Sunday, 7 June 2015

But I'm An Actor

Seeing is believing. That’s why TV and movie actors get typecast. After a while, TV and movie actors get tired of a successful role and want to try something else, but the fans won’t accept them as anything but what their eyes have seen. So the typecasting continues.

The cast of the Jack Benny show—the main members who stayed for years—dealt with the same thing. Their characters were so ingrained in American culture. One wonders if Benny himself would have had a more successful movie career if people expected something other as a vain miser whenever they saw him on the screen. Don Wilson saw himself as more than an announcer—he started in show business as a singer—and tried to bust out of his stereotype. He wasn’t really all that successful. The only non-Benny role I saw Wilson in was as a news reporter covering a fight on “Batman.” As Wilson did play-by-play football before being hired on the Benny show, it wasn’t much of a stretch.

Here’s a wire service report that appeared in papers starting August 3, 1959. Interestingly, the same month Dennis Day tried his hand at drama on “Suspense,” playing a hitch-hiking beatnik forced to face reality when a “square” involves him in murder. Can you picture Dennis Day in that part? See what I mean about stereotyping?

Don Wilson Tries His Hand at Western Drama

UPI Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – Jovial Don Wilson, longtime (25 years) announcer for Jack Benny, is turning his bulky talent to drama this week in a segment of TV’s “Death Valley Days.”
Not that the hefty Wilson hasn’t branched out in the past. He’s appeared in movies without benefactor Benny, but always playing an announcer. This time Don portrays a con man parading through the Old West disguised as a preacher.
“It’s a very fat part,” said fat Don.
“I hope this departure will open new avenues of performing. It’s just possible the character I’m playing will become the lead in a new series. I want people to look on Wilson as something more than an announcer.”
Appears In November
The show, titled “Gates Ajar Morgan,” hits the airlanes next November. Between now and then Wilson will be seen regularly on Benny’s program.
“I began with Jack on radio in 1934,” he recalled. “My work was restricted to announcing and reading commercials. As we moved along Jack made me a regular member of the cast—a character. For 17 years I was voted most popular radio announcer.
“It’s been many years since I’ve done outright commercials on the show. Now I guess I qualify as an ‘actor.’
“All of us with Jack are fortunate to have been associated with such a great guy. He’s always interested when we do other things.”
Portly Don was encouraged by Benny earlier this year when he and his actress wife appeared together in “The Great Sebastians” at the Laguna Beach Playhouse. It started him off on the dramatic kick.
TV Types Announcers
“Television has worked a hardship on announcers,” he said. “We’re typed as commercial pitch artists and that’s it.
“In radio all of us used to work steadily playing hundreds voices of roles. Our voices were such that we weren’t identified with our regular jobs. On TV we’re immediately recognized.
“Harry Von Zell, of the old Burns and Allen show, became a terrific comedian in his own right. He has established himself as a performer who can do anything. The late Bill Goodwin was another announcer who switched to playing comedy, straight roles and drama.
“Frankly, I’d prefer to play comedy roles myself. Thanks to Jack, most of the things I do on his show are humorous—and he invariably gives the funny lines to members of his cast while he plays straight man.”
“Jack used to bawl me out for not consulting him before declining other offers,” he grinned. “He urged me several times to take additional shows. I still don't think it would be fair to Jack.
“I’ve studied voice since I was a kid, and made my professional debut on radio when crystal sets were the rage. But my timing and other tricks of the trade were picked up from Jack Benny. As far as I’m concerned he’s tops, and I’ll go on working for him as long as possible.”


  1. Harry Von Zell had written and acted in an episode of Wagon Train entitled "The Tobias Jones Story" in the fall of 1958, which starred Lou Costello in one of his final roles, as a drunk falsely accused of murder (Von Zell having migrated over to NBC along with George Burns at the same time, to try and continue the show without Gracie probably didn't hurt as far as NBC wanting to give Harry some extra exposure at that time). Don was probably looking at that when he mentioned Von Zell in connection with his own part of Death Valley Days the following season.

  2. I thought he was referring to the series of comedy shorts he made (for Columbia?), but the Burns and Allen TV show is probably right.

  3. Unfortunately I see that the episode where mr. Wilson and mr. Von Zell appear on Wagon Train is no longer being shown on YouTube, apparently cuz whomever posted it has taken it off YouTube. Can anyone suggest where I might be able to find that episode and view it? Thank you.