Most television viewers today would not recognize the name Billy De Wolfe, but if you played his voice for them, they would immediately know it as Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman. I remember Billy primarily from That Girl as Ann Marie’s drama coach, Jules Benedict. I was amazed to see he only appeared in three episodes because he was such a strong character, I would have thought he was in at least 20 shows. He became known as the prim, pompous, and sarcastic stock character.
Billy was born William Andrew Jones in Massachusetts in 1907. His father was a bookbinder, and they moved back to his parents’ home country of Wales shortly after his birth, returning to the United States when he was nine years old. His parents hoped he would become a Baptist minister, but his dreams were grounded in acting. He started his entertainment career as an usher. He then became a dancer with the Jimmy O’Connor band. This led to his appearing on the vaudeville circuit where a theater manger offered him the use of his name, Billy De Wolfe. He traveled to London to perform for five years and returned to America in 1939.
In 1942 he joined the US Navy where he became a Seaman 1st Class as a musician. Before he enlisted, he was offered a contract with Paramount, and he continued with them in 1944 when he left the Navy. His first movie Dixie was with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. He appeared in nine movies during the 1940s.
He loved old-fashioned musical comedies and had a chance to act with Doris Day and Gene Nelson in both Tea for Two and Lullaby of Broadway. He and Doris would be friends for the rest of his life. He gave her the nickname Clara Bixby because he said she looked more like a Clara than a Doris, and many of their friends referred to her as Clara.
He transitioned to theater and performed on the live stage in both Broadway and London.
He then decided to try television where he became very successful. Above he appears on the Dick Van Dyke Show. He appeared on six shows before obtaining his first role as a regular on a sitcom. During the late 1960s and early 1970s he would be cast in five different sitcoms.
In 1966, he was part of the amazing cast of The Pruitts of South Hampton. I have mentioned this show before in my blogs, and it is hard to believe that this incredible cast could not pull off a more successful show: Phyllis Diller, Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, John McGiver, Richard Deacon, Marty Ingels, and De Wolfe. The series was based on a novel, House Party, by Patrick Dennis. A wealthy family realizes it owes the IRS $10,000,000 in back taxes. They want to keep the appearance that they still have plenty of money while living in a smaller home with one car and a butler. One of the first shows to debut in color, it was cancelled after 30 episodes.
In 1966, De Wolfe also began the role of Jules Benedict on That Girl. He played a sarcastic acting teacher who made it clear it was painful to work with these young actors who simply had no idea of how to act. But we also realized that he had a big heart that he did not want anyone to see. His last episode was in 1969.
In 1967, he took a role as radio station manager Roland Hutton Jr. on Good Morning, World. Dave Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Ronnie Schell) are small-time radio hosts Lewis and Clarke on the air from 6-10 am. Lewis is married and an introvert while Clarke is a swinging single. Also appearing on this show was a new comer, Goldie Hawn, who played the Lewises’ neighbor. The show only lasted a year. Several critics pointed out that De Wolfe was the funniest person on the show.
In 1969, De Wolfe was able to stay employed for another 13 episodes on the series The Queen and I. He starred with Larry Storch. They worked on an aging ocean liner, The Amsterdam Queen, which the owners were planning on selling for scrap. Duffy (Storch) wants to save the ship through any means possible, but Nelson (De Wolfe) doesn’t like or trust him, although he fails to ever catch him doing anything wrong.
Doris Day began her sitcom in 1968. For the 1970 season, she and her kids moved to San Francisco to live over an Italian restaurant, owned by the Palluccis (Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell). She hired her friend Billy to play Willard Jarvis, the bad-tempered neighbor who really was a peach when you got to know him.
During his years on the Doris Day Show, he also appeared on the Debbie Reynolds Show and Love American Style. He was also a regular on the talk show circuits, appearing many times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show.
Phoebe Murgatroyd was a famous commercial character. De Wolfe donned a hat and shawl (but kept his iconic mustache) to portray the romance expert who gave love life advice for this series of Ban Roll-On deodorant ads.
Who realized in 1969 that an animation special, based on the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” would go on to become a beloved classic and would play a role in generations of kids celebrating Christmas. For almost 50 years, viewers have cried at Professor Hinkle’s nasty act of locking Frosty in a greenhouse to melt. While I look forward to Charlie Brown and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer every holiday, Frosty is my must-see every December.
In the early 1970s, Billy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1974, his friend Doris helping him through this tough time.
Billy De Wolfe is another example of one of these great performers who could do it all. He was a dancer. He appeared in many lucrative movies. He was successful on Broadway. When he decided to give television a try, he stayed employed with the medium until his death. And he left the legacy of Frosty the Snowman that has been a Christmas staple for almost 50 years. If you are searching for things to do this winter, add watching several episodes of Billy De Wolfe shows to your list and get to know this multi-talented man a bit better.