Alan Young, an Emmy Award-winning comic actor best remembered for playing Wilbur, the human sidekick and wonky owner of a talking horse in the 1960s television sitcom “Mister Ed,” died May 19 at the Motion Picture & Television Home in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 96.
Jaime Larkin, a spokesperson for the home, announced the death but did not disclose a cause.
Mr. Young was a versatile radio performer whose disarming personality and youthful looks led to supporting roles on the big screen and then on television, where he won an Emmy for best actor on his self-titled variety show in the early 1950s.
Since the 1980s, Mr. Young had worked as a voice-over actor on film and television. On the long-running TV cartoon series “Duck Tales,” he played the Disney animated character Scrooge McDuck, the stingy billionaire bird described as a hybrid of Charles Dickens’s fictional Ebenezer Scrooge and the Scottish-born steel baron Andrew Carnegie.
“Mister Ed,” which aired on CBS from 1961 to 1966 and thereafter in reruns, brought Mr. Young his most enduring fame. He played a clumsy architect named Wilbur Post, and the show concerned his daily follies as the only person who can hear his mischievous pet palomino talk.
Mr. Young was approached for “Mister Ed” by producer Arthur Lubin, who had created the popular film “Francis the Talking Mule” (1950), about an Army beast of burden who gives lip to generals.
As he liked to tell it, Mr. Young came to Lubin’s attention via another producer who said the actor “looks like the kind of guy a horse would talk to.”
Mr. Young initially turned down the part, saying of his four-legged co-star, “I don’t want to work with anybody who doesn’t clean up after himself.”
Besides the show’s memorable introduction, featuring a bouncy barnyard theme song reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, the character Mister Ed made an indelible mark on American culture by coining the phrase: “Willllburrrrr?”
Mister Ed was voiced by movie cowboy Allan “Rocky” Lane, who got the part through serendipity. At the time, Lane was flat broke and sleeping on the couch of a friend, the horse trainer Les Hilton. The trainer’s trick palomino, Bambino Harvester, was picked to play Mister Ed.
One day, while taking photos of the horse, the producers heard a voice call out, “Hey, where do you keep the coffee?”
“That’s the voice of Ed,” Mr. Young remembered everyone instantly agreeing.
Hilton trained Mister Ed to “talk” by placing a soft nylon strip between his gums and upper lip. Eventually, the nylon strip was removed, and Mr. Ed learned to move his lips only after Mr. Young had finished his lines.
Mr. Young, who owned a portion of the show, made a fortune off the royalties. He was widely reported not to have let his financial success go to his head, instead underplaying his contribution to the show.
“He was the star,” Mr. Young said of the horse in 2004. “I was the supporting actor.”
Angus Young was born in North Shields, England, on Nov. 19, 1919. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, where his father worked in the mines, and then in Vancouver.
As a boy, he suffered from debilitating asthma, and he was bedridden for much of his childhood. To pass time, Mr. Young developed a love for radio comedy routines and would often copy down the jokes. He then transposed names and places to create his own material, and by his teenage years, he was attracting a local following as an emcee and radio show host.
His radio work led him to New York, where he was a summer replacement for entertainer Eddie Cantor and soon had his own coast-to-coast show on the ABC network.
Mr. Young appeared in films such as “Margie” (1946), “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” (1949) and “The Time Machine” (1960), based on the H.G. Wells story. Mr. Young had a cameo in “Beverly Hills Cop III” (1994) reportedly at the behest of the film’s star, Eddie Murphy, a “Mister Ed” fan.
He had a brief sabbatical from Hollywood during the mid-1960s. A Christian Scientist, Mr. Young spent nearly a decade working for the church in California, helping expand its TV, film and radio department.
His marriages to Mary Anne Grimes, Virginia McCurdy and Mary Chipman ended in divorce.A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
Throughout the years, Mr. Young was often approached by fans who expressed their admiration for him — and a certain horse, of course. Those brief encounters, Mr. Young said, would take him back in time.
“I remember it very clearly,” he said in 2004. “Those were the happiest times for me.”
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