I don’t envy character actors. Perhaps it’s a personal struggle, but the thought of being defined as a single character over the course of a career is stifling. We love the characters and we always recognize their faces, but it’s rare when we know their names. Character actors need love too!
When I stumbled onto this blogaton, one performer sprung immediately to mind. Wally Cox is the very personification of the struggles facing a character. With a career stretching more than twenty years and a skill-set spanning stand-up comedy to sensitive dramatic work, Cox couldn’t shake the success of Mr. Peepers, one of his earliest roles. For much of his career, the character names may have been different, but the part didn’t fall too far from Mr. Peepers.
At some level, I’ve always been at least somewhat aware of Wally Cox. As a 1990s child, I spent more time than I should admit watching the delightful and plentiful cartoons of the 1960s. It didn’t take me long to get from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends to Super Chicken and finally to Underdog (where I first learned of the unmistakable presence of Wally Cox).
The cartoon lasted three seasons for a respectable 124 episodes. Underdog featured Cox as a canine shoeshine moonlighting as a superhero. He fights evil in the form of Simon Bar Sinister while attempting to romance his best girl, Polly Purebred. Yes, it is as adorable as it sounds.
Sitting back and thinking about his career, Cox must have been great… he found himself typecast in two separate roles! It was in fact his work on Underdog which defined him as a performer for me in my younger days. Each time he popped up on-screen, my head immediately went to:
While we lost him at the tragically young age of 48, Wally Cox worked seemingly non-stop for the better part of 20 years. Born in 1924, his filmography comes to life at the tail end of the 1940s as television grew to prominence throughout the United States. His earliest roles came on the anthology shows of the period.
Cox’s Los Angeles Times obituary (dated February 16, 1973) describes the actor’s early years as a struggle. “Both his parents were writers and moved frequently. He attended nine schools in 12 years”. The article goes on to mention that it was at one of these many schools where Cox met Marlon Brando. The two would remain incredibly close friends throughout their lives.
In 1952, Cox scored the role which would hang over him for the rest of his life. Mister Peepers followed Cox as the titular character, a timid junior high school teacher. The comedy ran four seasons on NBC and proved surprisingly memorable in the pop-culture consciousness. Even twenty years after it went off the air, Mr. Peepers is mentioned regularly in profiles of Cox’s career… much to his frustration. Cox’s obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is quoted:
Every Sunday night, the television audiences of the early 1950s watched as Robinson J. Peepers brought his naive, quiet genius to the classroom….perhaps that was part of the problem— Wally Cox was Mr. Peepers, Mr. Peepers was Wally Cox. No one ever forgot that.
Interestingly, even the newspapers of the era put a lot of effort into building a comparison between Cox and Mister Peepers as a character. To them, they were one and the same. An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram dated February 2nd, 1954 presents a headline: TV’s Wally Cox in Person Looks, Talks Just Like ‘Mr. Peepers’. Meanwhile, the Tacoma News Tribune on February 14th of the same year reports Wally Cox vs. Mr. Peepers: Most People Find Pair Confusing.
Over the following two decades, Mister Peepers defined Cox’s star persona. Whether it was roles in State Fair, Underdog, or Something’s Got to Give, his characters were often bookish, timid, and decidedly mousey. It was certainly hard to break away from the casting. Even Cox’s (lack of) physicality pigeonholed him into the caricature. His size, his glasses, and even his voice screams…
Over the course of his career though, Cox’s sense of humor and comedic timing is undeniable. One must only look as far as his February 28th, 1954 appearance on What’s My Line to see his skill. Even as he sits in silence, his mere presence is enough to keep the audience (and the other panelists for that matter!) in stitches.
It was in fact comedy that brought Cox his start in the industry. His obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes how Cox initially made his way as a stand-up comic in Greenwich Village after serving in World War II.
Cox talked the owner of a New York Club, “The Village Vanguard” into giving him a chance as a standup comic….’They all decided that I was naturally ridiculous, ‘ Cox once said. ‘So I decided to turn it into gainful employment’.
During the time, Cox was working as a silversmith and living with Marlon Brando (with whom, he shared a passion for motorcycles). That’s about as “un-Wally Cox” as one can get.
It really wasn’t until the tail end of the 1960s when regularly Cox started landing roles outside of his usual caricature. In 1970, he appeared in a delightful featured role in the Disney movie Boatniks as a ladies’ man who runs a party yacht. A few years before, he cut a fascinatingly complex figure playing an assassin in episode 13 of the single-season series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that it was also during this period that Cox landed the third role in which people most often remember him, the upper left square on Hollywood Squares. Cox is remembered as a panelist with similar fondness as the game show’s go-to center square, Paul Lynde. He of course appeared as himself, but anyone who watched the gameshow should remember the sense of winking innuendo hanging over most of the proceedings.
As mentioned, Wally Cox passed away in 1973 at just 48 years old. He leaves a void as not just one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, but a darn fine actor. While he struggled with typecasting for so much of his career, he was stepping outside of his comfort zone, making some interesting choices, and doing incredibly good work. It’s just a shame we couldn’t see where he was headed.
Character actors are treasures. They’re the figures we most often remember in the film and television of the classic era. At the same time though, while we always remember the face, their names are often the first things to slip from our memories. As a performer, Wally Cox shows the inherent tragedy in the character actor label. Audiences loved and remembered his work on Mister Peepers, but he was so much more than that. Let’s give character actors the love and respect they deserve.
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