Alan Young recalls his most memorable role
What do David Filby, Wilbur Post and Scrooge McDuck have in common? They were all characters (“The Time Machine,” “Mister Ed,” and “DuckTales,” respectively) played by actor Alan Young.
A resident of Studio City, Calif., for over 50 years, Angus, as he was once known, was born in Northern England. His Scottish father soon moved the family to Edinburgh, then later to Canada when he was six. He suffered from prolonged bouts of asthma as a child and was bedridden for months at a time. During those depressing weeks, his spirits would be lifted by tuning into Canada Radio and he soon began to write his own comedy routines.
Later, as a young man, his talents as a writer and performer were recognized and “The Angus Young Show” hit the Canadian radio waves. After changing his name to Alan, he headed to Los Angeles and went on to appear in some 20 films and dozens more television shows.
Though little remembered today, “The Alan Young Show” was a half-hour variety show that ran on CBS in 1950-53 and Alan’s first major success in the U.S.
“It won several Emmys, including Best Variety Show in 1951 and I won for Best Actor,” Alan told me in an interview.
Without a doubt, however, fans of 60s television will remember Alan in “Mister Ed” – named after his talking horse co-star. It was one of the most popular series of the day, running from 1958-1966.
“I still get phone calls from all over the world to talk about the show,” says Alan.
Despite its popularity (“Mister Ed” won a Golden Globe), the show never received an Emmy.
“I’m not sure why it never won, but it was certainly an unusual plot!” Alan says. “Ed did win the Patsy Award that was given for the best animal actor. In fact, Ed won it so many times that the American Humane Association, who gave out the award, asked me if I would mind if he didn’t win one year. They were concerned people might think the award was ‘fixed’. So the next year, Lassie won and Ed was second.”
Even though “Mister Ed” is now over 50 years old, Alan says he still gets asked how the horse’s lips were made to move. Initially a mystery at the producers’ insistence, Alan started the rumor that peanut butter was placed under the horse’s lip, which he would try to lick off.
“Al Simon and Arthur Lubin, the producers, suggested we keep the method a secret because they thought kids would be disappointed if they found out the technical details of how it was done,” Alan said. “So I made up the peanut butter story, and everyone bought it. It was initially done by putting a piece of nylon thread in his mouth. But Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof. In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a scene. Ed was very smart.”
Despite the popularity of the show, it was suddenly canceled half way through the sixth season.
“It was a shock to all of us,” Alan recalls. “The show had good ratings, but CBS got a new program director who wanted to get rid of shows like ‘Petticoat Junction,’ ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ and ‘Mister Ed.’ I guess he thought we were becoming the hillbilly network. Al Simon walked on to the set while we were reading scripts for the next day and said we were dropped then and there. It was awful, people were crying, but that was it. We never shot another episode.”
Since “Mister Ed,” Alan has been a much in demand voice actor, working on shows such as “The Smurfs,” “Ren and Stimpy,” “The Chipmunks,” and “Scooby-Doo”. He is probably best known in the cartoon universe for his role as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck.
Today, Alan has retired from film work and focuses on writing. In two books, “There’s No Business Like Show Business ....Was,” and “Mister Ed and Me... and More!” he recounts stories from his long career.
“I love to write. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with so many lovely people here in Hollywood. I’ve heard so many of them tell fascinating stories, so I wanted to put it all together so fans could read about working in Hollywood in the ‘old days.’”
Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you liked this article. Nick Thomas’ features and columns have appeared in more than 300 magazines and newspapers, and he is the author of “Raised by the Stars,” published by McFarland. He teaches at Auburn University Montgomery, in Alabama. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.