Alan Young, the amiable comedic actor who became a TV icon in the early 1960s starring opposite a talking horse named Mister Ed, died Thursday. He was 96.
Young, whose later career included doing the voices for Scrooge McDuck and other cartoon characters, died of natural causes at the Motion Picture & Television Home, the Motion Picture & Television Fund confirmed on Friday. He lived at the retirement community for more than four years and died with his children by his side.
A veteran of radio and movies who starred in his own Emmy Award-winning TV comedy-variety show in the early 1950s, Young was on a career downswing when he was signed to play the lead in “Mister Ed.”
Comedian-producer George Burns already had financed a failed “Mister Ed” pilot with other actors when he told his associates: “I think we should get Alan Young. He looks like the kind of guy a horse would talk to.”
“Mister Ed,” which began as a syndicated series in January 1961 and moved to CBS that fall for a four-year run, featured Young as affable architect Wilbur Post, who moves with his wife Carol (Connie Hines) into a new home and is startled to discover that the backyard barn includes a horse that speaks to him.
Young later said that he and his four-legged co-star were “great pals” and that the relationship between Wilbur and Ed “was the backbone of the series.”
Wilbur was “naïve and bumbling,” while “Ed was a wily one,” he told The Times in 1990. “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.”
An un-credited Allan “Rocky” Lane, a former B-movie cowboy star, provided the deep voice for the mischievous Mister Ed.
“Because he had been a star at one time, Rocky didn’t want his name to appear on the credits,” Young said in a 2004 interview with the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. “But after the first year and the show had become a success, he went to the producers and said he would like a credit line.
“They told him no because kids in the audience were writing to Ed and thought the horse could really talk. They gave Rocky a nice raise instead, and he seemed happy with that.”
When Young filmed scenes with the horse, whose real name was Bamboo Harvester, Lane would stand at the edge of the set with a microphone and his script.
“It really helped to do it like that,” said Young. “Having Rocky there made me feel sometimes like I really was talking to the horse.”
One of the first questions fans always asked Young was: How did they get the horse to move his mouth when he “talked.”
For years, he kept the answer a closely guarded secret.
“I started a big lie,” he confessed in a 2001 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I said, ‘Well, when you were a kid did you ever get peanut butter stuck under your lip?’ ‘Oh, that’s how its done!’ So I never really lied; I just asked them a question. But that wasn’t true at all.”
When pressed to reveal the answer, Young explained animal trainer Lester Hilton’s technique for getting Mister Ed to “talk.”
“Lester had a knack,” said Young. “He used a soft nylon thread put under the lip. And then he had the end going down the bridle, and he’d just give it a little tug [and] Ed would try to get rid of it; that was his cue. And then he’d lay the [riding] crop across Ed’s forelegs, and that was the cue to stop. That was it.
“For the second year, we could hardly stop him from talking. As soon as he heard my voice stop, his lips would start to go.”
That proved to be the case off-camera as well.
“I learned to ride on Ed,” said Young. “Lester and I’d go riding in Griffith Park together, and we’d talk as we rode along. And suddenly Lester laughed.... He said, ‘Look, look at Ed’s mouth.’ When I stopped talking, Ed would start to move his mouth. So he was a smart horse.”
He was born Angus Young on Nov. 19, 1919, in Tynemouth, England, and his family later moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. When Young was 6 or 7, his family moved to Canada, where his Scottish father worked in a West Vancouver shipyard.
Often bed-ridden with bronchial asthma from age 10 to 17, Young would listen to “The Jack Benny Program” and other radio comedy shows, which he’d reenact the next day for friends and family.
At 13, his flair for performing and mimicking accents led to his becoming a regular performer on a Saturday night revue show on radio station CJOR in Vancouver.
At 17, he was writing and performing on “The Alan Young Show,” a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio comedy variety program.
During World War II, Young joined the Canadian Navy but resigned his commission after finding out he’d be spending his time writing for a Navy show. He then volunteered for the Army but was rejected because of his childhood asthma.
In 1944, he was brought to New York as a summer replacement for “The Eddie Cantor Show” on NBC Radio. That fall, “The Alan Young Show” was launched on NBC’s Blue Network, and it later moved to NBC. For a brief period, while starring in his own Sunday evening show, he also played Jimmy Durante’s sidekick on Durante’s Friday night show.
On television from 1950 to 1953, he starred in “The Alan Young Show,” a half-hour comedy-variety show on CBS. Dubbed the “Charlie Chaplin of television” by TV Guide, he won an Emmy Award for best actor in 1951, the same year his program earned an Emmy for best variety show.
Young, who was brought to Hollywood in 1946 by 20th Century Fox, made his movie debut in “Margie,” a 1946 comedy starring Jeanne Crain. Later film credits include “Androcles and the Lion” (1952) and “The Time Machine” (1960).
After flopping in a 1967 Broadway comedy “The Girl in the Freudian Slip,” Young retired from show business.
A longtime member of the Christian Science faith, he become communications director for the Christian Science headquarters in Boston in 1968. He later spent time as a lecturer for the church before returning to acting in the mid-`70s.
His return included providing the voice of Scrooge McDuck as Ebenezer Scrooge in Disney’s 1983 animated short “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and voicing McDuck in Disney’s animated TV series “DuckTales.”
He also did voice work for “The Smurfs,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and other animated TV series.
But for many, Young remained best known as Wilbur in “Mister Ed,” which continued a long life in reruns.
He chronicled his experiences on the show in his 1994 book written with Bill Burt, “Mister Ed and Me.”
To judge the old series’ continued popularity, Young recalled in his book, he conducted his own impromptu “consumer test” two years earlier.
After stepping into a crowded elevator, he faced the door and quietly sang the first line of the show’s theme song: “A horse is a horse.” Then he stopped, and his fellow passengers behind him sang out in unison, “Of course, of course.”
According to the Associated Press, Young married Mary Anne Grimes in 1940 and they had a daughter, Alana, and a son, Alan Jr. The marriage ended in 1947. A year later, he married Virginia McCurdy in 1948. They had a son, Cameron Angus, and a daughter, Wendy. Information on survivors was not available.