No one is ever going to call Arnold Stang “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” But, then, he didn’t need a thousand voices. One was funny enough.
Stang shone on network radio. His New York whine leaping up high until it cracked, Stang’s Gerard related the pitfalls of his life to Henry Morgan, who forsook his acerbity and jadedness temporarily for the unaccustomed role of straight man. Morgan was smart enough to know the stooge would easily get the laughs and thereby make him look better. Stang shone on early TV as Francis the make-up plasterer with his boisterous cut-downs of the smug and mugging Uncle Miltie. Arnold Stang was, besides very funny, very distinctive, though columnist John Crosby once compared radio newcomer Jerry Lewis to him. Stang even shone, the critics nodded, opposite Frank Sinatra in a dramatic role in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955).
Stang also shone as the Katnip-besting Hoiman (as Stang preferred to call him) at Famous/Paramount studios. Perhaps it was Herman’s Brooklyn street-smarts that inspired Joe Barbera and Alan Dinehart to cast him as con-mannish lead in Top Cat, which debuted 50 years ago this month. Regardless, Stang led a small group of “Man of One Voices” actors, all with a distinctive sound—Maurice Gosfield, Marvin Kaplan and Allen Jenkins, none of whom had worked in cartoons—along with nightclub comic Leo DeLyon and actor John Stephenson, who provided extra voices when needed.
He almost didn’t lead them. Thanks to newspaper clippings, here’s a bit of a time-line. It’s quite unofficial and incomplete, but it gives you an idea.
● March 2, 1961. Richard O. Martin of the Salt Lake Tribune says ABC has bought Top Cat and will air it Wednesday nights.
● March 11. Bob Thomas of the Associated Press proclaims “the cast of one of next season’s most promising TV series: Top Cat, Choo Choo, Brain, Benny the Ball, Spook and Fancy Fancy.”
● April 24. Elayne Schwartz of the Provo Daily Herald states the show had been in production for six months.
● April 29. Joseph Finnigan of UPI interviews Stang about completing the role of a Chinese cook on Wagon Train. One newspaper’s sensitive headline: “Bulge-Eyed Arnold Stang Slant-Eyed”. No mention of Top Cat.
● May 5. David John Griffin of the Hearst papers says Michael O’Shea won the role of T.C.
● May 9. John N. Jones’ syndicated column indicates Gosfield, Jenkins and DeLyon (as Spook) had already been hired before O’Shea.
● May 17. Jones and Fred Danzig of UPI report Stang had replaced O’Shea.
● May 24. Jones says casting complete with Kaplan, Stephenson and DeLyon (Brain).
But picking Stang wasn’t that easy by his own recollection. This unbylined (and probably syndicated) story appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard of September 17, 1961.
Stang and Doberman Cavort as Cartoon Cats
HOLLWOOD [sic] — Even though Hanna & Barbera have fooled around successfully with Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and those sophisticated Flintstones, H & B are kings with cats. Remember the delightful Tom & Jerry movie cartoons, made by H & B that used to accompany M.G.M. musicals with Esther Williams and June Allyson? Well, the cartoons made most of the musicals look sick and Tom & Jerry even woke up the sleepers.
This October, on Wednesday nights over WHEN-TV, the sleepers should catch a new Hanna & Barbera product, “Top Cat,” or “T.C.” to all the kids. “It’s about cats who live in a New York back alley,” said T.C. voice Arnold Stang, the little turtle-like fellow who used to say “Big man, big deal” to Milton Berle.
“As T.C., I have the mansion,” Arnold continued, “an ash can. I am the leader and these cats follow blindly. They’re not idiots just because they follow blindly either. I say let’s get on the ball. Go, go, go. Let’s do it and away the gang goes.”
Top Cat’s pals include Fancy Fancy, a very Cary Grantish type fella who wears a scarf. Then there’s Choo Choo, a dreamer, a Brooklyn poet who is played by Marvin Kaplan. Benny the Ball is a sweet little fat guy with the voice of Doberman from the Sgt. Bilko series, Maurice Gosfield. Officer Dibble is no cat but a man with a big stick and he’s played by Allen Jenkins. Other cats include Spook, a real beatnik and the Brain who is vague and dumb.
There are very few girl cats, says Arnold Stang, because the female characters are incidental. “One time I go for a cute nurse,” T.C. said, “when Benny the Ball has his tonsils out and I visit him at the hospital. But the affair doesn’t last.
“You see, T.C. comes up with the wildest dreams, but he never quite makes the dreams come true. I end up being most sentimental, I have lots of heart.”
There’ll be other cats coming and going on the series, and one, A. T. Jazz for All That Jazz, (voice by Dawes [sic] Butler) got to Mr. Stang and he hopes A.T. will return often. “The kids will dig A.T.,” says T.C.
When Top Cat first got off the drawing board Hanna & Barbera began hunting for the right voices to fit these characters and half of Hollywood was called in to talk like cats. “These cats don’t think they're cats," explains Arnold. “They think they’re people.” Right away it begins to become confusing.
Mickey Rooney was Top Cat for a while. Arnold Stang turned up and he was number one for a while. Even Jack Oakie stopped roller skating on his tennis court long enough to come into town and audition.
Judging from the list, the casting now seems topnotch, but H & B went to much trouble to get it right. Stang, for, example, was called back so often he finally said he wouldn’t come in again at night and audition. “Call my lawyer,” said Mr. Big Deal. 40 calls followed between the creators and the lawyer, and finally, Stang became the permanent T.C.
“I was playing a Chinese in Wagon Train (to be seen this fall), said Arnold, “and it took me two hours to put my makeup on. After playing a Chinese all day, I’d rush back to record for Top Cat and we’d stay until 3 a.m. I did that for a couple of weeks.
Then Stang moved over to Bonanza and became a little pickpocket. At night he’d record, changing dialogue when he felt like it. Officer Dibble became Officer Dribble, and phrases like “Oh, that’s beautiful—be-auti-ful” crept in. Or, “thank you very much. Now would you mind putting me down” was another Stang addition. “I like to fool around a bit with the dialogue,” says Arnold, who has a very good ear. This means re-drawing the storyboards, but H & B agreed.
It’s gotten to the point where Mr. Stang will also write a Top Cat, and this writing talent fits because Arnold is so immersed in the character and he has credit working on animated cartoons. One called Herman the Mouse, a theater cartoon, was sold to TV on the condition Slang’s name wasn't to be used. Why, Mr. Stang didn’t say.
“You have to think in terms of funny pictures in this business,” says writer-actor Stang. “T.C. has lots of right thinking in it.”
Say what? Mickey Rooney was Top Cat? Or the top Top Cat contender? Well, if Arnold Stang said so, it has to be true. But I’ve found nothing so far about it during my hunts in Old Newspaper Land. Hey, Mick, if you’re reading, drop me an e-mail and we can talk about it.
It seems odd the story would mention Stang’s lack of credit on the Herman and Katnip cartoons when they went to TV. He never had one when the cartoons appeared in theatres (did Paramount ever give a voice credit, other than maybe for singers?).
As you can tell by the time-line and Stang’s comments, he was auditioning for T.C. in April when he was doing Wagon Train before the role was handed to Michael O’Shea. We’ve talked about O’Shea before. If you missed the post, go HERE.
It’s inconceivable today that newspaper articles enumerating the accomplishments of someone involved in voice acting would omit a chunk of their career. But until Baby Boomers grew up and started writing about the cartoons they loved as children, that was the fate of one’s work on animated shorts, with the possible exception of Mel Blanc. Cartoons weren’t something to be taken seriously by feature-writing adults. They were old things that were run over and over and over on TV to keep kids occupied. Here’s an April 30, 1957 story with nary a peep about Stang as Cousin Hoiman.
Arnold Stang Is Handling Stable Of Personalities
By CHARLES BENTON
HOLLYWOOD, April 30—(INS)—Most of us have trouble enough handling one personality. Arnold Stang has dozens.
Some of them he developed himself. Some were created for him. Others just grew by themselves.
But basically they are all Arnold Stangs — pipsqueak-size characters with enough intestinal fortitude to look the world in the eye and deliver a resounding razzberry.
Should See File
“You should see the file of Arnold Stangs I have at home,” the diminutive, bespectacled, concentrated version of all these personalities said during a break in rehearsals for tonight’s Red Skelton Show on CBS-TV.
“You know what I mean—scripts where the writer has described one of the characters as ‘an Arnold Stang type.’ A lot of them I haven’t even played. They didn’t even bother to ask me. They call in 30 people to audition and never call me.”
Perhaps the best known Arnold Stangs today are the adenoidal character who specialized in gouging holes in Milton Berle’s ego on television and the odd, pathetic Sparrow of the movie “Man With a Golden Arm.” [sic]
The first Arnold Stang was a scrawny 10-year-old who walked into an audition for a children’s show 22 years ago and started chirping a serious dramatic reading. The audience roared.
“I.guess it was pretty funny all right—this little pipsqueak trying to give a dramatic reading,” Stang recalled with a shrug. “So they had me to do a comedy monologue. I just wanted to get into the business, so I went into the comedy.”
Stang has remained a comedian since then — although not because he wants it that way.
“The Arnold Stang I’m called on to do most really started on ‘The Goldbergs’ radio show,” recalled Stang, a serious, thoughtful and intelligent man.
“Then there was ‘Meet Mr. Meek,’ which has a variation, and ‘Duffy’s Tavern.’ Everything you do leads to another extension, you know. There’s a little bit of me in each character, along with many things that are foreign to me.
“Funny thing is that no one even remembers the best Arnold Stang I ever did. That was Gerard on Henry Morgan’s old radio show, a beautiful character.”
The Milton Berle-type Arnold Stang is probably the one to which Stang devoted the most attention—and is having the hardest time abandoning.
One Role Disappointing
The most disappointing Arnold Stang in the comedian’s brood of personalities is the one that brought him rave reviews in “Man With a Golden Arm.”
Stang had known about the story and the role for nine years—when Hollywood finally beckoned him to a sound stage for the part.
“I remember I said to my wife when I went to the studio that first day, ‘That’s the end of the Berle stuff. From now, even if I lay off for a year, I’m not going to take anything that doesn’t have my heart and interest.’”
Stang shook his head at the puzzling memory.
“Before the picture was finished, everyone was predicting that I’d win an academy award. The producer, Otto Preminger, was willing to bet money on it.
“I didn’t even get a nomination. The truth is, I guess, that The Sparrow was an odd-ball.”
After that, for a time, Stang clung grimly to his determination to switch to dramatic acting, or a least serio-comic parts.
“Then one day I said to myself ‘What is all this? What am I doing?’” he said. “I decided to go back to doing what they want me to do. I figure you’ve got to take it where it is and like it, and I’m having fun doing comedy."
Top Cat and the next two half-hour shows that Hanna-Barbera produced all seem to have this in common—they were prime time failures, but grew into successes when they moved to Saturday mornings and kids could watch them week after week after week. That took a bit of time. Perhaps that’s the reason only a few years later, Stang didn’t mention T.C. amongst his accomplishments in this June 26, 1969 interview. It was done by Newsday’s Leo Seligsohn, filling in for vacationing Gerald Nachman.
Arnold a Mighty Mite of Show Biz
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night worrying about Arnold Stang, his pulse, his blood count, whether he could use a CARE package or maybe even just a nice bowl of hot chicken soup?
Don’t. The bantamweight Barrymore with the meanest snarl this side of Mickey Mouse doesn’t need help.
Towering over a cup of instant coffee he was preparing for a guest, the five-foot, three-inch actor stood in a dressing room recently in the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Manhattan, where he is playing in “The Front Page,” and dashed any fears that he needs tending to.
Unlike many a role-seeking leading-man type hiding a hangover behind a perfect smile, Stang is as fit as a miniature fiddle and as busy as an ant at a picnic. Since he made his first diffident appearance at the age of 9 on radio’s Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, Stang has appeared in scores of television shows, Broadway productions, road shows, and films. Of the 20 movies he has done, including “The Man With the Golden Arm,” he has starred in 13.
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If, despite the long public exposure, Stang is still often recognized only as what’s-his-name, it doesn’t bother him. Pouring steaming water, into his cup, Stang explained that his image, if not his name, often precedes him on cross-country tours.
“I’m not a distant star,” he said. “Fans meet other actors after a show and ask for their autograph. To me they say, ‘You’re coming home with us for a nice home-cooked meal.’ Sometimes I go.
“Often people come to me with that knowing look in their eye and say, ‘Hiya, Woody.’ Or, if it’s not Woody Allen, then they think I’m Wally Cox.”
But, unlike the professional Stang who would probably whine and sound hurt in the manner of the Gerald [sic] he used to do on the Henry Morgan Show, or appear arrogant and carping, like the Francis he did on the Milton Berle TV show, the offstage Stang takes it all gracefully. “I never tell them they're wrong,” he said.
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Stang is as eager as anyone to joke about his might-mite image. In his dressing-room mirror is pasted a picture of his favorite hero, Charlie Brown of “Peanuts.” He lauded creator Charles Schulz as one of the country’s best psychiatrists. The cartoonist, the diminutive actor said, really understands how the little guy feels.
“Stang’s patience shows signs of wearing a little thin only at the assumption that Arnold Stang, married 19 years, the father of two teenage children, the owner of four basset hounds and a home in New Rochelle, is really the Arnold Stang type.
The offstage Arnold doesn’t look or sound like any helpless soul who needs his mother running interference. He looks far more mature than he seems onstage, though he prefers not to reveal his age. He operates without a press agent, writes when he’s not acting, and speaks of his wife and children with genuine pride.
Emphasizing that he leaves Arnold Stang, little guy, behind when he’s not working, he said, “I don’t feel that if I were playing the hunchback of Notre Dame I’d have to take the hunch home with me.”
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Nor does he see the images he creates on stage or before cameras as necessarily typifying the all-time loser. Referring to his role in “The Front Page” of a befuddled little process server seemingly intimidated by the mayor of Chicago, whom he eventually demolishes, Stang said,
“Actually, I’m Jack the Giant Killer, I can’t reach high enough to sock him in the jaw so I cut off his legs and lower him until I can.”
“No, I never yearned for a leading-man role. It’s illogical. I’d flunk the physical. Of course, I’m a great lover but when they cast romantic roles they usually want those big, California vegetables. They look beautiful but have no flavor.” It’s one thing you can’t say about the tiny titan of show business.
Let’s watch “one of TV’s brightest comedy lights” in 1954 as the subject of The Name’s the Same with Robert Guess-What-the-Q-Stands-For Lewis.
And here’s a great story from Michael Sporn about voice directing Mr. Stang which, under normal circumstances, shouldn’t be a problem.
Stang left behind some klunkers (Pinocchio in Outer Space is no It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) but who didn’t? Top Cat isn’t one of my favourite shows by a long shot but you can’t blame Arnold Stang. Nor the other voice artists, some of whom we’ll be talking about as we get closer to T.C.’s 50th birthday.
And, Stang-lovers, feel free to click on the “Topics” section of the blog for more.
P.S.: A big Yowp to Steve Sherman, from whom was extricated the TV magazine cover. You’re beautiful. Be-auti-ful.