"Mr. Ed" may be dead, but his memory lingers. The squeaky clean 1960s television show that bears his name created a national sensation and a place in sitcom history for the talking horse and his co-star Alan Young.
"We were buddies," the actor said, reminiscing by the fire one recent night in the Dana Point home he shares with Gini, his wife of 35 years. "He loved me and I loved him, and I never get tired of talking about him."
Young played architect Wilbur Post, who inherited the talking horse with the Los Angeles house he and his TV bride purchased. Wilbur's office was in the backyard barn he shared with Mr. Ed's stall. The horse wouldn't talk to anyone else but Wilbur, who thought it best that no one know about Ed's gift for gab. Many of the episodes revolved around the mischief Ed created and Wilbur's creative efforts to conceal their conversations.
Young is still guarding the secret of how Mr. Ed was made to talk for the camera. He maintains that only gentle means were used to prompt the horse, who was "pampered beyond belief" and very well treated by his trainer Lester Hilton.
But Young will tell some of his favorite tales tonight when he steps before a crowd of "Mr. Ed" fans and students at the Santa Ana High School Auditorium at "A Tribute to Mr. Ed." The 7:30 p.m. event is being presented by the Rancho Santiago College telecommunications department as its fifth annual salute to a television pioneer.
"It's part of a series we like to think of as a celebration of cult classics," said Terry Bales, chairman of the department and creator of the series, which in prior years has honored the likes of "Candid Camera's" Allen Funt and Jerry Mathers of "Leave It to Beaver," among others.
The Mr. Ed tribute (admission is free) will feature clips of the half-hour show, including the first episode; a question-and-answer period with Young, who will also sign autographs, and a sing-along led by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, the pair who penned the show's theme song.
More than 26 years after it debuted, "Mr. Ed" is still pulling in fan mail. A national Mr. Ed Fan Club headquartered in Texas publishes a newsletter and stages annual conventions. Last summer's "Live Ed" in Dallas attracted 500 "Edheads." Young, who was there to present an award to the fan club's president, said he was pleasantly shocked by the turnout and by the attention the show continues to arouse "at this late date."
What accounts for the resurgence of interest? "It isn't nostalgia so much . . . ," mused Young, "I think it's because people want to see a show that just has humor, a lot of fantasy--what Disney had in the old days--and love."
Though Young--the biographies list him as age 67--is rarely recognized now, at the height of the show's popularity he was frequently stopped on the street and more often than not, quizzed about his comical co-star. "It wasn't Alan Young they were running after," he recalled of those high-profile days, "they wanted to see the man who talked to the horse."
Reruns of the series that aired from 1960-1966, can be seen locally at 1 p.m. weekdays and 11:30 p.m. Sundays on KDOC/Channel 56, and at 5:30 and 10:30 weeknights on the cable channel, Nickelodeon.
Anaheim-based KDOC began airing the show last Sept. 15 and viewer response has been "tremendous," according to program director Claudia Draeger.
"It has been at least 10 years since it has been on in the Los Angeles market," said Draeger, who bought the show after reviewing program request lists sent in by viewers and by studying other markets, where the show is being broadcast. "Mr. Ed was always on the list . . . and in markets similar to ours it was doing very well."
She estimates that the station has received more than 50 letters from viewers pleased to see the show's return and cites a strong family following. "People will say in their letters that they remember watching it when they were growing up and now their children are watching it," she said.
In recent days, Young also has been watching, or, rather, studying the old episodes, scrutinizing the comic techniques he employed to recall what worked and what didn't.
It's all in preparation for a possible two-hour "Mr. Ed" TV special that Young says he's negotiating to do.
The palomino and most of the cast members have died, including Allan (Rocky) Lane, the 1940s-'50s Western movie star who capped his career as the voice of Mr. Ed. But Young says he will participate "if the show is done right."
Before "Mr. Ed" came along, Young had worked in radio, acted in movies (his favorites are "The Time Machine" and "Androcles and the Lion") and in television. He had his own comedy variety program, "The Alan Young Show." When the idea of doing a show with a talking horse was first proposed, Young said he turned it down.
Young says he got the part at the urging of actor George Burns, who owned the original "Mr. Ed and Wilbur Pope" stories by Walter Brooks on which the television program was based. Burns asked the director "to get Alan Young because he looks like the sort of fellow a horse would talk to."
In the years since the series ended, Young's acting career has consisted largely of voice-over roles. His animated characters can be heard in everything from "Mickey's Christmas Carol" and the "Great Mouse Detective" to the "Smurfs" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks."
He has also played a villain in the daytime soap, "General Hospital," and has been a guest on "Murder She Wrote." He recently completed his role in a film "Platinum Blonde," in which he stars with Karen Black as a drunken clown.
The Youngs, who have four grown children, moved to Dana Point 18 months ago where, according to Young, his biggest claim to fame is being a member of the Chamber of Commerce.