Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Raise a Glass to Uncle Tex

Hal Smith was a typical television overnight success. “Overnight” took over a decade.

By “success,” we mean “national fame.” Until he landed the role of Otis the town drunk on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ in 1960, Smith was known in Los Angeles as a jack-of-all-trades in the pre-network feed days of local TV, bouncing from station to station starting by 1950. He was what was known in the press as a “zany.” He appeared as a panelist on game shows hosted by Art Baker (“Stop, Look and Listen”) and Chet Huntley (“Who Knows?”). He hosted a bunch of movie shows, one with future voice artist Nancy Wible, another dressed as a Keystone Kop and still another where he showed the first film he appeared in (“Stars Over Texas”). He did kid shows, including appearances as Santa Claus (preparing him for later cartoon work in that role). And when network shows began shooting on the West Coast he found work, as you’ll soon read.

Hal’s name vanishes from newspapers around 1956 and doesn’t re-appear until his hit recurring appearances as the happy, responsible, weekend-only drunk in Mayberry, beginning October 10, 1960. That’s when everyone started noticing him. Interestingly enough, the stories I’ve run across mention his cartoon work, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The Milwaukee Sentinel of March 26, 1961 gives a bit of a biography in an unbylined story.


He Has Staggering Assignment
Hal Smith Plays Town Drunk in Griffith Series
AS OTIS, THE town drunk of Mayberry, on the Andy Griffith show actor Hal Smith feels right at time.
Not because he’s an alcoholic, but because he’s familiar with small towns. He’s lived in enough of them. Born in Petrosky, Mich., with his family Hal moved to Wilmington, N.C., then to Dickinson Center and Massena, N.Y., and ultimately the large and small towns of show business, as a traveling musician before he became an actor.
Formed Team
“I had good indoctrination for my future career,” the rotund actor says. “My father was the end man with High Henry’s Minstrels and when I was 6 years old, my brother and I played elves in the Follies of 1923, down in Wilmington. Later in high school my brother and I formed a vaudeville team and I finally started singing with Freddie Cornburst and his orchestra, later known as Freddie Kaye.”
It was after service in World War II in the South Pacific that Hal came to Hollywood, broke into radio and ultimately motion pictures.
“I don’t think the fact I’d lived in North Carolina had anything to do with my being cast as ‘Otis’ on the Andy Griffith show,” he says, “but I can fall into a southern drawl without much effort,” he drawled.
Many Roles
He can do many other voices too, as witness to the fact he did over 100 filmed commercials last year. And if the face seems as familiar as the voice, it’s because Hal played the next door neighbor in I Married Joan, Floyd the Barber in The Great Gildersleeve, the barber in Jefferson Drum and roles in 22 segments of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
In addition, he does voices on The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw.
“The part of ‘Otis’ is the hardest acting of all, though. It’s because I’m generally—shall we say, inebriated. And I don’t drink,” he concluded with a tone of futility.
The Griffith show is seen on CBS-TV at 8:30 p.m. Mondays.

Here’s a piece from the Syracuse Post Standard of Sunday, December 31, 1961. Syracuse is not far from Massena where they gave a day in Smith’s honour in 1964.

Hal Smith Returns Home
TV Comedian Visits Massena
MASSENA—The story of Hal Smith, television and motion picture personality is one of a Massena area resident making good. Hal is perhaps best known in entertainment circles for his current role as Otis Campbell, town character, on the Andy Griffis [sic] TV show.
He graduated from Massena High school in 1936. Hal left Massena after graduation for Utica. After a long pull at a radio station there he joined the Air Force during World War II. After discharge he went to the West Coast.
While in high school in Massena Hal acted in several school productions.
He was known as “The man of a thousand voices” and still has quite a few tucked away in his vocal cords. Hal does some of the voice work on the popular cartoon series “The Flintstones,” “Huckleberry Hound” and other TV favorites.
His parts in movies and television have been primarily comic. Perhaps one of the least publicized bits he played was in the film “The Apartment.”
Hal was the drunken Santa Claus who rushed into a bar and ordered a “quick one” because his reindeer were double parked.
Acting is hard work, he said, and to stay in the business you really have to like it and Hal Smith loves his work.
[missing line]
Durante, Loretta Young, Claude Raines, the Great Gildersleeve and many others.
On his visit to Massena, Hal had little time to call his own. Wherever he went he was greeted by old friends and fans. He said he had found that Massena was a far cry from what, he remembered it to be many years ago. “But I think I could still find my way around if I had to,” he added.
Hal makes his home in Santa Monica, Calif., with his wife and son.
In relating some of the odd incidents which have happened in his TV and movie career, Hal said he remembered an episode during the filming of a western TV series.
A stunt man took the part of the show’s star for a scene where the star was to get punched in the face, Hal said the stunt man had rehearsed the part and had it down pat. “He must have forgotten to duck, because he really got clobbered. In fact it broke his nose. And then. . . to top it off. . . the director made them shoot the scene over because the punch didn't look real.”

Yes, with fame came profiles by national TV columnists, all of whom pointed out Smith’s side-career at Hanna-Barbera. Here’s on from May 29, 1965 by Erskine Johnson of the National Enterprise Association.

Heavy Elf Blends With Tots, Pancakes
HOLLYWOOD. — We have with us today the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of television.
He’s a gregarious, roly-poly comic with a rubber face and a bundle of trick voices who once played an elf in a kiddie show.
“And,” laughs Hal Smith, breaking himself up, “I’m still an elf—just a few hundred pounds heavier.”
YOU HAVE seen Hal for five years now as lovable Otis Campbell, the Saturday night drunk who locks himself up with his own jail cell key on CBS-TV’s The Andy Griffith Show.
But now hear this:
Every morning, on a Los Angeles television kiddie show, Hal Smith is the delight of the kiddies as “The Pancake Man” for a chain of Southern California pancake houses.
Hal, children and pancakes are a happy blending.
“I love children AND pancakes,” he laughs.
The kiddies are in on Hal’s double life.
“I TELL THEM I’m Otis, the good-natured drunk on the Griffith show but they don’t mind. Happily, the sponsor doesn’t, mind either."
When you get down to it, the other lives, careerwise, of Hal Smith are more than just double. He’s Otis and The Pancake Man and he’s also the voice of Uncle Tex on The Flintstones and the voice of Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. He’s also 50 or 60 other fellows in TV commercials, which he makes as fast as his morning sponsor makes pancakes.
“I’m lucky,” beams Hal, a one-time Utica and Buffalo, N.Y., radio announcer who landed in Hollywood in 1946 after keeping the fellows laughing during World War II as an Air Force special service officer.
“I HAVE A RUBBER face, with a different voice for any occasion. I can lift an eyebrow, wear a mustache or a beard and look and sound like 50 other fellows.”
Just how well he is doing as a man in a revolving door who never looks or sounds the same way every time he comes around, is the envy of his fellow actors.
He lives in Santa Monica, with his wife and 15-year-old son, owns a 25-foot boat, a 400-acre ranch in Northern California and passes out expensive cigarette lighters to friends and strangers.
“I’m a happy man doing what I like to do,” says Hal.

And this United Press International column from August 18, 1966 points out cartoon voice work had come a long way from Bill Hanna’s policy of “Scale for everybody but Daws” at H-B in the late ‘50s.

Sober Hal Smith makes convincing toper on TV
By VERNON SCOTT
UPI Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — Inebriation is frowned on in television, but for the past six years Hal Smith has been bombed out of his mind as the town drunk on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Smith is jolly Otis Campbell who staggers in and out of the Mayberry jail to sleep it off. Even has his own key to the cell.
Playing both souse and jailbird is a mixed blessing for Smith. It provides him with a handsome income but plays hell with his personal reputation.
“Strangers come up to me and ask if I’m sober,” he says. “Others are surprised to see me walking the streets, figuring I should be in jail.”
Smith himself is a light social drinker, guessing, that he downs fewer highballs than the average householder and certainly less than most Hollywood actors. He can’t recall the last time he was flat out stoned.
Early American
The actor and his wife of 18 years, Louise, live in a rustic early American home with three bedrooms, three baths, family room and den. Their swimming pool is the Pacific ocean which is a scant two blocks away.
They are the parents of Terry, 16, who takes a good deal of teasing about his father’s television drinking habits.
Smith’s role as the town toper on the CBS-TV series probably brings him less income than his other activities, primarily dubbing voices for cartoon characters. He has a wide range of dialects and voices, sometimes putting them to use five days a week for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio.
In the mornings he usually rises early enough to fix his own breakfast in time to report to Desilu studios by 7:45 clear eyed and ready to pretend he’s drunk.
Depending on the schedule, he returns home between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., or goes directly from Desilu to the Hanna-Barbera studio in the San Fernando valley for recording sessions, driving the 15 miles in a large and expensive sedan.
Once home Smith finds himself surrounded by knotty cedar paneling and early American wall paper and antique furniture. The kitchen is a change of pace with copper appliances and cabinets painted a Chinese vermilion.
Upstate New Yorker
Hooked rugs cover most of the floors and Smith is especially proud of reproductions of the famed paintings of Blue Boy and Pinkie done in petit point with yarn. There also is a picture painted by his mother at age 75 depicting the old maple sugar farm in upstate New York where Smith was raised.
There is a gardener to tend the Smith lawn and flower beds, but the actor spends much of his free time in a greenhouse cultivating birds of paradise plants.
On sporadic vacations the Smith family packs off for a plush ranch home on the Klamath river near the Oregon border where Smith raises cattle and alfalfa on 400 acres of rich farmland.
“We’re going to start raising thoroughbred horses up there soon,” Smith says. “It’s a wonderful place to get away from the hustle-bustle of work.”
Smith fancies himself an exceptional outdoor cook and on weekends can be found at the barbecue broiling anything from hotdogs to steaks. On these occasions the family dachshund, Fritz, frolics nearby, hoping for scraps.
The Smiths entertain at two or three big parties a year, but two or three times a month friends stop by for a casual dinner and a round of drinks.
Actor Smith also is an amateur airplane pilot but has little time to fly.
His wardrobe is geared to television, but the slovenly outfit he wears as Otis Campbell is-restricted to the show.
One more thing, Hal Smith has never been jailed for drunkenness—or for any other reason.

In the few years between his local TV gigs drying up and gaining TV immorality as Otis, Hal jumped into the world of animation. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were looking for new talent in 1959 as they were adding another half-hour syndicated TV show (Quick Draw McGraw) and a theatrical series (Loopy De Loop). They tried a bunch of different people but the only ones who kept getting called back were Smith and Jean Vander Pyl. A year later, both won starring roles on ‘The Flintstones,’ but Smith’s Barney Rubble was re-cast with Mel Blanc in the role. Interestingly, Hal apparently was given a reprieve and lost the role a second time. This is from Hedda Hopper’s column, dated February 25, 1961.
Oh, by the way, don’t judge an actor’s abilities by the role he happens to be portraying at any given time. Hal Smith, for instance, who plays the town drunk on “The Andy Griffith Show,” will be subbing for the injured Mel Blanc on “The Flintstones.”
He may have “subbed” for Blanc, but the prime role of Barney went to Daws Butler. We can only guess Joe Barbera still wanted an Ed Norton quality to the voice and that’s what Daws gave him.

Regardless, Hal didn’t need the role. He was the announcer on ‘Hazel,’ and voicing countless commercials and cartoons at the time I won’t even try to enumerate; you couldn’t escape his voice. And that’s even before his huge, lucrative career at Disney.

Hal died of a heart attack on January 28, 1994. The sad thing is the popular press didn’t report it for more than another two weeks. Maybe no one told the wire services. Too bad. That’s treating him like the town drunk.

9 comments:

  1. Smith's initial activity with Hanna-Barbera seems to have been the stepping stone to his first work with Mel Blanc, on the Post cereal commercials for "The Bugs Bunny Show" (Post also being the main sponsor for "The Andy Griffith Show" in the fall of 1960, you can almost say Hal was brought to America's notice by General Foods).

    (And as a side note it's also ironic, given his fame is mainly due to his role on TAGS, that Smith played a character named Floyd the Barber on another show. Don't know if I'd really want Otis cutting my hair...)

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  2. What a great way to really get to know Hal Smith.
    These articles paint a lovely picture of the man at work & at home.
    Thanks do much for sharing these.

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  3. After first seeing “Christmas Flintstone” as an impressionable young ‘un, I couldn’t imagine Santa Claus sounding like ANYONE other than Hal Smith!

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  4. Thanks for the blog on Hal Smith. Hal has always been one of my favorites. A jack of all trades, and according to many, a real prince of a man. Between 1987 and 1994, Hal had gone back to his original roots, radio, joining Walker Edmiston, Dave Madden, Joan Gerber, Dick Beals, Jimmy Weldon among others playing the part of the beloved John Avery Whittaker in radio's " Adventures In Odyssey ". I agree with Joe. When I think of Santa's voice, I think of Hal Smith.

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  5. I don't know how much acting he did on radio in the old days, Errol. It sounds like he was more of a staff announcer on local radio; he did the morning show in Utica. I can find no evidence he acted in network shows though logic suggests he must have done some acting after the war.
    He and Beals worked on The Funny Company and I'm pretty sure they did commercials together in the early 60s.

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  6. Careful there, you accidentally posted tyhree times. Him, Beals, and Ginny tyler or later Nancy Wiuble were of coruse heard on Davey and Goliath in the 60s. Steve

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  7. For all of Mr. Smith's huge volume of voice work throughout the history of H-B, as well as virtually every other Hollywood-based animation studio, he's probably best known not for any regular character but for Uncle Tex and one-shots Uncle Giggles ("I may be a kook- but I'm a RICH kook!"), a robber ("Nice and slow, see? That's the way to do it. Nice and slow.") and J. Gottrockets, original owner of Astro/Tralfaz("Tralfaz? Yuck!!").

    That and the maniacal laughter he provided for Giggles, the Piccadilly Dilly, and 'ghosts' in at least one SCOOBY-DOO episode. His on-screen voice as Otis The Drunk is actually quite subdued compared to his cartoon roles. When Smith played more rambunctous characters on THE BRADY BUNCH and THE ODD COUPLE (as "the only clown with an adding machine"), he sounded more like 'himself'.

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  8. Hal Smith, truly a voice genius. His lion from Pixie and Dixie (Uhhh...Coup de Grasse) that kills me everytime i hear it. Also don't forget the new commissioner on Top Cat, Flinthart Glamgould and Gyro Gearloose on Disney's Ducktales were good incarnations of the comic book characters, The Foreman, Ol' Vacuum, Cow Rustler on Quick Draw McGraw, nearly everybody on Masquerade Raider, also Uncle Giggles is great. Raise a Glass to Hal Jay Smith, the best texas-sounding non-Texan.

    Have a request, these articles are terrific, but who do i have to (you get the idea) to see one about John Stephenson. Or better yet, conduct a Q&A with Mr. Slate. Wikipedia claims he doesn't give interviews, thought. But Wikipedia,can write down anything, they can write that John Stephenson is going to detonate Washington.

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  9. Anon, all I know is John Stephenson's son is on FB.

    I have not had much luck getting people to accept interview requests. Evidently the people who worked on these cartoons don't want to reminisce.

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