Wednesday 11 April 2012

Meet George O’Hanlon

George O’Hanlon’s life might be summed up by his entry on the Hollywood Walk of Fame web site. The page on George can’t make up its mind about when and where he was born. Events somehow always seem to have conspired against poor George, and not only in the roles he played. Perhaps the only difference is in real life, nice guy George O’Hanlon finished on top.

O’Hanlon received his star on February 8, 1960, the same day as Morey Amsterdam. At that point, his star was very much in the past tense. His big career break came when he was cast as the lead character in Richard L. Bare’s “So You Want to Give Up Smoking” (1942). Warner Bros. released it, and that led to a series of one-reel comedies from 1945 to 1956.

It’s interesting to read Bare’s comments at the outset of the series. He envisioned it like the Pete Smith specialties at MGM—a comedy instructional short with voice-over narration and sound effects. Evidently, Bare and/or O’Hanlon realised they’d be funnier if they were done in live action with dialogue, and the two produced 63 films ranging from average to extremely funny and clever (O’Hanlon was later a vice-president of Richard Bare Productions).

Here’s what Bare had to say about the series in this 1946 column by the Associated Press:

HOLLYWOOD, June 22.—(AP)—You are about to see yourself in your full folly on the screen. That is, if you are the average Joe McDoakes.
Joe is the start in a series of one-reelers that ex-G. I. Dick Bare is making for Warners. A list of titles gives you an idea of how you will be cast: “So You Think You’re Allergic,” “So You Think You Need Glasses,” “So You Want to Keep Your Hair,” “So You Want to Stop Smoking,” “So You Think You’re Neurotic,” “So You’re Going to Have a Baby” and, of course, “So You Want to Be in Pictures.”
In the “Hair” reel, Joe McDoakes, played by comedian George O’Hanlon, washes his head in the shower with laundry soap, brushes his tresses with a stiff brush, then notes his hair is falling out. He visits an authority, his barber, who tells him to rub his scalp. Another barber tells him never to rub his scalp. A third tonsorial expert tells him to always wear a hat; a fourth, never to wear a hat. He finally goes to a specialist who gives him a super-duper treatment. Guess what happens to Joe. Just call him “Baldy.”
The conclusion is that there’s no cure in view for falling hair.
In the “Allergic” reel, Joe suffers from the sneezes. He tries all types of medicine, atomizers, shots and what have you. His house is hermetically sealed and all possible sneeze-sausers are removed—including a floral painting. Finally Joe discovers he’s allergic to his wife’s dandruff.
Needless to says, Joe feels like a jerk for having wasted his dough on the quack cures. What Joe should have done, said Dick, was to let science discover his allergy and then stay away from it as much as possible.
The writer-director-producer had a good deal of difficulty selling his idea to the studios. It was feared the “smoking” film would antagonize the tobacco industry. However, he now has carte blanche to do just about anything he wants. In “So You Think You’re Neurotic,” Dick will parody both “Spellbound” and “The Outlaw.” And “So You Think You Can Beat the Horses” does a takeoff on “Lost Weekend.”
“The purpose of these 10 minute films is to discourage the average guy from quack remedies,” Dick said. “The films are not training films, but they are education.”
Dick actually goes into deep research before making any of the films. “After I finished reading up on neurotics,” he said, “I found I was the most neurotic guy in the world.”
Just an average Joe McDoakes, eh Dick?

One of the McDoakes shorts in 1948 was “So You Want to be on Radio,” where everything goes wrong as Joe innocently tries to win a few prizes. And that almost sums up O’Hanlon’s luckless simultaneous radio career. Billboard of March 20, 1948 reveals O’Hanlon’s agent had made an audition record adapted from one of the McDoakes shorts and was shopping it to Old Gold for possible radio or TV sponsorship. O’Hanlon finally landed on radio on November 9 that year and the circumstances sound like something that would happen to McDoakes. The debut was delayed a month for some reason and not only was it on the last-place network, Mutual, the show couldn’t even find a sponsor. It was pitched to Colgate that month (as a radio or TV property, according to Billboard), but there were no bites. In January, Mutual announced the show’s cancellation.

Things looked up for O’Hanlon’s radio career, though, on April 30, when the show was picked up as a summer replacement for Alan Young, with Tums as the sponsor. Ad agency Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample picked it up for around $3,500 (Billboard, May 7, 1949) with plans to run it from July 12 to October 4 (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. Eastern). “Me and Janie” (her last name wasn’t ‘Jetson’) had a top supporting cast in Sheldon Leonard, Lurene Tuttle, Willard Waterman and Marvin Miller, with Don Wilson as the announcer. Sam Chase reviewed it in Billboard of August 6th. In part, it reads:
A moderate entertaining bagatelle is this latest show featuring George O’Hanlon. It is another in the long line of situation comedies based on the well-meaning guy who somehow always gets things all balled up with his job and his wife, but everything always turns out to be semi-satisfactory by the stanza’s conclusion...The humor was all lightweight, with nothing to titillate the lazy listener’s thinking apparatus. But the net effect was harmless to any age group and won’t do any obvious damage to NBC’s prestige. On the other hand, its possibilities as a year-round show seem limited.
Limited it was, but you can blame Niles Trammell at NBC and, indirectly, Bill Paley at CBS for O’Hanlon’s radio career ending. Paley had been raiding NBC of its stars and president Trammell was determined to sew some of them up before Paley got to them. So he worked out a deal in October with Fanny Brice and Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample, who promptly put Brice on the air for Tums and left with O’Hanlon with a stomach ache caused by unemployment and more McDoakes-like hard luck.

Television should have been a land of opportunity. ABC looked at a kinescope of an O’Hanlon pilot in 1950. It passed on the show. Three years later, Bare and O’Hanlon were at it again with “Real George,” with O’Hanlon as “a slightly befuddled young department store employee who plausibly gets in and out of trouble.” Phyllis Coates, Bare’s off-screen wife and McDoakes’ on-screen one, had a part, and so did Ray Collins in his days before Lt. Tragg on “Perry Mason.” The William Morris Agency shopped it around. No sale. Warner Bros. gave him one final shot at a starring role in 1956, hoping to sell Joe McDoakes as a TV sitcom since the series of theatrical shorts was ending. No takers. O’Hanlon’s marriage broke apart in 1952 and it took him until 1955 to land a regular on-screen role, inheriting “The Life of Riley” neighbour role of Calvin Dudley abandoned by Tom d’Andrea. O’Hanlon started writing for TV—he co-wrote the McDoakes shorts—and that’s how he started making his living. But it’s clear he wanted to act. A unbylined newspaper article of November 25, 1960 quotes him:
“I’m always identified with McDoakes,” says O’Hanlon, “which would be fine if the studio would just re-issue the films. But as it is, I’m sort of a McDoakes without portfolio — and without pay.”
O’Hanlon wrote himself into several Sothern shows but his other TV appearances seem few and far between, according to newspaper listings. He did a ‘Cheyenne’, appeared on ‘Make Room For Daddy,’ did a guest shot with the immortal Keefe Braselle on ‘The Red Skelton Show’ and even ended up on the panel of ‘Pantomime Quiz.’ He had his own quiz show on KTLA starting in March 1957 called ‘Behind the 8-BaIl.’ Variety panned the show. Clucked the trade paper: "KTLA must have figured this an answer to Tom Duggan. Who asked?" He then went into a film production company with stand-up comics Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall. Yes, the ‘Hollywood Squares’ Peter Marshall. Surely you remember their 20th Century Fox hit ‘The Rookie’ (1959)?

But O’Hanlon had also found work, albeit limited, in cartoons. It was an odd career choice for someone who could only do one voice—his own. The John Sutherland studio hired him for several shorts and, more significantly, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had him play the part of George in the weak 1958 Tom and Jerry short “The Vanishing Duck.” He auditioned for the pair in 1960 for the part of Fred Flintstone, and lost. Two years later, he auditioned for the part of the head of the Jetson family and lost again. But the actor wasn’t suitable so the role was cast again. This time, O’Hanlon won. And the unsuitable actor who was originally George Jetson? He was the man inducted on the Walk of Fame the same day as O’Hanlon—Morey Amsterdam.

Even a Joe McDoakes script couldn’t have ended any better than that.

If you want to know more about the McDoakes series, there’s no better place to go than this web site run by Facebook friend Steve Bailey.


  1. just happened upon this while looking up my dad's obit to show to a friend. Funny timing! So interesting to read. Thanks!
    Laurie O'Hanlon (George's little girl)

  2. Hi, Laurie. Thanks a lot for writing. Your father was really funny and I'm glad the McDoakes shorts have been released on DVD so people can see them again.

  3. Warner Archives has collected the entire series of Joe McDoakes on a 6-disc DVD set – and it is worth it! …If only someone would do the same for “Pete Smith”.

    Among my favorites are “So You Want to Be in Pictures” where Joe tries to break into the business and has some star cameos and a nice meta-ending – and “So You Want to Be a Detective”, which could almost be a ‘40s / ‘50s Daffy Duck cartoon in its humor! That’s a GOOD THING, BTW!

    Announcer Art Gilmore was featured in many of the shorts – and had the “humorous running narrator’s interaction” with George O’Hanlon (Joe)

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  5. 'Detective' was probably the best. It's an outstanding short by any standard and has a bit of surrealness that ended up in Bare's 'Green Acres' years later.