Bill Shirley

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Bill Shirley
Bill Shirley, Actor in a black and white portrait.jpg
Born William Jay Shirley
(1921-07-06)July 6, 1921
Indianapolis, Indiana
Died August 27, 1989(1989-08-27) (aged 68)
Los Angeles, California
Nationality American
Occupation Actor, singer, entertainer
Years active ca.1926–ca.1989

William Jay "Bill" Shirley (July 6, 1921 – August 27, 1989) was an American actor and tenor/lyric baritone singer who later became a Broadway theatre producer. He is perhaps best known as the speaking and singing voice of Prince Phillip in Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty.

Early years[edit]

William J. Shirley was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 6, 1921. His father, Luther J. Shirley, was a funeral director for Shirley Brothers Mortuaries. His mother, Inez Shirley (née Baldwin) was a professional pianist. From the age of five, he was known as "Billy J. Shirley", a boy soprano and singing/acting prodigy. Billy was a very popular boy soloist with the Ogden Chorale, which sang at Christmas and Easter on the steps of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument.[1] He performed with the Meglin Kiddies and was an active member of the Children's Civic Theater and the Irvington Playhouse. At the age of eleven, he traveled with his family to California and was introduced to Sid Grauman. Grauman listened to Billy sing, and the "boy with the golden voice" soon appeared in films by 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Paramount Studios. The family owned a dog, a Boston terrier named Buddy. During the time he stayed in California, little Billy often wrote letters home requesting news about his pet.[2]

Some of the boy's first acting roles were in rare or hard-to-find films, such as The Phantom President (1932) and As The Devil Commands (1933). He sang Christmas carols in As The Devil Commands. Some press reports list the latter film's name as Acquitted, the name of a previous Columbia film from 1929.[3][4]

Bill attended George W. Julian Elementary during his grade school years and attended Shortridge High School in adolescence. Among other things, he became a member of its student council along with such prominent figures as Madelyn Pugh and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; he graduated in 1939 at the age of seventeen. In 1940, 19-year old Bill and his mother moved to Hollywood, where he studied voice and music at the Herbert Wall School of Music. His singing teacher there, the famous Andrés de Segurola, would accept Shirley as a pupil for no less than six months. Mrs. Shirley lived with her son in Hollywood for sixteen years, and the two went to Indiana to visit family and friends quite often.[5]

In early 1941, Shirley was introduced to Republic Studios president Herbert Yates by a mutual friend who worked at the studio and remembered that Shirley used to sing as a child. Shirley sang a few numbers for Yates, and was immediately signed up for a seven-year contract.[6]

Shirley's roles in the Republic films were usually very small or supporting. He had a small, yet somewhat important, part in Flying Tigers, as a very young pilot who is mortally wounded during his first mission. He appeared in other rare and usually B-list films, such as Doctors Don't Tell (1941), Rookies on Parade (1941), Hi'-Neighbor (1942), Ice-Capades Revue (1942), and Sailors on Leave (1941). He was said to have had a part in Sleepytime Gal (1942) with Judy Canova and Bobby Beers. Shirley and Beers, however, are not credited; it is probable that press reports were mistaken, or their scenes were cut.

In early 1942, before he had completed his contract, Shirley entered the Army, enlisting as a private, and served in recruiting. He also served with the Quartermaster Corps, the Signal Corps, and the Radio section of the Special Services branch. His end-of-service rank is unknown.

Career/Personal Life[edit]

After his Army service, Shirley worked in radio and on Broadway. He regularly performed on stage, in summer stock, and on television.[7] He appeared in nightclubs, including the Copacabana in 1947,[8] [9] the Latin Quarter in New York, the Mocambo in Los Angeles, and the Tropicana and Riviera in Las Vegas.

He found work for radio station KFI, on "The Railroad Hour" show, and on Ronald Colman's "Favorite Story" show. In 1947, Bill had a part in the musical "Look Ma I'm Dancin'!" as the character Shauny O'Shay. During the tryout his part was cut severely, prompting him to leave the show.[10] However, recordings of the production's soundtrack are still available that include Shirley's vocals.

In late 1948, Darryl Zanuck received a Man-Of-The-Year award in a ceremony at the Mocambo. One scheduled singer was unable to appear, and asked Shirley to substitute for him.[11][12] Zanuck heard Shirley sing and promptly put him under contract as a ghost singer for 20th Century-Fox. Shirley dubbed vocals for films including Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949) (Mark Stevens' singing voice) and Dancing In The Dark (1949), but was released by the studio for no known reason a few years later.[13]

He was good friends with several well-known motion picture actors. He had a brief relationship with former actress Colleen Townsend.[14][15] [16]

Although he had occasional vocal work, Shirley sometimes had difficulty furthering his career.

For a while, Shirley performed often with singing actress Gale Robbins. In 1949, he starred with Robbins in the short-lived Broadway revue "A La Carte". He performed with her on an episode of Movietown Radio Theater (also known as Skippy Hollywood Theater) entitled "Show Business".[17] In 1950, the pair performed as themselves on an episode of the Ed Wynn Show.[18]

In 1952 he got his only leading role onscreen: as Stephen Foster in I Dream of Jeanie, although actor Ray Middleton received the top billing. Also in 1952, Bill played Bruce Martingale, a singer at a local tavern, in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd. In late 1952, he joined a Hollywood USO troupe to entertain soldiers in Korea for the holidays.[19] He frequently performed with USO troupes, appearing with stars such as Debbie Reynolds and Keenan Wynn.

Shirley and fellow singer Bill Lee each provided part of the singing vocals for dancer Richard Allan in With a Song in My Heart (1952). Shirley sang the first two lines of the titular song, as the notes were too high for Lee.[20]

In November 1955, he appeared on Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" show and won first place, although this still did not bring about much publicity or notice.[21] After 1956, Shirley found spots in promotional shows for various sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, Ford, and General Electric. Besides this and his television work, Shirley performed on the radio and at various nightclubs across the country.

Sleeping Beauty[edit]

Bill Shirley and Mary Costa rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Shirley was approached by the Walt Disney Company to provide the speaking and singing voice for the character of Prince Phillip in its animated version of Sleeping Beauty. Shirley's singing range was tenor/baritone, and had a youthful quality which was ideal for the voice of the young Prince Phillip. Before they were cast as the voices of Aurora and Phillip, Mary Costa and Shirley were asked to audition together to make sure their voices complimented each other. During the film's production, Shirley and actor Ed Kemmer were used by the Disney animators as live action reference models for Prince Phillip; the animators had them perform many of the sequences from the movie while they drew the character. He had many rehearsals with Mary Costa, who was also providing the singing voice of Princess Aurora.

They acted out their parts just as if they were to appear personally in the finished production. The two even kissed for the sound-track cameras. After their voices were recorded, the animators drew every motion of the characters' lips to fit each enunciated syllable from the actors' mouths, so that viewers would be able to "see" the voices and hear them. The animators would draw sixteen drawings for each syllable formed by the lips. Bill would later remember that he said, "Whoa, Samson!" to a non-existent horse for a whole day before the sound engineers were satisfied with the inflection. And at that point, Samson had not even been sketched as a horse.[22]

Shortly before the film was released, Bill and Mary performed together at the Hollywood Bowl on a Disney themed night in 1958. In an interview, Costa said she and the actresses playing the fairy godmothers (Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy) were endeared to Shirley and his shyness, adding that "we all had our crushes on him"[23] and "...he was so shy and we all had just genuine crushes on that Prince. He was really cute." In another interview she said, "We loved to tease him. Verna Felton who played Flora would always creep up behind him with a pencil and act like it was a baton [wand]. She'd do some fairy work on him and say he was going to be the greatest, handsomest, and all of this."[24] Shirley and Costa sang the iconic song of the film,"Once Upon a Dream".

Besides the original, there is a version of the song that was unused and unpublished for the film. It contains rare vocals from both performers that differ slightly different from those used in the finished product; this can easily be found on the internet and is widely considered by fans to be "prettier".

Additional work[edit]

Another famous vocal role of Shirley (again as an uncredited ghost singer) was the singing voice of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (played by Jeremy Brett) in the Warner Bros. film of My Fair Lady. Shirley sang one of the film's most memorable songs, "On the Street Where You Live". Brett long claimed that he had sung the song and that Mr. Shirley merely "sweetened the high tones."[25] It was not until 1994 that Brett admitted that it was Shirley who sang the song, not him, although Brett claimed that he knew nothing about it until the opening night.[26]

Shirley performed in several Starlight Musical Theater Company productions, such as "The Great Waltz" (1953), a play in which he portrayed Johann "Schani" Strauss II. Florence Henderson was featured as the composer's love interest. Bill became exceptionally popular with Sacramento's Music Circus, as reported by such news items as the Sacramento Bee. Older newspaper reports confirm that he apparently received much acclaim for his acting and singing, especially in his portrayals of Johann Strauss Jr. of "The Great Waltz", and Lt. Joseph Cable of "South Pacific".

Bill Shirley is often stated to have retired from acting in 1963. However, he was a member of the Actors' Equity Association and continued to perform well after 1963, especially in industrial shows, and performed in Music Circus productions as late as 1975.[27] He co-produced "Dames At Sea" in 1969 and even produced a show called "Nightride" in 1971. It is very probable that Shirley's credits are innumerable, but yet unknown because he often received little or no credit for his work.


For the last ten years of his life, he worked with Litton Industries in the real estate department, primarily in Beverly Hills. It is unknown when he was diagnosed, but he retired from the company, likely due to illness, in May 1989 - just three months before his early death.[28][29] He died of lung cancer Sunday, August 27, 1989 at the Guardian Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles at the age of 68. The service was held at his family's Shirley Brothers Irving Hill Chapel. He was interred in the mausoleum of Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.



  1. ^ Indianapolis Star, May 29, 2014. Michael Anthony Adams, Hoosier was prince before Angelina Jolie's "Maleficent"
  2. ^ Indianapolis News, November 15, 1932, p. 10
  3. ^ Hollywood Filmograph, September 17, 1932 p. 18
  4. ^ Box Office Magazine, November 24, 1932, p. 24
  5. ^ Indianapolis Star magazine, May 3, 1959; Indianapolis Times, 12-25-1941
  6. ^ Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, Thursday, March 13, 1941 p. 14
  7. ^ Find A Grave, "William J. Shirley"
  8. ^ Waco News-Tribune, January 18, 1947, p. 4
  9. ^ Syracuse Herald-Journal, March 24, 1947 p. 3
  10. ^ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan 3, 1948, p. 9
  11. ^ Oakland Tribune, July 15, 1953 p. 33
  12. ^ Brazil (Indiana) Daily Times, September 10, 1952 p. 1
  13. ^ Portsmouth Herald, September 27, 1949, p. 8
  14. ^ Modern Screen, November 1949, p. 2
  15. ^ Screenland, Dec 1949
  16. ^ Screenland, Nov 1949
  17. ^
  18. ^ "Early TV" video of The Ed Wynn Show (25 March 1950, Episode 27)
  19. ^ Mt. Vernon Register-News, December 18, 1952, p. 26
  20. ^ Films Score Monthly, Forum post, May 19, 2005 Note: this is not a useful source.
  21. ^ Kokomo Tribune, November 16, 1955,p. 41
  22. ^ Indianapolis Star magazine, May 3, 1959
  23. ^ beliefnet, Nell Minow, Interview: Mary Costa of Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’
  24. ^ ArtistDirect, 23 Sep 2008. Interview: Mary Costa, the Voice of Sleeping Beauty
  25. ^ IMDB, "Jeremy Brett", Trivia
  26. ^ IMDB, "Jeremy Brett" Retrieved 6 August 2010
  27. ^ Lodi News-Sentinel, Jul 24, 1975, p. 4
  28. ^ Indianapolis Star obituary, August 29, 1989 "Bill Shirley, 68, dies; former actor, singer"
  29. ^ Los Angeles Times obituary, August 30, 1989 "Bill Shirley, 68; Actor-Singer Was Voice of Prince Charming"

1. (Great information, but yet unseen. One must pay and subscribe to GenealogyBank to view articles, or even the website itself.)