With his friendly disposition, gentle manner and the slightest “sing song” Scottish accent present in his distinctive voice, comedian Alan Young has managed to make an impact on every generation over the seventy years he has spent in the entertainment industry. In the 1940’s he entertained audiences over the radio in Canada and the United States, in the 1950’s he won three Emmy Awards for his own weekly television series, in the 1960’s he played iconic TV character Wilbur Post in the hit sit-com Mister Ed, in the 1970’s he was the voice of 7-Zark-7, narrator of the cult cartoon series Battle of the Planets, and in the 1980’s he became the quintessential voice of the classic Disney character Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Alan Young has touched the lives of millions of people over his long career, and it couldn’t have happened to a better man.
Alan Young’s story is proof that amazing things happen to good people. Born in Northern England, Alan Young immigrated to Canada at a young age with his family, settling in British Columbia. Although he lived in poverty during his childhood, as a child Alan entertained himself by creating colorful characters that he imitated from British comedy programs he listened to on the radio. Getting a job as a comedy writer for CBC Radio in Vancouver, Alan quickly graduated to his own show and made his way to Toronto. It wouldn’t be long until fortune brought him to New York City and he soon became the star of radio, movies and television. Although a soft spoken and humble man from Canada, soon Alan Young was hobnobbing in Hollywood with some of the biggest icons in the history of entertainment.
Alan Young’s life in show business make up a rich history of the Hollywood experience, by one of the kindest men in the business. A delightfully funny man, Alan talked openly and whimsically about his long and colorful career in the industry. Always positive and never having a harsh word to say about anybody, Alan Young is one of the true gentlemen of Hollywood, with many valuable tales to tell.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
A CONVERSATION WITH ALAN YOUNG
I spoke to Alan Young in September, 2010 via telephone from his home in Los Angeles
Sam: You were originally from Scotland, correct?
Alan: Well I was born in Northern England, and we moved to Edinburgh, and then we sailed for Canada from Edinburgh. I grew up in Vancouver.
Sam: What was it about growing up in Vancouver that had you decide to become an actor, and most notably a comedian?
Alan: I used to listen to listen and imitate a [radio] program that came from England called The British Empire Program that was full of English and Scottish comedians. Gracie Fields and a bunch of people like that. So I used to imitate them and somebody heard me doing that and said “Hey, I want you to come and do this on my radio program.” So I did and that was just the beginning of it.
Sam: When did you get your first break in the entertainment industry?
Alan: In Vancouver I started to write, and they asked me if I would write a comedy show for the CBC called Stag Party. I wrote it and I put a bunch of funny gags in it and the producers said “Our announcers can’t do the funny little voices” so I said “I’ll do the funny little voices for nothing” and so I did it and pretty soon the show was called The Alan Young Show.
Sam: So you pretty much went into the CBC and took over.
Alan: Well I didn’t mean to. They liked the jokes and they liked the little characters, but the announcers couldn’t do them. But they didn’t care. They didn’t like doing the show. They were announcers. Then I got a call from a sponsor in Toronto and he asked me if I would talk to him. So he flew out to Vancouver and offered me a show sponsored by a tobacco company. I don’t smoke so I didn’t know much about it, but I flew to Toronto and started doing the show in Toronto.
Sam: What was Toronto like when you were there?
Alan: Oh, it was a lovely city. I guess it probably still is. I became very friendly with the comedy team Wayne and Shuster and Johnny Wayne took me to the Maple Leaf Gardens for a hockey game. He had a box seat there and I thought “Boy, if I could have tickets to this game every week and sit right here I wouldn’t leave Toronto for anything.”
Sam: But you did leave Toronto. What made you go to New York?
Alan: Because the company in Canada didn’t do very well and didn’t pay enough money. I wrote the show and everything and got very little for it. So this company from New York offered me $500 a week. So I said to the producer “I got to go. I have a family coming and I need that $500 a week.” He said to me “Well you should have told us. We would have given it to you.” I said “Well why didn’t you offer it to me?” Well anyways, I left for New York.
Sam: Was moving to New York a bit of a culture shock to you?
Alan: Yes. In those days the cab drivers were Italian or Jewish, but they were all from Brooklyn or New Jersey and they were pretty tough guys. Well I came out of the station, and having an English background, I would never come out and say what I wanted. I would say “I beg your pardon” or some kind of little introduction. So I went to the first cab driver and said “I beg your pardon? Are you engaged?” Well you don’t say that to a New York cab driver. He called me some kind of name and drove off. So I went to the next one in line and I said “I beg your pardon? Are you spoken for?” He took the same reaction and that was it. So I approached the next cab driver and I decided not to say anything. I’ll wait until he says something. So he looked at me and I looked at him and we looked at each other and finally he said “What is it?” Well I didn’t know what he meant by “What is it.” I thought he might say “Well get in.” So I took a guess and I said “It’s Thursday.” Well he said something about my mother and he left. So it took me a little while to get used to the jargon.
Sam: How long were you in New York?
Alan: Two years.
Sam: Did you enjoy it?
Alan: I liked being there but I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t write my own material. They had writers write it and I didn’t know what Abbots Field was or all the New York terms, but I would say the lines. Usually they would laugh at my accent. They gave me one joke with all sorts of names in it, ending up with Darryl F. Zanuck. I didn’t know there was a man named Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox motion pictures until the next week when the show was sued for a million dollars by Darryl F. Zanuck for defamation of character. I was just shocked. A million dollars? I could never pay that! So my manager said “Look, we’ll plug his next picture next week and he’ll forgive you.” So next week I plugged his picture and they dropped the suit, but they also gave me a screen test. So I took a screen test for Fox and they flew me out to Hollywood to do a picture called Margie and it was a big hit. So from then on I stayed out in Hollywood.
Sam: When you got out to Hollywood, who did you meet that made a big impression on you?
Alan: Well it took me a while before I met people who did that, but when I made Androcles and the Lion I became very good friends with Victor Mature, and Jim Backus was a dear friend of mine. He was in that picture too.
Sam: I love Jim Backus!
Alan: Oh he was a good guy.
Sam: He was a very funny man and is very under-credited for his comedic talent.
Alan: Oh yeah. He would do characters and not get any credit for it. I first used him on my radio show as Hubert Updike, the third richest man in the world. I asked the writers to write a character that was the exact opposite of me. I was modest, he should be egotistical. I was poor, he should be rich. They wrote this character and they cast Arnold Stang in it. Arnold Stang looked altogether from anybody else. He had no chin and he had a funny little voice. Well we tried the character out on a revue and it bombed. It was no good at all. So we had to get rid of Alan Stang, but I remembered that Jim Backus was doing a show where he was playing a very wealthy man and I said “Lets try him as Hubert Updike.” Well the show went on about two days later and Jim went in cold and he creamed them. People just loved him. That’s how his character was born.
Sam: When did you start your television series?
Alan: Well radio died and I died with it. I actually died a little ahead of it so I went on the road with an act. I played the bagpipes and I did some jokes and things like that. Well CBS wanted someone to develop a show in Hollywood because all the television shows were done in New York and Chicago, except for Ed Wynn. He had a show in LA. I got a couple of writers and I put together a script for a television show. I used one of my Canadian characters and sketches for the show and I took most of it from my radio show. We did it and it was a hit.
Sam: Well, The Alan Young Show won three Emmy Awards!
Alan: Yes it did. One for me, one for the writing and one for the show. I only have my own.
Sam: Did you have a lot more control over the material on the television series?
Alan: Oh yes. Because I was one of the writers. There were three of us.
Sam: Do you think that accounts for the success of the show?
Alan: Well the sketches were written for me so it had to fit properly. However, later on we ran out of material because CBS insisted that we go on every week. We had to do 52 shows a year. That’s 104 sketches a year. We ran out of material very quickly. I didn’t like the material. Even the stuff I was writing. It was not funny at all. That’s why I resigned.
Sam: You resigned from The Alan Young Show?
Alan: Yes, which one shouldn’t do. I quit because Howard Hughes had signed me by then and I said to CBS “I just don’t like going on every week” so I left. They took my writers and brought them to New York and rewrote the show for a new comedian that was coming up called Red Buttons. He did the show but the sketches weren’t good and the show was dropped pretty quickly.
Sam: You had a lot of great people on your show. I read that Joe Besser was a regular on your program.
Alan: Yes. Joe was a good friend of mine and I wrote a sketch where we were two children. It was the first time that they used oversized furniture so we looked like funny little children.
Sam: That has become a standard joke over the years. People have been copying that gag for decades.
Alan: Yeah, but they haven’t copied one thing that we did. We wrote a black cat to come into the sketch and the casting people said “How do you get a big black cat?” So they only thing they could do was get a big black panther in the sketch. Joe Besser was scared stiff of it. He didn’t like cats anyways. Well we made a joke out of it.
Sam: Well Joe Besser went on to find fame with the Three Stooges not long after.
Alan: Oh yes. He was a friend of theirs and one of them passed away and Joe took his job. Joe was a delightful little man.
Sam: Who else appeared on your TV series?
Alan: Well I got a new director and he said “You ought to have some stars on the show” and I told him “But I don’t have a lot of money.” So there was a lot of actors in the bar so he went into the bar and said “Who wants to get paid $200 a week?” All the hands went up. A lot of actors wanted to be on the show. It was a good show and we treated our guests nicely and gave them good parts. We had Alan Mobley and Cesar Romero. There was a very sad thing. We had a show coming up with Billie Burke. She was hired to do it and, bless her heart, she wasn’t a young girl anymore. She was quite old and she had to memorize all these lines and she had to do it in two days and she just wasn’t getting it. So I had to fire “the good witch of the North.” Oh, it was awful. But she was glad because she said, “It’s too many lines for me to memorize. So we got Alan Mobley in and we switched the character to a man and he learned the lines in a few hours.
Sam: The Alan Young Show completed in the mid 50’s. What did you do next?
Alan: I did Andorclese and the Lion afterwards, and then The Time Machine in 1959.
Sam: The Time Machine is probably your most famous movie appearance, but it’s a strange project for you. Its not the kind of thing that you are normally known for.
Alan: Well I had gone back to England after I resigned from The Alan Young Show. I just packed up my family and returned to England. I thought that I didn’t mind living there. I stayed in England for about six months, but the kids missed America. They were American kids and they wanted to go home, so I came home. But before that I met director George Pal. He was doing a picture called Tom Thumb in England and he said “Boy, I’d love one more American in the picture. Would you do it?” I said “Sure.” So I got a starring role. He said, “I can’t pay you very much, Alan, but when I do my next picture, which will be The Time Machine, I’ll be able to give you a good salary.” I said “Oh, thank you very much.” Well when I got back to Hollywood he called me up and said “I’m doing The Time Machine. Will you do it?” I said “Of course.” He said “There’s just one thing. I can’t pay you as much as I paid you in Tom Thumb.” I said “I don’t care” but he said “You can do anything with the character that you want.” I said “Can I make him a Scotsman?” because I wanted to use an accent like my father’s. He said “Do anything you want with it.” So that’s how I did The Time Machine.
Sam: I read somewhere that you once took out Marilyn Monroe. Is this one of those urban myths or is that true?
Alan: Oh, I dated her a couple of times, but she wasn’t Marilyn Monroe at the time. She was Norma Jean Dougherty.
Sam: I see. So this was after her first marriage then.
Alan: She was only about 18 at the time. I was about 25.
Sam: How did you meet her?
Alan: Well I was on a Santa Clause Parade float in Hollywood, and all the other floats had big stars on them, and I called the casting director at Fox and said “Can you get me some stars for my float” and he said “I can’t get you that, but I can get you about five or six starlets. But everyone will look at them and not you.” Well they sent over all these beautiful blonde girls, and one of them was this dear thing about 17 or 18, and after we finished the parade we all went to the Brown Derby for drinks. I didn’t drink, and this little girl didn’t drink, and we had some cocoa. I liked the way she didn’t drink and just had cocoa so I asked her if she would like to go to a party with me in the next day or so. She said yes and so I took her to a party a few days later and we had a really good time. She was just so sweet. Well when I got her home I said “Gosh. I’m in America and I guess girls want to be kissed right away and if you don’t kiss her goodnight you’re a drag.” Well I just didn’t know how to do it. I leaned over to kiss her, and she turned her head so I could kiss her cheek and I got her right in the ear. She was living with her grandmother. She didn’t have any family and I met her grandmother and she said “You’d be a very nice boy to go out with her” so I did.
Sam: That is a really sweet story.
Alan: The next time I saw her I was in makeup forAndroclese and the Lion and I had to go to the ladies department to get my hair curled. Well, while I was doing this, in walks this gorgeous blonde, and she saw me and said “Alan! How are you!” and she rushed up and kissed me on the cheek. Well I said, “I’m fine,” and I didn’t know who the heck it was. I said “Are you doing a movie here?” and she said “Yes, I’m doing a movie.” It was a big movie. We talked for a bit and she asked “How is your mother and father?” and I said “They’re fine” and I still didn’t know who it was. So she kissed me on the cheek again and said goodbye. Afterwards the make up man said “How long have you known Marilyn Monroe?” I said “Who?” He said “That was Marilyn Monroe!” Boy. That’s something.
Sam: Someone who was a big influence on you was Stan Laurel. How did you meet him?
Alan: Oh, gosh yes. One night I was sitting quietly in my house and I got a call from the family doctor. He said “What are you doing Alan?” I said “I’m just sitting here after dinner.” He said “Would you like to come up here and meet somebody? He’s a fan of yours.” He lived about half a block up the street and I said “Oh sure.” So I walked up there and I knocked on the door. The doctor opened it and I walked in and I just about dropped. It was Stan Laurel. There was that lovely little face with the red hair. He said “Hello, Angus.” He called me Angus, which was my real name. I didn’t know what to say. He said “I was just wondering if you would sign my autograph album.” I nearly fainted. I could hardly hold the pen when I signed it. I never asked for his autograph or anything because I got tongue tied. He said “I like your show.” His accent, where we came from in Northern England, was called a Geordie accent. It’s from the people who live along the river Tyne. He wasn’t born where I was but he lived there. Anyways, I became a friend of his. We had dinner a couple of times. He was one of the most delightful men I ever met.
Sam: Was he a funny man?
Alan: No. In fact, he said something that Charlie Chaplin said that every actor should pay attention to. If you’re doing something funny, don’t be funny doing it. That is the greatest advice. He did things straight. If people laughed he didn’t understand why because he scratched his head. He was just wonderful.
Sam: I also know you kept company with was John Wayne. You two seem like an odd couple. How did you know him?
Alan: He was a wonderful man. He was very macho. Very much an “American.” How I got to know him was because my wife was good friends with his wife and through them I got to know him. He used to have first run movies flown down to the house, and he would invite us to come to his house on Saturday nights to watch them. He ran them in his living room. The first night there a “classic” picture was being shown called The Seagull. It was a Russian picture. I sat there and I wasn’t enjoying it too much. It was a little too hearty for me. John Wayne sat down next to me and finally he nudged me and said “Care to go out and have a drink?” I said “Yeah.” I didn’t drink, but I wanted to go out. So we went outside to the den and he said “That picture…I have a yacht right outside here and I have to clean up the crap from the sea gulls flying over. I don’t want to watch a picture about it.” So we started to talk and he said “Would you like to take an acting lesson from me?” I said “Sure.” He said “You want to know how I learned to talk the way I talk?” I said “Yes, I would.” He said “I realized that I wasn’t a great actor, but once it came to my close up, if I took lots of pauses between lines then the camera would have to stay on me a long time until I finished talking.” That’s how he got that way of talking. He was wonderful.