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Over the last few weeks on both my podcast and here on this channel, I’ve spoken about some of the greatest cartoon and voice over talent working on both the big and small screens.
The troops of actors lining the rosters of radio stations, movie studios like the Walt Disney Company and production companies like Hanna Barbera and Jay Ward Productions filled countless hours of screentime and created delightful and fun characters which have captivated audiences of all ages in the years which have passed, yet of their names have faded into the past, overshadowed by the nature of their medium.
In this list, I wanted to examine some of the names and faces which may not be the most well known in a contemporary climate despite the delightful work they did over the course of decades long careers.
So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Underappreciated Animation and Voiceover Performers from the middle of the twentieth century.
Jumping on in with number five, we have Eleanor Audley.
Disney fans the world over have undoubtedly heard Audley’s distinctive voice, even if her name might not be the most familiar thanks to her work with the Walt Disney Company during the 1940s and 1950s.
Eleanor Audley was born in 1905 in New York City. Her career began on stage– not a surprise considering her imposing screen persona. Her 1991 obituary in the New York Times reports that she made her stage debut in the 1920s. Her earliest newspaper notices come in 1926 with a role in Howdy King. The next year, she was highlighted in the Boston Globe as one of the stars of Broadway, soon to open on stage. In 1933, she appeared in a play entitled Pigeons and People opposite the legendary entertainer, George M Cohan. The play was reviewed very well, and was saw substantial press-coverage during the first part of the year. An article out of the Brooklyn Times Union dated 09 of April 1933 reports that “a half a dozen producers” were seeking er services for a starring vehicle.
This is how Audley’s career seems to progress for a number of years. Her name is never far off the theatrical pages, especially throughout the 1930s and 1940s when she moved onto the radio.
Her screen debut is listed in IMDB as The Story of Molly X in 1949, by the look of it, a B list noir starring June Havoc. Though, Dorothy Kilgallen’s Voice of Broadway column makes a not so subtle claim that her voice is used to dub an actress in the Cary Grant led I was a Male War Bride, also in 1949.
The next year, Audley made her first appearance with Disney in the studios take on Cindarella as the villainous Lady Tremaine. She could continue with the studio, throughout the decade and is probably best known for her stunning portrayal of Malificent in the 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. Park attendees will also recognize her voice as that of Madame Leotta in The Haunted Mansion attraction.
While she appeared in feature films every so often, most of her work during the following decades came on televison. Audley brings a filmography touting 121 credits, and what is most astounding about this is that it only really spans twenty years from her screen debut in 1949 to her retirement in 1970.
Audley’s face was all over classic television, particularly during the 1960s– pretty much any show you may have watched. Some of her most lengthy runs came in Green Acres as Eunice, the mother of Eddie Albert’s Oliver Wendell Douglas, as Mrs. Vincent on My Three Sons as well as recurring characters in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Joey Bishop Show.
Malificient was a character who scared the ever living daylights out of me when I was growing up, and in the years since, the 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty has since become my favorite Disney movie. Eleanor Audley is such a vibrant and dynamic performer– there is a reason Malificent has a character has had such staying power– however, her name and lengthy and varied career has largely taken a back seat to just a few of these roles. Let’s not forget this legendary.
Next up, at number four, we have Arnold Stang.
Arnold Stang is admittedly, someone who I really only recently started really learning about, despite knowing his screen persona from a young age thanks to watching It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World a lot.
Arnold Stang was born September 1918 in Manhattan. He was another to start in the industry early. According to a profile in The Shreveport Journal dated the first of may 1957, the article writes
The first Arnold Stang was a scrawny 10 year old who walked into an audition for a children’s show 22 years ago. The article also quotes Stang, “I guess it was pretty funny alright– this pipsqueak trying to give a dramatic reading… So they had me do a comedy monologue. I just wanted to get into the business”.
His screen debut came in 1942 with an uncredited role in the Rosalind Russell comedy My Sister Eileen, but most of his early and recurring work came on the radio.
Most notable was his work on The Henry Morgan Show throughout the mid and late 1940s. An article in the Shreveport Journal dated the first of May 1957 quotes Stang, “Funny thing is that no one even remembers the best Arnold Stang I ever did. That was Gerard on Henry Morgan’s old radio show, a beautiful character”.
His career expanded throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. The role which seems to have stuck with Stang over the years was his work with Milton Berle on television during the 1950s.
In 1955 Stang appeared in The Man with the Golden Arm opposite Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. The role– Sparrow– in the Otto Preminger directed drama was a tremendous change of pace for Stang and critics most certainly took notice. The film was well-reviewed. Sinatra received a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards and Stang is quoted in the Shreveport Journal article that Preminger expected Stang to receive a nomination as well. Unfortunately, that didn’t come to fruition. In a lot of the period writing on Stang’s career, it is clear that the actor was anxious to sink his teeth into a good dramatic role, unfortunately after The Man with the Golden Arm, the chance never seemed to materialize.
Throughout the end of the 1950s, Stang worked with an almost frenetic pace with largely small screen appearances. His filmography lists 158 credits over his more than 60 year career.
In 1961 he landed the voice role of which would come to define much of his career as TOP CAT — or TC– in the show of the same same. Much of the later part of his career looks a lot like this, showing the talented, but decidedly under-utilized Stang in appearing largely in cartoons and children’s animated programing. He was always a brilliant and well utilized comedic actor; however, there is always a sense that the could have done more.
Arnold Stang passed away in 2009 at the age of 91.
Meanwhile, at number three, we have Paul Winchell a choice which might surprise, and might frighten others– depending on your feeling about ventriloquists…
Paul Winchell was born in December 1922 in New York City. According to the website billed at his official website, Winchell’s initial goals had him wanting to be a doctor, but the Great Depression ruined any chance his family had at affording medical school tuition. The website goes on to report that it was a bout with polio during his early teen years which began his fascination with ventriloquism. After making his own dummy and putting together an act,
Winchell begins popping up in newspapers right around 1938 as the teenage ventriloquist was making a name for himself on the vaudeville circuit. A review dated the 19th of March 1938 in the Kansas City Times writes “Another act that is liked particularly is presented by Paul Winchell and a dummy he calls Terry — this is a type o, all other sources give the name as Jerry– but who has adopted a lot of the mannerisms of the beloved Charlie McCarthy”. By 1939, Winchell is headlining with Jerry — as seen in this article dated 19th of January in 1939 in the San Francisco Examiner. Jerry is billed as the arch enemy of Charlie McCarthy.
In 1939, Winchell is cited in the Los Angeles Times– dated 16th of June 1939– as being courted for big screen work. He is said to appear in the feature Everything’s on Ice starring Irene Dare — a young figure skater. The article mentions that Jerry was used in the film with Winchell voicing him off camera. The rarity of the film means that this is unconfirmed.
He spends another ten years on the stage circuit with supporting acts with an increasingly amount of glitz. Advertisments of the period have him supporting names like Bob Crosby, Vaughn Monroe and Buddy Rogers before making his radio debut in 1943 and moving to the small screen at the end of the decade.
An article dated 28th of August 1948 in the New York Daily News his television debut is announced in conjunction with Dunninger — billed as ’The Mind Reader’ on THE FLOOR SHOW. Winchell spent most of the next decade on televison in various forms ranging from What’s My Line
to The Paul Winchell Show.
Throughout the 1960s he was appearing all over television easily moving from comedy, to drama and even action series.
By 1968, the 44 year old Winchell had been a ventriloquist for thirty years. However, this is the year that he landed the role which would not only change the course of his career, but define the later half of his career.
It is in 1968 that he appeared in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, first voicing the character of Tigger. According to his 2005 obituary in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, he credited his British wife with Tigger’s iconic phrase, TTFN– ta — ta for now. He would continue to voice the character for more than thirty years, last voicing the character — according to the Star Telegram in 1999.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980 he kept updating and morphing his ventrioquist act with Jerry and Knucklehead into some surreal and strange places, he was working heavily as a voice actor. He voiced Gargamel in the Smurfs– a favorite of many a millennial audience, among others.
In 1985 there’s yet another twist as he was credited that year with designing an artificial heart. An article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch dated 28th of February 1985 dives into his passion for medicine that I described earlier. According to the article, he went back to school in the 1950s, studying biology at Columbia University where he met Dr. Henry Heilmlich
Yeah that one.
It was in the early 1960s that Winchell– with the help of Heimlich began polishing the design that lead to patent which would eventually become one of the earliest used artificial hearts. Unfortunately, looking over the article, the process after the initial design was fraught with drama– over credit– which is far longer than this profile will allow.
Paul Winchell passed away in 2005 at the age of 82.
Diving deep into Paul Winchell’s life and career, it becomes clear just how incredibly smart, tenacious and versatile he was, not only as a performer, but as a man. It’s a shame that so much of his early work was before video recordings and in the infancy of televison, so all that really still exists is precious few clips as well as his later voice roles. His work as Tigger is one of the most memorable for so many, for so long; however, the character has really grown to even ecclipse Winchell, sadly.
Next up, we have Bea Benaderet.
Benaderet is another figure– like so many of the personalities mentioned above– whose performances I’ve grown up with, yet it is always a struggle to see through to the face behind the voice as the decades have passed.
Bea Benaderet was born in April 1906 in New York and there’s very little seemingly written about her, until her name first begins appearing in print around the 1930s. It was at this time that she relocated to the San Francisco area and became a staple on stage an on the radio.
By the late 1930s, Benaderet was appearing on the radio with regularity. An article dated 29th of July 1938 in the Bristol Herald calls Benaderet an accomplished dialectician while a piece dated 02 of March 1943 in the Latrobe Bulletin she’s compared with the legendary Mel Blanc in her ability to to change her voice.
Her name is mentioned regularly in period sources of the era as she flip flops across the radio air waves from The Jack Benny Show to A Date with Judy and The Great Gildersleeve. An article in the Kansas City Star, dated 24th of March 1946 writes, “Benaderet is probably heard by more listeners than any other supporting player in broadcasting”.
Before long, she had moved to animation appearing in various animated shorts, beginning in 1940. A number of them look to be Looney Toons, but by and large the voice cast is largely the same, Benaderet and Mel Blanc. She then goes on to make her feature film debut in a brief, but delightful moment in the 1949 Gene Kelly musical On the Town.
As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, while Benaderet continued with the animated shorts, she began making the jump to television. Of her live action roles, the one she is probably best remembered is Gladys the switchboard operator on the show.
Throughout this time, she also filled regular roles on live action shows like: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Peter Loves Mary and The George Burns Show. Though, her animated work on the small screen was starting to increase at the same time.
The role Benaderet is probably most associated with started in 1960 when she joined the cast of The Flintstones as Betty Rubble along side Alan Reed as Fred, Jean Vander Pyl as Wilma and Mel Blanc as Barney. The series ran for six seasons on ABC, resulting in 167 episodes in the perennial classic cartoon series. At the same time, she was also serving as a regular on Petticoat Junction. The long running family comedy on CBS lasted seven seasons and more than 220 episodes before it’s cancellation. Benaderet played series lead Kate Bradley until she was forced to step down when she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Bea Benaderet passed away in October 1968 at the age of 62.
Bea Benaderet is a name I’ve known for a while, thanks to her work in old time radio, especially with Jack Benny. However, in conducting this research, I found myself absolutely bowled over at the strength and sheer versatility of her work. While her name was one which was definitely remembered during the middle of the twentieth century– due to her live tv work– while she kept pace with a legend the likes of Mel Blanc who she often worked opposite, her name should be as well remembered.
Wrapping up this list, we have the great and delightful Frank Nelson.
Chances are, if you’ve traversed though classic animation, classic televison or even classic radio, even if you don’t know the name, you know Frank Nelson’s voice. While unlike a number of the performers I’ve mentioned above, he’s not directly associated with a specific character, his voice is almost instantaneously recognizable.
Frank Nelson was born in May 1911 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There isn’t much written about his earlier career. An article dated 21st of October 1984 in the Daily Sentinel out of Grand Junction Colorado writes that the actor started in local radio out of Denver in 1926 at the age of 15 before moving to Hollywood in 1929 where he quickly began landing radio work.
A look at some of his earliest national radio credits have him working steadily by the early 1930s. The Frank Nelson Archive lists him landing parts on perennial classics like Burns and Allen, Jack Benny and Chase and Sandborn by 1934.
He quickly became a staple throughout radio thanks to that persona.
According to his filmography, he made his screen debut in 1936 with a host of uncredited voice roles, usually billed as “announcer”.
It was radio work which provided Nelson with the brunt of his work throughout the 1940s, and in the 1950s he started moving onto the small screen on the series like Our Miss Brooks, I Married Joan and I Love Lucy.
In 1954, according to his 1986 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Nelson was elected the national president of the American Federation of Radio and Televison Artists, he held the post through 1957. He is also listed in a number of sources as a founding member of the guild. The article goes on to quote Frank Maxwell, who was serving as guild president in 1986 about Nelson, “He fought fiercely for the things he believed in… his devotion to the welfare of his fellow members will leave its stamp on AFTRA for as long as the union lasts”.
Nelson starts popping up in animation beginning in 1960 with roles in classic series like THE FLINTSTONES and MR MAGOO and as the years continued in shows like LOONEY TOONES, GARFIELD, DINKY DOG and SNORKS.
Frank Nelson passed away in September 1986 at the age of 75.
From my first introduction to Frank Nelson’s work in the Jack Benny Show I was amazed at just how vibrant and colorful his voice work was. He always stood out in each role that he tackled, making even the most simple character into a memorable individual.
Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic popular culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find us on Twitter at GazeFemale. As always, if you like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!