Wednesday, January 05, 2011


“Don’t try to understand…it’s bigger than the both of us…”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
It was an author named Walter R. Brooks who would introduce a character that would later become one of the most famous and easily recognized television icons of the 1960s; Brooks is perhaps best known for his “Freddy the Pig” children’s books — in which the titular porcine possessed the power of speech and interacted with humans — but he also penned a series of short stories (published in Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post) that featured an equally gabby horse who also had a fondness for strong drink. “Ed Takes the Pledge” was the first of 28 tales about a dipsomaniacal equine who only spoke to one individual, a young architect named Wilbur Pope, and when a CBS secretary named Sonia Chermus suggested to motion picture director Arthur Lubin that Brooks’ stories might make for a interesting television series concept, Lubin contacted the New York agency representing Brooks and took out an option on what eventually became a television series that premiered on this date 50 years ago today. You, of course, know the star of this program as…the famous Mister Ed.

Lubin’s experience with talking animals began in 1950, when he directed the first of six films featuring a chatty mule named Francis — a character that was the focus of a novel written by author Peter Stirling (writing as David Stern) in 1946. The Francis series, which starred Donald O’Connor as young Stirling and featured the voice of character actor Chill Wills as his mule compadre Francis, was as corny as Kansas in August but boasted the distinction of saving Universal Pictures (where the movie series was cranked out) from bankruptcy much in the manner of Deanna Durbin (in the 1930s) and Abbott & Costello (in the 1940s). There were seven Francis movies in total but director Lubin, star O’Connor (who was thoroughly disenchanted with the films by this time — much of his role in Singin’ in the Rain was curtailed because he was needed on the set of one of the Francis vehicles) and voice artist Willis sat out the last entry, 1956's Francis in the Haunted House (replaced by director Charles Lamont, star Mickey Rooney and voice artist Paul Frees).

It was Lubin’s success with the Francis series that attracted the attention of comedian George Burns, who owned a TV production company called McCadden Productions, and who agreed to (apologies for the pun) pony up $75,000 for a pilot in 1958 entitled The Wonderful World of Wilbur Pope. In Pope, a young architect (played by actor Scott McKay) moves into a house with his wife Carlotta (Sandra White) to find a horse has taken up residency in the adjacent barn…and who is endowed with the power of speech. The problem, unfortunately, is that he’s the only person the horse will talk to. “Pope” sat around on a shelf for a couple of years before attracting the attention of Al Simon, the former vice president of Burns’ McCadden Productions. He had since moved on to become president of Filmways TV Productions, an offshoot of a company called Filmways that specialized in the production of television commercials and was founded by Martin Ransohoff.

Simon liked the concept of Pope even though he wasn’t too impressed overall with the quality of the pilot; he was convinced that Filmways might have a potential hit on its hands if the series was recast and retooled. It was Burns’ idea to approach Alan Young to play the lead; Young, a Canadian-born actor-comedian was quite well-known to radio and television audiences and agreed to star in the series as Wilbur Post (the character underwent a name change in the interim). Though it appeared that Young was saddled (sorry about that again) with the unpleasant task of playing straight man to a horse, his talent for physical comedy and slapstick awarded him an equal number of belly laughs alongside his equine sidekick. Wilbur wasn’t the sharpest implement in the tool shed, but he was a fiercely loyal companion to Ed and Young’s lovability aided him immeasurably in winning over viewing audiences to his side.

Cast as Carol (not Carlotta) Post was a blond starlet named Connie Hines, a marked contrast to the character played in the pilot by White, who sported jet-black hair. The actress, who passed away in December 2009, often got a bad rap for once being quoted in a TV Guide article as stating her Ed gig was “a steady paycheck.” But Connie really enjoyed her stint with the show despite the fact that (and here’s where things sort of get weird) she was really the odd-girl-out on a program that was more about “a man and his horse.” Hines wasn’t the only blonde to be featured in what would become the Mister Ed TV series; the original horse used for the Post pilot, a palomino quarter horse, was replaced by one of a lighter hue (a crossbred gelding known as Bamboo Harvester) because the darker animal didn’t photograph as well. In fact, the only actor who carried over from the pilot to the eventual series was the individual who provided the speaking tones for Mister Ed — former B-Western cowboy star Allan “Rocky” Lane. Lane took the gig at a time when his stock in the industry was at an all-time low (he was unemployed and sleeping on the couch at the residence of Ed’s trainer, Les Hilton) and the producers of the series didn’t reveal his identity until several years after the show’s cancellation.

With the elements of Mister Ed in place, Filmways shopped the revamped series — the pilot had since been whittled down to 12 minutes, with a three-minute segment preceding the presentation in which Burns introduced the new cast and horse — to all three networks…who decided to take a pass on a situation comedy that centered around a talking horse. Filmways’ Ransohoff pitched the concept to the Studebaker Corporation, whose agent Steve Mudge flipped over the idea and went to every Studebaker dealer asking for a pledge of $25 for every car sold which would, in turn, be matched with an additional $25 by the company. So if you or anyone in your family bought a Studebaker in 1960, $50 of that sale went toward financing the production of Mister Ed — and after production started in October, the series was syndicated to nearly 115 TV stations by January 1961. The strategy behind the marketing of the series was deceptively simple: the show may have been geared to 4-to-9-year-olds, but those kids had parents who were no doubt in the market for a new car.

Mister Ed was an immediate smash — the show won its time slot in practically every market — despite a thorough lambasting from most TV critics. After a successful first season Studebaker wasn’t too wild about fully financing another one, so Filmways once again beat the bushes at the networks to see if anyone was interested. It wasn’t until CBS President James Aubrey watched an episode of Ed that he made the company an offer to add the show to the network’s lineup, observing that the sitcom was “the type of show that would appeal to the people who watched television.” Aubrey, a television executive charitably known as “The Smiling Cobra,” may not have had sophistication but he did have an uncanny feel for what the American viewing public would stare at (he was responsible for getting such shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island on the air) and his instincts on Ed proved to be right on the money; the show moved to CBS’ Sunday night lineup in October 1961 and immediately garnered a 20 Nielsen rating.

If sitcoms didn’t have wacky next-door neighbors then they would forfeit the right to be called sitcoms…and the new Mister Ed series fulfilled that requirement by adding two characters that were not present in the pilot (the Popes had several neighbors, but none that particularly stood out) in the form of Roger and Kay Addison. Roger, played by actor-announcer Larry Keating, was one of TV’s most endearing scoundrels — a man who would concoct get-rich-quick schemes at the drop of a hat (softly crooning “Rock-a-Bye Baby” in the process), usually with Wilbur as his unwitting patsy. Addison wasn’t particularly fond of Ed (and vice versa) and though he was used time and time again as the horse’s foil the good-natured personality of actor Keating (who was chosen for the part based on his previous experience of having worked with Burns on his and wife Gracie’s TV show, where he played the similarly pompous Harry Morton) infused the character with an unmistakable likability. (Keating also would be one of the first thespians in the Filmways TV stable — I can’t seem to stop the puns — to announce that “This has been a Filmways presentation.”) Addison’s wife Kay (played by actress Edna Skinner), once described by an author as a ‘SAP” (sitcom American princess), was the archetypal long-suffering spouse who put up with her husband (affectionately referring to him as “Doll”) despite her own shortcomings (she had a propensity for credit card plastic and her culinary prowess was substandard at best).

Early in 1963, actor Keating was diagnosed with leukemia but continued to work on Mister Ed for months afterward (he died on Aug. 26 of that year) and his TV wife Skinner continued on the show briefly in his absence (sometimes teamed with her character’s brother Paul, played by Jack Albertson) until December, when Wilbur and Carol Post got new neighbors in the form of Gordon and Winnie Kirkwood. Kirkwood (Leon Ames) — also known as “Colonel” — was Wilbur’s former commanding officer during WW2 and Winnie (Florence MacMichael) his slightly scatterbrained wife. They would remain with the series until the end of the 1964-65 season; the following year concentrated only on Ed and the Posts with occasional appearances from Wilbur’s father-in-law, portrayed by character actor Barry Kelly. Although he contributed his fair share of amusing moments to the series Ames had a particularly thankless job in trying to replace Keating; Ames’ Kirkwood was even grouchier than Keating’s Addision, who at least had some charm to go with his irascibility.

The popularity of Mister Ed led to some truly interesting TV moments with offbeat guest stars; among the celebrities who appeared (either as themselves or playing a different role): William Bendix, George Burns (natch), Spring Byington, Sebastian Cabot, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jack LaLanne, Abigail “Dear Abby” Van Buren, Mae West and Clint Eastwood — whose appearance on Ed must have seemed like Old Home Week since he’s also in the Francis the Talking Mule film Francis in the Navy (1955). One of the most memorable guest appearances was contributed by then-Los Angeles Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (who appeared with players Willie Davis, Sandy Koufax, Johnny Roseboro and Moose Skowran) in an episode that allows our favorite gabby horse to make a memorable slide into home plate…an indelible image that will remain in the memory long after you’ve witnessed it.

Mister Ed was put out to pasture (this is the last one, I promise) at the end of the 1965-66 season and spent its advancing years in syndicated reruns…but the series would win a brand new audience when it became one of the signature shows of Nick at Nite’s classic TV schedule beginning in 1985; it was, at one time, the cable network’s highest-rated program. It left Nick at Nite in 1993 but resurfaced on sister network TV Land from 1996 to 1998 (and again from 2003 to 2006) and can currently be found weekday mornings on participating This TV affiliates (paired with The Patty Duke Show). At first glance, Ed seems like a silly, one-joke show that provided endless hours of amusement for my brother-in-law and his fraternity brothers but the show’s impact was much more than that—it was the first in a series of successes for the Filmways company, who later mined boob tube gold with such smashes as the aforementioned Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Addams Family and Green Acres.

Mister Ed also ushered in an era of what came to be known as “escapist television” — fantasy-based comedies that had no tenuous connection to what was really going on the world outside of television (though the first fantasy sitcom, Topper, had premiered on TV in 1953) but provided audiences with a half-hour of non-think, nonsensical entertainment with such series as My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, My Mother the Car and The Flying Nun. The merits and demerits of such shows are certainly subject to furious debate but as an individual who’s fed up with the current glut of TV’s “reality shows” I welcome a little “unreality” every now and then.

If anything, Mister Ed provided us with one of TV’s most memorable theme songs—an infectious earwig of a tune (written by tunesmiths Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) that rivals that of the themes for Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch; even if you've never wasted a half-hour with an episode of the show you could probably sing it at the drop of a hat. (And if you thought you were going to get through this essay without the lyrics I’m dreadfully sorry to disappoint you.)

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And no one can talk to a horse of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed

Go right to the source and ask the horse
He'll give you the answer that you'll endorse
He's always on a steady course
Talk to Mister Ed

People yakkity yak a streak and waste your time of day
But Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
And this one'll talk 'til his voice is hoarse
You never heard of a talking horse?

Well, listen to this: “I AM MISTER ED…”

Thank you…and I hope I passed the audition.

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I've never read (or expected to find) such an informative -- and funny -- "dissertation" on Mr. Ed. I share the author's appreciation for the show and am in awe of his background knowledge (or at least his ability to find such information). Well done!

Jeff Yeck
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