Wednesday, June 20, 2012

John Stephenson, Man of a Thousand Roles

I’m thoroughly convinced that there was a rule for years at the Hanna-Barbera studio—the John Stephenson Rule. One that read: “John Stephenson must appear at least once in every H-B cartoon series.” It sure seemed like it, anyway.

Sure, Mel Blanc was the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” but John Stephenson was the Man of a Thousand Roles. For years, he voiced recurring, weekly cartoon characters and countless incidental ones. It got to a point where you expected to hear him and his voice became identified with Hanna-Barbera as much as the studio’s sound effects and the brassy scores of Hoyt Curtin.

Readers of this blog can probably pick a favourite Stephenson role: the perpetually-annoyed Mr. Slate on “The Flintstones,” the Cary Grant-ish Fancy-Fancy on “Top Cat,” the original Benton Quest on “Jonny Quest,” and innumerable growling trumped villains who snarled “I might have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids and that dog...”

Unlike Mel Blanc, Stephenson had a long career on camera as well. He tested out his German accent a bunch of times on “Hogan’s Heroes” in the mid to late ‘60s; at least that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. His television career goes back long before that. While a student at Northwestern University, he debuted in a drama series on WBKB. The first episode, “The Far-Off Hills,” aired April 4, 1946. Ten years later, he appeared in not one, but two series. He was the host of ABC’s “Bold Journey,” showing amateur travel films and interviewing whoever shot the footage, while humorous ads for Ralston-Purina interrupted the proceedings. And he also showed up on NBC on the only show starring a non-animated talking dog: “The People’s Choice.” He talked about his character in this syndicated newspaper feature (I can’t find a version with a byline) that appeared in the Oakland Tribune on September 30, 1956.


How to Stuff a Shirt---And Garnish With Old School Tie
How do you stuff a shirt? Actor John Stephenson recommends this recipe: a full measure of pomposity, add restraint and spice with cliches and false heartiness, then baste with braggadocio, and garnish with an old school tie.
Mix well and serve to television audiences as Roger Crutcher, the stuffy “heavy” on NBC-TV’s “The People’s Choice,” starring Jackie Cooper and seen Thursdays on KRON.
Stephenson, a 32-year-old alumnus of the Kenosha, Wis. Little Theater and Northwestern University’s school of dramatic arts, is an expert on the subject. He’s played many a stuffed shirt on radio, TV and in movies.
He defines the character as “the businessman who feels Sunday afternoon is a poor time to sponsor a television program because ‘everyone’s out playing polo.’
“He reads the Wall Street Journal on the commuters’ train, but can’t wait to get at the Police Gazette in the sanctity of the barber shop.
“He proposes to a girl by saying, ‘Think of what I can offer you...’
“He’s long-winded, a back-slapper of the higher echelon, but looks down his nose at the lower echelon, and can carry it off even if they’re taller than he is.
“He’s not exactly a cube, but a square, who gets a joke a few seconds later than everyone else.
“He’s sartorially correct at all times. He never even puts on a sweatshirt mentally for a down-to-earth talk with anyone.
“He’s often the physical type who once captained the boxing team at Princeton— and doesn’t hesitate to remind you of it, for ‘I’ is the first letter in his alphabet.
“And if he meets with reversal, he’ll rationalize by saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s tax deductible, anyway.’
“But,” admonishes Stephenson, “don’t sell the stuffed shirt short. He can’t be portrayed as completely obnoxious. His good qualities usually out-balance the superficial ones that stamp him as stuffy. He’s competent, proper, and restrained, as well as basically honest.”
Stephenson, a rugged Air Force veteran who saw combat action in China during World II, went to Hollywood for a visit in 1948 and stayed. He lives in North Hollywood with his wife, Jean.
He enjoys playing the role of Crutcher, Cooper’s rival for the affections of pretty Patricia Breslin of “The People’s Choice.”
“The part is not written too stiffly,” said Stephenson. “Roger may be a pill, but every once in a while he gets a chance to show he’s humanly sugar-coated.”

Stephenson was born August 9, 1923 to Wisconsin natives G. Ray and Martha Stephenson; his father had been an embalmer, was Commander of the Kenosha Legion Post and wrote a newspaper story in 1918 outlining how he had survived the sinking of the Tuscania by a torpedo off the Irish coast. He was named for his grandfather and was the oldest son in the family. Young John was making headlines in the early ‘40s. While still in school, he made the finals of the National Forensic League’s annual speech tournament. It’s easy picturing him reciting a serious monologue.

Besides the Man of a Thousand Roles in cartoons, he’s the Man of More Than a Thousand Roles in commercials. He may still be doing work for Dick Orkin’s company; I heard his familiar voice a couple of years ago on some radio spots.

It’s a shame Stephenson hasn’t talked more publicly about his cartoon work. I remember seeing him quoted in a Los Angeles Times News Service piece by Steve Cox a couple of years ago and thinking I’d never read an interview with him before. I’ve dredged up his comments. The piece was published September 11, 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of “The Flintstones.” Let’s pick out his quotes:

John Stephenson, 87, who carries an undeniably familiar Hanna Barbera intonation in his speaking voice, is one of the last surviving cast members of the iconic show. Most notably, Stephenson portrayed Fred’s bombastic boss at the rock quarry, Mr. Slate, among multitudes of Bedrock citizenry throughout the program's original six-year run.
“I think the show was successful because it was an adult cartoon and viewers associated it with ‘The Honeymooners,’ ” he says. “And with the Stone Age setting and some very good writing, audiences loved it. They still do.”
Stephenson credits [Joe] Barbera’s talent for directing the cast as a key to the show’s charm, at least vocally. During those smoke-filled studio recording sessions (the show was sponsored by Winston cigarettes for a while), it was not uncommon to hear Barbera barking over the speaker, “I paid a lot of money for this script, so I want to hear the lines!”
The verbal gymnastics were always bold and lively. “Very seldom did he want anyone to talk in a moderate tone or conversational tone,” Stephenson explains. “He wanted it up there, right in your face, punctuated, laid out and hit!”

One wonders what Warren Foster would have thought hearing Barbera was paying “a lot of money for this script.”

It seems someone’s always trying to bring back a new version of “Scooby-Doo” or some other Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It’d be nice if they brought back John Stephenson, too. But even if they don’t, it’s reassuring to know he’s still out there, enjoying life we trust. People tend to want some kind of link to their happy childhood times and the Man of a Thousand Roles is one of them.

19 comments:

  1. YOWP, sincere thanks for this wonderful read about a great human being named Mister Slate.

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  2. Yowp, A million thanks for the blog on the man who IS Mr. Slate. John's voice was everywhere, from Hanna-Barbera, to " The Story you're about to see is true.." on a few seasons of " Dragnet ". And as mentioned, John was kind of a who's who of televison in the 1950's and 1960s. He was all over the tube in front of the camera on" Perry Mason ", " Gomer Pyle USMC ", " Hogan's Heroes ", " The Invaders " just to mention a very few. I remember his short scene in " F-Troop " as General Custer when Wilton ( Ken Berry ) wishes him; " Good luck at your next asignment.. at Little-Big Horn ". That one had me on the floor. A great voice actor and character actor. I'm glad he is still with us. Thanks for recognizing him.

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  3. It is nice to hear Stephenson's familiar 'pompous boss' voice in radio ads for Accountemps. Above all he seemed to excel in authority figures- bosses, cops, soldiers. And it would have been nice if he had participated in the recent TOP CAT DVD release along with then-fellow surviving cast members Arnold Stang, Marvin Kaplan and Leo DeLyon. Oh, well.

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  4. Howard, Earl Kress told me the reason why he wasn't part of it, but I'll be damned if I can remember what he said. Seems to me they couldn't get all of the actors together at the same time for some reason.

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  5. Wonderful tribute to John Stephenson. Fan of his from the cartoons and also Hogan's Heroes (one episode he's a German general, next episode he's a member of the underground) plus he's been in alot of my all time favourite shows (Hogan, Get Smart, Top Cat, Burns & Allen, F Troop, et al)

    Your site and also Kliph Nesteroff's Classic Showbiz are bright lights in a beacon of some internet drudge.

    Thank you.

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  6. That article you quote from the LA Times was a wonderful article by author Steve Cox about the 50th anniversary of the series. Unfortunately, WB didn't seem too care at all about celebrating the event. I was glad to see that a fan of the series took it upon himself to commemorate the event.

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  7. Hi, Gnu. I'm hardly in the same category as Kliph. His interviews are marvellous. He's made the effort to seek out and intelligently talk to people who might never have their stories told. His research is meticulous. I wish I had the time to do the same kind of thing, but life gets in the way. The best I can do is ferret around for old clippings.
    Anon, I'll add the byline to the post. I wonder if anyone's going to say anything about the Jetsons' 50th in September.

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  8. John Stephenson may ba annonying sas "Scooby-Doo"'s wilk-card villian down at the old amusement park, but he's the one "Scooby-Doo" that those who hate the show can relate to: someone who cannot STAND them "meddlin' kids". He did many ops on the Flinstones in addition to Mister Slate. Steve Carras of the Pokey and Toonsnoot blogs

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  9. As far as i'm concerned his most impressive role was as Mr. Peevly on ''Help... It's the Hair Bear Bunch''. That was a spot-on Joe Flynn. John Stephenson is a terrific impressionist of Paul Lynde, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff.......wow what a Boris Karloff!

    Just one question, i want straighten out his DOB, The Oakland Tribune gives him as 32 in 1956, however you give 1923 as his birthdate...which one is it, 1924 or 1923.

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  10. Just about everyone agrees on his date of birth. The story in the Tribune story was syndicated and could very easily have been written before his birthday and published afterwards when it needed to fill space. It wasn't uncommon for papers to put feature material on the hook for weeks and even months; in the pre-internet days, you could get away with it.

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  11. My Dads birthday is August 9, 1923. Thanks for a great story and all your positive comments about his career.

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  12. Hi, Roger. Thanks for stopping in.
    I found another interview with him from ages ago and will try to post it later in the summer.

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  13. I always think of Mr. Slate when I think of John Stephenson. I remember I also wasn't surprised to hear Stephenson's voice on the 1973 H-B "Charlotte's Web" animated feature film!
    And as for the many villains my human friends and I unmasked, the most famous ones he voiced included the Black Knight, Big Bob Oakley ("the Actor"), the Ghost of Mr. Hyde/Dr. Jekyll, the Creeper, and John Simms/the tiki Witch Doctor. Other villain voices included Casey Kasem (such as the Ghost of Redbeard and the Ape Man) and Don Messick (like the Hassle in the Castle Phantom.)
    -Scooby-Doo
    (reason why, I'm RPing as Scooby right now and currently dressed up as him :P )

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  14. Happy Birthday to you, John Stephenson.

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  15. Loved reading about the elusive John Stephenson! His voice is all over those Scooby-Doo cartoons and others. I was familiar with those voices from Scooby that he did but later on I discovered he did almost all the villains in the Blue Falcon series, too. He does a good Alfred Hitchcock impression when voicing a character called The Blimp in the episode "The Lighter Than Air Raid" and he provides a German accent as Eric von Flick in another episode in addition to the recurring role as good guy Chief Wiggins whose referred to as Chief Grimsley in a couple of episodes although the character design and voice remains the same for both.

    He was also a cast-member on one of Johnny Carson's early TV programs playing the part of a newsreader and commercial pitchman. I have several episodes of Carson's mid '50s television show on DVD and it was certainly a surprise to see John Stephenson, of all people, play a significant role in the series.

    Clothing wise he wore the typical fashion of the era: suit, tie, and fedora and he played the part of the hard-boiled investigator although the 'news' he delivered was comical but he kept a straight face.

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  16. Happy Birthday and Anniversary, Mr. Stephenson.

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  17. Here is my post...how come you didn't post this on your blog here on his death?http://toonsnoot.blogspot.com/2013/10/rip-john-stephenson-1923-2012.html

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  18. Well, what's your credible source on this?

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  19. Well, Yowp, to be honest, I myself believe he's GOTTA be alive somewhere-the name's too common---but someone on the SitcomsOnline board linked to some site (NOT Wiki or Internet Datasbase), but I confidentially agree with ya, I still find ity hard to believe. A Facebook page that we both post on, and I'm sure many of your other readers do too, Hanna-Barbera Cartoons & Collectibles, had some of the people discussing it last year (as they told me) but I'm STILL, like you, admittedly a LITTLE skeptical. I certainly read nothing of it at ALL last year on all those usual go-=to sites...IMDB.com and Wiki are full of (fill in the blank here)&^%$.

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