Alan Young, best known as “Wilburrrr,” the sidekick to a golden palomino named Mr. Ed, died Thursday of natural causes at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills, California. He was 96.
Young was a television pioneer who began his career as a radio performer. His affable charm and easy humor saw him on the big screen and finally television.
He was born Angus Young, and growing up in Scotland, he was a sickly child with asthma. He spent many hours indoors, so he adopted the radio as a form of entertainment. He began emulating some of the comedy he heard, and by the time he was a teenager, he already had a following through his own on-air broadcasts.
Shortly after moving to California, Young spotted a charming girl on a parade float. Google News ran an article about how Young approached this girl.
“There were several girls on this float, but she smiled a lot. I asked her to go out to a cocktail party with me.”
The girl’s name was Norma Jean Dougherty.
Young related a sweet story about how he picked Norma Jean up at her parents’ house, noting a Christian Science book on the table. Since Young’s own parents were Christian Scientists, he asked Norma Jean if she was. She said she was not, but had gone to the sunday school.
“We ran into a thick fog on the way to the party, and I got lost. All I could think to do was drive to my own house.”
“My mother and father are old country people. They think when you bring a girl home, you’re going to marry her.
“They looked at Norma Jean Doherty in her real tight sweater, and goodness, my mother went white.”
But Young said that Norma Jean and his mother hit it off, as they were talking about Christian Science.
Young, being, well, young, felt awkward about parents and religion being so involved in their first date. When he dropped Norma Jean off, he just gave her a light peck on the cheek.
Ironic foreshadowing: a 1947 pic of Alan Young, Marilyn Monroe & Bill Thompson (who voiced Scrooge McDuck in 1967!) pic.twitter.com/LSYOxMMR3Y
— Dan Cunningham (@HonuDan) May 20, 2016
Everlasting Star tells how Young told biographer Michele Morgan that when he met Marilyn Monroe years later, he didn’t know who she was from her name.
“Someone said to me, ‘How long have you known Marilyn Monroe?’ I said I knew her as Norma Jean Dougherty.
“She did some publicity shots with me.
“She was exactly the same person – so naive and really sweet. That’s why she landed in so much trouble later on because she trusted everybody. That was a real shame.”‘
By the second time he met Marilyn, Young was famous. In the 1950’s, he starred in his own CBS television talk show, The Alan Young Show, which was an Emmy award-winning effort.
But Alan Young will be enshrined forever in TV history as Wilbur, the straight man to a wisecracking Mr. Ed, a horse who talks, but whom only Wilbur can hear.
Young was approached for “Mister Ed” by producer Arthur Lubin, creator of the hit film, Francis the Talking Mule (1950).
Young liked to say that he came to Lubin’s attention by another producer who said the actor, “looks like the kind of guy a horse would talk to.”
But Young turned down the part.
“I don’t want to work with anybody who doesn’t clean up after himself.”
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) May 20, 2016
Mister Ed was voiced by movie cowboy Allan “Rocky” Lane. When the show was casting, Lane was flat broke and sleeping on the couch of his friend, horse trainer Les Hilton. Bambino Harvester, Hilton’s trick palomino, was picked to play Mister Ed.
Mr. Ed was trained to move his lips when Hilton placed a soft nylon strip over his gums. The horse became so savvy that he was later weaned off the strip and would wait for Young to finish speaking before “saying his lines.”
Young, who owned part of the show and made a fortune from royalties, remained modest throughout his life. He said the horse was very smart.
“He was the star. I was the supporting actor.”
Young appeared in films such as Margie (1946), Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and The Time Machine (1960), based on the H.G. Wells story. Mr. Young had a cameo in Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). This was by the request of the film’s star, Eddie Murphy, a Mister Ed fan.
Young had three marriages, each ending in divorce, according to Washington Post. Whenever he was approached by fans, it was usually about his role with Mr. Ed. He said those were the happiest days of his life.
(Photo by AP)