A Never-Before-Published Medium.com Exclusive.
In 2009, I was preparing a sequel to my first book, How to Survive a Day Job. That long out-of-print 2005 motivational tome was self-published, and consisted of nearly 80 interviews with celebrities and other creative artists as to how they attained their dream careers.
Life got in the way as life sometimes does, and the intended sequel, You’re Too Smart to Go Down Stupid, was never completed. However, a host of interviews were completed for the new volume, and they will be presented exclusively on Medium.com for the first time.
Next up …
You may know him best as “Wilbur” on the classic television favorite, “Mr. Ed” (1961–1966), but British-American actor Alan Young was an accomplished performer well before that iconic program. Read on for some unexpected highlights and insight into a the life and career of a legendary television performer.
Joel: Why don’t you tell me about your early career? You were a child radio performer.
Alan: Yes, I started when I was 13 as a professional, if you can call $2.00 a show a “professional.”
Joel: What were you doing as far as radio goes?
Alan: I had come from Britain, and I imitated all the British stars that I had heard on the radio and on records. Mostly records, recordings. And I did imitations of them and then put little sketches together with my own ideas and that was it.
Joel: Was acting your first professional ambition?
Alan: No. Making money was the first professional ambition. My parents weren’t too well off. We sailed from Scotland and came to Canada, and I wanted to help out. When I got paid for it, why, we were all very happy about that.
Joel: So after you were doing radio, can you take me from there as far as your career? I know you won an Emmy on the Alan Young Show.
Alan: Well, yes, I worked in Canada until I was about 19 or so and then I was taken down to New York by an agent and did radio for quite a few years, and then that faded away, and then television came along.
Joel: Your first film was Margie?
Alan: That’s right.
Joel: You seem to have gotten a lot of work fairly early on as a fairly consistent working actor. To what do you attribute that success?
Alan: Well, I’ll be honest with you, Joel, I prayed a lot. And I never was out of work. I always seemed to be. I was taken from New York to Hollywood. I never auditioned for anything. In fact, on the radio I did a joke about Darryl Zanuck, and I didn’t know who Darryl Zanuck was. The writers wrote this joke. Next thing I knew I was being sued for a million dollars by 20th Century Fox. Scared the heck out of me, and my manager said, “Don’t worry, we’ll just plug his picture on the next program.” Which I did. And he gave me a screen test. So I did a screen test in New York, and they brought me out for Margie.
Joel: Do you remember the joke?
Alan: No. Just a bunch of funny names, like Ebbets Field and Lindy’s, which I’d never heard before all these names, and they ended up with Darryl F. Zanuck. So I think I was equating him with all Park Avenue and all these other places.
Joel: Now, you’re in one of my all-time favorite films, George Pal’s The Time Machine.
Alan: Oh, I loved that. It was my favorite picture.
Joel: Can you tell me a little bit about the experience?
Alan: Well, it was so great, because I had done a picture for George Pal in England, and I did Tom Thumb. I played Woody. He didn’t pay me very much, but he said, “I’ll make it up to you, Alan, when I do Time Machine.” Well, when I got back to Hollywood, he called me up and said, “I want you for Time Machine, but I can’t pay you as much money as I paid you in Tom Thumb.” But he said, “I’ll let you do anything you want with the character.” So I said, “Can I do it as my father, a Scotsman?” He said, “Certainly.” So we died my hair red so I’d be able to play my son too and me when I was ninety. And I got to play my father’s voice, which pleased me very much.
Joel: And then in 2002, it’s kind of like it came full circle for you, because you actually had a small part in the remake.
Alan: Well, there’s a little story about that. The producer called me up and said, “They find there’s so many fans of the old Time Machine that they don’t want to insult them, so they’d like to make a bridge between the old one and the new one.” So they asked me if I would do publicity for them, interviews. So I said sure, because they were very nice. And then they said we have no part for you. We’d like to do a cameo, but there’s no part. I said, “Well, that’s all right.” They said, “But would you do a walk-on.” Would you do a Hitchcock? Which means just walk through. I said, “Sure thing.” So that’s what I did.
Joel: Now, a lot of people aren’t aware that now, even, a few years ago, you were doing voiceovers for a lot of the Disney characters.
Alan: Yes. I went to Britain. I retired for a little bit, and then I got homesick for show business, and I met a fellow who worked for Disney, and he wanted a script for Mickey’s Christmas Carol. So I said, “I can write that.” I love Charles Dickens. So I wrote Mickey’s Christmas Carol and my friend and I produced the record, recording for it, a 78 and a tape. And that became the movie, Mickey’s Christmas Carol.
Joel: And you were Scrooge McDuck.
Alan: I played Scrooge McDuck. I did the same Scottish dialect as I did in Time Machine.
Joel: And you reprised that Scrooge McDuck character in quite a few films.
Alan: Well, it became Duck Tales and then I did Duck Tales for five or six years. I had done the Smurfs for Hanna Barbera, so I was used to voiceover series.
Joel: Let me touch on Mr. Ed here. Can you explain to me the set of circumstances as far as you attaining that role.
Alan: Yes. When I was doing The Alan Young Show, which was a live show, live television, and it was very successful, and I wanted to go in film, because doing a live show in those days was very hard. A live review. I did pratfalls and all sorts of things, and I wrote most of the scripts. So I called Arthur Lubin, and I said, “Hey, would you film it?” He had done Francis the Talking Mule and then a few Abbott and Costello movies. And he said, “I don’t want to touch — I’d like you to do my show.” And I said, “What is it?” He said, “Well, it’s a talking horse. I’ve had the idea since I bought it years before.” It was written as a bunch of screen, a bunch of Liberty magazine stories. Wilber Pope, it was, Mr. Ed, Wilber Pope. And I said, “Well, I don’t really want to talk to a horse. I don’t want to…” I was kind of snobby, I guess. I won two Emmys with The Alan Young Show, and I didn’t like the idea of talking to a horse. And I said, “I don’t want to work with anybody who doesn’t clean up after himself.” He took it in a good way.
Well, about six years later, seven years later, I was out of work again. And I would have talked to a mongoose, anything just to get a job, because Westerns had taken over television, and quiz shows especially. And it seems George Burns had made a pilot of the Mr. Ed show. He paid for it, he didn’t take part in it. And it didn’t sell, so he said to George Burns, “Why don’t you get Alan Young? He looks like the kind of a guy a horse would talk to.” So, I talked to George about it later. He said, “Oh, I didn’t mean that as an insult.” I said, “No, I take it as a compliment,” because I love animals. But he played the pilot for me, and I could see where everybody was making jokes, and the horse was the only one who wasn’t funny, so it didn’t go over. I didn’t sell. But I thought I could do something with the character, because it was more or less like me. So we sold it into syndication. We didn’t do a pilot. They asked me to go to Chicago, and packed up the film, and we sold it to the Studebaker dealers. And they bought — it went on syndication first. Then it backed into television, the backwards way. And it got a lot of stations, because the Studebaker dealer in all the different cities. Everyone bought the same time.
Joel: Was that the greatest reception you’ve received as far as from fans, television viewers? Was it on the level of The Alan Young Show at the time?
Alan: Oh, yes, it was. Well, no it wasn’t exactly. It grew very quickly, though and became tremendous. I mean, I just couldn’t, I would go to New York and I couldn’t walk down the street. It was kind of frightening.
Joel: I’m always curious about that. Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t judge how much of an effect being on television every week has on people.
Alan: Oh, Joel, you’ve been into their homes. And they — I’ll never forget, I wanted to see Washington, because having not been born in America, I wanted to do a little tour of all the historical places, and I was at the big cemetery, you know, where they bury all the wonderful people, and I was standing next to a graveyard, and all of a sudden I heard a thundering, thumping, and here running across the graves is a whole crowd of people that heard that Alan Young was there. Scared the heck out of me. But it’s very gratifying in a way, but still it’s a little frightening.
Joel: And to this day, from Mr. Ed and everything else you’ve done, you go and you sign your autographs, you go to the memorabilia shows and things like this, and people are always coming up to you and remembering your career and everything you’ve done.
Alan: Oh, they’re wonderful. They mostly remember Time Machine and, of course, Mr. Ed. I don’t get bothered on the street too much, because I’m a lot older than I was when I did the Mr. Ed show. But they’re so faithful, they’re just wonderful.
Joel: Let me go back to when you were a boy. You suffered from very severe asthma.
Alan: Oh, yeah. That’s how I got into show business. I think I used to listen to the radio, and I would listen to Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor and all these people, and in my mind I would write little sketches. So when I got better, I went into radio, and I had these sketches all in my mind.
Joel: You were bedridden for a long time.
Alan: Oh, gosh, I was bedridden for, let’s see, it started at 10 and it went on until I was 16.
Joel: Has it ever reoccurred?
Joel: Do you think there’s something to be said for somebody that is trapped — you were bedridden — you think a lot, you get very creative. Do you think there’s a relationship between something like that and developing creativity at an early age?
Alan: Well, you make castles in your mind. After the Benny show would go off or one of these shows would go off, I’d create it and I’d play all the parts. I’ve got to be honest with you, I was healed in Christian Science. My mother took it up, and I was healed instantly and got out of bed the next day and never had it again. But that’s where I began to lean on prayer. The interesting thing is, I think, when I first came to New York, I was brought down to replace Eddie Cantor for the summer. They used to have summer replacements for these radio shows, and here I was replacing the very man I had listened to when I was in bed, and that was a big thrill.
Joel: It’s like a full circle thing.
Alan: Yes. And then to meet Jack Benny and to meet all these people that I’d heard and listened to when I was in bed, but you would appreciate it, because you more or less went through the same thing with your asthma. It was just such a thrill to recover and begin the journey to making a living creating.
Joel: That’s a great story. Let me ask you, what advice you have for people. Let’s say you have someone with talent and dedication, but they have a family, bills to pay, house payments, yet they have this overwhelming ambition to make it in a particular creative field, whether it’s movies or TV. What kind of advice to you have for those people?
Alan: I’ve never had to talk to anybody who has a family. I taught at The Donna Reed Film Show. In Iowa she has a Donna Reed Festival, and people go, well, you do it for nothing, we go there every year. I haven’t been for two years, I went for five in a row, and I just give talks. I can’t teach acting, because I never took any lessons, so I didn’t know how to teach anybody. But I was able to give what they call “stage presence.” And my opening line was, “If you can say to yourself, ‘If I can’t make it in acting, I’ll become a dentist or a carpenter,’ then don’t bother, you’ll never make it. You have to say to yourself, ‘If I don’t make, I’ll kill myself, I’ll die,’ then you’ll make it.” You have to have that drive. It’s just got to be — you don’t get into show business, it gets into you. I really try to knock them down and test them, first of all, to see if they have that little spark that says, “I’ve got to do it.”
Joel: It’s there. It has to be part of your life, like just living every day. If you say you’d rather be dead, then you know you’re dedicated.
Alan: I think the French say “je ne se qua.” I don’t know what that means, frankly, but I’ve heard it said. They call it the “X.” I don’t know — I’ve never thought of doing anything else.
Joel: Do you still have that drive?
Alan: Oh, yes. I’ve just finished my second book: There’s No Business Like Show Business . . . Was, which has gone to the publisher.
Joel: Is there anything that you would really like to discuss or want people to be aware of?
Alan: No, it’s a thing. It’s within you. It’s a matter of giving. When I was a kid, I had an act together, and I worked with an old London comedian. It was very hurtful, because the audiences — my material wasn’t that hip, and he said, “Kid, you’ve got to work with a cane.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Every comic has to have a cane.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “If they throw things, you can knock them back.” And he said, “Except the vegetables. You keep those.” And I worked with him for a while and finally he said, “Son, you can have all the best material in the world, but you’ve got to make them love you.” And first you’ve got to love them, and that’s true, you’ve got to love your audience.
Joel: Two more questions. What was the most difficult thing that you’ve ever gone through in show business and superseded — got through it?
Alan: I think doing stage shows was the toughest thing — playing in front of a bunch of people who aren’t laughing at you. This is before The Alan Young Show. I was booked in a little theater in Fresno or somewhere. The whole audience was Mexican, the people who go up there and pick things. They didn’t speak English. There was a pantomimic who got along pretty well, but I went out and did my jokes, and then my act was playing the bagpipes at the end, and that scared the heck out of them, because they didn’t know — they’d never heard a bagpipe before, and I bombed. That’s tough.
Joel: How do you mentally overcome that?
Alan: You cry a lot. And tomorrow’s another day, absolutely. The next thing that happened, I didn’t get to break the act in, Ken Murray had a thing called The Blackouts here in Hollywood, and he let so-called stars break their act in, and I went down there and I worked with a band leader, rehearsed. Come time to do the show, the band leader was drunk. I did my jokes and I went to play my bagpipe and he got the music all wrong and I bombed again. That was awful. So I never heard my music until I opened at The Chicago Theater. We had a good band leader. Liberace was the other person on the show — he wasn’t a big star then — it was a very youthful group, and it was a hit. So that made up for all the flops.
Joel: What’s your definition of success?
Alan: I could be corny and say “happiness,” but that’s part of it. Success is when, what you were saying, going to these memorabilia shows and having people come up and talk to you, and they’re so friendly, you just feel you’ve got a family. That to me is success.
(Alan Young passed away on May 19, 2016, at the age of 96. He left behind a treasure trove of pop-culture memories.)
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