The best thing that could have happened to Phil Harris unfolded in 1937. They changed his character.
The Jack Benny radio show had been incredibly popular but some tweaking of the Benny gang was in order. The jolly announcer was in place, but there were two silly characters (Mary Livingstone and Kenny Baker) and a combative one (Harris). Two silly characters weren’t needed, so Mary became a sharp-tongue put-down artist (apparently not that far removed from her real personality). And Harris’ bickering with the star just wasn’t funny, so he was completely recast in the mould of a musician stereotype—a casual hepcat with an eye for the bottle and ladies, one wrapped up in himself and who hadn’t been wrapped up in school books as a kid. The improved Harris was a hit. He had enough traits that everyone could picture him—and picturing someone is what radio’s all about. Guys, no doubt, admired him in a way. And Harris milked parts of that character for the rest of his life.
Phil Harris is a great example of the kind of money that’s showered on show people who make it big. After his radio show died with network radio in 1954, Harris never worked regularly again. He didn’t need to. He had enough money for an extremely comfortable lifestyle, spending his time travelling, golfing and fishing. But he popped up every once in a while and, in the process, made a second career for himself as an occasional voice actor for Walt Disney.
The idea that Disney would hire someone with Harris’ reputation based on his long association with Jack Benny amused United Press International’s venerable Hollywood reporter. This column appeared in newspapers starting July 14, 1978. Harris engages in the kinds of one-liners that the Benny writers put in his mouth some 40 years earlier.
That reprobate of heroic proportions
It’s true! Phil Harris does Disney films
By Vernon Scott
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) - The Disney Studios is a pristine bastion of probity dedicated to “G” rated movies, the flag, motherhood and God.
Since Mickey Mouse first squeaked his way to fame some 50 years ago, the Disney reputation has been unsullied by scandal and unseemly skylarking, much less public displays of drunkenness or lechery.
In the Sodom that is Hollywood, Disney shines like a beacon of virtue, an island of moral rectitude in a sea of depravity.
It comes as a distinct shock, therefore, to discover that Disney nurtures a reprobate of heroic proportions, a figure who looms large in the show business Who’s Who of topers, swingers and rascals.
Through the hallowed gates of Disney these days strolls a man who has become a fixture in the studio's feature length cartoons. He provided the voice of Baloo, the bear in “Jungle Book,” of J. Pat O’Mally, the hip cat in “The Aristocats,” and of Little John in “Robin Hood.”
At present he is the voice of Feathers Valentino, a crane of dubious reputation who messes around with Charo in “Fox and Hounds.”
This rampant blot on the Disney escutcheon is none other than Phil Harris, as unlikely a figure on the campus-like Disney lot as he would be occupying the office of headmaster at a girls finishing school.
It was Phil Harris, one must be reminded, who toured Scotland with Bing Crosby many years ago. One night on the road to Aberdeen they passed several distilleries of Scotch whisky, lights aglow, operating full blast.
Crosby wryly observed, “Look at that, Phil, they’re making it faster than you can drink it!”
Undaunted, Harris fired back, “Yeah, but I got them working nights.”
While Harris was on a domestic tour through the South with Bing a few years later a group of Crosby fans asked what the stars were doing in Dixie. Bing told the ladies, “Phil’s here to lay a wreath on the grave of Jack Daniels.”
Harris recalled those glory days in his distinctive whiskey baritone at lunch in the Disney commissary, his innocent blue eyes twinkling with pleasure.
The lovable reprobate has dedicated most of his 72 years to creating a reputation for wine, women and song as Crosby's crony off-screen and as Jack Benny’s band leader-foil for 16 years on Benny's radio show. He also devoted seven years to defaming himself on his own radio show with wife Alice Faye.
He was every God-fearing wife’s admonition to her husband, the horrible example. Few were the men who did not envy Phil’s carefree lifestyle. The Walter Mittys of the world lived vicariously through his adventures.
Harris, despite his tenure at Disney, says he is unchanged. “I'm on the wagon right now, but only to lose weight,” he said. “The minute I drop 10 pounds I’m heading right back to the nipple.
“Alice and I have been married since 1941 and I’m still looking for her money. We’ve lived in Palm Springs 30 years and I traveled so much Alice used to tell people she saw me only when I brought my laundry home. Now she says she brings my laundry To me.”
Phil’s low-life reputation was responsible for one of the longest sustained laughs in the history of radio.
In one skit, Benny was sitting in the parlor of the elegant home of the polished Ronald Colman and his fastidious wife, Benita. Colman was munching an apple when Benny began a story and mentioned the name of Phil Harris.
There was a pregnant silence and then Colman said disdainfully, “Please, Jack, not while I'm eating.” The audience roared for a full minute and a half.
On his own show Harris featured his disreputable sidekick Frank Remley, a guitarist whose legendary carousing matched his own.
Now that Phil has become a Disney standby, he has discovered a whole new world of fans. Little kids, who once might have asked why he led their fathers astray, now point him and yell, “Hi, Baloo.”
“It’s just great,” said Harris happily, “and now ‘Jungle Book’ is being re-released. Walt Disney himself wanted me for the voice of Baloo. But when I read the script I turned it down.
“The dialogue didn’t sound like me. And I didn’t want to be typed as a bear. But they asked me to try it once using my own words. That worked out fine. But Alice made me bring a recording home to prove I really worked at Disney.
“I'm here because they can use my voice, phrasing and inflection but the producers keep it clean. I sound like everyone else to me, but the voice must be distinctive. Long distance operators always ask, ‘Is this Phil Harris?’
“Baloo has resurrected my career. I love having kids recognize me and follow me down the street. But that doesn't mean I’ve changed my ways. Not at all.
“I was down south not long ago at a social doing when a guy comes up to me and says, ‘The Reverend Billy Graham would like to meet you.’ I’m a big fan of Graham and I considered it an honor.
“But we’re not exactly the same type of character. When I shook hands with Billy my whole right side went sober.”
Walt Disney knew what he was doing. Baloo wasn’t a boozer or a connoisseur of women, but he had Harris’ carefree attitude toward life. He was perfect casting. It worked for Benny and it worked for Disney. When kids said “Hi, Baloo,” to Harris, they were closer to the truth than they thought.