Mister Peepers was one of the first popular sitcoms. It aired from July of 1952 until June of 1955. The show starred Wally Cox as Robinson J. Peepers. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher. A great cast surrounded him including history teacher Harvey Weskit (Tony Randall), Harvey’s wife Marge (Georgann Johnson), county nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit), English teacher Mrs. Gurney (Marion Lorne), and athletic coach Frank Whip (Jack Warden). (In the pilot, the coach was played by Walter Matthau.) Peepers developed a relationship with nurse Nancy, and her parents (Ernest Truex and Sylvia Field) also became part of the cast.
The show featured some slapstick as well but it was not the primary form of humor. In one episode, the uncoordinated Mr. Peepers was playing basketball in the gym alone and somehow got stuck in the basket. In order to fulfill the evening obligations that he promised, he brings Mrs. Gurney’s flower club into the gym so he can lecture to them about potting soil while playing chess with a rival school’s champion as promised to Mr. Gurney.
Mr. Peepers is kind. In one episode, after injuring his finger, absent-minded Mrs. Gurney tries to help by bandaging it. In addition to using half a roll of tape, Robinson informs Nancy that she bandaged the wrong finger.
Mister Peepers is a likable guy. He has some eccentric characteristics which make us like him even more. For example, he has an elaborate ritual to get his locker to open; on bring your pet to school day, he has to hide a cow; and sometimes he does things we all want to. On one episode, he comes upon a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and just like we would want to do, he plays it not realizing his girlfriend is watching him. However, Robinson has a bit of rebellion and sarcasm that keeps him from being too much of a goody-two-shoes.
Tony Randall’s character Harvey was supposed to be a small role, but the producers liked him so much he became a regular. He is best friends with Robinson but they couldn’t be more different. Harvey is a lady’s man. However, Mr. Peepers only has eyes for Nancy even though it takes her a while to realize he is interested in her. The couple ties the not in 1954, producing a huge ratings boost.
In real life, Cox was experiencing the same situation when he married Marilyn Gennaro about the same time. When Benoit became pregnant in real life, she was also pregnant on the show.
When the Peepers found out they were having a baby, American Character Dolls Co wanted to make a “Peepers Baby Doll” in 1955. Polling indicated that viewers were hoping for a girl, so it went into production. Mister Peepers was cancelled before the doll debuted, but the company sold it anyway, although they did change the name.
The show was aired live with an audience of 2500 at the New Century Theatre in New York. Preserved on 16mm kinescopes, there are currently 102 of the original 127 episodes in existence. The kinescopes are being preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and a DVD set has been produced.
The Ford Motor Company needed a summer replacement on Thursday nights so Mister Peepers debuted then. NBC decided it was too much pressure to do a live show, so it was cancelled. Fans were irate. After 2000 people called to complain and 15000 letters were received, the network had second thoughts, but their schedule was full.
However, that fall, an opening occurred when Doc Corkle was cancelled after only three episodes. How bad does a show have to be to get axed after three episodes in 1952? I don’t know, but the summary of the show is that “Doc is a dentist plagued with money problems, teenage daughter problems, and a screwball stepsister Melinda.”
It says a lot about the quality of Mister Peepers that it was rated so highly and watched by so many fans because it was up against Private Secretary with Ann Sothern and The Jack Benny Show on Sunday nights. Tough competition.
Critics liked the show and it was nominated for best situation comedy for the Emmys in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, and Marion Lorne were all nominated as well. Each of the years the show was nominated it went up against Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen, and I Love Lucy which won in 1953 and 1954; Make Room for Daddy won in 1955. NBC made Wally Cox postcards which they handed out to tourists on the lot.
Wally Cox was an interesting guy. He was a brilliant man who studied acting with Stella Adler. His roommate was Marlon Brando whom he had been best friends with since grade school. His mother and grandmother were writers, and his dad was in advertising. Before he was able to earn a living in acting, he taught the lindy hop for $1.50 a lesson and made cuff links and tie clasps. While doing part-time jobs, he began doing standup at clubs like The Blue Angel and Village Vanguard.
Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember him only for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and as the voice of Underdog the cartoon hero. He was also famous for a Jockey Shorts commercial when he quipped, “Outside I might look like Wally Cox but inside I feel like Tyrone Power.” He passed away much too early, dying from a heart attack at 48.
Although Wally Cox was not Mister Peepers, their humor was similar. Cox wasn’t brash but he experienced life with a quiet subtle manner and was a genuinely funny guy. In discussing his time on the show, Cox said, “Mr. Peepers put me on the map and I love him.” I’m sure like many actors who were stereotyped early in their career, it was a bit of a love/hate relationship. I’m sure you will love him too if you are able to watch some of the episodes. Retro TV aired them in the past, but I don’t see the show on its current schedule. I also found the DVDs on amazon.com. Happy viewing!