Actor Alan Young, the beloved star of the "Mister Ed" TV series died this week at age 96. In tribute, we are re-running Nick Thomas's exclusive interview with him.
(This interview originally ran in November 2009)
By Nick Thomas
Alan Young created some memorable characters over his long career in film and
television. Co-starring with Rod Taylor, Young played David Filby in the classic
sci-fi film of the 60s, The Time Machine. He also horsed around as Wilbur
Post for six seasons in one of best-loved sitcoms ever, Mister Ed,
and was the voice behind numerous cartoon characters such as the grumpy Scrooge
McDuck. Mr. Young is celebrating a milestone birthday- although he isn’t
especially fond of talking about such traditional annual events. But when
I spoke with him a few days ago, he was quite happy to chat about his long
Born in Northern England, Alan’s Scottish father soon moved the family to
Edinburgh, then later to Canada when he was six. Bed-ridden for months at a time
with asthma, Alan would listen to radio shows and write his own comedy routines.
He later made Los Angeles his home and went on to appear in some 20 films and
dozens more television roles. In 1994, he wrote "Mister Ed and Me," detailing
his experience with the world’s most famous TV horse, of course. He recently
revised and republished the book as "Mister Ed and Me... and More!"
Why did you update "Mister Ed and Me"?
My publisher suggested adding more stories about my life so I included some
that I think will interest readers. He also wanted more about Connie Hines, my
TV wife on Mister Ed. So I asked Connie if she would do a chapter about
her life and she was happy to.
The book’s divided into 3 sections, one called Lips Don’t Sweat. That’s an
When I was young, I was paid $3 for doing a short monologue. That impressed
my dad, who earned the same amount for working all day in a shipyard at the
time. He told me to "keep up this talking business because lips don’t sweat!" It
was good advice.
You also wrote "There’s no Business Like Show Business ....Was" which is
crammed with delightful Hollywood memories and stories. It’s extremely enjoyable
Well I love to write. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with so
many lovely people here in Hollywood. I’ve heard so many of them tell
fascinating stories, so I wanted to put it all together so fans could read about
working in Hollywood in the "old days." Young people often say to me that it
must have been easier working back then. But in many ways it wasn’t. For
example, we had to learn by the seat of our pants, as there were few schools
that taught acting skills.
Were there any comedians who inspired you?
Ed Wynn, a wonderful old comedian, gave me good advice. He said "make it
simple" and "you’re going into somebody’s home, so don’t be insulting." I also
loved the gentle Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin approach to comedy and I
actually copied Laurel’s style in some ways. He was a jewel, a wonderful man.
One day my doctor, who lived up the street, called me to come over to meet
someone at his home who was having dinner there. Apparently his dinner guest
wanted to meet me. I walked in and there was Stan Laurel. I just about melted!
As it turned out, like me, he was a Geordie - someone from north England, along
the River Tyne - so we got along well. Then he embarrassed me by asking if I
would sign his autograph book. I was so stunned, I didn’t have the nerve to ask
for his signature! We met twice after that and had dinner together and I visited
his home for a showing of one of his films.
Your parents were not entertainers, did they enjoy following your
They were somewhat amazed at my success. I wasn’t too funny on early radio in
Canada, and I was pretty innocent. I think they were fascinated that I went so
far in radio, film, and TV.
I bet your parents ribbed you about co-starring with a horse!
Well, I got a lot of that anyway. Actually, they never really got to see me
in Mister Ed because they lived in Canada and didn’t get the show. But
they heard about it and liked the idea, and they saw much of my other work.
The actor who did Ed’s voice, Allan Lane, didn’t embrace his role in the show
like you did.
He didn’t want any screen credit. He really didn’t want his friends to know
he was doing the voice of a horse. So in the credits, it always says Mister Ed
is played by "himself."
A trivia question I like to ask people is this: "Alan Young won an Emmy Award
for what show?" The answer is usually "Mister Ed." But it wasn’t!
No, it was for "The Alan Young Show," which was a half-hour variety show that
ran on CBS in 1950-53. It won several Emmys, including Best Variety Show in 1951
and I won for Best Actor. Really, it was like my radio show in Canada but with a
monologue and two sketches for TV. It went out live to American audiences from
Hollywood, and was recorded on kinescope for international viewing.
Mister Ed won a Golden Globe, but no Emmys. Did that surprise you?
Yes, it was very popular and has been ever since. I still get phone calls
from all over the world to talk about the show. I’m not sure why it never won,
but it was certainly an unusual plot! Ed did win the Patsy Award (Picture Animal
Top Star of the Year) that was given for the best animal actor. In fact, Ed won
it so many times that the American Humane Association, who gave out the award,
asked me if I would mind if he didn’t win one year. They were concerned people
might think the award was "fixed"! So the next year, Lassie won and Ed was
Unlike most actors of the time who just made salary on TV shows, you owned a
piece of the show didn’t you?
Actually, my lawyers got me a piece of the producers’ profits. Some actors
got a "piece of the show" but through creative bookkeeping, they often ended up
being given nothing. Many later sued. So I have always been grateful to my
lawyers for that extra income I received from the show. But like most, I still
don’t make anything from the DVDs.
You directed several episodes of Mister Ed. Did you enjoy
Not a whole lot. It’s hard to direct yourself and I don’t like telling other
people what to do. But when the director was away and they couldn’t find another
to take over, the producer asked me to do it. I had never directed, and it’s not
simple, but with a good cast it wasn’t too hard. I did it 4 or 5 times.
The first season of Mister Ed just came out in October. You and Connie
Hines did some commentary and interviews for that?
Yes, it was a lot of fun. We recorded it on my patio. People seem to love
that sort of thing.
When you’re signing at autograph shows or talking with fans, what’s the most
common question they ask you?
I’m often asked if Connie Hines was really as beautiful in real life as she
was on the show. I tell them even prettier! But the most asked question is how
we got Ed to move his lips.
I know it was done by putting a piece of nylon thread in his mouth. But for
years you would tell people that they put peanut butter under his lip and he
would try to lick it off. Why did you make up that story?
For the kids. They would write and ask if the horse really could talk! Al
Simon and Arthur Lubin, the producers, suggested we keep the method a secret
because they thought kids would be disappointed if they found out the technical
details of how it was done. So I made up the peanut butter story, and everyone
bought it. Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched
his hoof. In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a
scene, which actually could be a bit of a problem. Ed was very smart. And,
despite what some people have written about him, he was the gentlest horse you
Was there a vet on the set?
Initially the SPCA was there, but they knew
trainer Lester Hilton who had worked on the Francis the Talking Mule films and
who trained Black Beauty. They knew he was a kind and gentle trainer and that
everything would be fine on Mister Ed. Ed never had any medical problems,
which ironically contributed to he death. He lived with Lester, and when Lester
was away one time, he had a horse sitter stay with Ed. But Ed was plump with
skinny legs and had trouble getting up. When the sitter saw this, he thought he
was having a fit and gave him a mild sedative. But Ed wasn’t used to medications
and that probably is what killed him. We were all heart-broken. I learned to
ride on Ed and used to visit him every week after the show was canceled. Lester
and I would ride to Griffith Park. I was never a great rider, but Ed never
Speaking of cancellation, the show came to an abrupt end half way through the
sixth season, didn’t it?
It was a shock to all of us. The show had good ratings, but CBS got a new
program director who wanted to get rid of shows like Petticoat Junction, The
Beverly Hillbillies, and Mister Ed. I guess he thought we were
becoming the hillbilly network. Al Simon walked on to the set while we were
reading scripts for the next day and said we were dropped then and there. It was
awful, people were crying, but that was it. We never shot another episode.
You have a web site (www.mister-ed.tv) with an
online store containing many photos and copies of your books for sale. One of
the autographed items is a small poster of the Time Machine, signed by
you and Rod Taylor. When did you guys get together and do that?
The woman who runs the web site called him up about 6 years ago and we met in
a hotel in LA and signed a stack of them. There are a few left, I believe.
You had a small role in the 2002 remake of the Time Machine. How did
you get that?
The producer was worried that the fan club of the original movie was
objecting to the new film. So he called me and asked if I would help publicize
the movie. They didn’t pay me anything, I just did some interviews. Then I was
asked if I would like to do a "Hitchcock," a quick walk-on part. I thought
audiences would find it fun to be able to say "hey, wasn’t that the fella in the
original film?" But then they actually wrote a small role for me in the flower
shop. I didn’t really want to do it, but I did.
The film, like many remakes, was a flop. Why?
Yes, unfortunately, it didn’t go over well. I felt so sorry for the director,
who was H.G.Wells’ grandson. He and his wife were sitting in front of me during
the initial showing, and we could tell it was bombing. When the lights came on,
he turned to me and just said "Oh dear!" I think H.G.Wells wrote a very simple
story. And George Pal, the original director, insisted the movie was also done
simply - like the scene where Rod Taylor’s character bends a cigar and puts it
in the miniature time machine to show how it worked. The remake was on a grander
scale, and I guess the fans just didn’t go for it.
In 1993, you did the video documentary Time Machine: The Journey Back
which looked at the history of the time machine prop, but also briefly reunited
you and Rod Taylor in an epilogue scene to the
original film. Did you have reservations about doing it?
Oh no. I hadn’t seen Rod in years and he was such a joy to work with again. I
was working in a play down in San Diego when they sent me the script. It was
charming and I was so pleased to be acting with Rod again. I memorized the
script while driving back to Los Angles and we did the scene in one take.
One of the things that stands out in the Time Machine is your red
Oh yes, I’ve had my hair dyed so many times in my life. It was red as Filby,
then dark, dark brown for Mister Ed. It had to be dark because it was
naturally the same blonde as Ed, so if I crossed behind him in a scene, my head
would disappear. In Beverly Hills Cop III, they bleached it white. And
strangely, it stayed that way. It actually grew back white. So now, I’m a
white-haired gentleman. But it’s wonderful, people open doors for me and I get a
lot of respect!
You’ve done a lot of cartoon voices, too. Many people seem surprised to learn
you were Scrooge McDuck! How did you get that role?
Disney had made a record of Christmas carols but it didn’t sell well. They
had produced a beautiful and expensive album cover for the record with Mickey
and the Disney characters on the cover. So they wanted to get their money back.
I belonged to a Dickens Society and was asked if I could write a version of A
Christmas Carol in which Mickey, Goofy, and the others played the characters
of the story. I did, and recorded it as a record doing Mickey and Goofy. The
original actor who played Donald Duck did his part. The record sold so well,
Disney decided to do a short movie of the story and Scrooge McDuck was added.
Eventually, that led to the DuckTales series.
Scrooge McDuck was created by Carl Barks some 60 years ago as a comic book
character and he was a real villain, much darker than in the animated role. Why
was he converted into a good guy?
Yes, Scrooge was a nasty fellow in the comics. But for the cartoon, they had
to make him more likable or audiences wouldn’t have taken to him. He was still
miserly and grumpy, but he loved his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
What did Carl Barks think of the character you created?
I spoke with him on the phone and he told me he liked what I did. "That’s
Scrooge!" he said. I actually had a huge book he had done on Scrooge and wanted
to get him to autograph it, but he passed away before I could meet him in
How do you create a cartoon character’s personality - just follow the
Actually, it’s often the reverse. If it’s for a new character, the writers
will sit in the control room and watch the actor reading the script. Sometimes
they will copy the actor’s appearance, even the facial movements, and draw the
character from that.
You had bad asthma as a child, although in a way that’s what help start you
in show business since you got to listen and learn from the radio acts you heard
while recuperating. Do you still suffer from asthma?
No! The doctors would give me shots that would make my heart pound. It was a
terrible feeling, worst than the asthma. But years later, my mother called in a
Christian Science practitioner and overnight the asthma stopped. The next day I
was playing soccer!
What’s ahead for you?
Well, I’m retired from pictures now. I’ve turned down a few offers. In one,
the first few pages of the script contained swearing. I felt "Wilbur" just can’t
be seen doing that! I have started to write a series of children’s books, and
that’s a lot of fun.
So how are you celebrating the birthday?
A dear old man once told me that birthdays are a heavy weight to carry all
your life. So I actually stopped counting birthdays when I was