Walter Tetley was a prolific character actor in the media of film, radio and animation for many years. Like thousands of others I enjoyed his appearances in old movies, his cartoon voice work and his steady comedy roles on golden age radio. The thing was, I thought I was enjoying three different people. It took many years for me to figure out that the anonymous bellhop in countless Hollywood films was the same guy I was hearing on Stan Freberg comedy records.
Walter Tetley had the voice of a pre-pubescent schoolboy. Born with a rare hormonal disease that prevented him from fully experiencing the changes that puberty normally brings, Tetley's voice is best remembered today as the bespeckled cartoon nerd Sherman, boy companion to Mister Peabody on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Many would surely be surprised to discover that the brainiac dog's boy companion in all ninety-one segments of Peabody's Improbable History was actually a man in his late forties.
A few years back I heard the formulaic radio sitcom The Great Gildersleeve backed with the much funnier Phil Harris - Alice Faye Show and was struck by the similarities in the "brat child" character that both shows contained. Initially I thought that Phil Harris' writers were simply ripping off the smart alleck child bit from the Gildersleeve folks, or that this child actor was mimicking the style he had heard on the other show. I turned out to be wrong - the hilarious Walter Tetley was playing the bratty sarcastic child in both instances. As the enfant-terrible Leroy to Gildersleeve and Julius to Harris, Tetley gave smarmy adult sensibilities to a school kid. I remember being struck by the incredible adeptness of the child actor at conveying adult like cynicism so precisely. I may have been less blown away about this whole thing had I known that this brilliant child actor was several decades older than I was. But I wasn't less blown away, because Tetley's performances (particularly on the Harris program) were so fucking hilarious.
Tetley started out as a child actor but few could have predicted he would remain one for over fifty years. It's hard to find elaborate information about this unique talent as he was known to be quite private, very reluctant to speak about his condition, and was not known to have ever granted an interview. That being said, small time book label Bear Manor Media did put out a biography of Tetley three years ago that I, irresponsibly, have not read.
Walter initially found a great deal of work on forgotten kids shows like The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air. Around the age of sixteen Tetley started appearing on early incarnations of The Fred Allen Show when Fred's series was going under names like The Sal Hepatica Revue and Town Hall Tonight. At this point in his career it was hardly a stretch for Tetley to take on "boy roles" as he was still a minor. Throughout the late thirties and early forties Tetley became the most prolific child actor in radio and then, as he aged, one of the most prolific actors in radio. He found himself playing a plethora of like-minded characters on every major radio show of the time. Fibber McGee and Molly, The Jell-O Program starring Jack Benny, The Pepsodent Show with Bob Hope and The Burns & Allen Show featured the obnoxious Tetley constantly upstaging the comedy giants ... every time playing a child who was a complete and utter asshole. The times that Tetley did not indulge in the kid prick guise were when he was cast in dramatic roles, which was fairly often. It wasn't easy to find children who could capture the nuance that was often called for in the classic audio murder mysteries of the day, and so the adult Tetley with child like voice was naturally cast to take on these unconventional kid roles. He appeared on Radio Almanac with Orson Welles and in episodes of Suspense with titles like "The Black Curtain" and "Death Went Along For a Ride" and joined the cast of white bread nonsense such as The Anderson Family. Although Tetley enjoyed meaty parts on radio, appearing as a regular on multiple shows for weeks at a time, when it came to working in pictures things were different.
Tetley's face always had something strange about it, but without knowledge of his condition, it was always impossible for the film viewer to diagnose what was going on. In countless Hollywood films of the thirties and forties, he'd poke his head through the doorway of a hotel room, dressed in a spiffy uniform with ill-fitting cap and announce, "Here's your baggage mister." And for that split moment the viewer would always be intrigued by this odd combination of young boy and old man with a grizzled mug, creating an aesthetic sensation similar to seeing Harry Earles portray a baby. Rarely did his screen time last longer than forty seconds. Tetley's oddball countenance and voice were considered detrimental and distracting and instead of tailoring a script to his unique look and sound, film studios had him ghettoized. Tetley's roles became memorable but it was no thanks to the studio. A Tetley cameo would create head scratching curiosity, making viewers wonder, "Hey what's up with that guy?" Since his parts were so slight and almost always uncredited, few fans of The Great Gildersleeve ever realized that they had just caught a glimpse of little Leroy. Sadly, when The Great Gildersleeve was turned into a series of cheap movies in order to cash in on the radio show's popularity, Tetley's star part had to be recast so that movie goers wouldn't be thrown off by the incongruous weirdness of kid Leroy's mature appearance. RKO put out four Gildersleeve films in total: The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), and Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944). With a combination of consolation and insult, Walter Tetley was cast in the third picture not as his trademark Leroy (that role would go to a total nobody named Freddie Mercer) but instead as the same kind of thing he played in almost every film ... a bellhop. IMDB lists Walter playing several nameless characters described merely as Bellhop, Page Boy, Country Club Page, Newsboy (four times), Delivery Boy, Mail Boy, Grocery Boy, Stock Boy, Barber Shop Boy, Messenger Boy, Telegram Boy, Messenger Boy with Telegram, Western Union Messenger, Cake Delivery Boy, Call Boy, and Florist's Assistant. He appeared without billing as an elevator operator in the 1942 Abbott & Costello film Who Done It? This role was arguably his funniest moment on the screen and, ironically, this best role takes place within a radio station. Unfortunately, like most Asian and African-American film actors of the era, Tetley was relegated to merely one insignifigant line per picture; type-cast because of his physiognomy.
Despite being neglected by the film studios, Tetley had thousands of radio appearances under his belt and was as adept a voice actor as anyone working in the industry. Like so many who started out in radio, Tetley would make the natural leap to a different genre of film: animation. Listening to many of the old time radio shows is much like being in a recording booth at a cartoon studio. Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone), Bea Benaderet (Betty Rubble), Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel), Bill Thompson (Droopy), Paul Frees (Boris Badenov), Phil Harris (Baloo), Arnold Stang (Top Cat), Jackson Beck (Bluto) and countless other instantly recognizable voices appear in thousands upon thousands of classic radio shows of the thirties, forties, and fifties. It was inevitable that Walter Tetley would join this prestigious group sooner or later. It was nineteen forty-three when Walter was cast by his namesake Walter Lantz, to voice the sappy, sugar sweet star of the Universal cartoon outfit named Andy Panda (Tetley had previously appeared in the Lantz cartoon The Adventures of Tom Thumb Jr. and a WB short directed by Tex Avery titled The Haunted Mouse but it would be a couple years until he worked in cartoons with regularity). The Andy Panda character had been around for a few years, being voiced by a woman specializing in high-pitched cartoon voices named Bernice Hansen. She was eventually replaced by a lady named Sara Berner. Who knows what happened to Tetley's ego after receiving roles usually reserved for women. Looking at the circumstances of his career, it starts to become completely understandable why he was reluctant to grant interviews.
By the mid-fifties television had swiftly killed radio and both The Great Gildersleeve and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show had left the air. Tetley started to lend his vocal talent to records, first appearing on Capitol Records recordings uncredited on several children's LPs and then, for the same label, some fine work with satirist extraordinaire Stan Freberg on tracks like Tom Sweet and His Electric Milky Way Machine. A few years later Freberg wrote Tetley into a Sunsweet Prune commercial, one of several for the company Freberg would develop, which provided the world with a glimpse of our hero having grown more prune-ish himself. During the mid-fifties Tetley did some voice work for the trend setting UPA studio and their cartoon Dusty of the Circus. The eccentric Bill Scott, soon to be head writer of The Bullwinkle Show, was a writer at UPA when he first met Tetley. Scott was quick to employ Tetley after joining the Jay Ward folks. Tetley was cast as the voice of Mister Peabody's pet boy, Sherman (after a female voice actor's take was decided unsuitable). Keith Scott's book The Moose That Roared (2000, St. Martin's Press) quoted the late (and unsung) comedy writer Chris Hayward who wrote most of the Peabody and Sherman segments, "I would write this stuff, and like all writers you hope that you get these tracks back that approximated what you'd written, and I'd always hear these great line readings by Walter - his voice was just marvelous for the Sherman character. It was such a sensational sound." A couple years earlier Tetley provided the voice for the endearing - and enduring - PSA character Reddy Killowatt.
In 1973, two years prior to his death, Tetley returned to radio for regular work on a new dramatic series titled The Hollywood Radio Theatre. The show took its cue from the old shows like Suspense, Inner Sanctum, and Lights Out dealing with murder, psychological torture and other morbid plots. Rod Serling acted as the show's host, horn-rimmed weirdos Ferrante and Teicher performed the theme music, while several faded b-movie players, character actors and former radio stars like Ray Danton, Richard Deacon, and John Astin made appearances. Tetley was on several episodes - but these would be his last turns behind the microphone. The pug-faced boy born Walter Campbell Tetzlaff was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident around this time and things got even worse shortly thereafter, succumbing to gastric carcinoma at the age of sixty in nineteen seventy-five.
Tetley wasn't the only child(esque) casualty in radio-to-film adaptations. The popular and nauseating radio comedy - The Aldrich Family - enjoyed a long popular run from 1939 to 1953 starring Ezra Stone as the Andy Hardy/Archie Andrews style of teenager. When Henry Aldrich was brought to the silver screen by Paramount, Stone lost his trademark role to another actor. The reason was simple. The voice of the character on the show gave the audio illusion of an all-American WASP, but in real life the studio audience at the live tapings were always shocked to discover that the voice of their beloved scrawny Christian teenager was a ... *gasp* ... fat, chain-smoking, Jew. Nineteen forties Hollywood being nineteen forties Hollywood would never allow this image of Henry Aldrich on the screen, and instead skinny gentile Jimmy Lydon got the part.