This is turning out to be one hell of a holiday week, as the “war on celebrities” continues with the passing of one of my personal heroes. Actor Arnold Stang, whose owl-like countenance and nasal Brooklynese whine entertained a generation of baby boomers on radio, television, and in the movies went to his rich reward Sunday at the age of 91 from complications related to pneumonia.
As a young kidlet, I knew Stang from various venues; he was the bespectacled geek who would announce: “Chunky! What a chunk of chocolate!” in promoting the popular confectionary. He provided the voice of Herman the mouse in the Herman & Katnip cartoons that I watched every Saturday morning on The Casper Show, and Popeye’s pal Shorty in many of the spinach-eating sailor’s wartime animated shorts. Perhaps his best-known gig was supplying the Phil Silvers-like tones of Top Cat, the title hero of a primetime Hanna-Barbera series (created in the wake of The Flintstones’ success) that combined Silvers’ classic Bilko/You’ll Never Get Rich sitcom with the Bowery Boys. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Stang’s resume; he voiced so many other cartoons that the amount of bandwidth needed to capture everything would be infinitesimal.
Arnold’s amazing vocal talents became clearer to me about the time I started listening to old-time radio as a hobby; he began his career as one of the child actors on CBS’ successful Saturday morning offering Let’s Pretend, and was also a fixture on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. He made the transition into other roles as he got older, notably the character of Seymour Fingerhood, the mischievous teenage neighbor on The Goldbergs. His unmistakable nasal drone also made him a shoo-in to play wisecracking sidekicks and second bananas; among the people with whom he worked during those “thrilling days of yesteryear” were Alan Young, Dinah Shore, Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fred Allen. He could be heard on dramatic programs like Gangbusters and The Molle Mystery Theater, and sitcoms like It’s Always Albert and The Adventures of Archie Andrews (in which he often filled in for actor Harlan Stone as “Jughead,” notably during Stone’s hitch in the service).
Stang’s best-known radio gig was as second banana to acerbic comedian Henry Morgan on Morgan’s self-titled series from 1946 to 1950—he portrayed the sarcastic troublemaker Gerard, who on many occasions got twice as many laughs as the star. During The Henry Morgan Show’s hiatus in 1947, Arnold also appeared on The Milton Berle Show—playing a Gerard variation who would often be interviewed by Uncle Miltie on the series’ “Town Hall Forum” segments as, once again, a wisenheimer who refused to take any of Berle’s guff. Stang returned to Morgan’s series in the fall of 1947, and a year later he was back with Berle in the comedian’s new comedy-variety half-hour, retitled The Texaco Star Theatre. By 1949, Berle had become such a sensation on the cathode ray tube that he didn’t need the radio show…and NBC had brought back Morgan’s show by that time, so Stang certainly didn’t stay unemployed long. (Arnold would work again with Berle on Theatre beginning in 1953, when he joined the cast as the sardonic stagehand Francis.)
Stang had been making appearances in films since the early forties with bit parts in vehicles like My Sister Eileen (1942) and Seven Days’ Leave (1942), and his distinctive appearance and voice made him a natural born “punchline” for other films during that decade as well. Naturally, he was expected to appear (as a Western Union clerk) in boss Morgan’s So This Is New York (1948), but his roles begin to get bigger to the point where he achieved what may be his best-known onscreen work as Sparrow, the devoted sidekick of junkie drummer Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra) in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). His other movie appearances include The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), Skidoo (1968), Hercules in New York (1970; where he played sidekick to Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Dennis the Menace (1993). Arnold also achieved silver screen immortality in the classic sequence of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) as he and fellow gas station worker Marvin Kaplan are helpless to stop an enraged Jonathan Winters from completely demolishing their business. (Stang and Kaplan had worked together on Top Cat, with Marvin voicing Choo-Choo, a member of T.C.’s “gang.”)
The most wonderful quality about Arnold Stang was that you could recognize him right off on a radio show or in a cartoon simply due to his distinctive voice…and it remained the same when you run across him in a movie or television episode from days gone by. His was a one-of-a-kind talent, and while I’ve certainly made a valiant effort, mere words will not sufficiently describe how much his passing affects me. He will be sorely missed.