Sunday 25 September 2011

Benny the Ball Speaks

If there was any human who could have been a cartoon, that human would likely have been Maurice Gosfield.

Gosfield was picked to be the voice of Benny the Ball on Top Cat, which debuted 50 years ago this month. Adding “the Ball” to Benny’s name evokes petty hoods and sleazy gamblers in the underbelly of Brooklyn of maybe a half-century before; after all, the series did take place in a New York alley. But there was another, more important piece of geography being eyed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera—Fort Baxter, Kansas. That was the setting for The Phil Silvers Show with army conman Ernie Bilko and his platoon. Bill and Joe borrowed from The Honeymooners and came up with a hit in The Flintstones. Why not borrow from another popular comedy and come up with another smash? So it was that Bill and Joe took the fast-talking Bilko and boys out of the army, turned them into alley cats in New York and viola! (as they say in cartoons). And instead of getting someone to imitate one of Bilko’s boys, why not just hire one of the actors? That’s how Maurice Gosfield, Bilko’s Private Doberman, became a cartoon voice artist.

Gosfield was about as improbable an actor you could find, voice or otherwise. He was a disorganised mess of a man. That’s how he got on TV to begin with. David Everitt’s fine book about Bilko creator Nat Hiken, called ‘King of the Half Hour,’ relates the story:

The dumpy, spectacularly ugly Maurice Gosfield ambled into an open casting call one day, brandishing an enormous list of credits. A handful of his bit parts on stage are easy enough to confirm; more difficult to pin down are his claims of two-thousand radio credits and one hundred TV appearances. Perhaps more to the point is the recollection of a producer who remembered Gosfield hanging around with other work-hungry actors on the third floor of the NBC building [in New York] a few years earlier; he recalled that the slovenly performer was considered something of a joke. None of the man’s background really mattered to Hiken and Silvers once they got a good look at him. Nat had already picked someone else to play the most woebegone member of Bilko’s platoon, but immediately he knew that here was a man born for the part. Maurice Brenner, originally selected for the role, was recast as Private Fleischman, while Gosfield became Private Duane Doberman, the saddest of sad sacks and all-around human disaster area. The part, in Gosfield’s case, required no acting ability—which was fortunately, because he had none to speak of.

Interestingly, another actor from the Bilko show never made it onto Top Cat, but was hired by Hanna-Barbera a couple of years for the title role in Magilla Gorilla—Allan Melvin. Everitt’s book continues:

Melvin pointed out that scenes involving Gosfield involved “certain technical difficulties, like getting him in front of the camera. Or getting him to say something.” His trouble with dialogue became a subject of sporting interest to the rest of the cast. They would run a betting pool on how long it would take Gosfield to flub his first line on any given day and, more often than not, whoever bet on the shortest amount of time would win the wager.

Of course, cartoons don’t require memory work and Gosfield apparently read his lines well enough to satisfy Barbera and dialogue director Alan Dinehart. Marvin Kaplan told H-B historian Earl Kress the sessions never lasted more than a hour and a half.

By all accounts, Gosfield was utterly inept socially and professionally, so his co-stars would likely have found it funny to see him waxing philosophically about his character and the series. But there’s a story in the Winnipeg Free Press of December 16, 1961 where he does just that. Granted, there’s no byline, which means there was probably no interview and this is, instead, a ready-made puff piece from Arnie Carr and his PR staff at Hanna-Barbera (though why anyone would think Benny was “feminine” is beyond me). That leaves it open to debate how much of Gosfield really is in this story:

Gosfield Jumps From ‘Doberman’ To ‘Top Cat’
Maurice Gosfield, the well known character actor, says he always wanted to be an alley cat. “Just think — alley cats have no gas or light bills to pay, no rent, no schedules to meet, no responsibilities, no nothing. Who’s more independent or free than a character like Benny the Ball?” He added, referring to his voice role on Top Cat, the CTV animated cartoon series.
Although he achieved popularity as Doberman in the Phil Silvers series Sergt. Bilko, the
versatile Gosfield is even happier in his new feminine role. “It was a move, namewise, from dog to cat. In this case, the cat is smarter, so, in a sense, I’ve gained something.
“Benny, the Ball is one of Top Cat’s sidekicks — and while he’s an incurable optimist he’s otherwise a very sensible guy. When T.C. comes up with his grand ‘con’ ideas, Benny goes along with them only to a degree. He’s intensely loyal without being a complete idiot.”
A veteran of some 7,000 radio shows, including See and Hear, Gosfield disagrees with the generally held view that voicing for animation is just a dull routine.
“Not at all,” he says. “We actors on Top Cat — Arnold Stang, Allen Jenkins and the rest — study a storyboard of rough drawings so we know exactly what Hanna and Barbera are looking for before we begin to record. Vocally we have to complement the cartoons — they don't complement us.”
Gosfield points out that actors working in the animation medium have to tailor their performances to fit previously conceived and produced action, whereas the in-the-flesh actor fits dialogue to action and furnishes both.
“It’s challenging, and a lot of fun,” he said. “And besides, there are times when I can be as carefree as an alley cat doing the part — because it pays well. It’s not that there aren’t any bills or schedules, but this way I worry about them less.”

Gosfield fashioned himself a ladies man, despite being 5’ 2” and claiming to TV writer Bert Resnik he was too ugly to get married. “Some people may think I’m too old for romantic leads,” he told the UPI’s Vernon Scott in 1960, “but I’m only 42½ years old.” But Joe Barbera related in his book (and elsewhere) what a complete slob Gosfield was; the Bilko role really was an alter ego.

Benny was Gosfield’s last major role, unless you want to count his appearance in Teen-Age Millionaire (1961) alongside Zasu Pitts and Sid Gould. He was in hospital for hypertension in June 1964 but was up to entertaining guests. He died October 19, 1964.

SARANAC LAKE (AP)—Actor Maurice Gosfield, 51, an ex-Army sergeant relegated to the role of the fat, bungling Pvt. Doberman in the “Sgt. Bilko” television series, died Monday in Will Rogers Memorial Hospital after a lengthy illness.
Comedian Phil Silvers, who portrayed Bilko, the conniving Army sergeant, commented from his home near Los Angeles:
“Maurice Gosfield’s bedraggled appearance on television belied the articulate, knowledgable, witty man he really was. He had a zest for living which communicated itself to those who knew him and, I think, to the audience he captivated in his role as Doberman.”
Gosfield was brought to the Will Rogers Hospital for theater folk from his New York City home last summer. Doctors said he had heart trouble, diabetes and other complications.
Gosfield was transferred to Pittsburgh hospital last month, then returned here.
He was a native of New York City, educated there, in Philadelphia and in Evanston, Ill. where he attended high school he made his professional debut with the North Shore Players in Evanston in 1932.
In the next few years he perfected a talent for offbeat roles while mastering more than a dozen different dialects. “He once told me,” Hiken related, “he never worked a day in anything but the theater.”
Gosfield appeared on more than 2,000 radio programs and about 125 major television shows in addition to his four years with “Sgt. Bilko.”
His Broadway debut was in "Siege" in 1937. Other Broadway credits included “Darkness at Noon,” “The Petrified Forest,” “Three Men on a Horse” and “Room Service.”
His movie credits included “Naked City” and “Kiss of Death.”
During World War II Gosfield served as a technical sergeant with the 8th Armored Division, attached to headquarters at Fort Knox, Ky.
He leaves a sister and two brothers.

More than a dozen different dialects? Somehow, I doubt it. Even incidental characters were left to others.

My favourite Gosfield tale is one Kaplan told Earl on the Top Cat DVD.

Maurice Gosfield. He was one of a kind. He was a marvellous human being. I loved Maurice. The worst driver I ever met in my whole life. He rented a car...It was a Thunderbird. A white Thunderbird. Well, he had more dents on it, but he ended up owning it. But this is the problem with it. It had a wheel that, his feet couldn’t touch the gas pedal. And the wheel was too big in front of him so it could move over to the side. So, if you were a passenger, you’d help steer it.
And then he’d call me every day and he’d say “Marvin,” and I knew from the tone of his voice, I said “Another one?” And he said “I made a right turn.” Well, I knew he made right turns from the center lane. So he said “A policeman followed me and he pulled me over and I backed into his motorcycle.” And I said “Maurice, you know, you shouldn’t have done that.” But then he said something, he said “What I want to know, Marvin, is should I fight it?”

I’m sure if he did, his lawyer would be a fast-talking type—like Top Cat—dealing with the blustering Dibble-like cop. Because it seems Private Duane Doberman wasn’t Maurice Gosfield’s only alter ego.


  1. "The Phil Silvers Show" was filmed in New York in it's early seasons, and as a result Gosfield shares an animation voice history with "Top Cat" star Arnold Stang, in that his first voice work was done for Paramount's Famous Studios in New York -- though unlike Arnold, who was featured in over a dozen shorts before his H-B work, AFAIK, Maurice only has one lone credit, as the title character in 1957's "Greatful Gus".

  2. Thoroughly interesting post. Thanks.

  3. It's funny, Yesterday ( 9/26 )I was going through some old VHS work tapes I had shelved years ago and ran into a five minute blurb of " You'll Never Get Rich " aka " Sgt. Bilko ". It was recorded back in 1996 from the once great " TV Land " when they ran their feature; " Sunday In The Barracks ". Military sitcoms all day. When Maurice showed up on screen ,I thought of Kaplan's story about the " driving incident " and laughed out loud.. That was also one of my favorite Maurice Gosfield stories.

  4. Jim, Gosfield also showed up in the 1961 episode of the short lived " Jim Backus Show ". The ep was " Old Army Game ". Gosfield was cast as Jim's old army buddy Pvt. Dilly Dillingham. Dillingham was basically " Doberman ", what can I say. Musically, the episode also featured some familiar Hi-Q needle drops.

  5. Bea Benederet provided the voice for Benny's mother, not Gosfield himself. Gosfield voices at least one (possibly two) inceidentals. One is 'Hawaii here We COme' and (possibly) in Dibble's Double.

  6. Yes, indeed, Bea Benadaret DID voice Benny's mother, in "A VIsit from Mother" [were there others?]