Wednesday 14 June 2023

Familiar Fiedler

You likely haven’t heard of the Greenbush Players in Blauvelt, N.Y. You probably haven’t heard of the play “Over 21,” presented by the aforementioned players in August 1945.

You probably have heard of the director of the play, Ruth Gordon, who later won an Oscar, an Emmy and two Golden Globes. And you may have heard of one of the supporting players who had a small part in her stage effort.

His name was John Fiedler.

You saw him on television through the ‘60s and ‘70s. He played meek, quiet guys, though occasionally he portrayed a meek villain.

He also had good fortune in being re-cast. Fiedler was hired to play Vinnie in The Odd Couple on Broadway, then appeared in the role in the film. Despite his TV experience, he wasn’t in the television version (Larry Gelman played it until network research found viewers didn't like poker on TV and the role was dropped). Fiedler appeared in the television and movie versions of Twelve Angry Men and in Raisin in the Sun, both in film and on stage.

This story appeared in papers on July 29, 1979.

Live TV Gone
United Feature Syndicate
HOLLYWOOD — Like so many other successful New York actors, John Fiedler had it pretty good in the heyday of live television. But the live TV dried up and TV production moved to Hollywood.
And so did Fiedler.
"I came out here in 1960,” he says “for a month. And I’m still here — and I love it." Actually, Fiedler came out to California in the company that was performing “A Raisin In the Sun.” Most times, Broadway play casts are replaced for national, but this particular group came west intact.
“I thought I’d just be here for the run of that play,” Fiedler says. “I kept my New York apartment, so I'd have something to go back to. But that month slowly became a year, then several years, and after a year or so, I gave up the apartment.”
Of course, almost as soon as he gave up his New York apartment, he needed it. He was summoned back to New York to do a play, which turned out to be a classic. Fiedler was in the original can of Neil Simon's “The Odd Couple.” He was fortunate in that he was able to trade apartments with a west-bound New York actor.
Incidentally, Fiedler believes he has a very unusual achievement — he wrote some of Neil Simon's words. In “The Odd Couple," one of the great comic moments involves a poker game.
"All Simon's script said," Fiedler recalls, “was just, ‘They play poker,' with no directions and no dialogue. So Mike Nichols, the director, asked which of the group of us actually played poker. I said I did, and it turned out I was the only one who really knew the game.
“So Nichols asked me to arrange the scene, and to add the necessary dialogue — you know, things like 'I raise you five' — so it would all look realistic and wind up at the right moment. Anyhow, when the play was published, all those lines I had added like ‘I raise you five', were in the manuscript."
Actually, card playing is perhaps Fiedler's only hobby. He plays some poker, but bridge is his real game, and be is a frequent and ardent player. He plays duplicate frequently and is also part of a game of friends that meets regularly. Among the group is actor Billy Sands, a veteran of the Phil Silvers days.
“Each week,” Fiedler says, “we all put $20 in the kitty, and we use that money once a year to go on trips. We've been to San Francisco and we've been to Hawaii. This year, we're not going anywhere, hoping that if we skip a year we’ll have enough to go to Europe next year."
Fiedler is, as anyone who has seen his ingenuous face and heard his distinctive voice knows, one of our more successful character actors of the moment. It's a role he likes, since he thinks there is more security in playing character parts than in being a leading man.
He comes from Milwaukee, Wis., and went right into the Navy in World War II after graduating from high school. It was a good life — he became a yeoman and most of his service was spent at the Pentagon.
After World War II, he used his GI Bill of Rights payments to attend drama school — New York's Neighborhood Playhouse. He graduated just in time to be smack in the middle of the live TV boom in New York, and he flourished.
When he came here, and elected to stay, he was also in demand. That was in the days when guest-starring roles paid pretty big money. But those days appear to be over.
He just did a guest-starring role on “Vega$!" and enjoyed it. He says he played a school principal who was a pimp on the side. He enjoys playing parts like that, parts that are unusual. One of his all-time favorites was on “Star Trek," when he played Jack the Ripper reincarnated.

This feature story in the June 1, 1996 edition of the Hartford Courant gave a good summary of his career.

What's-his-name at TheaterWorks
Courant Staff Writer
John Fiedler knows the look.
From across the counter at the lunch shop in Hartford, the man who is getting him his tomato soup gives him a curious gaze.
He knows Fiedler, he's just not sure from where. He knows he's famous, he's just not sure how. He knows that he likes him, he's just not sure why.
He might know him as Mr. Peterson, the perpetually worried psychiatric patient, in the television series "The Bob Newhart Show," which ran from 1972 to 1978.
It could be as Vinny, the poker-playing buddy in the stage play and movie, “The Odd Couple.”
Or if Fiedler opens his mouth to speak, it could be as the voice of Piglet in Walt Disney's animated version of "Winnie the Pooh" (or as the voice of characters in "The Rescuers," "Robin Hood" and "The Fox and the Hound").
Fiedler has one of those distinctive faces and voices. And he finds that this waiter's reaction in Hartford is no different from any other city in America where the Brooklyn Heights-based actor has traveled.
The 71-year-old Fiedler is currently starring in TheaterWorks production of Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings." The play is composed of three separate monologues set in a mortuary. (Rosemary Prinz and Catherine Curtin are featured in the other two solo pieces.)
In Fiedler's piece, entitled "Tell-Tale," the actor plays Emil, a mild-mannered undertaker infatuated with a woman who comes to every one of his funerals.
"He's a dreamer," says Fiedler. His high-pitched voice is the sound of an old child, tentative yet seasoned, breathless yet weary. "It's very amusing, but it's also an emotional piece."
'A Raisin in the Sun'
Fiedler, who grew up in Milwaukee, loved the stage as far back as he can remember.
After high school, with World War II raging, he joined the Navy. When the war ended, he went to New York and studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
"I was a movie buff, but I always wanted to be on the stage," he says.
He made his Broadway debut in "The Seagull" with Montgomery Clift and his career was launched.
"By the time I was 26, I supported myself as an actor," says Fiedler. "I knew I was going to be a character actor from the beginning. With my voice and my looks, I got the milquetoast, nerd parts."
Countless roles followed, and he often worked the mild-mannered image to villainous advantage, playing a presidential assassin in 1960 [sic] in "I Spy," or a murderer in "Perry Mason."
His first big hit was playing Mr. Lindner, the white-collar racist in the original production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," directed by Lloyd Richards (which had its world premiere at New Haven's Shubert Theater).
The play went through drastic revisions, says Fiedler. "Lloyd helped make the brother played by Sidney Poitier the focus of the play," he says, "because Lloyd felt there was no conflict with the sister who was the main character in the original version."
Fiedler made his movie debut in 1957 by re-creating his role in the television production of "12 Angry Men," starring Henry Fonda. (He would again appear with Fonda in a stage revival of "Our Town.")
Among his more than three dozen film roles were parts in "That Touch of Mink," "True Grit," "The World of Henry Orient," "Kiss Me Stupid," "Cannonball Run," "Sharkey's Machine," "Harper Valley P.T.A." and the screen versions of "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Odd Couple."
But it seems that he gets the most recognition from his television roles, especially since cable television has revived many of those shows. Some nights you could call Fiedler king of Nick at Night.
There, he is on regular episodes of "Bewitched," "Dobie Gillis," "The Munsters," "The Odd Couple," and, of course, "The Bob Newhart Show."
Fielder says he gets residuals from some, but not all, of the old shows. He said it wasn't until the mid-'70s that a new contract was established for the television industry giving actors residuals for their work.
Though he is most recognized as Newhart's Mr. Peterson (a role he performed for 17 episodes), he says he gets an amazing amount of recognition from just one episode, "The Wolf in the Fold," in the original "Star Trek" series, in which he played Jack the Ripper reincarnated in outer space.
Because of that singular appearance, he often is asked to appear at "Star Trek" conventions.
"They pay me $2,000," he says. "I go there for the weekend; they show the thing; I talk a little bit; they ask questions; and I sign a hundred pictures."
'Buffalo Bill'
Fiedler's favorite role was as Woody, the unctuous lackey to the self-centered talk show host played by Dabney Coleman in the much-admired but short-lived TV series, "Buffalo Bill," which ran in 1983 and 1984.
That 26-episode series also featured such talents as Geena Davis, Joanna Cassidy, Meshach Taylor, Max Wright and Charles Robinson.
"That was my favorite character, and that was my favorite work situation," he says. "I was truly happy for every minute of it. We were all heartbroken when it ended."
Fiedler says his voice spurs as much recognition as his face, especially from people with young children who hear the sound of Piglet. (Walt Disney personally chose Fiedler to be the voice of the Pooh's pink pal.)
Fiedler has just completed voicing Piglet for the first feature-length "Winnie the Pooh."
"They're usually in the woods, but for this there's a dream so they go all over," he says. "It's going to look spectacular."
Of all the characters he has played, Fiedler says "there are lot of elements of Piglet that are me: the shyness and the anxieties and the fears. Even after all these years. The more you know, the higher your standards are and the more you have to lose."
Suddenly, a waitress approaches Fiedler, who is finishing his lunch.
"Good afternoon," she says. "Are you that famous actor on 'Bob Newhart'? You are? May I please have your autograph?"
Fiedler obliges.
"Thank you," says the woman. What’s your name?"

I remember him on Get Smart and Bewitched but, in the later years, he was off-camera and working in animation. Fiedler was 80 when he died in 2005.


  1. I remember the saddest irony was that John Fiedler( Piglet ) died one day after Paul Winchell( Tigger ). June 24, 2005, June 25, 2005.

  2. 12 Angry Men and The Odd Couple are favorites of mine. In the latter, John was the funniest outside of Lemmon and Matthau.

  3. I remember him playing someone who may or may not have been one of Santa's elves on All My Children in the mid-90s (with Clifton James as the possible "Santa").

    I also found myself reading all of John Fieldler's quotes in these articles in his voice in my mind.

  4. Hans Christian Brando15 June 2023 at 06:31

    Wasn't Percy Helton the original voice of Piglet?