With all the research I have done, I have discovered a lot of nice folks in the entertainment industry (as well as a few not so nice people), but I have never read about anyone more liked than Howard McNear. Everyone went out of their way to say what a kind and caring man he was.
McNear was born in Los Angeles in 1905. He studied at the Oatman School of Theater and then joined a stock company in San Diego. During World War II, he enlisted as a private in the US Army Air Corps. He went on to a career in radio, films, and television. In the mid-1960s, he had a stroke and died from complications of pneumonia in 1969. Parley Baer, a life-long friend, delivered his eulogy. He was buried in Los Angeles, completing his California life cycle.
Howard began working in the radio industry in the 1930s. He was featured in many radio shows, including The Adventures of Bill Lance – a detective drama starring John McIntire as Lance. McNear played the part of Ulysses Higgins, a friend and assistant to Lance. He also filled the role of Clint Barlow on Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police. Some of the other shows he often appeared on included Suspense, Lux Radio Theater, Escape, CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theater, Let George Do It, The Adventures of Masie, Fort Laramie, Wild Bill Hickock, and Richard Diamond, Private Eye. He and Parley Baer were part of the cast of The Count of Monte Cristo, a drama. He continued to work often Baer they both voiced characters frequently on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. He played congressmen, hotel managers, French detectives, and occasionally the villain.
He was still working with Baer when they both created their most famous radio characters—Baer as Chester and McNear as Doc Charles Adams—in Gunsmoke which was on the air from 1952-1956. Baer would later show up in Mayberry as the mayor.
McNear made his film debut in the 1951 sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He followed that up with Escape from Fort Bravo. In 1959 he played Dr. Dompierre in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Some of his most famous films were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and two Elvis flicks, Blue Hawaii and Follow That Dream. He was also featured in three Billy Wilder comedies: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie.
Overall, he appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. He transitioned into television in the 1950s, appearing The Jack Benny Show and the Burns and Allen Show. He appeared in comedies such as I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, December Bride, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He also showed up in dramas like The Thin Man, Playhouse 90, Richard Diamond, The Twilight Zone, The Zane Grey Show, Maverick, and Alfred Hitchcock. Ironically, he had a role as a barber in Leave It to Beaver.
Although McNear had a long career on radio and in films, he will forever be remembered for his memorable and scene-stealing portrayal of chatty and naïve Floyd the Barber in the long-running The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS). Don Knotts once said that playing Floyd wasn’t much of a stretch for McNear, as his real personality was pretty much like Floyd to begin with.
The first episode of TAGS to feature Floyd did not star McNear; Walter Baldwin was Floyd Lawson. After that episode, McNear took over and made the role his own. On his first appearance he was Floyd Colby, but the next time his name was mentioned it had become Floyd Lawson. Floyd’s shop was where the Mayberry men gathered to gossip and play checkers, and they occasionally got haircuts.
We usually see Floyd wearing his well-groomed mustache, thick glasses, and his white barber coat. We learned several things about Floyd during the course of the show. He is a widower. His wife was named Melva and they had two children, a son and a daughter. His son Norman plays the saxophone and baseball. When he retired he moved in with his daughter and her family. Floyd had a niece in town named Virginia Lee who entered the Miss Mayberry Pageant. He was also Warren Ferguson’s uncle; Ferguson would replace Barney as deputy when he moved from Mayberry to the big city.
Floyd often (incorrectly) attributed famous quotes to Calvin Coolidge. Floyd had a dog named Sam and raised pansies. He typically drank coffee but enjoyed a Nectarine Crush or a Huckleberry Smash soda now and then, and he thought Wally had the best pop in town.
Floyd liked to write. He wrote the song for the Miss Mayberry Pageant: “Hail to thee, Miss Mayberry; All hail to thee, all hail; Your loveliness, your majesty; Brings joy to every male; All hail, all hail, all hail; All hail, all hail, all hail.” He even tried to write a novel but had writer’s block after creating a brilliant first sentence: “The sun is dropping lazily down behind the purple hills in the western skies.”
In the middle of the show’s run, McNear suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving half his body paralyzed. He took some time off to recover. Andy asked him to come back, and the production crew went to great lengths to make things comfortable for him. Although he could not walk or stand, he was seen sitting outside on a bench. There was a special platform built so he could cut hair looking like he was standing while sitting. Often a he holds a prop with his left hand, using his right hand as he spoke his lines. In 1967, he left the series for good when he could not remember his lines.
My two favorite Floyd episodes were “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver” and “Convicts At Large.”
In “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver,” Floyd has been corresponding with a wealthy pen pal, a widow. She wants to visit Mayberry which gets him frustrated. He wants to meet her, but he has painted himself as an equally wealthy man. Andy helps him maintain the ruse by using a mansion of a man who is out of town. Eventually, Floyd realizes that the widow was not the wealthy woman she made herself out to be either.
In “Convicts At Large,” the normally excitable Floyd displays a calm demeanor after he and Barney are taken hostage by three escapees from the women’s prison–Big Maude, Naomi, and Sally. When they go into town to buy food, Andy realizes that there is something fishy going on and recaptures the women.
The cast members who worked with McNear can best describe the type of man he was. In Richard Kelly’s book, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Jack Dodson, and Richard Linke share their memories of Howard McNear. It seems fitting to let them have the last words of this blog.
Howard, first of all, was a leading man in the San Diego theatre years ago. He never was in New York in his life. He developed this comic character, I believe, on The Jack Benny Show. Howard was a nervous man and he became that man, Floyd.
Then Howard had a stroke and was bad off for a long time. He was out of our show for about a year and three-quarters. We did a lot of soft shows, that is, those that were not hard on comedy — stories about the boy or the aunt. But we needed comedy scenes to break up things.
We were working on a script one day, and Aaron [Ruben] said, `Boy do I wish we had Howard.’ And one of us said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get him.’ So right then we called up Howard’s house and we got his wife, Helen. ‘Oh,’ she said, `it would be a godsend.’
Well, we wrote him a little scene. He was paralyzed all down his left side and so we couldn’t show him walking. We had him sitting or we built a stand that supported him. He could then stand behind the barber chair and use one hand. Most of the time, however, we had him sitting. His mind was not affected at all. He was with us about two years after that before he died. Finally poor Howard died. I’m sorry because there was never anyone like him. Kind, kind man.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know Howard before his stroke. Even after his stroke he was just a wonderful human being and a splendid actor. Sadly, it was during the playing of a scene with Howard that we realized he couldn’t go on anymore.
It was the segment where I wanted to raise the rent on the barbershop. The characters had a great falling out and then, at the end of the show, they were brought back together in the courthouse. Howard had a little difficulty with that segment. We had to change our shooting schedules a little so that his days were not quite so long as they had been. And then, finally, we had a very simple scene of reconciliation. He couldn’t remember it. He went over it and over it, frustrated with himself. Seeing his despair and anxiety was the most painful experience that I’ve ever had. And then he didn’t come back after that.
We went to the funeral, and I have to say that it was the only funeral I’ve ever been to where the laughs exceeded the tears. There were a couple of people who knew him well. They spoke in the form of a eulogy — I guess you could call it that. Oh, but it was funny. They related Howard McNear stories from the pulpit. It was something else. Really, it made a nice thing. I think Hal Smith, who played Otis, got up there. It was something else, those stories. And yet, it was all done with dignity. Oh, he was a nice man.