Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 4, 2004.
“It’s been a long time since I was a little boy.” — Wilbur Post
“It’s been a long time since I was a pony.” — Mister Ed
Thus began the discourse between the most famous comedy team of man and horse in television history. In 1961, CBS took a chance on legendary comedian George Burns’ offbeat comedic series featuring a talking horse named Ed and the benevolent architect named Wilbur who becomes the only human to whom the horse speaks. The show was called “Mister Ed” and it became a huge hit for the network, which had plucked the program from syndication. Interestingly, the show’s premise had been floating around Hollywood for years.
“The first time the producer came to me was in 1952 when I was starring in my own television revue show,” says Alan Young , who would eventually star as the affable Wilbur Post. “I was pretty cocky at the time because I had just won two Emmys for my show and I said, ‘I don’t want to work with anyone who won’t clean up after himself.’ [Laughs] Six years later, when television was overrun with quiz shows and Westerns, George Burns had produced a pilot for a talking-horse show based on serials featured in old Liberty magazines. George recommended me to director Arthur Luben for the part of Wilbur and this time I said yes.”
The show was shot at the tiny General Service Studios in Hollywood, the same studio that was home to other offbeat comedies such as “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the highly acclaimed and very dramatic “Perry Mason.”
“At first, it was weird to be working for a horse, because Mister Ed was the star, of course, and we treated him with the greatest respect,” Young recalls with a chuckle. “It didn’t take long for he and I to become great pals and achieve this great chemistry onscreen.”
While the concept may seem ridiculous in today’s (ahem) highly sophisticated world of primetime series, in its heyday “Mister Ed” was among the most-watched shows on television. Americans tuned in by the millions to catch the latest antics of the suave palomino with the deep, deep voice with its John Wayne swagger. Perhaps that was due to the man, uh, behind the horse, so to speak.
“Ed’s voice was provided by Allan Lane, a Western star from the 1940s,” says Young . “And that was really the way he spoke. The first time the director heard Lane speak, he instantly knew that was the voice for Ed.
“Ed’s trainer was a genius, an old cowboy named Lester Hilton. He had broken into show business himself working for Will Rogers.”
Ed could not only “speak,” but if so inclined, he could type, read the daily paper, watch television, dial the phone, write a hit song and flirt with the fillies up the lane. His ability to move his lips to simulate speaking flummoxed people for years.
“I actually started the lie about peanut butter being under his lips,” Young says. “In actuality, the trainer put a soft piece of nylon threading under his lip, and he’d be down behind the barn door with a riding crop, and when he would tap Ed’s leg with the crop, the horse knew it was time to try to get the annoying piece of threading out from under his top lip, which made his mouth move like he was speaking. He never missed a cue.”
“Mister Ed” also featured a delightful supporting cast of players including Connie Hines as Wilbur’s wife, Carol; Larry Keating as their pesky neighbor, Roger Addison, and Edna Skinner as his wife, Kay. (The Addisons would be replaced in the 1963-65 seasons by the Kirkwoods following the death of Keating). The program spoke volumes for 1960s mores and relationships. The woman’s place was definitely in the home. The man’s place was in the barn.
“Yes, there was a lot of romance between my character and Connie’s,” Young says. “In a way, that was one element that made the show so appealing. It was a gentle and loving show. It was a happy show. It made you feel good.”
Young says he decided to take riding lessons by the show’s fourth episode so he wouldn’t look goofy in scenes that called for him to ride Ed. It eventually became a passion for him. He went on to take dressage lessons, and when the show was finally canceled and Ed “retired to a very nice, comfortable life on a ranch,” Young would continue to ride his pal every morning.
As happened with many successful television shows, Hollywood stars soon clamored for a guest spot on the series. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Richard Deacon, Jack Albertson, Clint Eastwood and George Burns, to name a few, would eventually boast “Mister Ed” on their resumes.
“We used to get requests all the time from movie stars who wanted to be on the show,” Young says. “Mae West called to say she ‘wanted to work with the handsomest and strongest leading man in Hollywood.’ [Laughs] She was referring to Ed. But I have to say that of all the guest stars, Clint [Eastwood] was probably my favorite. He was real pro, a real gentle, nice man. And he loved horses because of [his TV series] ‘Rawhide.’ ”
Young ‘s favorite episode?
“The first one, because something just clicked,” he says. “The very first dialogue I have with Ed sealed it for me. I knew we had something special in the show.”
In 1965, Young says CBS pulled the plug on the hit series “because the new program director of CBS decided to get rid of the network’s bucolic image, so he canned us, ‘Green Acres’ and ‘Petticoat Junction.’ ” At the time, Young was also directing some of the episodes.
After all these years, how would he describe his beloved four-legged co-star in one word?
“Gentleman,” Young says without hesitation. “He was a true buddy and a consummate pro. He would get his routine done in one take, unlike the rest of us. And he never ever had an ‘accident’ on the set. He was so smart and so considerate that if he had to go, he’d roll his eyes up and Lester would lead him outside to do his stuff on a special pile of hay. [Laughs] Considering a horse was the star of our show, we had the sweetest smelling set in Hollywood.”
“Mr Ed” the complete series is available on DVD.