Obituary: Alan Young
British-born actor played a bumbling companion to Mister Ed, the talking horse in the 1960s American sitcom
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
Alan Young, who has died aged 96, was a British-born actor who became famous as the human sidekick of Mister Ed, the talking horse, in the eponymous 1960s CBS sit-com.
When he was first approached to play the role of Wilbur Post, Mister Ed's hapless owner, in the early 1950s, Young, an Emmy-winning star of his own comedy revue, replied that he "didn't want to work with anybody who doesn't clean up after themselves".
In the meantime, the actor George Burns had financed an unsuccessful Mister Ed pilot with another actor and in 1959 he again approached Young, saying that he looked "like the kind of guy a horse would talk to".
"Seven years later," Young recalled, "nobody was knocking on my door and I was willing to talk to anyone, including a horse."
The star of the show was a palomino gelding called Bamboo Harvester, whose gravelly voice was provided by Allen "Rocky" Lane, a star of 1930s low-budget Westerns. From 1961 to 1965 the mischievous Mister Ed and his less intelligent owner entertained viewers with plot lines that revolved around the horse's skills as a troublemaker and Wilbur's efforts to conceal their conversations.
Young described his character as "naive and bumbling", while "Ed was a wily one. I think it's the same chemistry that made Laurel and Hardy and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney: it's the one guy making a fool of the other guy."
Each show began with Mister Ed whinnying: "Hello, I'm Mister Ed," followed by the theme song: "A horse is a horse, of course, of course."
Star guests included, on one occasion, Zsa Zsa Gabor who, Young recalled, tried to drive off with a $10,000 mink coat that she wore for the show. Stopped by security guards as she left the studio, she was unrepentant. "I'm sorry, dahling," Young recalled her saying, "but most of the studios give me coats like this as gifts."
The show spawned all sorts of stories about Mister Ed. Claims that he was really a trained zebra, which had been brought in at the last minute as a replacement for a recalcitrant horse to save the show from being cancelled, were denied - as was a story put about by two Ohio fundamentalist preachers that the "Mister Ed" theme song played backwards referred to the devil.
Young himself confessed to spreading a rumour that the film crew would spread peanut butter on the horse's lips to get him to "speak", though he later claimed that the trick had been to place a piece of soft nylon under his lip which the horse would try to work out: "But I'll tell you this. After the first year, you couldn't shut him up, because as soon as I stopped talking, his lips started to move."
There was a continuing mystery over the circumstances of Mister Ed's death and in 1997, with the 1960s comedy gaining in popularity through reruns, a Californian radio personality launched a contest to determine where the horse was buried.
Three people won after identifying a site in north-eastern Oklahoma, but Young felt obliged to set the matter straight. "I don't want to prick the people in Oklahoma's bubble," he said, but the horse had died on the California ranch owned by his trainer, Lester Hilton.
After the show ended its five-year run in 1965, Mister Ed had lived out his life on the ranch, where Young would ride him every day. In about 1973, however, he "went over to Lester's little spread, and Lester was sitting very quietly. He said, 'We lost Ed.' He said he had a horsesitter and the horsesitter thought Ed was having a fit, and he gave him a tranquilliser and Ed just didn't wake up." The horse was subsequently cremated
When the show ended, Young, who owned shares in Mister Ed, made a fortune off the royalties and often attended fan conventions, sometimes accompanied by Connie Hines, his television wife Carol.
The actor was born Angus Young to Scottish parents at Tynemouth, Northumberland, on November 19 1924 and moved with his family to British Columbia, Canada, when he was young.
After working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the Second World War, Young moved to New York as a summer replacement for Eddie Cantor on his radio comedy show. He decided to stay on, with a tour as Liberace's opening act, and in 1946 Darryl F Zanuck brought him to Hollywood to co-star with Jeanne Crain in Margie. He landed his own television comedy variety show, The Alan Young Show, which ran from 1950 to 1953 on NBC Radio and won two Emmys.
In the mid-1950s, with invitations drying up, he returned to Britain, where he appeared on radio and made two low-budget films. In 1960, however, he moved back to America to work with George Pal on The Time Machine, an adaptation of HG Wells's novel.
After Mister Ed was put out to grass, and an unsuccessful stint on Broadway, Young dropped out of acting for nearly a decade to set up broadcasting facilities for the Christian Science Church, which he had joined as a child.
He later developed a new career as a voice-over actor on film and television. He voiced the Disney characters and several characters in the Belgian comic franchise The Smurfs.
Young's first marriage was dissolved and in 1948 he married Virginia McCurdy, a singer who died in 2011. He is survived by four children.