Sam: Now when you were first offered the concept of Mr. Ed, you were really reluctant to do that series.
Alan: Well I was offered it years before. I wanted a comedy director to direct the Alan Young Show and Arthur Lubin came and saw me and said “I wouldn’t be interested in doing that but I’d like you to do my show.” I said “What is your show?” He said “It’s a talking horse.” I said “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to work with any actor who can’t clean up after himself.” Arthur didn’t have that kind of sense of humor. He didn’t think that was funny at all. Well while I was in England they made a pilot. George Burns financed it.
Sam: Do you know who played Wilbur?
Alan: I don’t, but I wouldn’t say it anyways because he didn’t fit the character. He was a good dramatic actor but sometimes they don’t do comedy so well. Well George Burns said “I think we should get Alan Young because he looks like the sort of guy a horse would talk to.”
Sam: What do you think he meant by that?
Alan: I asked him later. He said “I didn’t mean it as an insult.” I said “It wasn’t an insult. I’m very flattered.” They called me in and I saw the pilot and I could tell that everything was all wrong. Everything was funny but the horse. It was an ugly little horse. Well, the producer and I talked it over and he said, “I’d like to have everything attractive. Pretty horse, a pretty wife.” I said, “I agree with you,” but we had to sell the idea. So they sent me on the road with this awful pilot under my arm and we went to all the Studebaker dealers in Chicago and New York. We ran the pilot for them and told them what we wanted to do with it, and I said, “Who wants to do it?” And all the hands went up. So the agency that was with me took all the names down and we had a terrific network. So that’s how Mister Ed started.
Sam: That’s an unusual way to sell a program.
Alan: Well the pilot that George had originally shot was shown to all the networks but they didn’t buy it, so we didn’t dare go to the networks again with Mister Ed. The agency had the idea, but they wanted me to sell it. So they bought every Thursday night, every one of them, and all at the same time.
Sam: Well eventually CBS picked it up.
Alan: They picked it up the following year. The sponsor we had ran out of money. So we had a very successful show but no network and no money. So, our producers were at the Bel Air hotel at the same time the CBS executives were having lunch. One of them said to our producer, Al Simon, “How is your show doing, Alan?” Alan said “Our show just got dropped.” So they said, “We’d like to pick it up!” So CBS picked it up and put it on Sunday night just before Lassie, and [after Mister Ed] came Ed Sullivan. We had a great time slot.
Sam: How was it that you had such great chemistry with the horse?
Alan: I loved the horse. I love animals and the horse was so beautiful. He was so obedient and a well groomed animal. We got along beautifully. They had the fellow doing the voice standing off camera so he was right there, and I could see him and hear him as I was talking to the horse. So it seemed like the horse and I were talking to each other, and I kind of believed it.
Sam: What I think is marvelous about Mister Ed is that it isn’t so much about a man and his horse, it’s more a buddy comedy like Hope and Crosby or The Honeymooners. Wilbur and Ed seem to be almost equals, just that one of the buddies happens to be a horse.
Alan: You got it. That’s exactly how I felt about it. The horse was my buddy. That was exactly the feeling we had.
Sam: Wilbur and Ed don’t patronize each other. There seems to be a mutual respect.
Alan: Oh yes. There was no patronizing. I would bawl him out sometimes for being a bad boy, but we were two friends.
Sam: One of the most famous episodes of Mister Ed is when you and Ed went to Dodgers Stadium. What was it like to be with the team and be at the stadium, and how did the Dodgers take to the horse being there?
Alan: The Dodgers were delighted. Everybody was, except for [Dodgers’ general manager] Buzzie Bavasi. The team had just moved to Dodgers Stadium, everything was new, the grass had just been planted and when Ed ran around the bases he threw up the sod. So the sod was flying all over the place and Buzzie Bavasi came running out of his office yelling, “Get that damn horse out of here! Look at what you are doing!” The players enjoyed it very much though.
Sam: One of the highest profile actors you had on Mister Ed was Clint Eastwood. That seems like such an odd show for Clint to appear on. How did that episode come about?
Alan: Oh, he was great. Arthur Lubin used to be a director at Universal and he had directed Clint Eastwood in a western. We didn’t have a great deal of money for guests, but Arthur asked Clint if he’d do the show as a favor and Clint said “Sure, I like the show.” He came on and after that we had a lot of stars asking to be on it.
Sam: Who were some of the other favorites you had on the show?
Alan: The big one was Mae West. She said that she wanted to work with the strongest and handsomest leading man in all of Hollywood. I took it the wrong way because I thought it was me, but she was talking about Ed. We also had Zsa Zsa Gabor, and of course George Burns came on.
Sam: Well he was the producer. What was it like working with George Burns?
Alan: He was wonderful. Every week I sat around with the writers and we rewrote the scripts. We’d go to George’s office and punch up the scripts. I remember once that George came up with a funny line, and Lou Derman, who was the head writer, was very jealous of the horse always being the same. So he said, “George, we can’t use that line.” George took the cigar out of his mouth and said “Why not? It’s a good line!” Lou said, “I know it’s a funny line but Ed wouldn’t say that.” George flipped and said “The horse wouldn’t say it! We’ll make him say it!” Well, finally he understood what Lou meant and from there on they were always very careful about the lines that they gave to Mister Ed.
Sam: How long was Mister Ed on the air?
Alan: We ran a little over five years.
Sam: Why did the series wrap up?
Alan: Well the terrible thing is that CBS got a new program director named James Aubrey. CBS had Mister Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and all those corn ball rural shows. James Aubrey wanted to get rid of what he called the “bucolic image.” He didn’t dare get rid of The Beverly Hillbillies because they were at number one. But we weren’t, and neither were the other shows, so he got rid of all of us. We had one of the networks highest ratings, but we were dropped.
Sam: After Mister Ed went off the air what did you do?
Alan: I went on a little vacation and then I quit the business for a while. I had been in the business since I was thirteen years old, and that was a long time. I toured America. I went to every state in the union, and then I came back to California. But I just missed Ed so much. I couldn’t work on any other show for a little while. I used to go out and ride Ed every morning after the show was dropped. I’d call Ed’s trainer and we’d go riding in the hills. He was such a lovely horse to ride. I loved the horse.
Sam: In the last three decades you have become a very well known voice actor and have participated in hundreds of animated features. I don’t know if you realize it, but my generation fondly remembers you as the voice of 7-Zark-7 in Battle of the Planets.
Alan: That’s very nice.
Sam: Of course, your most famous voice role is as the quintessential voice of Scrooge McDuck. A lot of people don’t realize it, but Scrooge McDuck originally appeared in the comics and not in cartoons.
Alan: That’s right.
Sam: How did you get the role of Scrooge McDuck?
Alan: Well as I said, after Mister Ed I toured for a while, and then I wanted to rest awhile. I met a young man who I had helped out years before and he was now one of the directors at Disney. He came and he said “Alan, do you know much about Charles Dickens?” I said, “I belong to a Dickensian Society in Canada.” It seemed that Disney had made a record of the characters singing carols. They had spent an awful lot of money on the record sleeve. They used all the characters on the cover, but they had hundreds of these covers and they wanted to get rid of them. So he said, “Could you write a script for A Christmas Carol using all the Disney characters?” I said “Sure.” I would have said sure to anything. I was out of work. So I got a friend of mine who directed voice overs and I wrote Mickey’s Christmas Carol as a story and I asked my friend if he would record it for me. He said “Sure, but who will do all the characters?” I said “I’ll do all the characters.” So I did Mickey, Goofy and Uncle Scrooge. I got the girls to do Minnie and we got Clarence Nash to do the voice of Donald Duck. So we made the record and it sold every album. It was a hit. Later I was doing a play, and I was sitting in a dressing room with another actor and I heard him trying to do a Scottish accent. I didn’t say anything, but it was terrible. So eventually he turned to me and said “Alan, isn’t this a terrible accent that I’m doing?” I said “Yes it is.” He said “You’re from Scotland. Can you help me?” I said “Sure I can help you.” So he handed the script over that he was reading and it was my Mickey’s Christmas Carol script! He was auditioning for Disney! So I went home and I called the casting director up. I said “Hello, it’s Alan Young.” He said “Hi Alan.” I said, “You’re casting for Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Why didn’t you ask me?” He said “Oh, we didn’t think you’d want to do it.” I said “I’d love to do it! I’d like to try out for it!” So I auditioned for my own script and, lo and behold, they cast me. So from then on I did Scrooge McDuck.
Sam: Are you the only one who has done the voice of Scrooge McDuck?
Alan: No, one other person did Scrooge McDuck in one production. He was a friend of mine named Bill Thompson. He didn’t have a good Scottish accent because he was an American but it had been done once before.
Sam: Do you have affection for the character of Scrooge McDuck?
Alan: Oh, I love the character! I was doing my father, really.
Sam: How would you describe Scrooge McDuck? What is your personal spin on that character?
Alan: He always says, “I’m Scrooge McDuck and I can’t stand kids! I don’t like kids!” which isn’t true at all. He’s irascible. That’s all. Irascible and very tight. I played all the reputations of Scottish people when playing Scrooge McDuck.
Sam: You know, Alan, we’ve been talking for a while now and I find you very funny! I am not someone who finds most things funny, but you really do have a delightful way at looking at life. Where does your natural talent for humor come from?
Alan: Well, when I was growing up, we were a happy family, but during the depression we didn’t have a dime. All my family could do was laugh and have fun. That was it. I don’t mean to be funny when I’m acting, but things are funny to me. That’s all there is to it.
Sam: What is the difference between your natural humor and the modern comedians today?
Alan: I wouldn’t want to criticize anybody. There are a lot of funny people today. I’d have to say that I copied others. I copied Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin. You don’t mean to be funny but you just end up being funny. That’s it. I learnred a lot from my little son. I was in the living room one day and talking to a writer, and my son came walking out with just diapers on, and an arm full of toys. He was only a year old and was just learning to walk. At the end of the room, one of the toys fell out of his arms. Well, when he reached down to pick it up his diaper slipped. When he reached down to pick up his diaper another of his toys fell. We started to laugh because it was funny. Well he saw us laughing and he thought “Wow! They are laughing at me!” So then he walked a bit and dropped a toy on purpose and his diaper slipped on purpose and then it wasn’t funny, because he was making it funny, and that’s when it’s not funny. That was a great lesson for me.
A lesson well learned, because Alan Young is a very funny man. Perhaps it’s his natural ability to tell a story, or his genuine sense of fun and whimsy that appears as he tells it, but Alan Young can make even the most serious critic feel good. Alan Young is a true pop culture treasure. One of the warmest and genuine people that I have interviewed during my career, Alan Young is one of the real gentlemen of Hollywood and proof that extraordinary things do happen to good people. Not everybody can kiss Marilyn Monroe’s ear, be best friends with a talking horse, and be the voice of a classic Disney character. It takes a special type of man to have the sense of humour to do all these things. Thankfully, Alan Young is that man.
(Pop Culture Addict Note: I’d like to thank my good friend Carol Summers for arranging this interview with Alan Young as well as providing many of the photos that accompanied the piece. You have a real knack for knowing the most wonderful and knowledgeable people in Hollywood, which is helping to creat an incredible oral history. Thank you for your support and friendship.)