I love Arnold Stang. During the filming of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Spencer Tracy laughed every time Arnold Stang said good morning to him. It wasn't that Stang was "always on," although he could be when he wanted to, but Stang was just unintentionally funny all the time. When he actually tried to be funny it was doubly hilarious. Stang feigned confusion and indifference about Tracy's incessant laughing, "I guess he found me amusing," he said. It is hard to believe that anybody in his presence wouldn't.
Arnold Stang had the look of a bird, the voice of a Bowery newsboy and the ability to upstage the biggest comedy stars of his day. His radio, television and film career had him right in the thick of many amazing and often very weird productions. His voice is one of the most distinct and unmistakable in the history of show business. He will turn eighty-two years old later this year.
Stang started in showbiz as a child actor appearing on several mundane kiddie radio shows of the nineteen thirties. Stang abandoned his parents at the age of nine when he secretly hopped a bus to Manhattan in the middle of the night to audition for the popular kids show Let's Pretend. There isn't much more to the story. Stang scored the part, returned to Boston to break the news to his folks and it was, as Archie Bunker would say, goodnight nurse. Within two years Stang was appearing every week on three different kids programs: Let's Pretend, The Horn & Hardhart Children's Show and the slightly fascist sounding American Pageant of Youth. Stang continued in radio and dabbled in the theater during his early and mid-teens until finally making the move to California.
While waiting patiently to score a film role, Stang had no trouble finding work in Hollywood radio programs. He performed on the popular "ethnic comedy" The Goldbergs and on Gangbusters as various no-name wiseguys. He had his biggest radio part to date on a radio show titled The Remarkable Miss Tuttle that was, in reality, rather unremarkable. It starred one of the great faces of thirties cinema, Edna Mae Oliver, as the title character and Stang as Miss Tuttle's nephew.
Although his squirrelly look would ensure him work as a character actor, there was no shortage of such types in nineteen forties Hollywood. It was not his great face, but the great voice, that unmistakable Brooklynese, that would be his pay dirt. His film appearances were rather limited. He appeared for fleeting moments in flippant RKO comedies like Seven Days' Leave (1942) with Victor Mature, Lucille Ball, and Harold Peary and They Got Me Covered (1943) with Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, and Otto Preminger in a rare acting role (both films feature the familiar stereotype-casted actor Willie Fung). Stang appeared in a Columbia musical (that was shelved for a year) titled Let's Go Steady (1945). It featured authentic nightclub footage of The Skinny Ennis Orchestra and a baby faced Mel Torme playing a character named Streak. The man responsible for the best Three Stooges shorts, Del Lord, directed the film. Stang had barely developed pubic hair, but was already living on his own in a huge Hollywood house provided for him by RKO. Jack Benny, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope and Victor Mature all took the young Stang under their wing to some degree, giving him advice and keeping him from being murdered. Hayworth wrote Stang's mother a letter each week explaining what he was up to and ensuring her that he was safe.
Despite being praised by many big stars, Arnold found his Hollywood venture disappointing. He returned to New York where he felt more at home and knew his voice would always be in demand. New York radio continued to be good to him as he made friends with Fred Allen and became a regular on The Al Jolson Show (blackface is a lot less offensive on the radio). During this period, it wasn't unusual for Stang to appear on four different radio shows in one day. New York also turned out to be the spot where Stang would venture into a medium he would be associated with for the rest of his life.
Paramount's Noveltoons series were among the only major theatrical cartoons still being manufactured in Manhattan as opposed to Hollywood. Paramount was still producing the Popeye shorts that had become wildly popular under the capable hands of the Fleischer studio, and now doing so under the moniker of Famous Studios. Although Popeye's aesthetics changed drastically once the Fleischer period ended, some of the new Popeye shorts were still quite good. Stang did the voice of Popeye's short-lived (and now forgotten) sidekick, Shorty. Most Popeye fans despise the obnoxious character, although he is notable for his resemblance to Stang himself. Stang was then cast by the studio in the far more enduring role of a sadistic tough-guy mouse named Herman in some of Paramount's best cartoons. Herman was a hero to a minion of mice, using his rugged street smarts to protect them from a mentally handicapped feline named Katnip. The Herman and Katnip shorts are, perhaps, the most violent cartoons ever made. Combine that ferocity with Stang's voice and voilà! You have some of the most enjoyable animation ever. You can watch some Herman and Katnip shorts here.
Stang may have felt like he was missing out on potential motion picture opportunities, but to be based in Manhattan in the late forties was a good thing for any aspiring actor. NYC was the capital of television production and experimentation. Stang acted in a primitive television show titled Laughter in Paris (1946) on New York's WNBT. WNBT began official operations for the few people lucky enough to own a television set on July 1st, 1941. A couple hours later they aired their first commercial - and its been downhill ever since (FYI, the ad was for the Bulova Watch Company and aired during a Brooklyn Dodgers game). Today you know this station as WNBC. Laughter in Paris was a typical piece of television junk from that awkward era and the first foray into TV for legendary cigar chomper Fred Coe. Coe was one of those classic showbiz types who made decisions on impulse - with a similar temperment as the studio heads of the day. He went on to produce many of the most successful shows in early television - Laughter in Paris was not one of them. His greatest achievement may have been his ability to convince many reluctant talents to work in TV - people like Paddy Chayefsky, Arthur Penn, Gore Vidal and of course, Arnold Stang. At the same time that Laughter in Paris debuted and died, Stang had been recruited to join the cast of a new radio show, one that was uncharacteristically highbrow for its time.
One of the freshest, most subversive and unsung comedy minds to ever enter radio was satirist Henry Morgan (he was also a some-time contributor to early Mad Magazines). The Henry Morgan Show was plagued by sponsor trouble (trouble from the sponsor and trouble for the sponsor) for its entire existence. Morgan had a keen perception for what was funny and he had followed Stang's career. The show was Stang's first real steady gig as an adult and a fitting one. Morgan's biting satire, skewering the insipid world of radio and especially the corporate sponsors who dictated its content, gelled well with Stang's sarcastic delivery. Listen to an episode of The Henry Morgan Show with a Stang appearance right at the start over here. Morgan's program may have been the apex of radio comedy, but Arnold still continued to appear on all the other dreck, the kind of stuff likely to be the butt of jokes on The Henry Morgan Show. Stang was busy playing various characters on The Adventures of Archie Andrews where he would eventually take over the roll of Jughead Jones. You can listen to several episodes of The Henry Morgan Show in MP3 format here.
Morgan made sure that Stang was part of his cast when an amazing group of talent was thrown together to create one of the funniest low-budget films ever made. So This is New York (1948) was not based on Henry Morgan's radio show directly, but the material was tailored to showcase his cynical persona. Screenwriter Carl Foreman used the novel The Big Town by Ring Lardner as the basis for the film. Several months later both Foreman and the novelist's son, Ring Lardner Jr, had their lives changed for ever when they were blacklisted. The highly satirical comedy features Arnold Stang as a Western Union clerk who gives Morgan a hard time. United Artists decided to hand the directing reigns to Max Fleischer's son, Richard Fleischer, who had up to that point been churning out shorts that amounted to little more than live-action filler for the studio. He proved himself on So This is New York, giving the picture a stark, gritty feel, unconventional for a comedy, but appropriate for a film showcasing the streets of New York. This resulted in more feature-length work for Fleischer including Follow Me Quietly (1948), Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1954) all of which are considered among the best film noir pictures ever made. So This is New York was one of the first Hollywood movies to use the technique of freezing action on the screen while a narrator spoke about what the viewer was seeing. Another scene has Morgan entering a taxi as a cabbie barks at him in a thick Bronx accent, "Awrite - where to, Mac?" Subtitles appear on the screen translating, "Where may I take you, sir?" Fleischer experimented with new film techniques his entire career. For The Boston Strangler (1968) with Tony Curtis, Fleischer was the first Hollywood director to employ split-screen technology, a gimmick that would be copied ad-nauseum in the years that followed. One last piece of trivia: This was the first film for co-scripter Herbert Baker. He went on to write "amazing" things like The John Davidson Christmas Special (1977) and the screenplay for Mae West's swan song Sextette (1978).
Arnold Stang started appearing as a regular on The Milton Berle Show in 1947. The radio program sounded somewhat labored when Milty spoke, but full of life when Stang interjected as an easily offended hot-head, berating Berle to a point of explosion, until finally storming off with the slam of a door (and to uproarious audience applause). Stang generally appears around the ten-minute mark of each show. Stang was always popular on Berle's radio show but, oddly, when Berle started in television, he didn't bring Arnold along for some time.
1948 was the year Milton Berle hit the television airwaves with his show and its bevy of different names. Known at different times as The Texaco Star Theatre, The Buick Circus Hour and The Buick Berle Show, most people just referred to it as The Milton Berle Show - much to the sponsor's chagrin. A potential explanation for Stang's absence from the first few seasons of Berle's TV show might be chalked up to Stang's regular penchant for upstaging Berle on the radio. Berle's huge ego is legendary, and it's a good bet he wasn't about to allow the young kid to surpass him in terms of comedy supremacy. Berle would wait until he established himself as the king of television before bringing Stang on board.
The radio and television versions of Berle's show both featured a debonair man named Frank Gallop. Gallop was the poor man's Edward Everett Horton - playing a similar character but without much range. In both radio and TV he doubled as the show's announcer and Berle's foil. He gained greater fame in the nineteen sixties as the announcer on The Dean Martin Show, occasionally appearing in sketches. Most remember him today as the singer of the 1966 novelty hit The Ballad of Irving - the story of a Jewish cowboy - the 142nd fastest gun in the west. The song appeared on the best-selling Kapp Records comedy LP When You're in Love the Whole World is Jewish, currently available at every thrift store in the world. The song also spawned an obscure sequel - Son of Irving - on Gallop's only solo LP Would You Believe - Frank Gallop Sings? released by Musicor to much apathy.
Finally, Uncle Milty no longer feeling so insecure, brought Stang on as a show regular in 1953. Stang had finished with Henry Morgan in the fall of 1951. Morgan had left radio for the blurry pastures of television where he floated around aimlessly until finally finding a comfortable cushion on the panel of I've Got a Secret. Unlike ninety-nine percent of the radio stars who came to television, Stang's face and stature did not surprise his radio fans, but delighted them. His scrawny build, pigeon neck, pathetic demeanor and furled brow fit the voice perfectly - he was just as every listener had pictured in their minds. The overwhelming popularity of Milton Berle on television was of course great news for Stang who would become a huge star in the fifties because of it. A king among bit players.
Stang had a few unsuccessful brushes with television in the interim. The Dumont network featured Stang on a short-lived program called School House (1949). The show had host Wally Cox speak from the front of a classroom as if he were a teacher. The given episode's guests sat in desks and came to the front of the class to perform a song or stand up comedy routine or whatever. Buddy Hackett was also a regular on the show - his first television gig. Watch an episode of the stodgy School House in two parts - the start of the show is here and part two starts off with Arnold Stang being called to the front of the class.
Now that Stang's face was as popular as his voice, other television shows were salivating over him. The television version of The Goldbergs had already been on the air for four years, but its producers now suddenly wanted the guy who had once been a regular on their radio program over ten years ago. Stang willingly took on a regular role on The Goldbergs, all the while balancing those appearances with Berle's TV & radio shows, several cartoon voiceovers, constant short turns on several television failures, starring in chocolate bar commercials and landing his biggest film role to date - a dramatic one.
Stang was an unlikely choice to star opposite Frank Sinatra in the first Hollywood picture to address heroin addiction. Had I never seen The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), I would probably picture Stang's outrageous character from the Berle program screaming at Frankie Machine, "Hey Mister! What the heck ya stickin' that thing in your arm for!? No, mister, don't do it! I can't stand the site of needles - dontcha know a guy like me is faint of heart!? - I could pass out! Aintcha got no consideramanation for the common man!?" Stang impressed everyone with his ability to pull off a dramatic role in a major motion picture. It also marked Stang's return to Hollywood. The picture has lost much, if not all, of its original punch over the years. Today it seems hokey and contrived, but it still possesses the magnificent Elmer Bernstein crime jazz score, which stands as one of the most influential soundtracks of all time. Stang plays a jailbird named Sparrow in the film.
Stang taped a pilot for his own show near the end of the decade. TVParty.com has posted pieces of it as a ram file over on their site, which is something I can't play on my computer - but you can give it a try by following this link. The Arnold Stang Show followed a format similar to that of the old Robert Benchley theatrical comedy shorts. Stang addressed the camera, identifying a common problem in life. A filmed sequence would then play with Stang's narration explaining what should be done if stuck in the given situation. Like so many of Stang's television ventures, it didn't amount to much. The pilot never sold and, hence, never aired. Despite his many television failures he was still a regular on talk shows, game show panels and television shows that featured a different guest star each week like Playhouse 90.
Dondi (1961) was a film that gained notoriety a decade later when it was featured in the well-know book, The 50 Worst Films of All Time (1978, Popular Library) by right-wing film critic Michael Medved. It was the first feature film Stang acted in since The Man with the Golden Arm. It also marked the start of what was to become an Arnold Stang constant for the next ten years - appearing in notable films that were merely notable because of their legendary weirdness and ineptitude. Dondi was based on the comic strip of the same name and full of familiar character actors. Stang had the typical Stang-character name of Pee Wee. Perennial actor-as-police-officer Mickey Shaughnessy is on board as is actor-as-boss Gale Gordon. The movie is sappy, sentimental and a serious change of pace for director Albert Zugsmith who was an exploitation film huckster extraordinaire. Zuggy was involved as writer, producer or director in a list of films that reads like the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. He produced the classic anti-commie scare film Invasion USA (1952), Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), the Mamie Van Doren vehicles High School Confidential (1958), The Beat Generation (1959), Girls Town (1959) and directed her in The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), College Confidential (1960) and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). Zugsmith cashed in on the drive-in circuit by directing soft-core sex romps like The Incredible Sex Revolution (1965), Psychedelic Sexualis (1966) and the drugsploitation flicks Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962) with Vincent Price and Movie Star, American Style; or LSD, I Hate You (1966). Ah, if those feeling sympathy for the orphan Dondi only knew he was the brainchild of a degenerate. Around the same time Stang was brought in to dub voices for the animated Japanese feature Alakazam the Great. It too has the unfortunate distinction of appearing in Medved's famous treatise.
The early sixties were kind to Stang and he once again left New York for Hollywood, as had most of the television industry. He made guest appearances on many shows of the period; a spot as a villain on Bonanza, doing yellowface on Wagon Trail and a reccuring role on the ABC sitcom Broadside. But Stang's biggest part of the era came in 1961 when he was cast as the wise cracking Phil Silvers-esque Top Cat in the enjoyable Hanna-Barbera cartoon of the same name. Just as The Flintstones was an obvious knock-off of The Honeymooners, Top Cat was an animated take on You'll Never Get Rich (AKA Sgt. Bilko). In fact, the show featured actors from the live-action sitcom in its cast. The smarmy Top Cat was in constant battle with Officer Dibble, portrayed by one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history, the great Allen Jenkins. Stang played the character with a different voice than most people had become accustomed too and he was often confused with Marvin Kaplan who did the voice of a sleepy-eyed member of TC's gang, Choo Choo. Kaplan, too, was recognizable for his nerdy looks and distinct voice. Stang and Kaplan would team up soon in the most memorable five minutes of their careers. Sadly, Top Cat only lasted one year, but unlike School House or The Goldbergs it has been in reruns for decades.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) just wouldn't be the same without Arnold Stang. Although the movie is rather meaningless to anybody other than fans of old comedy stars, it is hard not to be endeared by the outrageous slapstick sequence featuring Jonathan Winters fighting the two incompetent gas station attendants as portrayed by Stang and the equally brilliant Marvin Kaplan. Stang broke his hand the day before the scene was shot but still managed to pull off the frantic movement needed for the sequence (in fact, parts of it were so violently chaotic that both Stang and Kaplan had to have a stunt double - the man who had played the Robot Monster in the film of the same name, Janos Prohaska). Stang also hurt his foot during some down time on the set when he stepped on a cactus. If I had to show one piece of film to explain who and what Arnold Stang is all about - that would be it.
1965 had Stang lending his voice to a bad idea known as Pinocchio in Outer Space. You can watch a part of this unnecessary cartoon here. Those who saw it as children, however, if IMDB comments are any indication, fondly remember it. Stang's next piece of work was, arguably, also a bad idea, but par for the weird course he was following. Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1966) was one of many country music themed drive-in B-movies of the late nineteen sixties. Country & western exploitation was an unlikely genre that flourished for a couple of years, churned out to capitalize on the enormous amount of drive-in patrons in the South. More drive-in theatres permeated in the Deep South than anywhere else in North America. The profits flowed from the bible belt for all manner of sex and gore and really should have put to rest the region's puritan stereotype. Since country music was most popular in the region where drive-ins were dominant, the creation of this sub-genre was a very wise piece of strategic marketing. Nashville Rebel (1966) starring Waylon Jennings and Henny Youngman(!), Las Vegas Hillbillys (1966), Here Comes That Nashville Sound (1966), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), Hell on Wheels (1967), Road to Nashville (1967) and From Nashville with Music (1969) all belonged to the genre... and they all sucked. That doesn't mean they're not thoroughly entertaining - they just happen to be rather incompetent. Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar is essentially the same as the others - a no budget picture with an extremely thin story line acting as an excuse to show cardboard performers play their songs. The only difference here is the casting. Of course there's Arnold Stang as an over excited country music fan, and that should be enough right there. But the movie is also exciting (and sad) for its reuniting of former Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys stars Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey. Gorcey was by this time an alcoholic and living on financial assistance. Hall wasn't doing much better. Beyond Hall, Gorcey and Stang, everyone else is a Nashville star - and what stars! Bill Monroe, Homer & Jethro, Lefty Frizell, Webb Pierce, Del Reeves, Little Jimmie Dickens, Minnie Pearl, Dottie West, Kitty Wells and Faron Young all make appearances and perform. We even get to see Pete Drake and his crazy "talking steel guitar," that treats us to the unnerving sounds of an instrument speaking English. If after learning all of this you still don't want to see the movie, I pity you.
Arnold Stang's resume of the weird and wonderful was padded even more come 1968 and I'm not talking about the time he played the owner of a gun shop on Batman. No, I speak of his participation in that craziest legend of filmdom, Otto Preminger's famed LSD comedy, Skidoo (1968). Skidoo was an esoteric badge of honour for the longest time, but now with sites like YouTube and DailyMotion, Skidoo is no longer elusive. The once in a life time cast features Jackie Gleason, Frankie Avalon, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney, George Raft, Burgess Meredith, right-wing talk show blowhard Joe Pyne and a large bevy of familiar character actors. The strange Harry Nilsson soundtrack has him singing all of the film credits including the names of the gaffers and second unit crew members. But most legendary of all is Groucho Marx playing the character named God, an LSD kingpin. Groucho dropped acid to prepare for his role! Please follow this link to read all about that fascinating incident at Classic Television Showbiz. Preminger had ingested LSD a year earlier and was very much impressed by its qualities - this trip apparently inspired him to make the film.
The steak of oddities continued the following year with Hello Down There (1969). The film's premise is totally absurd. Janet Leigh and Tony Randall live underwater in a futuristic house. One of their children, played by a groovy longhaired Richard Dreyfuss, forms a mod rock band called Harold and The Hang-ups and records a hit song titled "Hey Little Goldfish." Merv Griffin decides to broadcast an episode of his talk show from their home. He introduces The Hang-ups with excitement, "[They're] stoned on these shouters," says Merv and they consider them, "mellow yellow, turned-on and groovy!" When the film was released the advertising copy bragged its confusing slogan, "A combo of scuba dupes rock up a storm in a mad pad under the surf!" Obviously a lot of middle aged writers were trying their best to hip things up, but instead made the filmgoer as confused about this pseudo-slang as they themselves were when it came to the flower generation's actual vernacular. Jim Backus plays Tony Randall's boss and Arnold Stang plays a nautical engineer. Watch a clip from Hello Down There down here.
It would seem that Stang could not possibly appear in any movie stranger than Hello Down There or Skidoo. It would seem. One would assume. But just a few months later Stang would co-star with another man named Arnold in a little film called Hercules in New York (1970). When the film was first released Stang was the Arnold people knew. Schwarzanegger was being billed as Arnold Strong and still posing as an anonymous strong man in "You too can look like this" comic book ads. Hercules gave Arnold Stang the largest amount of screen time he'd had in ages. Most people consider it an overacting tour de force and his worst performance. Well, we're talking about Hercules in New York after all. He helps Herc find his way around the big smoke. The more time he spends around the buxom body builder, the more he realizes he could potentially make a lot of money off of him by showcasing him like a sideshow. It is high up on most "worst film of all time" lists although it managed to escape Medved's book so Stang avoided that hat trick of stigma. Here's a chunk from the film, Stang entering at the two minute and ten second point.
Stang continued to be busy, although the height of his comedy heyday was now done. The seventies had him continue his steady stream of guest appearances. He showed up on episodes of Chico and the Man, The Robert Klein Show and Emergency! He kept doing voice work including an animated special based on Walt Kelly's Pogo and as the goldfish sidekick in a series of Depatie-Freleng shorts called Misterjaw for the 1976 show Pink Panther and Friends. Watch any and all of them here. As Stang's career continued through the nineties, some of his filmography became increasingly embarrassing, more so than Hercules in New York could ever be. Stang was the mere bright spot in duds like Ghost Dad (1990) and Dennis the Menace (1993). This year he became the radio spokesperson for Ehrlich Pest Control - voted America's Finest Pest Control Company by Pest Control Technology Magazine (seriously!!).
ARNOLD STANG ON VINYL
Arnold Stang appeared on a handful of records over the course of his career, most of it kiddie stuff. He narrated a children's recording called The Elephant Who Forgot, initially released on 78 and subsequently re-issued several times over the years on vinyl with various covers. Arnold Stang's Waggish Tales is an amusing record for children from 1959 with Stang narrating Peter and the Wolf and Ferdinand the Bull. The budget-children's label Peter Pan pressed Arnold Stang's Favorite Animal Stories and a companion LP titled Arnold Stang's World of Comedy. In the 1970s his voice showed up on a record put out by the Mattel toy company called Chester the Chimp. Stang also filled in for various voices on a bunch of Winnie the Pooh records put out by RCA.
Columbia's Colpix label put out a 1961 LP based on Top Cat. It featured audio straight from the show with narration from some guy named Howard Merk edited in to explain the visuals. Three years after the show was cancelled Hanna-Barbera Records released Robin Hood starring Top Cat with voice actor Daws Butler subbing for Stang's vocals.
Arnold Stang Meets Gus Edwards was an LP put out by MGM of Stang singing the songs written by the turn-of-the-century song smith. The favorite and most sought after Arnold Stang recording is his novelty single released by MGM, Lotsa Luck, Charlie and it's b-side Where Ya Callin' From, Charlie? The two tracks were the most authentic Stang pieces of vinyl, performing in the manner his fans had come to expect.