Say Jell-o to Don Wilson

As we continue with our “They Call Me Wilson” series, today we learn about the career of Don Wilson.  With 33 movie credits, he only starred in seven television shows, but if you were a fan of Jack Benny or Batman, you will recognize him immediately.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Wilson was born in 1900 in Nebraska. Not much is known about his early life, but in one interview in 1980, he mentioned he went to high school in Boulder, CO. He played football at the University of Colorado and was an excellent golfer.

Denver was also the place he began his radio career, singing on KFEL in 1923. Wilson talked about a group he was part of, the Columbia Trio, in Denver beginning in 1925; they played on the radio and appeared in clubs when they needed a late substitute. One of their clients for commercials was for Piggly Wiggly and the store brought the three musicians to California when the company decided to open up new stores in California and renamed them the Piggly Wiggly Trio.

By the end of the decade, he was working full time at station KFI and later at KHJ both in Los Angeles. In an interview later in his life, he said he bought a Packard from Earle C. Anthony, and the Cadillac sponsor Don Lee, who owned KFI did not take it kindly and fired Wilson.

Apparently, he couldn’t decide which direction he wanted his career to go. During the early thirties, he worked as a sportscaster and covered the opening of the 1932 Summer Olympics for NBC. He also announced five Rose Bowls. He was mentored by Ted Hussey and said he was the greatest sports announcer bar none as well as a generous and knowledgeable man.

He took on Broadway roles in 1932 and 1934. He also began radio announcing for programs in the mid-thirties, first working with Benny in 1934.

Being perhaps indecisive, he also had a hard time with his love life. His first marriage was to Lucy Saufley in 1927; in 1940, he divorced Saufley and he married Peggy Kent whose father was president of 20th Century Fox. In 1942, the same month his divorce became final , he married a Polish countess, Marusia Radunska and this relationship lasted seven years. When he married his fourth wife, Lois Corbett in 1950, he finally found a lifetime partner.

He would be a member of the Jack Benny television family for 31 years, but when he was hired, although it was as a permanent cast member, he was at least the fourth announcer in two years to work on the show. Wilson said he thinks he was chosen partly because he laughed at all the right lines. He said luckily, in person, Benny was much more generous with his salary than was portrayed on the show.

When Benny made the foray into television in 1950, Wilson went along and would continue to costar on the show until it ended in 1965.

The cast of The Jack Benny Show-Photo: tvtropes.com

Although Don was listed as announcer for the Benny show, like Harry Von Zell on Burns and Allen, he was really part of the cast. His good-natured, friendly manner and booming Midwestern voice made him a pleasant person who often took the brunt of jokes by Benny, often due to his 6 foot, 300-pound physique. Wilson’s wife Lois appeared as his wife on the show for fifteen years, so it was a family affair. She also acted on other radio shows.

Benny producer Irving Fein, said Don “was a great foil for Jack. He was the hearty announcer who tried to get the commercial on the air and Jack would try to thwart him. Sometimes Don would have the Sportsmen Quartet sneak in the commercial. Don would tell Jack the Sportsmen were going to do a song. Then they would sing a chorus of a song and the final chorus would be the commercial.” The first commercial Wilson pitched on the show was for General Tires. Jell-O, part of General Foods, sponsored the show for ten years, and Lucky Strike then took over for another fifteen years.

Photo: jackbennypodcast.com

His coworkers said he rarely misspoke his lines, but when he did, they took advantage of it. In an interview on speakingofradio.com, Don told a story that during one 1950 broadcast, he relayed a bunch of information and Jack asked him when he learned all that and Don said he read it in columnist Drew Pearson’s article, but he mistakenly said Dreer Pooson. Later during the murder-mystery story, Benny approached Frank Nelson and asked, “Pardon me, are you the doorman?” Instead of the written line, Nelson asked, “Well who do you think I am, Dreer Pooson?” That line got a lot of applause and laughter.

He said Benny was a quiet listener and preferred to stay in the background reacting to other actors. However, Wilson said that “when he was eventually on, he could top everybody. . . He wasn’t a one-liner comedian . . . he was a real thoroughbred professional, start to finish.  He always demanded the very, very best that he could possibly get and if ever there was an irreplaceable man, Jack Benny would be that man.”

Wilson with Jack Benny and Dennis Day–Photo: radiospirits.info

Don discussed how the show worked. He said “Jack’s philosophy was that the bigger he could make the supporting people, the bigger the Jack Benny Show became and the bigger Jack Benny therefore became.”  Wilson said he was thoughtful and generous and would not allow anything off-color in the show, so it was fit for family watching. He said in one episode, Benny sat off to one side and the cast spoke to him, but he didn’t actually utter a line until the last few minutes of the show. He said Jack often came up with the idea for a show but then turned it over to the writers and let them do their part.

He said some of his most enjoyable shows were when he traveled with Jack performing for military audiences. Jack would try to move the brass, so the enlisted men could have front-row seats.

Wilson did announcing work for a variety of programs in the heyday of radio. He worked with Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, and Alan Young. He also worked for Chesterfield when they sponsored a show with Glenn Miller.  When Miller went into the war, Harry James took over that spot, and Don continued working with him.

Wilson said in the early years of television, they did two live presentations, one for the east coast and one for the west coast.  In between they would tweak lines and rehearse those changes. Eventually, the show was taped, so the cast did not have to do two live performances.

Radio Guide, in addition to other award groups, awarded Don the Announcer of the Year Award for fifteen years straight.

While on Benny’s show, Don also made several appearances on other television shows in the fifties and sixties. He showed up on Screen Directors Playhouse in 1955 and on The Red Skelton Show in 1959. He was a preacher on Death Valley Days in 1959.

Photo: radiospirits.com

In the sixties, he could be seen in the Mel-O-Toons in 1960 which presented short, five-minute stories often based on fairy tales. He was also on Harrigan and Son in 1961. His last role was after Jack Benny went off the air. He was Walter Klondike, a newscaster spoof on Walter Kronkite, on Batman in 1966.

Watch Batman Season 2 Episode 18 - Dizzoner the Penguin Online Now
Photo: yidio.com

Don passed away due to a stroke in 1982.

I really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Don. He was so appreciative of his career and the people he was able to work with during his entertainment opportunities. Listening to someone who was able to get in on the beginning of radio and then do the same thing with television was very interesting and informative. I hope he realizes how much we all appreciated him.

Here’s Lucy . . . and Gale Gordon

We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.

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Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.

Gale at 19 Photo: lucyfan.com

Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.

By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”

Photo: radiospirits.com

In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.

His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.

Gale and Virginia
Photo: lucyfan.com

In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.

One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening.  It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”

In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.

With Bea Benederet
Photo: wikipedia.com

While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.

As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.

Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.

Our Miss Brooks Photo: amazon.com

In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.

When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.

The Box Brothers Photo: imdb.com

In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.

In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.

Dennis the Menace Photo: pinterest.com

In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.

Photo: welovelucy.com

For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”

See the source image
Photo: oldtimeradio.com

One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.

Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.

In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”

See the source image
Photo: wikipedia.com

It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!

Milton Frome: What a Character!

As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.

Photo: watchviooz.com

His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.

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Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.

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The Adventures of Superman

During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

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I Love Lucy

His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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The Monkees

Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampets Mammoth Studios.

Photo: imdb.com
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.

Photo: sitcomsonline.coom
The Jerry Lewis Show

At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.*

Photo: batman.wikia.com
Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actors professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Fromes personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!

*In June of 2021, I heard from Jane Wallace Casey who provided some additional information for us: “I am Milton Frome’s niece. His first wife was Barbara Wallace with whom he had his son Michael.”

Remembering William Christopher

I wanted to pay a tribute to William Christopher, who passed away December 31, 2016, exactly one year after Wayne Rogers, one of his co-workers on the show M*A*S*H.

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Christopher was born in Evanston, Illinois October 20, 1932. Growing up in that area, he attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, the same high school as Rock Hudson.  His family’s genealogy apparently included Paul Revere. Ironically, his grandmother hoped he would go into the ministry like his grandfather who was the founder of the First Methodist Church in Chicago, and in some ways, he did. Christopher went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, graduating with a BA in Drama, focusing on Greek Literature. (In the last episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy wears a Wesleyan sweatshirt.) He participated in fencing, soccer, and the glee club in college.  Connecticut was also where he met his wife Barbara on a blind date.  They married in 1957 and later adopted twin boys, John and Ned.

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Building on his theater experience which began with him playing a groundhog in the third grade, he moved to New York.  Eventually he made his Broadway debut in Beyond the Fringe where he worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Not long after, he moved to California to continue acting.

He began his work in television in 1965 appearing in 12 O’Clock High. For the next seven years, he worked regularly appearing in Hank in 1965, The Patty Duke Show in 1966, 2 appearances in The Andy Griffith Show in 1965 and 1966, Death Valley Days in 1966, four separate episodes of Hogan’s Heroes from 1965-68, Gomer Pyle where he was in 16 episodes from 1965-8, That Girl in two episodes as Chippy Dolan, The Virginian in 1971, Alias Smith and Jones in 1971, Insight in 1972, and 4 shows of Nichols from 1971-2.

Along with his television roles, he appeared on the big screen during this period. His first movie was Fortune Cookie in 1966 where he played an intern, The Perils of Pauline in 1967 as a doctor, The Private Navy of Sargent O’ Farrell in 1968 as Private Jake Schultz, The Shakiest Gun in the West in 1968 as a hotel manager, and With Six You Get Egg Roll in 1968. With Six You Get Egg Roll was Doris Day’s last movie before she moved into television and then retired. After playing so many military and religious roles, this one was out of character as he played a hippie Zip Cloud along with future M*A*S*H member Jamie Farr.wc6

In 1972 he got his big break, being cast as Father Mulcahy in the television version of M*A*S*H. George Morgan, who was cast in the pilot, was replaced and Christopher received the role. Morgan appeared in four series and three movies before the pilot, but only two other series after. M*A*S*H was on the air from 1972-1983, and Christopher was in 213 of the 251 episodes. Fans loved the goodness Father Mulcahy displayed, along with his humanness when the inhumanity of war tried his patience and frustrated him. Some of his best lines from the show included:

“This isn’t one of my sermons; I expect you to listen.”

“Klinger, how’d you like the last rites…and a few lefts!”

“I think the world of Colonel Potter. He’s a good Christian – yet hardly dull at all.”

“Remember what the good book says: Love thy neighbor, or I’ll punch your lights out!”

While he was part of the M*A*S*H cast, he appeared on other series including Columbo and Movin’ On in 1974, Lucas Tanner, Karen, and Good Times in 1975. Like so many of the stars we meet in this blog, he was on The Love Boat in four episodes from 1981-4. He appeared again on the big screen in the movie Hearts of the West in 1975 as a bank teller. He also made a TV movie, For the Love of It in 1980.

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In 1983, the series After MASH debuted, and Christopher reprised his role of Father Mulcahy along with Harry Morgan as Dr. Sherman Potter, Jamie Farr as Klinger and Gary Burghoff as Radar. The show was not a great success and ended after 30 episodes.

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Christopher never had another recurring role in a television show, but he continued to work in the business appearing in Murder She Wrote in 1985, CBS Summer Playhouse in 1987, The Smurfs 6 times from 1984-88, The New WKRP in Cincinnati in 1993, Lois and Clark: Adventures of Superman in 1997, Diagnosis Murder, Team Knight Rider, and Mad About You in 1998. His last television role was in 11 episodes of Days of Our Lives where he played a priest. In 1987 he made his second TV movie, The Little Troll Prince.

During the years of 1975-2011 he also appeared on several game shows, talk shows, and M*A*S*H-related specials and reunions. In 1994 he made his last movie, Heaven Sent.

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He continued his love of theater touring the country with Jamie Farr in The Odd Couple in the mid-1990s. He also toured with the Church Basement Ladies in 2008-9.

Christopher was generous with his time, helping to raise money for the National Autistic Society (NAS).  The organization was near and dear to his heart because his son Ned suffers from autism. He and his wife wrote a book in 1985, Mixed Blessings, about their experience with their son.

 

William Christopher is revealed to be a very nice man liked by everyone who worked with him.  He was married to Barbara for the rest of his life, was a good family man, generous in working with the NAS, and had a full career.

After Christopher died, Alan Alda tweeted “His pals from #MASH miss Bill powerfully. His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were Bill.”

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Jamie Farr summed it up best in his tribute to his friend and co-worker:

We are all devastated by our beloved Bill’s passing. I have known him for over 50 years. During the 1960s we lived in the same neighborhood in Studio City. My Joy and I would see him and his wife Barbara going for walks as we were going for walks. Bill and I did the very last Doris Day movie together, “With Six You Get Egg Roll.” We were both cast in the tv series “M*A*SH” at almost the same time. He was a gentle soul and in my opinion probably the most underrated actor of all of us on the show. He was wonderful. During between set ups for camera angles Bill would read his Homeric book in Homeric Greek. He was a real egg head. He and his Barbara traveled the world and he would try to learn the language of the countries they were going to visit. He went to Egypt one year and tried his Arabic on me. He was better than I was. We used to imitate Bill on the set using his high pitched voice. One time he came down with hepatitis and when he returned to the series we had his actor’s chair painted yellow. Bill and I did a National Tour of the play “The Odd Couple” with Bill portraying Felix and me doing Oscar, Bill was at one time on the Board of the Devereaux Foundation for Autistic Children. It was a real honor to have had him and Barbara as friends and a great honor to have shared the tv screen with this gracious, talented and charming soul. May his memory be eternal. Rest in Peace Father Mulcahy.