This piece was originally published January 25th, 2010.
On December 20th, 2009 Arnold Stang left the world for that great comedy club in the sky.
I grew up with such admiration for Stang that I felt the indebted to include Arnold Stang, the 2nd selection for this installment of a regular Mystery Box feature called Great Comedians Of The Past.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you:
GREAT COMEDIANS OF THE PAST #2: ARNOLD STANG
Arnold Stang migrated from his 1918 birthplace of Chelsea, MA to Brooklyn and grew up as as a young kid chasing showbiz, stardom and everything else that a lifestyle in the big city could offer him. He was savvy from the get go, winning an audition for a children’s radio show at the age of nine.
Unlike say, the naive child actors who would become the Brady Bunch kids, Stang had drive, focus and adult ambition.
Sure he was still a little kid, but there was something about him that was always smarter and brighter then his pale, nerdy and fragile exterior would lead you to believe. Stang chose a path that would elevate him to a place in the stars and his parents did not push him into it, nor hold him back from it. He knew where he was going—to hang out with the likes of Milton Berle, Spencer Tracy and Jack Benny—and ended up appearing in one of the greatest comedy film masterpieces of all time…
Throughout the 20’s and 30’s Stang had small, and then larger supporting roles acting for several of Manhattan’s illustrious network radio shows such as Let’s Pretend. He was later hired to voice commercials and gradually gained enough clout among casting directors to have some higher profile spots like appearing on comedian/writer Gertrude Berg’s reknown comedy drama about a Jewish family in the Bronx, The Goldbergs as a teenaged neighbor with the splendidly Stang styled name of Seymour Fingerhood.
By the 1940’s Stang was becoming a recognizable voice presence for listeners, simultaneously doing some cartoon characterizations that ran concurrent to all the other acting roles throughout his career, such as voicing a character named Shorty for the great Max and Dave Fleisher’s Fleisher Studios’ Popeye (this job was an early foray into what would later become one of Stang’s key occupations).
He gained some prominent teen sidekick roles for several popular radio star shows such as working alongside Harry Morgan and Eddie Cantor. He then began appearing in quite a few films: He was a character named Bitsy Slater (another very Arnold Stang name again) in the Victor Mature and (an early) Lucille Ball comedy 1942’s Seven Days Leave. Often his now numerous film appearances were in uncredited roles, but memorable enough to keep Stang working, doubtlessly due to the significant impact that his voice had on viewers who also knew of him from all of his radio work.
In May of 1953 a guest spot on the giant of television shows, “Mr. Television” Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. Appearing briefly on this groundbreaking, and to this day still influential program, led to Berle hiring Stang on in a permanent role later in the year as a heckler of Berle which drew huge laughs from the in-studio audience. Stang would stay on the show until 1955 while also continuing his takeover of television with memorable appearances on a plethora of other high profile shows like The Colgate Comedy Hour. Shows in these early days that would become forever known as the “Golden Age of Television.”
Speaking of golden, Stang played a wonderful part in Frank Sinatra’s non-musical, non-comedy film, Otto Preminger’s harrowing, The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). This tale of Sinatra as a lost soul, heroin junkie nicknamed “Frankie Machine” was superbly supported by Stang in the co-starring role of Sparrow, Frankie’s best friend. This role doubtlessly inspired Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award winning Ratso Rizzo character in Midnight Cowboy. So where’s Arnold Stang’s Academy Award?
Stang continued to act or feature in commercial work throughout his life, popping up everywhere in an endless list of ads or on screen appearances both featured and as cameos that include appearances on What’s My Line; The Steve Allen Show; The Red Skelton Show; Playhouse 90; Bonanza; Wagon Train; Batman (yes, the Adam West one) and a regular spot on The Jonathan Winters Show from 1967-68.
Infamously, it was Stang vs Winters when Stang portrayed the quick footed, yet ultimately hapless Ray, one of two (the other was actor Marvin Kaplan) innocently involved gas station attendants who act as foils to a maniac Jonathan Winters’ utterly destructive rampage of their gas station in Stanley Kramer’s cinematic masterpiece of car chases, stolen cash and comedic greed, It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) that stands out as one of my all time favorite film appearances for Stang as well as being one of my favorite comedies ever made.
Another Stang appearance, among many, was as Harry, in Otto Preminger’s Jackie Gleason, crimester comedy/head scratcher Skidoo (1968) (which contains a nude Carol Channing…dear God!) is not a film that I could recommend to anyone looking for a great film, but rather any of us that delight in some of cinemas’ finest missteps a.k.a. big stars, big directors, big budgets fueled by bigger booze and tranquilizers. The type of ambitious undertaking that goes horribly wrong, yet I still find great joy in the wreck.
Stang’s innumerable live roles for which he will always be one of those “oh I love that guy!” character actors, such as Arnold Strong, Mr. Universe in the Arnold “dubbed in this one” Schwarzenegger comedy Hercules In New York (1970) and the terrible Dennis The Menace (1993) can be equally measured against the prolific body of animation voice-over work that featured Stang’s wiseguy smarmy characterizations.
Included in his animation work would be voicing Herman the Mouse in Famous Studios’ Herman and Katnipcartoons; as the Brooklyn accented Catfish in Misterjaw series of Pink Panther and Friends cartoons (1976); various roles in Courage The Cowardly Dog and as The Honey Nut Cheerios Bee on their cereal commercials.
Perhaps for many, Stang achieved the ultimate role that will forever enshrine in the hearts of cartoon fans forever when he became Top Cat (1961-1962) in a 30 episode run that depicted Stang’s character as “the Leader Of The Gang” of alley cats. Top Cat’s “gang” included Spook, Fancy Fancy, Choo Choo, Brain and one of the greatest characters this side of Secret Squirrel’s Morocco Mole in Benny The Ball. Benny was voiced by none other than Maurice Gosfield who not coincidentally portrayed Private Doberman in The Phil Silvers Show
Top Cat, who consistently devises get rich quick schemes and devises scams for obtaining, the good life often at the dismay of the local beat cop, Officer “Charlie” Dibble, was a direct take on the earlier very successful 143 episode live sit-com, the aforementioned The Phil Silvers Show a.k.a. You’ll Never Get Rich and often referred to simply as Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959).
As Bilko, the inimitable Phil Silvers portrayed the scheming “get one over” Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko to a group of soldiers who as often as they flimflammed outsiders, were often also the pigeons to Bilko himself as he took them for a shakedown.
Stang’s Top Cat was so similar to the Silver’s role that rumor has it that studio executives asked him to “tone it down” for later episodes.
Either way the series remains a Hanna-Barbera Productions gem and a favorite of mine and millions of others fans.
Arnold Stang was part of the holy triumvirate of legends that also included Don Knotts and Wally Cox. These actors not only criss-crossed the boundaries of live comedy and variety shows, television sit-coms and film, but managed to secure their historical places in the hall of enshrinement as voices for animated classics that will be viewed and adored for a long time to come.
As is often said about one of a kinds, when they made Arnold Stang, they broke the mold…
I hope you have enjoyed this, the second installment of Great Comedians Of The Past. There will be many more to follow!