Saturday, 3 October 2015

He's Terrific

Not too many teenaged boys have stage names, but you see one in the picture to the right. He was born Lionel Lazarus Salzer on March 22, 1924 in Brooklyn. His claim to fame is being one of the best cartoon voices in New York in the mid-1950s.

By the 1950s, Terrytoons were at the bottom of the barrel when it came to theatrical animation. Owner Paul Terry didn’t care. He had no incentive to make them look or sound better. 20th Century Fox wanted them, paid to release them, and Terry made money from them. Then CBS wanted them, so he sold the network his studio and made even more money. Fortunately there were enough creative people at Terrytoons that some of the studio’s cartoons were entertaining.

Soon thereafter came a chap named Gene Deitch, who took over production at the studio while fending off corporate sharks. His theatrical Terrytoons are a mixed bag, too, but maybe his best achievement was the production of a series for CBS-TV called Tom Terrific.

Tom wasn’t Bugs Bunny funny where the bad guy was embarrassed, ridiculed and bashed around. But the cartoons were amusing in their own way. I always liked the contrast between the buoyant Tom and the laconic Manfred. I’m sure suburban and small-town kids watching the show knew at least one lazy dog in the neighbourhood like Manfred. And much like the morphing of the theatrical cartoons made in New York in the 1920s and early ‘30s, the Tom Terrific cartoons featured a funnel hat had that could conveniently change shapes; kids watched to see what creative things Tom would do with it to get out of trouble. It was a charming and imaginative series, made on what looks like no budget. And, to get back to the point of this post, the voices were all provided by Lionel Wilson.

Wilson’s work wasn’t always directed at children. In 1944, he appeared in the comedy Good Morning, Corporal, which PM decreed “the dirtiest show that has hit Broadway in many months.” Most of Wilson’s work through the ‘40s and ‘50s appears to have been on the stage, and at tent shows in Skancateles, though he did some local TV acting as well. He landed a role as the son’s friend in the soap opera “They Live in Brooklyn” which debuted on WPIX in July 1950. And in 1953, he appeared in an adaptation of the Broadway show Janie on WOR-TV.

Wilson’s hiring for cartoon work is a bit of a surprise, if only for the fact that Deitch was enamoured with the versatile Allen Swift and seems to have used him for everything. But Deitch related once how, when he was overseeing things at UPA in New York, Wilson showed up for an audition for a commercial and bowled over everyone with his range and talent. So when Deitch toddled over to Terrytoons, Wilson easily found work (as did Swift).

Wilson came to animation just late enough that when he passed away from pneumonia in 2003, stories were written about him in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press; guys like Arthur Q. Bryan died long before kids who devoured cartoons on TV grew up to be nostalgia adults. This is what Variety wrote about him in its obit.
Lionel Wilson, actor-writer perhaps best known to baby boomers as the voice of funnel-topped Tom Terrific in the same-named cartoon shown on TV's "Captain Kangaroo," but whose work spanned six decades on the stage and TV as well as in print and recordings, died April 30 in New York of natural causes. He was 79.

He made his Broadway debut at 14 in "Dodsworth," and was featured in "Kiss and Tell," "Janie" and "The Fragile Fox."

He toured with Gardner McKay in "The Fantasticks," played Bud Frump in a tour of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and was featured in "Matinee Theatre" on TV's old Dumont Network.

Beginning in the 1950s, he focused more on voice work, including TV commercials and cartoons. Besides Tom Terrific, he voiced Tom's pal Manfred the Wonder Dog, and just before his final illness he voiced Eustace the Farmer in Cartoon Network's "Courage the Cowardly Dog."

He penned a mystery thriller for the stage based on the novel "Come and Be Killed," which toured summer stock and starred June Havoc and Signe Hasso, and he wrote children's stories, including "The Mule Who Refused to Budge," released by Crown Publishers and which featured Wilson reading the stories on accompanying CDs.

He also read dozens of other children's books for the Listening Library including "Chicken Little," "Chocolate Fever" and "Commander Toad in Space."

At the time of his death, he had just completed editing his memoir "... And Also in the Cast."

A brother survives.
Wilson was also the voice of Sidney the elephant, another of Deitch’s good creations at Terrytoons. Sidney featured Cleo, a giraffe that sounded like Carol Channing. That was Wilson, too.

Here’s a Tom Terrific adventure for you, complete with Wilson singing the theme song. Too bad there’s video interlacing.


  1. Tom Terrific was a reworking of Gene Deitch's comic strip, Terrible Thompson, and an improvement. He even imported the expletive "Gratch!" first said by Mean Morgan, villain of Terrible Thompson.
    I saw Tom Terrific as a very small child, and the memories have stayed with me ever since.

  2. Wow! Tom Terrific and Eustace was vouced by the same guy! I cannot think of two more diverse characters. (yes, i watched T.T. As a child and.Courage as much older).

  3. Well, now I know where the rock group Crabby Appleton got their name.

  4. Lionel Wilson was also the voices of four of the Mighty Heroes (Strongman, Tornadoman, Ropeman and Cuckooman--Diaperman was Herschel Bernardi) and the voices on the Possible Possum series. His range was immense.