It has been said—and if it hasn’t, allow me to say it—that any information you want to know is out there. All you have to do is find it. In the case of information about cartoon voice actors, that sometimes involves a lot of fruitless searching.
And that brings us to Red Coffey.
Animation history hasn’t been kind to Red. Well, history hasn’t been kind to Red. A two-and-a-half year search for information about him has turned up very little, including what his name really was, when he was born and if he is still with us. But we can trace his career at Hanna-Barbera fairly easily.
Our story starts in the pre H-B studio days on January 7, 1950, the date MGM released the Tom and Jerry cartoon Little Quacker. It featured a noisy little yellow duck whose voice was clearly inspired by Clarence Nash’s Donald over at Disney. MGM didn’t have a huge stable of voice actors; there isn’t much of a need for one when half your cartoons feature characters that don’t talk. So Hanna and Barbera brought in someone new who could provide the appropriate duck sound, and that someone was Red Coffey. Barbera must have loved the duck character because it was brought back again and again until the studio closed seven years later (it also sounds like Coffey doing the “meow, meow” in Tex Avery’s Ventriloquist Cat, but I’ve been told it’s actually Harry Lang).
How Hanna and Barbera found Coffey, or whether he was already known around Hollywood as someone who did duck impressions, is one of those big mysteries I have been unable to solve. But Coffey could do much more than a duck. He was a nightclub comic, and a big enough one in 1950 to land a gig at the original Club Bingo in Las Vegas (the famous Sahara was built on the site in 1952). Through the ‘50s, Coffey was in an act with singer Jerry Wallace. Heres’s a picture of them at the Casbah nightclub (location unknown); Coffey is on the left and Wallace on the right. The two also had nice little solo careers. Wallace found himself with some hits on the country chart in the latter part of the decade and starred in Corn’s-A-Poppin’ (1956), a feature film filled with self-conscious acting and obvious, trite dialogue on a grand scale. Pardon my diversion from Mr. Coffey for a moment to link to the trailer for the movie. It has to be seen to be believed.
Meanwhile, back the ranch—and we do mean “ranch”—Coffey landed a gig on Dude Martin’s TV show on KTTV in Los Angeles, making his debut on July 22, 1953. Martin was the leader of a neat group that ventured into country swing. He later went by the name Steve Martin when he was the station’s programme director and even that wasn’t his real moniker. Coffey’s sojourn on the show was a short one. On September 16, Dude “abandoned the corny and poorly staged slapstick,” as the Long Beach Independent called it, and started loading up on less country-fied acts, like Al Martino.
No matter. Red carried on with his stage partnership with Wallace through the decade. And he made a bit a cash on the side by playing that duck in the MGM cartoons. Then, when Bill and Joe started in business for themselves and began to put together The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, the self-pitying duck returned—and so did Red Coffey. He turned up in the Yogi Bear cartoons Slumber Party Smarty and Duck in Luck (with a fabulous appearance by Yowp), Pixie and Dixie’s A Wise Quack and Snooper and Blabber’s De-Duck-Tives (as a Trafazian duck, no less). In the Yogi cartoons, he was known as Biddy Buddy or Iddy Biddy Buddy and not only got a marketing push by the studio, he was immortalised in song on a couple of Golden Records for kids (with Gil Mack rendering not very approximate versions of the H-B characters).
When Yogi Bear got so big, it made financial sense to spin him off into his own series, Joe and Bill looked through their company of supporting characters to find a couple to promote into their own shorts. That’s when the pathetic duck was tweaked a bit and turned into Yakky Doodle. But here’s where animation history proved to be unkind to Red Coffey. He wasn’t hired to voice the character. Instead, Joe put the call out to Jimmy Weldon, who began hosting a kids show in Los Angeles starting September 15, 1952. It featured a duck puppet named Webster Webfoot who, in a familiar-sounding story, had a voice clearly inspired by Clarence Nash’s Donald over at Disney. Webster was popular in the ‘50s and beloved today by those who saw him then. He made appearances on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show and even cut a record. Play it below. You can stop it when the inevitable happens and it gets too annoying.
Why did Weldon suddenly come in to play the duck that had been Red Coffey’s role for ten years? The answer could be that Coffey wasn’t available. He spent part of 1960 touring in the Olsen and Johnson show Hellzapoppin’, which is about as far as you can get from either a western act or cartoon ducks (the show featured a drunk/lamp post routine by a guy billed as Ben Dova). However, Coffey did provide his duck voice at H-B a final time in the Loopy De Loop cartoon This is My Ducky Day. Red appeared in the credits. But cartoon history continued to be unkind as his name was misspelled. The misspelling was picked up years later by people compiling information about cartoons and has been disseminated all over the internet (if he was ever credited at the end of the old Huck half-hours, the credits have been lost to history).
The Oxnard Press-Courier of June 16, 1961 reveals a gig at a high school grad (along with other acts) at the Elks Club and bills him as “the voice of Huckleberry Hound.” At this point, the Coffey trail turns cold. I can find no specific references to him after this so it is anyone’s guess whatever happened to him. At one point, some lame comedian on the internet decided to put up one of those joke entries on an Anyone-Can-Post-Anything site and that non-information started making the rounds as if it were undisputable fact. If anyone can share any biographical facts about him, please do. Perhaps animation history can yet be kind to the career of Red Coffey.