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Alan Young
and the lovable
Mister Ed

August 14, 2009

Alan Young is most recognized for his role as Wilbur Post in the classic 1960s television series Mister Ed, where his beautiful palomino horse talks and engages him in a series of zany comedic situations.

As a veteran writer and entertainer with a prolific career that proceeded Mister Ed, Young previously had a long running successful radio program titled The Alan Young Show, which became his own television show of the same name. It proved to be so popular that it won Young two Emmy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Young was born Angus Young on Nov. 19, 1919, in England. His father uprooted the family to Scotland when he was just a baby, then to Canada by the age of 6. Despite their financial hardships, Young’s parents did their best to provide the children with a happy upbringing. It would be the humble beginnings and ailing health which would set Young on his career path.

Suffering from debilitating bronchial asthma that would leave him bedridden for months at a time, Young delighted himself in listening to the radio programs, developing a passion for the medium. Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Fannie Brice were only a handful of which he admired throughout his childhood.

Young remembers: “I was an invalid for awhile and listened to radio. I would listen to the programs of all the English performers, the great Gracie Fields, Harry Lauder, a famous Scottish comedian. I used to imitate them.”

Young took his childhood fun a step further when he began performing. “When I got better, I would still act silly. Somebody from the Scottish Society asked if I would do imitations at the society. He paid me $3. A radio performer there said, ‘Come on, you’re with me! There’s a program starting up called The Bathnight Revue with a two-hour Saturday night show.’ I was scared stiff! They asked me back again and that was it!”

By the age of 17 Young was a recognized name, writing and performing in his own radio show for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Young’s program proved to be so popular that he received an invitation to fill Eddie Cantor’s former summer time slot. It was a dream come true for Young, and the opportunity of a lifetime.

Young arrived in New York City in 1944. He remembers, “To come to America was a big thrill. I was scared stiff again, but I was so grateful to have this permanent job.”

The aspiring actor had a hit on his hands. With good writers in place and three months of air time, Young cemented a permanent time slot on the air. It would be on Young’s show that the Jim Backus would develop what would later become his character on the television series Gilligan’s Island 20 years later. Unbeknownst to many, his role as Hubert Updike III would be a precursor to Thurston Howell III.

During one of Young’s radio programs, a writer introduced a joke that poked fun at 20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck. The studio threatened to slap a $1 million lawsuit on the program for using Zanuck’s name. Young issued an on- air apology and free endorsement for the studio’s films. All was forgiven and Young’s manager even secured him a screen test to be viewed by Zanuck, that resulted in a $2,000-a-week contract for the promising actor.

Young arrived in Hollywood in early 1946. Instantly he felt that California was home, and he moved his parents from Vancouver to move in with him.

He did not have to wait long for Hollywood to come calling. Margie (1946), directed by Henry King and starring Jeanne Crane, would prove to be a box office sensation, leaving Young with high hopes for a future in the medium.

“To me, movies weren’t any different than radio. It was just acting. I left the camera work to the camera men and did what I was told.”

Young was able to enjoy time off until his next picture. He participated in NBC’s annual Christmas parade. Several beautiful starlets adorned the Alan Young float. Among the bright-eyed hopefuls was a stunning, shy teenager who would find herself skyrocketing to worldwide fame. But, to Young, the soon-to-blossom Marilyn Monroe was just an innocent youngster named Norma Jean Dougherty.

Awaiting his next movie role, Young created a 90-minute vaudeville sketch and went on a national theater circuit. Also appearing in his show was fledgling entertainer Walter Liberace. Other acts included the Lind Brothers and Tommy and Jeanne Mahoney. The show was an engaging success.

Young soon revisited the world of motion pictures. He appeared in Chicken Every Sunday (1949), Mister Belevedere Goes to College (1949).

Television was quickly becaming a staple in people’s homes. On April 6, 1950, The Alan Young Show made its live television debut. Viewers enjoyed his wholesome and intellectual style and his sketches appeared fresh and up to date. Young said, “We thought radio was hard work until we got into LIVE TV! That was hard work. If you blew a line, you blew it coast to coast. If you forgot your lines you had better say something quick. But, I loved it.”

Young’s next picture, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) was shot in London with Jane Russell and Jeanne Crane. Soon after, landmark science fiction director George Pal asked Young to be the lead in MGM’s Tom Thumb (1958). The low-budget picture proved to be a delightful experiencefor Young, but he was happy when he could board a ship and sail back to the United States.

When the prospect of working with a talking horse was first mentioned to him, Young was less than enthusiastic. He was not interested and turned the project down. It would not be until eight years later that he revisited the concept, when veteran comedian George Burns was brought on board as a producer of the project. Young knew instinctively that the team had something very special on their hands. Producer Al Simon hired Connie Hines to play his wife. Young reminisces, “She was perfect for it, and is so dear. She didn’t have many lines beyond ‘Dinner is ready’ or ‘I‘ll make some coffee.’ They were just simple lines but she did them beautifully.”

With Young set to portray Wilbur Post and Hines his wife Carol, the search was on for the horse who would become the star of the show. Animal trainer Lester Hilton, who successfully trained the talking mule for the Francis pictures, began looking for the perfect specimen that would become Mister Ed. He found a beautiful palomino parade and show horse named Bamboo Harvester who was perfect for the role. Renamed Mister Ed, he would be sent to live with Hilton at his ranch, where they developed an incredible bond. Ed proved to a quick study in memorizing Hilton’s instructions.

Quite by accident, the perfect voice for Mister Ed was found when former Western star Allan “Rocky” Lane asked Hilton for some coffee while at his ranch. All they had to do was hear that voice and know he was the one! Lane was a tad hesitant to take a job because he felt was a step back in his career, but he agreed to do it without receiving billing.

After Edna Skinner and Larry Keating were cast as the Post’s neighbors, all the pieces of the puzzle – crew, cast, horse and voice – were in place. It would prove to be a magical combination that made Mister Ed one of the most memorable television programs ever aired. George Burns would not only produce the program but added his creative insights to the production.

Young and Mister Ed became true buddies, a relationship that lives on in Young’s heart. When initially asked about his career with Mister Ed, Young happily replied, “You write about Mister Ed and forget about me. He was the show. Ed was the star and I worked to support the star because he was so good. He would do anything. He loved me and I loved him. I used to ride him all the time and we had a good time together.”

Ed became so adept that he could be counted on to perform a perfect scene usually in one take. Cast and crew marveled as they watched the horse do his scenes flawlessly. “One time I watched Ed do a whole scene all by himself and when he was finished the whole crew applauded,” Young remembered.

Mister Ed debuted January 1961. Viewers fell in love with the mischievous palomino and tuned in every week to watch the zany adventures of the talking horse. Life with the intelligent wise cracking Mister Ed was never a dull moment for the Posts, ensuring a program that never faltered in popularity. The series won a Golden Globe for best television show.

Transporting Mister Ed to the studio each morning would create quite a stir. When they noticed the phrase “Hello, I’m Mister Ed” on the trailer, freeway travelers would honk and shout their greetings to their beloved television star. Ed was kept from large crowds as often as possible because of his sensitive nature and he rarely made personal appearances.

Young spent much time off set with Mister Ed and trainer Hilton. Ed became so proficient at “talking” that he soon surprised his human companions. Young says, “One time I went to his corral to talk with Ed’s trainer. Suddenly Lester began to laugh. I asked what he was laughing at and he said, ‘Watch the horse. Watch Ed when you finish talking.’ So I said something to him and saw Ed moving his mouth! He knew that when I stopped talking he had to say something. The three of us held conversations from then on.”

Mister Ed was a resounding success for CBS. When the program was moved to a Sunday night time slot it pulled the network’s weekend ratings to the top, but the program would take a different turn when co-star Larry Keating became gravely ill with leukemia and passed away. Re-casting for two new neighbors began. Taking the roles were Leon Ames as Wilbur’s ex-colonel and Florence MacMichael as his wife. The program did not falter. A variety of celebrity guest stars that included George Burns, Za Za Gabor and Clint Eastwood dropped in on the Posts and their horse. Mae West came out of retirement to make an appearance on the series. Remembering the guest stars, Young said, “Mae was very quiet, didn’t say much, just did her stuff and went back to her dressing room. Clint Eastwood was great. He was a good horseman and Ed loved him. He was very good.”

Just as Mister Ed soared to the top of the ratings, at the end of a solid five-year run – out of the blue – Mister Ed was cancelled when the new CBS program director decided to take the network in a different direction.”

Young had concerns about what was to become of Ed, so he and producers paid to ensure Ed live out the remainder of his days happily. “Ed didn’t say anything about the end of the series but I think he liked it because we chipped in to retire him. He went to live with (his trainer) Lester Hilton, who had a little house in Burbank with a stable in the back. I used to ride him about every morning for a long time afterward. Les and I would ride in Griffith Park. Ed was very happy.”

Instead of retiring, Young could not resist the temptation to appear on the Great White Way in Broadway’s The Girl in the Freudian Slip. The play would celebrate a moderately successful stint. Before leaving for his role in the play, Young paid a visit to Hilton and Ed on the ranch. It would be the last time he would see Ed. An unexpected accident brought down the curtain for the famous equine. Young recalled, “I had ridden Ed and put him back in the barn. Then I had to go to New York and Lester took a vacation for two weeks. The poor guy taking care of Ed thought he was having a seizure and gave him a tranquilizer, but Ed just slipped away. He was 19 years old when he passed.”

Hilton had Mister Ed cremated and his ashes scattered. He was extremely devastated by the loss of his cherished Mister Ed and soon fell ill himself; within a matter of months of Ed’s demise Hilton also passed away.

Young quietly withdrew from show business for the next several years, going into semi-retirement. However, the showbiz bug reawoke in the 1970s when he found the dinner theatre venue. Young wrote an album of Dickens’ Christmas carols tailoring it to a variety of Disney’s characters. The record became a best seller. Working with Disney, Young originated the voice of Scrooge McDuck.

Today Young divides his time between continuing with his voice-over career, participating in a radio show titled Focus on the Family and appearing at autograph shows with former co-star Connie Hines, experiences he finds very rewarding. “I do Focus on the Family every two months. It is a family show and it’s lots of fun. We don’t get paid anything but we love to do it. The autograph shows are very gratifying because Mister Ed’s popularity has never really stopped. Reruns of Mister Ed have been on television since it was cancelled.”

In the decades since its debut 46 years ago, the series has played on television throughout the U.S. and in more than two dozen countries. The first and second season release has been distributed on DVD so generations old and new can revisit the fun loving palomino. Ed would definitely nod and stomp in approval.

When asked how he would like Ed to be remembered, Young fondly responded, “Just the way he is; to me he was a loveable actor!”

Young’s latest endeavor has been to publish his second book titled, Mister Ed, and Me and More! It is an insightfully amusing journey into Young’s early life and career including his adventures with Mister Ed. It is an invaluable read for Mister Ed enthusiasts. What remains most important for Young is to recount Ed’s story. “To talk about him has been very gratifying is worth all the writing in the world.”

Young continues, “I am very grateful. Mister Ed was the best thing in my whole life and the highlight of my career, absolutely!”

Looking back, Young sums it up simply, “I keep using the word gratitude, I am very grateful for the whole experience.”

Reflecting on what Ed himself would have to say about everything that has transpired over the decades, with affection in his voice, Young said, “I think he would just say, ‘Oh, Wilbur.’”

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