Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview With Alan Young, Part I

Many years ago, your correspondent did a great deal of writing for various entertainment magazines.  I was lucky enough to do many interviews, not all of which ran as originally planned.  Some of these -- Clayton Moore, James Bernard, Lawrence Block – were published for the first time in The Jade Sphinx.  It’s with pleasure that I add another to that list, comedian Alan Young (born 1919).

This interview was originally conducted some 20 years ago when Young, now 94, was a sprightly 75 year-old.  We hope you enjoy!

For years it has been bandied about that Alan Young is one of the nicest men in Hollywood. One has only to watch him play the gentle characters in such genre classics as Tom Thumb and The Time Machine, his star turn as nice-guy Wilbur Post in television's Mr. Ed, or even listen to the old-softy undercurrents in his vocal characterization of Scrooge McDuck in countless Disney productions, and figure that all the things said about Mr. Young are true.

Figure no more. When we called Mr. Young for an interview in the summer of 1995, he proved as much fun, as generous of nature, as downright sweet as we had heard. And you might say we got it straight from the horse's mouth.
Mr. Young has a way of speaking that instantly puts the listener at ease, and it was with regret that our time together had come to an end.

Throughout the interview, Mr. Young made frequent references to his kindly, easy-going father. Spending time with him, you know that Alan Young is truly his father's son.

Here is what a man who knew Tom Thumb, a time traveler, and a talking horse had to say.

How did you get your start in show business?

Poverty! (Laughs.)  I was about 10 or 11 years old, and heard that the local Scottish society wanted somebody to entertain them. Well, I had been used to doing silly things, imitations of the old Scottish comedians and such, and I got $3 dollars for it.

And you've been working steadily ever since?

I don't know about steadily! It was sporadic. Nobody had much money. When my father came to walk me home after the show, we didn't have a car and it was a little village, and he saw the $3 they gave me. My Dad worked in a shipyard all day for that kind of money, and he said: "Son, keep up with that talking business because lips don't sweat!" That was the original title of my autobiography, which was re-titled Mr. Ed and Me.

While we're on talking, one of the best remembered shows from the Golden Age of  Radio was The Alan Young Show. Any memories of that?

I was never very happy with it. People send me tapes of it every now and then, and I listened to one the other day and I realized what I didn't like about it. It wasn't too funny! I got laughs from facial mugging, I guess, which didn't do much for the people at home, but meant a lot to the studio audience. I decided that when television came in that there was where I'd concentrate my efforts.  But I enjoyed radio because I met such nice people.

You had a terrific supporting cast for that show.

Oh yeah. When I think of the people that worked in New York, I didn't know them then, but people like Art Carney and Mercedes McCambridge, who became a very prominent actress, they were all what we called stooges on the show. That's what we called them, in those days. I was amazed later to find out who it was I was working with! (Laughs.)

One of the films dear to our readers is The Time Machine, which is considered one of the classics of the 60s. Is it the favorite of your films?

Well, that and Androcles and the Lion. I think it's a toss-up. But I think The Time Machine because in that I was allowed to play the character that I wanted to play, an old Scotchman like my father. George Pal was such a delight to work for!

How did your casting come about?

Well, I was in England and George Pal hired me for Tom Thumb. We got along so well, that during shooting he said, "When we get around to doing The Time Machine, I want you to play Filby." I said I'd love to. He didn't pay me much money for Tom Thumb because he didn't have much to spend. But he said he'd make it up to me with The Time Machine. When I got back to Hollywood, he called me up and said that we were going ahead with The Time Machine here instead of England, but I'm afraid you'll make less money now than you did in Tom Thumb! MGM was pretty tight on the money with George, and he had to make it up in talent.

Tom Thumb is also a wonderful little fantasy film.

It's a joy to watch now, because Russ Tamblyn was a great talent -- a terrific dancer. He's the whole picture.

Did you find working in two such heavy special effects films like Tom Thumb and The Time Machine daunting at times?

My character doesn't really have much to do with the special effects. I didn't know what they were going to do, I just did my part. I was so tickled in Tom Thumb just to be working with Jessie Matthews and people like that, who, when I was a little boy, were big stars. And I couldn't wait to see the finished product, because I knew just what a genius George was.

The Time Machine was a joy to work on because Rod Taylor was a real good guy and terrific actor. I really wasn't part of the special effects.

More Alan Young Tomorrow!

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