Arnold Stang was no stranger to voice acting, cartoon or otherwise, when either Joe Barbera or Alan Dinehart decided the guy they hired as Top Cat just wasn’t right and someone else was needed. (Dinehart was the voice director on the show). In the early ‘40s, he subtracted a few years off his age and won auditions for a variety of juvenile roles on network radio before graduating to The Henry Morgan Show as the somewhat apathetic Gerard. As for cartoons, he played Popeye’s accident-prone buddy Shorty in a few shorts before he and Sid Raymond co-starred in the long-running Herman and Katnip series released by Paramount, uncredited the whole time.
People only familiar with his work on Top Cat may not be aware of the busy career Stang had in the ‘40s and ’50s. So here he is talking about it to the Philadelphia Inquirer of April 29, 1962. About six weeks earlier, it was announced the show was leaving prime-time and going into Saturday morning reruns.
'The Arnold Stang-Type', In Person
By HARRY HARRIS
ARNOLD STANG is a walking, talking zoo. Currently furnishing the voice of the title tabby in "Top Cat," ABC's animated comic strip Wednesdays at 8:30 P. M. (Channel 6), he has impersonated a Noah's Arkful of non-humans.
For some five years he was Hoiman the mouse in a "Funday Funnies" cartoon series. He was Aristotle, the philosophic turtle, in Ray Bolger's "Washington Square," speaking for a look-alike Bil Baird puppet. He has also portrayed Jasper, a 900-pound gorilla.
"Jasper was on radio," he told us with deceptive mildness (although he's now earning a weekly stipend purring like a cat, he can, when launched on a favorite topic, rotor like a lion). "I couldn't play a 900-pound gorilla on television very convincingly. I only weigh 103."
On records he's been cast as the White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland," an elephant who couldn't remember, a seal who didn't want to eat with his flippers and a merry-go-round horse tired of going round and round ("He wanted to go up and down for a change?). He has narrated "Peter and the Wolf" and "Ferdinand the Bull."
He played the title role in radio's "Eager Beaver," but he wasn't a beaver—"just a young fellow with a lot of ginger," and he won critical praise for his serious movie acting as the non-bird Sparrow in "The Man with the Golden Arm."
Also, he's continually being likened—because of his size (5'4) and the popping eyes behind the horn-rimmed specs—to chipmunk and owl.
The Bilko-like T. C. in "Top Cat" (Stang resents the comparison, growling, "You might just as well say Aldous Huxley is like me because he wears glasses!") marks his first stint as a cat.
"Of course," he adds, "the character doesn't think of himself as a cat. He thinks of himself as a very intelligent person."
Stang was tapped for the assignment after a long list of "names" had auditioned and first Daws Butler, whose voice is used in many of the other Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows, and then Michael O'Shea had been selected.
"They had made five episodes with Daws and then five with O'Shea," Stang reports, "but they weren't satisfied. When they decided to use me, they discarded the earlier animation. They felt I brought a new quality to the part, a sort of seedy grandeur, a shabby aristocracy.
"So they changed and redrew the character. Instead of a torn hat, he wore a straw with an Ivy League band. Instead of old clothes, he was given a colored weskit and an old school tie, so that he achieved a kind of shabby sophistication."
Although T C. doesn't look like Stang, he has acquired gestures and mannerisms usually associated with what Arnold terms disparagingly "an Arnold Stang thing."
"There is an 'Arnold Stang type'," he concedes.
"I have a collection of scripts, a 15-foot shelf, from shows I've never done in. which a character is described as 'Arnold Stang type.' In many cases they're far away from my conception, but the phrase has become part of television and radio show business language.
"I'm usually thought of in terms of Gerard, the part I played with Henry Morgan, or of Francis, with Milton Berle, but they weren't at all alike. Gerard was soft-spoken, introverted, quite naive, but with a native sophistication. Francis was a loud, extroverted cynic.
"One's talk was just monosyllabic. The other used the jargon of Broadway. You can't get characters any farther apart.
"Depending on the show, the 'Arnold Stang' character is usually Gerard or Francis.
I'm often called in for these parts and in each case have a definite conception of how I should play it. Often it's opposite what other people had in mind.
"I try to stay as far away from any one type as I can. I have never considered myself a comic or a second banana. I have always been an actor. I always do character lines, never jokes. I analyze every show, and I prepare the same way for comedy or tragedy. I have carefully diversified my efforts.
"Comic or serious, I have no preference. If I had my 'druthers, I'd divide my time between the serious and the light.
"Whatever I'm doing currently, I enjoy. I enjoy being a working member of show business. I like everything, even panel shows. They're very stimulating."
His greatest impact on the public, he believes, came from his association with Berle, but he considers his best comedy efforts his work on Morgan's radio and TV shows.
"I see Henry whenever I can," he says. "He's a brilliant man, though like many gifted men a difficult guy to get to know. He's well-read, intelligent, a fine judge of comedy and a helluva performer. Limiting him to sitting on a panel is a terrible waste."
Other favorites of Stang, who considers himself "a good audience, but not a loud one. for comedians; I can appreciate, but I don't guffaw," are Red Skelton, Jonathan Winters and Art Carney.
If "Arnold Stang type" has entered the show biz lexicon, many a word or phrase Stang introduced during extended engagements with Morgan, Berle, Perry Como, Ed Sullivan, "December Bride" (he played the then-unseen Gladys' brother Marvin) and other programs have become popular parlance.
Samples: "Hoo-hah!" "What's to like?" "Big deal!" "Oh, I'm dying!"
"One of the biggest yocks I ever got," he recalls, "was from an ad lib on Morgan's radio show—my first 'Ikkhh!'
"On the Berle show 'chip-chip-chip' stopped the show cold, and I had to use it from then on. I even had fan clubs that called themselves the Three Chip Clubs, I used 'You're sick!' with Berle on radio, and suddenly "sick' was all over and Frank Sinatra was taking out 'Sick, Sick, Sick' ads."
The former Seymour in "The Goldbergs" and Harold Harcleroad in "Duffy's Tavern" once won a "best actor" award for portraying a halfwit murderer in Ring Lardner's "Haircut." He's pleased that his "Top Cat" working schedule allows him time to accept outside movie and TV jobs, including "Wagon Train," "Bonanza" and "Checkmate" stints.
Now 38, Massachusetts-born Stang [Yowp note, he was actually 43 and born in New York] has been a performer ever since he auditioned for New York's "Children's Hour" with a serious reading of Poe's "The Raven." His voice was changing, everybody roared and he was offered comedy parts.
"My wife," he notes, "says I've been discovered more times than cures for the common cold. First I was discovered as a kid and had parts in three pictures and a lead on Broadway.
"Suddenly I was discovered as another thing, as if I were just out of bed. There was a lot of radio, and I don't think there's been a time that I wasn't involved in television in some way.
"I remember an experimental NBC show in 1936 with Hildegarde as m.c. I did a dramatic vignette with Gertrude Berg and George Tobias. Every 15 minutes they would stop the show and put on a spiral pattern—so the audience could rest its eyes. People thought then that constant looking at a TV screen might strain their eyes."
Arnold lives in California with his wife Joanne, a former newspaperwoman who came to interview him, and their two children, David, 11, and Deborah, 10.
Do the kids find him funny?
"I suppose they've been amused at one time or another," says Stang, "but as a rule they take me very seriously!"
You may be reading about Michael O’Shea as Top Cat for the first time. What happened? Read about it at this post from 2009. As for Daws, I suspect the reason he didn’t end up with the role was because of a comment that Joe Barbera made in the ‘60s (it appears on this blog somewhere) that Daws was responsible for too many of the studio’s main characters.
Here’s a gallery of some publicity shots for Stang; some of them may have been posted here before. The one in the top left was used in 1941 when he was on The Goldbergs. The artist’s rendering was found in trade ads in 1943 and the one next to it is from 1954.
It’s Stang as Juliet to Red Skelton’s Romeo in a Skelton TV show from April 2, 1957.
T.C. never did appeared in drag on his show, but if it had carried on for a few more seasons, you never know. If it was good enough for Fred and Barney...