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Alan Young — who answered to the name “Willburrrrrrrrrrrrr” on Mister Ed, the wacky 1960s sitcom that revolved around a talking horse — has died. He was 96.
Young — who for six seasons played straight man to a golden palomino, a gelding who was named Bamboo Harvester — died Thursday of natural causes at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills. He was there for more than four years.
Young himself was the voice of a talking bird, playing Scottish miser Scrooge McDuck (the uncle of Donald Duck and great uncle of Huey, Dewey and Louie) on the 1987-1990 syndicated series DuckTales.
And a decade before Mister Ed, the good-natured actor hosted CBS’ The Alan Young Show, which won an Emmy Award for best variety show and earned Young a trophy for best actor as well.
On the big screen, Young played David Filby (and his son James) in MGM’s sci-fi classic The Time Machine (1960), starring Rod Taylor.
In his most famous role, Young portrayed Wilbur Post, an unassuming, accident-prone architect who is married to Carol (Connie Hines). They live in a nice home in the San Fernando Valley with a barn, where the chatty Mister Ed resides — but only Wilbur can hear him speak.
In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Young said Wilbur was “naive and bumbling,” while “Ed was a wily one. I think it’s the same chemistry that made Laurel and Hardy and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney: It’s the one guy making a fool of the other guy.”
Based on a series of children’s short stories by Walter Brooks and produced by Filmways, Mister Ed started out in syndication in January 1960 on about 100 stations; after 26 episodes, CBS picked up the show, and it aired until February 1966.
To make Ed appear as if he were talking, a piece of nylon thread was placed in his mouth and manipulated to make his lips move. Producers didn’t want anyone to know the secret, so Young made up a story about putting peanut butter in the horse’s mouth, which the animal then would try to lick off.
“But Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof,” Young once said. “In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a scene! Ed was very smart.”
Allan “Rocky” Lane, a star of several Western B movies and the actor who provided the voice of the horse, never went recognized in the credits, which noted that Mister Ed was played by “himself.”
Young was born Nov. 19, 1919, in North Shields, Northumberland, England, near the Scottish border. His father was a tap dancer and his mother a singer. The family moved to Edinburgh when he was a child and then to a community outside Vancouver.
As a kid, Young was often bedridden with asthma and spent his days listening to the radio, keeping track of jokes and writing his own comedy sketches. He got a job as an office boy at a local radio station, and after slipping in a part for himself on a drama show when he was typing up the script, he became an actor.
Young eventually got his own radio show on the CBC but left to serve in the Canadian navy and army during World War II.
While living in Toronto after his discharge from the service, Young was “discovered” in the U.S. when Frank Cooper — an agent who also was instrumental in the careers of Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore — accidentally picked up Young’s show through the static on his radio.
Cooper brought Young to New York to tell jokes on the Philco Radio Hall of Fame radio program in 1944, and that led to Young being hired as a summer replacement on The Eddie Cantor Show. (The host was one of his heroes.)
After starring in The Alan Young Show on the radio, CBS brought the variety enterprise to television, and TV Guide named him “the Charlie Chaplin of television” in 1950.
Young, who had a date with Marilyn Monroe when she was 18, made his movie debut in Margie (1946), starring Jeanne Crain; appeared in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick (1952); and befriended another animal in a film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (1952).
Young later played a villain on ABC’s daytime soap General Hospital, showed up in Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), guest-starred on shows like St. Elsewhere and ER and voiced characters on The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Smurfs and in The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
It was George Burns, who had done an earlier, unsuccessful Mister Ed pilot with another actor, who convinced Young to play Wilbur Post.
“He looks like the sort of fellow a horse would talk to,” said Burns, and Young took that as a compliment.
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