Alan Reed was the key to the success of The Flintstones. You can have all the twist-on-suburbia gimmicks that you want, but without the right person to play the main character, all you’ve got is Where’s Huddles? or The Roman Holidays. And that ain’t much.
Fred Flintstone was the catalyst for everything that happened in the 166 episodes of the show. So finding the right Fred was crucial for Hanna-Barbera. And while Daws Butler was one of the greatest cartoon voice actors in history, even he must have conceded that Alan Reed was the man born to play Fred Flintstone.
In the short demo or pilot film screened by Joe Barbera and John Mitchell to ad agencies and networks to entice them to put The Flintstones on the air, Daws voiced Fred, using his ‘Gleason’ voice heard in a bunch of Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward cartoons. For whatever reason, someone decided the number one voice at Hanna-Barbera wasn’t suitable for the role after the show sold. So it was recast. Alan Reed auditioned. And he lost the part.
Fred No. 2 was Bill Thompson. Cartoon fans know him as Tex Avery’s Droopy or Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore in Disney’s Humphrey the Bear series in the ‘50s. Like most cartoon voice actors, he was an accomplished radio veteran, having provided a variety of accents on Fibber McGee and Molly, and even moving with the show from Chicago to Los Angeles in the late ‘30s. He may have been a good Touché Turtle, but he was no Fred Flintstone.
Thompson had been equally miscast with Hal Smith, who had done a bit of utility work at Hanna-Barbera starting in 1959 and won the role of Barney. Smith explained what happened in Tim Lawson’s book ‘The Magic Behind the Voices’:
Bill Thompson was a good actor, but he had something wrong with his throat. He couldn’t sustain that gravel they wanted in Fred, so Mel [Blanc] and Alan Reed started rehearsing. We had already recorded the first five episodes, and finally, we were recording one night and Bill would cough and he would stop and he’d say, ‘I just can’t keep that gravel,’ Joe Barbera was directing, and he called us in and said, ‘You know, this isn’t working.’ And I said, ‘Well, it really isn’t. It’s difficult for Bill Thompson to hang onto his voice like that because he just doesn’t have it.’ So he said, ‘Well, Mel and Alan have been rehearsing and practicing this, so I think we’re going to let them do it.’
You can only imagine what Thompson must have felt like, doing voice tracks while someone else is rehearsing your part.
So Reed was finally hired and five voice-tracks were scrapped. Whether any animation had been done at that point isn’t clear, but Bill Hanna once said Thompson and Smith were replaced after “a considerably expensive settlement.” However, there couldn’t have been any hard feelings on anyone’s part, as Thompson, Smith—and Daws Butler, for that matter—continued to work for the studio.
Some critics weren’t kind to The Flintstones at the outset—the blog will explore that soon—but once the show became a hit, it was conceded that Alan Reed had a lot to do with it. Columnist Peg Stevens wrote about it. This is from the Syracuse Post-Standard of December 4, 1960:
Radio and TV
Alan Reed Perfect for 'Flintstone'
In singling out Alan Reed to provide the voice for Fred Flintstone, producers Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara were simply following an already well-established pattern.
Fred is a lovable jerk, as those who watch this latest addition to addition to animated TV fun will agree. And for years producers have been buttonholing Alan to portray—among other things—lovable jerks!
Remember Fred Allen’s poet Falstaff? And Baby Snook’s [sic] Daddy? And that classic lovable jerk Finnegan on Duffy’s Tavern? All of them and others besides were Alan Reed.
Alan, born Teddy Bergman in New York City, was no kid-of-the-streets-who-made-good. He went to school and did so well that he managed to graduate from high school while still under age for Columbia, his goal. As a lark, he spent the imposed interim studying drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
But, once at Columbia, he majored in journalism—and found time to win the Eastern Intercollegiate heavyweight wrestling title. He also appeared in the annual varsity show—and that did it!
An Oklahoma candy tycoon, Ralph Rose, spotted Alan, then Teddy, in the college production and Alan dropped school immediately to star in a stock company for which Rose was the bankroller.
In 1927 the boom was lowered. Rose went broke and dissolved the stock company. He and Alan returned to New York, pooled their meager funds to enter a crap game, won $2,400 and promptly launched a wholesale candy factory.
After a brief run of success, the day came when a large inventory of pecan pralines turned from an appetizing tan color to a ghastly white. Creditors closed in and they were busted again!
Reed went back to acting.
Among other jobs, Alan went into radio [in 1927] and his career in this field flourished. He frequently worked in as many as 35 broadcasts a week. There was hardly a single comedy or dramatic series in the heyday of that medium that he did not appear in at one time or another.
For 10 years he was the poet Falstaff of Allen’s Alley. For five years he was the voice of Rubinoff, the violinist and musical director of the Eddie Cantor show. He was Baby Snooks’ original Daddy. And on Duffy’s Tavern he was Clancy the Cop as well as Finnigan. In Life with Luigi he was Pasquale.
Along the way he appeared with such radio stars as Jimmy Durante, Tallulah Bankhead and Bob Hope, and even starred once in his own show, the Blubber Bergman show. The New York stage kept him busy between radio programs and then he moved to Hollywood where he’s done more than 50 films of all types—like “Viva, Zapata,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and “Desperate Hours.”
When TV came along, Alan Reed was called on to do versions of his parts in Duffy’s Tavern and Luigi—then came Freddie Flintstone.
To Alan, Freddie is fun but, he’s also just another character and another jerk—to add to the impressive list of Reed creations in the past 30 years.
For a time in radio, Reed was using both his real name and the one we all know him by. It was simply a matter of economic survival. He recalled how he worked five radio shows in a day and earned a grand total of $5. Not much, but every penny counted in the Depression. But he found he was so well known from doing comedy shows—and a series of one-reel films—as Teddy Bergman, he wasn’t being taken seriously on radio row in New York City when he tried to get work on the dramatic shows. He told interviewer par excellence Chuck Shaden in 1975:
Reed was a family name of my wife’s...Her father’s name was Reed, and we had called our first-born Alan Reed Bergman. I started looking around and I said. ‘There it is right in front of us! It’s an awfully good name.’ I just chopped off the ‘Bergman.’ I had it legally changed in 1939 and that was it.
His obituary in the Los Angeles Times expanded on his career in radio, and explained Reed was in television at a time closer to silent cartoons than ones with guys in Water Buffalo hats.
His sense of timing made him a straight man for Eddie Cantor, Jack Pearl, Bob Hope, Bert Lahr, Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn and aided him in creating the original part of “Daddy” to Fanny Brice’s “Baby Snooks.”
Reed also had running roles in such radio serials as “Big Sister,” “Myrt and Marge,” “Valiant Lady” and “The Goldbergs.”
He first appeared in experimental television in 1931 in New York City — at which time he met his future wife, Finette Walker, a singer whom he watched on the closed-channel receiver outside the miniature studio atop the old CBS building. They were married the following year.
Radio did not entirely occupy Reed’s time, however, and he continued to appear on the legitimate stage, co-starring with Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in “Hope for a Harvest,” which won him a Critics’ Circle nomination as best actor of the year.
Reed had done cartoon voice work before arriving at Hanna-Barbera. You can hear him as Boris, the Russian wolfhound, in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) and the Sultan in the Mr. Magoo epic 1001 Arabian Nights (1959), wherein Daws Butler has a small role. He even got his name in print ads for the last one.
For all the talk of Reed’s versatility, he didn’t provide a lot of characters for Hanna-Barbera, probably because his accents leaned toward the ethnic humour that was finally dying out in the 1960s. He had a standard dumb voice he used for crooks on The Flintstones and (appropriately) Dum-Dum in the Touché Turtle cartoons. He was plopped into the eye-rollingly bad Where’s Huddles? as a noisy football coach. But Fred provided him with a steady role, even after The Flintstones ceased production in 1967, as Hanna-Barbera had worked out enough vitamin and cereal licensing deals to keep Fred in view in commercials if endless Flinstones reruns didn’t.
And credit has been given to Reed by Joe Barbera, Jean Vander Pyl and others for putting the phrase “Yabba Dabba Doo” into the lexicon. Warren Foster had written something else. Bill Hanna recalled in his autobiography:
Joe was up in the booth directing the recording. Alan had a script in his hand and noticed that a line called for him to shout “Yahoo!” This had been done a couple of times in the first show, but Alan came up with something that he thought had a better ring to it.
“Hey, Joe!” boomed Alan in his now famous stentorian Flintstone voice. “Do you mind if I say ‘Yabba-Dabba-Doo’?” Joe shrugged and nodded in assent. The word stayed in the script and stuck in my mind. Recalling it while writing the main title lyrics, I decided to put it into the song.
At 69 (he was born in New York City on August 20, 1907), Alan Reed died “after a long illness” at the St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 14, 1977. He had cancer. He had still been working in live action and had just finished shooting ‘The Seniors’ before he died.
Fred didn’t die with him because only lack of interest can kill a cartoon character. Henry Corden was hired to replace Reed and, in fact, played the role longer. Corden had many of the same strengths as Reed. He was a character actor who surfaced in TV sitcoms and was accomplished in dialects. And he was no stranger to Hanna-Barbera fans, as he had been cast in a bunch of bad guy roles on Jonny Quest (1965). But, for me, there was just something wrong with Corden as Fred Flintstone, and it wasn’t because I was used to hearing the original actor, almost daily, for years. He just lacked the warm resonance that gave Fred depth, making him more than a one-dimensional character. Finette Reed told Tim Lawson: “Henry has the voice, but Alan had the heart.”
That made Alan Reed the perfect Flintstone.