Tuesday, November 27, 2012
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.
A Studio City, California, resident for over 50 years, Alan was born in Northern England and later moved 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 on Canadian radio, before heading to Los Angeles and appearing in some 20 films and dozens more television roles.
Without a doubt, however, fans of ’60s television will remember “Mister Ed” – the talking horse – as one of the most popular series of the day. In fact, it’s still shown on stations around the world. “I still get phone calls from all over the world to talk about the show,” Alan told me in a phone interview.
“Mister Ed” won a Golden Globe, but despite its popularity never received an Emmy.
“I’m not sure why it never won, but it was certainly an unusual plot!" Alan said. "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’!”
Alan says he still gets asked to explain 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.
“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. 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. 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 they thought we were becoming the hillbilly network.”
Throughout his career, Alan 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. 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.”
Although retired from film work. Alan has remained busy and written two books which recount his long career: “There’s no Business Like Show Business … Was,” and “Mister Ed and Me … and More!”
“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’.”
Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.