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Peary in 1940
José Pereira de Faria
July 25, 1908
San Leandro, California, United States
|Died||March 30, 1985 (aged 76)|
Torrance, California, United States
Harold (Hal) Peary (July 25, 1908 – March 30, 1985) was an American actor, comedian and singer in radio, films, television, and animation remembered best as Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, a supporting character on radio's Fibber McGee and Molly that moved to its own radio hit, The Great Gildersleeve, the first known spinoff hit in American broadcasting history.
Born as José Pereira de Faria in San Leandro, California, to Portuguese parents, Harold Peary (pronounced "Perry") began working in local radio as early as 1923, according to his own memory, and had his own show as a singer, The Spanish Serenader, in San Francisco, but moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1937. While in San Francisco, he also had "several parts" in Wheatenaville, a program broadcast on NBC's Pacific network beginning September 26, 1932.
In Chicago he became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly, where he originated the Gildersleeve character as a McGee neighbor and nemesis in 1938. ("You're a haaa-aa-aard man, McGee" was a famous catch-phrase.) The character actually went through several first names and occupations before settling on Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve and his ownership of the Gildersleeve Girdleworks. He also worked on the horror series Lights Out and other radio programs, but his success and popularity as Gildersleeve set the stage for the character's own program, which became the peak of his career.
Peary's Gildersleeve proved popular enough that it was thought to try the character in his own show. Johnson's Wax, which sponsored Fibber McGee & Molly, sponsored an audition recording for The Great Gildersleeve, and the Kraft Cheese Company signed on as the show's regular sponsor. Gildersleeve was transplanted from Wistful Vista to Summerfield with more than just a locale change—now a bachelor (his character had a never-heard wife on Fibber McGee & Molly), and now the water commissioner instead of the owner of the Gildersleeve's Girlish Girdles company. With much of his pomposity and cantankerousness toned down, he was also newly domesticated and appointed guardian of his orphan niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy. Implicitly well-off though by no means wealthy, Gildersleeve was depicted winding up his lingerie-making company and taking up a new life as Summerfield's water commissioner.
The Great Gildersleeve premiered August 31, 1941, and became a steady hit for the rest of the decade, Peary's sonorous voice and flustered catchphrases ("You're a brii-iii-iight boy, Leroy!" was a modification of his famous McGee catchphrase) among radio's most familiar sounds. Lurene Tuttle played Marjorie; Walter Tetley, a veteran of Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight cast and other shows, played Leroy; and, Lillian Randolph played Gildersleeve's ego-puncturing maid and housekeeper, Birdie.
The show's humor, like that of McGee, was drawn through clever word-play and phrasemaking as well as Gildersleeve's earnest stumbling and basically warmhearted nature. His new nemesis was Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross) ("That crook of a Hooker has hooked our cook!"), who oversaw his guardianship of Marjorie and Leroy and became a friend and periodic rival in various schemes. Periodically, storylines were serialized, such as some of Gildersleeve's romantic interests (especially his aborted marriage plans with Leila Ransom) and political aspirations (he once ran for Summerfield mayor); in time, some of the clever word playing was toned down.
Peary also found occasion to weave his singing voice into show episodes, such as "Mystery Voice" [5/10/1942] in which he referenced his former Spanish Serenader radio persona in a plot involving a Brazilian singer on a local radio show (Mel Blanc guested as the station manager), concurrently referencing his Portuguese heritage. But his best-remembered vocalism would be what radio historians have called his "dirty laugh," a descending giggle that could start from sarcasm and finish in embarrassment or substitute for being at a schoolboy-like loss for words.
Other characters in and out of the Gildersleeve orbit included Richard LeGrand as Peavey the druggist (his dry, almost mumbled "Well, now, I wouldn't say that" also became a familiar catch-phrase), Arthur Q. Bryan (making a name as sarcastic Doc Gamble on Fibber McGee & Molly) as Floyd the barber, Ken Christy as police chief Gates, Shirley Mitchell as Leila Ransom, Bea Benaderet as another Gildersleeve paramour Eve Goodwin, and occasionally Gale Gordon (Mayor La Trivia on McGee) as Rumson Bullard, a neighbor who served Gildersleeve the way Gildersleeve had once served Fibber McGee—an equal for obnoxiousness.
Peary also featured in four Great Gildersleeve feature films during the 1940s.
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With CBS in the middle of a talent raid that had already tempted away Jack Benny and other NBC stars, Peary was offered a lucrative CBS deal of his own in 1950, after he chafed over NBC's and Kraft's reluctance to let him use his singing voice more often on Gildersleeve and to give him more part in the show's ownership than he already had. Radio historian Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio, said Peary and his agents at MCA had negotiated fruitlessly to get Peary a bigger stake in the show's ownership. When CBS began luring Benny (also an MCA client) and others away from NBC, mostly by offering the performers better capital-gains terms against the still-high postwar U.S. taxes than NBC was willing to do, Peary signed with the network.
Kraft Foods, who sponsored The Great Gildersleeve and owned the intellectual properties, refused to move the program to CBS. Gildersleeve remained on NBC with Willard Waterman, whose voice strongly resembled Peary's and who had known Peary since their radio days in Chicago, replaced Peary in the title role. Waterman refused to appropriate the famous Gildersleeve laugh however, believing Peary alone should have rights to that trademark, but otherwise slipped easily into the role; Peary himself approved of Waterman's approach, at least on radio. When the series briefly moved to television in 1955, Peary remarked that Waterman, who was much taller than Peary, was too large to pull off the role (Peary imagined Gildersleeve as a small man with delusions of grandeur) successfully on-screen.
At CBS, Peary began a new situation comedy, The Harold Peary Show, sometimes known as Honest Harold, a title that was actually the name of the fictitious radio show the new character hosted. Radio veteran Joseph Kearns (later best-known as Mr. Wilson on TV's Dennis the Menace) played veterinarian Dr. Yancey, known better as Doc Yak-Yak and similar to former Gildersleeve foil Judge Hooker. The new show also borrowed a few Gildersleeve plot devices, such as running for mayor and engagements to two women. In what was probably a desperate attempt to recreate the Gildersleeve magic, actress Shirley Mitchell, virtually reprised her Gildersleeve role of Leila Ransom, under the name of Florabelle Breckenridge. Additionally, Honest Harold's secretary at the radio station, Glory, bears a more than passing resemblance to Gildersleeve's Water Department secretary, Bessie: both are stereotypical ditzy blondes. In spite of these efforts to recreate the quality and ratings of "The Great Gildersleeve", The Harold Peary Show lasted only one season of 38 episodes.
On the March 21,1951 broadcast of The Harold Peary Show, California governor, Earl Warren (later to become Chief Justice of the United States) honored native son, Harold Peary, on live radio, with the only award ever issued up to that time, for having completed his ten thousandth (10,000th) radio broadcast. Peary's record remains unsurpassed in the annals of radio.
Films and television
In addition to the four Gildersleeve films, Peary appeared in the Walt Disney movie A Tiger Walks (1964) and the Elvis Presley film Clambake (1967). He also worked in television, playing murderer Freddy Fell in the 1965 Perry Mason episode, "The Case of the Lover's Gamble." That same year he played Peabody in the Rod Serling-scripted "Sheriff of Fetterman's Crossing" episode of Lloyd Bridges' Western series The Loner. He also appeared in recurring roles in several sitcoms, such as Herb Woodley in the TV version of Blondie, and as Mayor LaTrivia in the TV version of Fibber McGee and Molly, Peary also made guest appearances in numerous sitcoms during the 1960s, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, My Three Sons, The Addams Family, My Mother the Car, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, The Brady Bunch and Love, American Style. In the 1960s and '70s, Peary was also featured in a series of popular television ads for Faygo soda.
In the 1970s, Peary found work as a voice actor, most memorably as Big Ben, the whale with a clock in its tail, in two Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer productions, Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979), the latter being Peary's final acting credit.
Peary spent most of the rest of his life voice-acting in animated work by Rankin-Bass and Hanna-Barbera and others. He appeared in numerous commercials for products such as: Gibraltar Savings and Loan, Charmin, Faygo, Red Goose Shoes, and Challenge Dairy.
- Distinguished Americans and Canadians of Portuguese Descent: José Pereira de Faria Archived 2009-03-15 at the Wayback Machine
- "Wheatena" (PDF). Broadcasting. October 1, 1932. p. 22. Retrieved 6 April 2015.[permanent dead link]
- Stewart, R.W. (August 3, 1941). "One Thing and Another". The New York Times. p. X10.
Gildersleeve has taken leave of his long-time fencing partner[,] Fibber McGee, and will be starred in his own show, "The Great Gildersleeve," beginning Aug. 31 at 6:30, P. M. on WEAF's hook-up. Harold Peary created the Gildersleeve...
- Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. p. 293.
- 1971 Interview with Harold Peary on Speaking of Radio.mp4
- Brooks, Tim & Marsh, Earle (1979). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-25525-9. P. 199.
- Jaker, Bill; Sulek, Frank and Kanze, Peter. (1998). The Airwaves of New York: Illustrated Histories of 156 AM Stations in the Metropolitan Area, 1921-1996. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-3872-3. P. 125.
- "Vox Jox: Changes of Theme". Billboard. November 14, 1953. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
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