BY NICK THOMAS
What do David Filby, Wilbur Post, and Scrooge McDuck have in common? They were all characters (The Time Machine, Mister Ed, and DuckTales, respectively) created by veteran actor Alan Young, who celebrated his 90th birthday two weeks ago.
A Studio City resident for over 50 years, Angus, as he was then 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 perform 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 roles.
Though little remembered today, The Alan Young Show was a half-hour variety show that ran on CBS in 1950-53 and Young’s first major success in the US.
“It won several Emmys, including Best Variety Show in 1951 and I won for Best Actor,” said Young. “It was like my radio show in Canada but with a monologue and two sketches for TV. It went out live to American audiences from Hollywood, and was recorded on kinescope for international viewing.”
Without a doubt, however, fans of 60s television will remember “Mister Ed” – the talking horse – as one of the most popular series on the day. In fact, it’s still shown on stations around the world and the first season DVD was released in October.
“I still get phone calls from all over the world to talk about the show,” said Young, who recorded interviews and commentary for the DVD with his TV wife and “Mister Ed” co-star, Connie Hines. “It was a lot of fun. We recorded it on my patio. People seem to love that sort of thing.”
Despite it’s 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!” said Young. “Ed did win the Patsy Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) 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 almost 50 years old, Young says he still gets asked how the horse’s lips were made to move. Initially a mystery at the producers’ insistence, Young 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,” Young 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 cancelled half way through the sixth season.
“It was a shock to all of us,” Young admitted. “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.”
Throughout his career, Young has been a much in demand voice actor, working on shows such as The Smurfs, Ren and Stimpy, The Chipmunks, and Scooby-Doo. But he is best known in the cartoon universe for his role as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck.
“Disney had made a record of Christmas carols but it didn’t sell well,” said Young. “They had produced a beautiful and expensive album cover for the record with Mickey and the Disney characters on the cover. So they wanted to get their money back. I belonged to a Dickens Society and was asked if I could write a version of A Christmas Carol in which Mickey, Goofy, and the others played the characters of the story. I did, and recorded it as a record doing Mickey and Goofy. The record sold so well, Disney decided to do a short movie of the story and Scrooge McDuck was added. Eventually, that led to the DuckTales series.”
Today, Alan has retired from film work and focuses on writing. In two recent 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,” said Young. “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.’”
Signed copies of Alan’s books are available through his web site, http://mister-ed.tv
Nick Thomas is a professor at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama as well as a freelance writer with stories published in the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and some 80 other newspapers and magazines. He writes on a variety of topics including entertainment, arts, science, health, business, and basically anyone who has an interesting story to tell. Web site: www.getnickt.com