Comic actor Alan Young, best remembered for playing straight man to TV’s talkative horse, “Mr. Ed,” interrupted his career 30 years ago to become communications director for the Christian Science headquarters in Boston.
But after running into what he called bureaucratic resistance for three years, followed by a couple more frustrating years as a Christian Science lecturer, Young left the church jobs behind in order to work his way back into show business.
“A false rumor had spread that I was a minister, and I dampened a few parties by just showing up,” said Young, who lives in Studio City. Eventually, Young returned to Hollywood via Disney animation writing and voice-overs plus television and theater work. Although he remains a devotee of writings by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, he is no longer a churchgoer.
Despite insisting that he harbors “no sour grapes about my experiences there,” he takes some punches at the church in his recollections of the experience in print, “Mr. Young Goes to Boston,” a paperback recently released by H.M. Wright Publishing in Seattle.
Young’s memoirs may again roil the waters of Christian Science, a denomination beset by intermittent controversies in recent decades.
“It is obvious to me that the ‘Mother Church,’ or Boston hierarchy, is either collapsing or becoming irrelevant to Christian Scientists,” he writes. “Heretical as it sounds, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.”
Young suggests further that the worldwide membership of the church is so small it could be seated in the Rose Bowl, which currently holds 98,636 people. The church has had a long-standing policy against releasing membership figures, but some other published analyses also have estimated total membership at under 100,000.
Based on his independent pursuit of Christian Science and his travels, Young also contends that the numbers of people “studying and practicing Christian Science outside the church are equal to the numbers in the church.”
Asked for comment, church spokesman Robert Gilbert of Claremont said he had “no way of estimating” how many people belong to the Church of Christ, Scientist--as the Boston church and branch churches worldwide are officially called.
It’s possible that Christian Science doctrines are being followed by as many people outside the church as in it, but there is no way to estimate their numbers, said Gilbert, who directs the church’s Committee on Publication for Southern California.
“I wouldn’t be surprised in this day, when organized religion is suspect and people are emphasizing individual spirituality,” Gilbert added.
Mrs. Eddy, as members customarily refer to her, wrote about spiritual healing before the church was organized, “so you don’t have to be a member of the church to practice Christian Science,” he said.
Gilbert said that he had not read Young’s book but commented that Young “has his decided views” about the church.
Born Angus Young in England on Nov. 19, 1924 (reference books giving 1919 as his year of birth are wrong, he says), Young and his family moved to Canada when he was young. He became devoted to Christian Science after he suddenly overcame bronchial asthma and his mother’s health improved following their reading of Christian Scientist literature left by a church worker who had visited their drafty home in a converted garage outside Vancouver.
“When medical science has no cure for an individual’s malady and the healing comes through Christian Science, as was the case in my family’s experience, then the natural result is a deep desire to help others to find release from physical woe,” Young explains in his book.
Looking for work in New York and Hollywood, Young played in radio comedy programs and made several movies, starting with “Margie” in 1946.
Young had a date with Marilyn Monroe in the 1940s when she was an 18-year-old newcomer named Norma Jean Dougherty. They talked mostly about Christian Science, stemming from his remark about a photograph of the Mother Church hanging in the Santa Monica home of Ana Lower, a Christian Science practitioner who lived with the future film star for several years.
“I could hardly get a word in edgewise as Norma enthused about Ana and how she enjoyed going to Sunday school, and on and on,” Young recalled.
Young starred in the latest of his unremarkable films, “Androcles and the Lion,” in 1953, but by that time he was known as one of live television’s first comedy stars with “The Alan Young Show” (1950-53) winning two Emmys.
When westerns and quiz shows became the TV rage in the mid-1950s, Young went to England to accept a radio offer there and made two small-budget films.
Homesick, he returned to America in 1960 and hooked up with Arthur Lubin, who had directed six of the popular “Francis the Talking Mule” films in the early 1950s. Lubin also owned the rights to magazine short stories about a talking horse. Hoping that the public had not overdosed on garrulous equines, Lubin wanted to turn the stories into a TV series.
George Burns, whose longtime comedy partner and wife, Gracie Allen, had just retired, was producing the nascent program and had suggested that Young be hired to play Wilbur Post, an architect who finds that the palomino in his barn talks to him, and only him.
“He looks like the kind of guy a horse would talk to,” said Burns.
“I took it as a compliment,” said Young.
The half-hour comedy ran from 1961-66.
Young decided to accept an invitation in 1968 from Christian Science headquarters to be their director of communications, a job quickly defined as dealing with television and film productions. His proposals and efforts to make professional-quality films or a television show carrying the church’s message got nowhere, by Young’s account.
Researcher Stephen Gottschalk of Wellesley, Mass., who has written extensively on Christian Science, noted the irony of later developments.
“A lot of the marketing and publicity stuff the church is doing today is the kind of popularizing Young wanted to do then,” said Gottschalk.
The respected Christian Science Monitor newspaper waned in size and impact during the 1980s and early 1990s as church leaders tried and failed in their creation of the costly Monitor Cable Channel.
From 1991-93, the church was embroiled in a controversy over a $97-million bequest from the family of a biographer of Eddy. The biography nearly deified the church founder and was rejected for publication by the church in 1948, but the will said it had to be published as “authorized” literature by the church and prominently displayed in the 2,700 Christian Science reading rooms worldwide for the bulk of the estate to go to the church.
The church’s decision to publish the book caused a groundswell of protest in the church, but a lawsuit by the other potential beneficiaries--Stanford University and the Los Angeles County Museum--was settled in 1993 with the church receiving 53% and the university and museum splitting the rest.
Once he decided to return to show business, Young said he paid relatively little attention to news of the church. “People would call me up and tell me about tribulations there, thinking that I would be rejoicing,” he said. “But I didn’t, because you don’t leave a bookmark in Hollywood where you left off and that [comeback try] took all my efforts.”
Young played dinner theater shows in the mid-1970s, but got a break with a call from a young Christian Scientist he had hired to help him in Boston, who then was in charge of Walt Disney Productions’ music recording division.
Young was asked to create “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” an album based on the Charles Dickens tale, and provide some of the voices. When the album did well, Disney also made a movie version--with Young drawing on his Scottish heritage for the voice of “Scrooge McDuck” in that animated feature and a series of subsequent films.
He also appeared in “Beverly Hills Cop III” and had a role in the late 1980s TV sitcom “Coming of Age,” among other credits.
But with the syndication of “Mr. Ed” on cable television and abroad, Young is still linked publicly with the talking horse.
“There’s a delicatessen near here where I get my dinners,” said Young, whose small apartment displays a portrait of Mr. Ed. “A chap behind the counter said to me, ‘I know you. You’re No. 1 in China.’ ”
Young added with a smile, “Now, they don’t pay anything [to broadcast the shows], but it was nice to know.”