy, Androcles and the Lion. When it opened in theaters, however, it was met with stony silence, so Hughes withdrew the movie and shot two weeks of new sequences to spice things up. "He put in girls with gauze and a real lion, and it became a blood-and-guts film," Young recalled in 1987.
In 1960, he was approached by director Arthur Lubin, who was readying a new television show based on a loose adaptation of his Francis the Talking Mule series for Universal in the ‘50s. He would play Wilbur Post, a befuddled architect who lives in a nice home in the San Fernando Valley with his wife, Carol (Connie Hines). Behind the house is a barn, where the talkative Mister Ed, a golden palomino, resides – however, only Wilbur can hear him speak. (Mr. Ed only talked to Wilbur because, in his judgment, Wilbur was the only person worth talking to.)
How Young got the role of Wilbur is not exactly known. Young said he initially turned down the part because “I don’t want to work with anybody who doesn’t clean up after himself.” But it was said that George Burns, who had done an earlier, unsuccessful Mister Ed pilot with another actor, convinced Young to play Wilbur Post, telling Young: “You look like the sort of fellow a horse would talk to.” Young took that as a compliment and agreed to star. He wanted the show named Mr. Ed instead of The Alan Young Show as two earlier shows by that name had flopped.
Based on a series of magazine short stories by Walter Brooks (not only did the horse talk, he also got drunk), the show was produced by Filmways and began life on CBS as a syndicated show on about 100 stations sponsored by Studebaker. Response was so popular that, after 26 episodes, CBS bought the show from the sponsor, which aired until February 1966.
The voice of Ed was supplied by Allan “Rocky” Lane, a star of several Western B movies. Lane got the part through sheer luck. At the time, he was flat broke and sleeping on the couch of a friend, the horse trainer Les Hilton. Supposedly, the producers heard Lane asking where the coffee was kept while auditioning and hired him as Ed’s voice on the spot. However, the actor was never recognized in the credits, which noted that Mr. Ed was played by “himself.”
Hilton trained Mr. Ed to “talk” by placing a soft nylon strip between his gums and upper lip. Eventually, Young said Hilton removed the strip after the horse learned to move his lips only after Young had finished his lines. “Ed was very smart,” Young was quoted in interviews. “He actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof.”
Because producers didn’t want anyone to know the secret of Mr. Ed’s “talking,” Young made up a story about putting peanut butter in the horse’s mouth, which the animal then would try to lick off.
The show was known for its bouncy theme song and the coining by Mr. Ed of the phrase: “Willllburrrrr.” It attracted a wide group of celebrity guest stars, ranging from Clint Eastwood to Mae West to baseball great Sandy Koufax.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1990, Young described Wilbur as “naive and bumbling,”and “Ed as the wily one.” Young added, “I think it’s the same chemistry that made Laurel and Hardy, and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney: It’s the one guy making a fool of the other guy.”
When the show finally went off the air it won new fans in later decades through constant cable TV syndication and video releases with Young right there for the ride. He owned a portion of the show and made a fortune off the royalties.
Young also appeared in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955), Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960, and its 2002 remake), The Cat From Outer Space (1978), and Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). He also lent his voice to a number of animated productions, including the voice of Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales, The Ren and Stimpy Show, The Smurfs, and The Great Mouse Detective. A Christian Scientist from his teen years, he took a brief sabbatical from Hollywood during the mid-1960s, spending three years establishing a film and broadcasting center, then touring the country for two years as a Christian Science lecturer. But disillusioned by the church bureaucracy, he returned to Hollywood in 1976.
His marriages to Mary Anne Grimes, Virginia McCurdy and Mary Chipman ended in divorce.
Contributions in Young's name may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund and to Y.E.S. The Arc, a residential program in Arizona for people with special needs.
He once went on a date with Norma Jean Baker, who later became Marilyn Monroe.
He's the only actor to appear in both The Time Machine (1960) and The Time Machine (2002).
Was 40 years old when he played the 18-year-old James Filby in The Time Machine (1960).
Repeated the role of Filby for a mini-sequel of the original movie The Time Machine (1960) in 1992.
Young was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Radio at 6927 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Depending on the source, the horse that played Mr. Ed is said to have died in 1979 at the age of 30, 33 or 34. Other reputable sources give the date of death as 1968, 1973 and 1974.
Mr. Ed and Walt Disney's canine film star Big Red won Patsy awards, presented by the American Humane Society, as the top animal performers of 1962.