“Oh, he was a nice, nice man.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ZoneThe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Andy Griffith:

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.

Jack Dodson:

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.

Richard Linke:

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.

 

 

An Actress With “Street” Smarts

Much of the entertainment news media has been focused on the death of Mary Tyler Moore this past week, and rightly so.  However, with the passing of two other television icons in Barbara Hale and Mike Connors, I decided to celebrate the life and career of Barbara Hale in this week’s blog.

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Like William Christopher, whom we looked at a couple weeks ago, Barbara Hale seems to have had a successful and fulfilling career.  She comes across the decades as a very nice person and a hard-working actress. She was married for more than 46 years to the same man and they had three children.  A lot of her career was based on acting with her husband, her son, and her close friend Raymond Burr.

Born in April of 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, she moved to nearby Rockford shortly after her birth.  She and her sister had a nice life, growing up in a middle class family.  Always interested in the arts, she attended The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  She continued to have an interest in art the rest of her life, often sketching while waiting for taping to resume. She worked as a model during part of her school years for a comic strip Ramblin’ Bill.  She was also featured as a Dr. Pepper girl in the Dr. Pepper calendars in the 1940s and 1950s.

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Continuing her modeling career after graduation, it was through that avenue she was given a contract with RKO in 1943.  While at RKO she met her husband-to-be Bill Williams and they married in 1946.  Their wedding took place in the Old Stone Church in Rockton, Il and their reception was at the Wagon Wheel in Rockton, north of Rockford. During her RKO-tenure she also met Raymond Burr.

Her first movie was Gildersleeve’s Bad Day in 1943.  Her contract with RKO continued until 1949 at which point she signed a seven-year contract with Columbia.  During her career she appeared in 42 movies and 34 television movies, 31 of which were Perry Mason films. Some of her costars included Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart.

Between 1953 and 1956 she appeared in 14 drama/anthology series on television including Schlitz Playhouse, Studio 57, The Loretta Young Show, Damon Runyon Theater and Playhouse 90. She also appeared in many print ads during these years promoting products such as Lux Soap Flakes, Sunnybrook Margarine, and Chesterfield Cigarettes.

Debating whether or not she should retire and stay home to raise her three children (born in 1947, 1951, and 1953), she was offered the role of Della Street for the upcoming Perry Mason series.  She declined it at first, but when she realized her old friend Raymond Burr was starring in the show, she opted to take the part.  From 1957-1966, she appeared in 263 of the 271 shows. In the midst of the series’ run in 1960, she received a marker on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.  In 1959 she won the Emmy for best actress in a drama and was nominated again in 1961.

When the series ended, she appeared in only a handful of shows including Lassie, Adam-12, The Doris Day Show, Marcus Welby, and Walt Disney’s Wide World of Color. She was in her dear friend Raymond Burr’s show Ironside and acted with her son William Katt, the star of The Greatest American Hero, playing his mother on the show. She was also in the movie Big Wednesday in 1978 with her son, playing his mother. During this time, she also appeared in several commercials and was a spokesperson for Amana Radarange microwave ovens. In 1970 she was one of the celebrities appearing in the movie Airport.

In the mid-1980s, Raymond Burr was approached to make several Perry Mason television movies.  He agreed only if Barbara Hale was cast as Della Street again.  Hale’s son William Katt appeared in some of the movies as Paul Drake Jr. From 1986-1995 Hale and Burr made 31 Perry Mason movies. Sadly, her husband passed away from cancer in 1992 and Burr died in 1993. She was one of the friends to deliver a eulogy at Burr’s funeral.  He cultivated orchids and named one for Barbara Hale.

In her later years, Hale battled colon, ovarian, and bladder cancer.  With a remarkable attitude and her belief in God, she defeated the disease each time.  She died from natural causes this month at 94.

One of the most charming stories I read about Hale was one she told a few years ago when she had returned to Rockford, which she did often, to attend a theater renovation celebration.  She talked about after-football parties they had in high school.  The kids would drive to the Spring Creek Road subdivision.  Roads had been constructed for the housing development, but no homes had been built yet.   The kids would park their cars in a circle, turn their headlights on, tune their radios to the same channel, and get out and dance. It was a heart-warming story about a more innocent time.  After hearing so many sad stories about the issues actors often face in the industry, it was refreshing to hear about someone who was a nice person who appeared to have a normal and happy career with a great life balance of work and family.

A lot of her movies and the Perry Mason shows  are available on Amazon.  Take an upcoming week-end and watch a few seasons and keep track of how many cases Perry loses. Here is some dialogue to listen for while you watch.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Spurious Sister – 1959

Perry:  Della, how would you like to get a divorce?

Della: I thought you were supposed to be married first.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Surplus Suitor – 1963

Hamilton Burger: Well, Miss Street, having you here just as a witness for the prosecution is a rare experience for both of us.

Della: I’ll try not to be hostile, Mr. Burger

Hamilton Burger: Well, that’ll be a rare experience too.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Angry Mourner – 1957

Bell Adrian: Mr. Mason, were you surprised when you found I didn’t do it?

Perry:  Of course not, Mrs. Adrian. I knew all along. You just weren’t the type.

Paul Drake: And who is the type pray tell?

Della: Oh, that’s easy, Paul. Anyone who is not represented by Perry Mason.

Thank you Barbara Hale for providing us with so much drama over the years, but only on the television episodes!