Saturday, 18 September 2021

Promoting Top Cat With Arnold Stang

Top Cat had a top cast.

Marvin Kaplan (Meet Millie) and John Stephenson (The People’s Choice, Bold Venture) had both worked on television series. Leo DeLyon appeared in nightclubs. And since Top Cat was meant to invoke memories of Phil Silvers’ quick-talking Sgt. Bilko, who better to cast as the main sidekick than Maurice Gosfield, who performed the same function on Bilko as Pvt. Doberman.

Casting T.C. himself was a bit of a challenge. Film actor Michael O’Shea was tried out but couldn’t handle the dialogue. You can read more in this post. Daws Butler was tried out but he was already doing a Silvers-like voice as Hokey Wolf. Finally, Arnold Stang won the part.

By 1961, when Top Cat first aired, Stang had distinguished himself on radio, television and film (live action and cartoon). And like many stars, he was pushed out onto a publicity tour for his show. During a stop in his hometown of New York City, the Daily News talked to him about the series, his career, the Hanna-Barbera studio, and cats. It was published November 12, 1961.

Arnold Stang Likes Doing Voice of ‘Top Cat’ on TV

Appearances are deceptive. There's Arnold Stang, for example. For years you've laughed at him; you've thought of him as such a funny, helpless, lovable dope, a pint-sized schlemiel. But you've been wrong. He's really a very smart fellow.
Arnold proved that emphatically, when as a pupil in our town's Townsend Harris High School he won a gold medal for the highest state-wide scholastic average. He also gave evidence of his capabilities through successful appearances on radio shows, among them those of Joe Penner, Henry Morgan and Orson Welles, plus many hilarious TV stints with Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and other stars.
The distraught, squeaky voiced, rabbit-like youth with horn-rimmed glasses seen on television bore no resemblance to the serious, sedate man who sat beside me in the Beverly Hills Trader Vic restaurant. There, amidst the Polynesian surroundings, he told me why after many years of appearing as Arnold Stang, he had consented to become a mere voice, that of the title role in the new cartoon series. "Top Cat" (ABC-TV, Wednesdays, 8:30 to 9 P.M.).
Accepts Challenge
Speaking in low, well-modulated tones, he said simply: "It's a challenge and I've accepted it."
"But aren't you doing what most actors hate to do—eliminating your personal identification?" I asked.
Arnold, a mere five-foot-three and weighing only 103 pounds, squinted his brown eyes and answered: "Although I've been starred and featured, I've never tried to have a show of my own. Doing a series before the TV cameras is the surest way of eliminating yourself.
"Just look at the list of comedians who used to be on the air week after week, years ago—Wally Cox, George Gobel, Henry Morgan and others. They were consumed by television. Jack Benny and Red Skelton are about the only survivors.
Real Characters
"As for 'Top Cat,' in my opinion, it's not only a highly amusing animated feature but it presents characters who are just as real as a show in which people appear before the cameras."
"But the fact is that the audience only hears your voice." I said. "They don't see Arnold Stang." "That's where the challenge comes in," he answered. "Just through my words I have to create a three-dimensional cat out of a one-dimensional picture.
Good Radio Actors
"And believe me, you've got to be a good actor to do that. But come to think of it, that's what performers and sound men had to do all the time in radio. Nothing on the air was ever as funny as some of those sound effects on the old Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly shows."
"How does a fellow act the role of a cat in one of these cartoons ?" I wanted to know.
"It's quite a job." Arnold explained. "But the firm of Hanna and Barbera, who created ‘Top Cat,’ are geniuses when it comes to producing animated cartoons. You know what they did with ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Huckleberry Hound.’ So they've worked out a good system for their live actors.
‘Story Board’
“First of all, there's a 'story board.’ It's a sheet of paper containing about 30 frames of pictures. These represent the key incidents of the action. While looking at this, we actors have a script of the dialogue; in this way we can visualize the scenes in which our lines are spoken.
"This takes place in a recording studio. We read the script and our words are taped. We convey character through our tones. For example, as Top Cat, I have a low, throaty voice, one that suggests a lovable con man."
"Now that you play a feline, are you fond of cats?" I asked.
"Oh, I like 'em; but I can take ‘em or leave ‘em," Arnold told me. "I've always owned dogs; but some of my best friends have cats."
Cats Aren't Villains
"Why is it that cats are so often portrayed as villains?"
"I don't think they are anymore," he said. "Today, most persons regard cats as very intelligent animals, strong-minded, determined and independent. Why, even such a virile fellow as the late Ernest Hemingway was fond of them.
"Incidentally, this is not the first time I've been associated with an animal. In one show I was the voice of a gorilla, and some years ago, I appeared in an NBC color special, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ in which, believe it or not, I portrayed the giant. And that production had an animal ballet. And guess who played the hind half of a cow? None other than Jason Robards Jr!"
Audience Laughed
The son of an attorney, and the nephew of a man who at one time headed a New York City school district, Arnold was born in Chelsea, Mass. Sept. 28, 1923. Many years ago, he sent from there a postcard to the famous Children's Hour radio show asking for an audition. Getting an affirmative response, he appeared garbed in knickers and wearing glasses, to give a serious reading of Poe's poem, “The Raven.” But his voice was changing at the time. "No sooner had I read the opening line than the audience roared. From that time on, although a serious youngster, I was tabbed as a comedian," Arnold recalled.
Soon he was on radio as a regular with Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen and Milton Berle. He created what is now known as the "Stang type" of characterization in "Duffy's Tavern" and the "Easy Aces" series. When TV came, Arnold made a hit as Francis, the stagehand, in the Berle shows.
A 'Serious' Actor
Arnold also appeared in many Broadway plays including "Sailor, Beware," and not long ago scored as a serious actor with his moving portrayal of Sparrow in the movie, "The Man With the Golden Arm." His success in that role was one of the highlights of Arnold's life. For despite the laughs he evokes, like most comedians, he has always wanted to be a "serious" actor.
"As a matter of fact, I'm a serious guy," he said. And always a student, he might have added. That's why, after his family had moved to New York, he was able to win that scholastic honor at Townsend Harris High.
Lives on Coast
Following years of shuttling between New York and Hollywood, Arnold, his wife, Jo Anne, and their two children, David, 10, and Deborah, 9, have finally moved to the Coast. There they bought a house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles which, unfortunately, was destroyed by fire last week.
Stang, unlike some stars, has a special fondness for the press. He said: "My wife once worked for the Sunday section of The News and I met her the first time when she came to interview me for the now-gone Brooklyn Eagle."

Stang was one of a number of actors who fudged about their age, likely to get younger roles in radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was five years older than he let on.

Screen Gems tried a different kind of publicity tour involving Stang before Top Cat aired. Here’s a description from Variety, Sept. 27, 1961.

A Screen Gems Primer On How to Promote A Cartoon ('Top Cat')
ABC-TV is preeming "Top Cat" tonight (Wed.), but there was a problem originally of how to promote the cartoon series via one of tv's traditional pre-preem road tours to warm up local audiences.
Screen Gems, the outfit that sold "Cat" to the web, solved the touring problem. SG flack chief Gene Plotknik, giving his show the edge over the three other cartoon series preeming this fall, got producer Hanna-Barabera [sic] to have Arnold Stang and Maurice Gosfield, the show's main voices, prerecord five-minutes of banter with local tv emcees. Gosfield and Stang ask the questions and spaces are left on the disk for answers, which any local performer can answer.
That accounts for the voice part of promo. As for "bodies," Plotnik got Eaves to turn out costume replicas of the cartoon characters involved, Top Cat and his pal Benny the Ball, which are being bicycled around to ABC affils in special containers. Costumes have been worn by office boys and flack gals at the local station level, who have gestured, mimed and danced to the words of Stang and Gosfield.
The "Cat" has played nine major markets since Aug. 15.
Main trouble? Plotnik says that there were no press interviews as on other promo tours. "With the press these days," he says, "you can't get down the answers in advance."

Despite the fine cast, which also included veteran Warner Bros. character actor Allen Jenkins, and an effective music library by Hoyt Curtin, the show didn’t survive. Daily Variety reported less than two months after Top Cat debuted that ABC was negotiating for a revival of The Rebel to replace the cartoon series in mid-season. That didn’t happen, but ABC announced reruns would appear on Saturday mornings the following year (Variety, March 14, 1962).

Fans will argue the show was just as popular as H-B’s other prime time animated half hours, and they might have a point. Reruns showed up on small screens season after season, first on regular TV then cable; a flash-animated movie was released in 2011; an “origin story” computer-animated film came out to major yawns several years later; and he’s one of the characters in the Jellystone! streaming series.

Arnold Stang is no longer with us (Leo De Lyon is apparently the only cast member who is) but you can always pull out home video with the 30 episodes and enjoy him one more time.


  1. It's interesting that when he listed some of his previous voiceover jobs for animal characters, Stang didn't choose to name his most famous and long-lasting to date, namely Famous Studios' Herman the mouse.

    1. Yes, Mike and, in fact, I've noticed that in a few interviews. I don't know whether the columnist decided not to use the information, because I have seen in mentioned in other 1961 vintage columns.

  2. May I correct you, but Gigi Perreau was also on the show, and she's still alive as well. She's currently 80 years old.

    1. Absolutely correct. Yowp, in 1988 they had their own movie for TV, TOP CAT & THE BEVERLY HILLS CATS.Arnold's even back on the lead (and also in his own new series of commercials..VICKKS COUGH drops!)

    2. Thanks S.R. I appreciate that. When I talk about the cast of a show, I don't mean someone who shows up once. Walter Cronkite appeared on the Mary Tyler Moore Show once but no one considers him a member of the show's cast.
      Unfortunately, the credits of the show were lopped off on TV and on the dvd. I can find no contemporary source that said she appeared. I won't use on-line pages, data bases or pedias where fans write what they want unless there's a source I can check for myself.

  3. I remember being frustrated that I couldn't find repeats of Top Cat when I was in my teens/twenties. I had VAGUE recollections of it from when it first aired (I was born in 1958) but it had become a holy grail of sorts. It was never re-run on local Detroit stations at all during that time period. Maybe the thing I liked best about the series was the urban setting. HB's artists did an amazing job, versus the stone age dwellings, western towns, and bear caves that were prevalent in HB's other series around the same time.

    1. I see what you're saying. I love the Jetsons designs and the attempts by the layout and background people to find some variation. But Top Cat offered greater possibilities, at least in the area of architecture.
      Incidentally, I've never seen such a clean city in my life than on T.C. Even the garbage cans are clean!

    2. LOL! Fuinny,yowp! RobEB, I,being born in 1960, also have fuzzy memories..of when it aired.still love the song an cast