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The Straight Dope


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I've just noticed a dumb new commercial with one redeeming feature: it heralds the return of Mr. Ed, the most debonair actor on four legs. Since I was a child, I've always wondered how they got that horse to "talk." Did they keep a camera trained on him until he yawned or something? I've been watching police horses lately, but they don't waggle their lips around like Mr. Ed. My own theory is that he has pieces of apple skin stuck between his teeth. --Judy H., N. Lakewood

PS: This question doesn't apply to Francis the Talking Mule, because I have it on good authority that he always read his own lines.

Cecil will have you know, Judy, that he has this one straight from the horse's . . . Lordy, for a second there I was about to commit a pun too horrible for words. Anyway, I did get this from the horse's buddy's mouth, namely the guy who played Wilbur Post, or, if you prefer, "Wi-i-illllbu-u-urrrr," Ed's owner and putative master. The role was created by show-biz legend Alan Young, whom Cecil was lucky enough to run into in the studio of would-be show-biz legend Drew Hayes of WMAQ radio in Chicago. Never one for whom opportunity needed to knock twice, I immediately grilled him, and this is the result.

You'd think that playing opposite a talking horse for five years would have to make the rest of your career seem like an anticlimax, but Young has been plugging away like the trouper that he is in the years since, doing a stint on General Hospital and most recently supplying the voice of Scrooge McDuck on Ducktales, a new Disney animated TV series. (He was making the rounds promoting the Disney series when Cecil found him.) There is no question, however, that Mr. Ed remains his chief claim to glory. Although initially reluctant to reveal trade secrets, after a heartfelt plea he consented to explain how the trick was done. No special photography was involved. Before a scene, Mr. Ed's trainer merely fed him a wad of a mysterious substance akin to peanut butter, which sat between cheek and gum. (Ed's trainer, by the way, was the late Lester Hylton, who also trained Francis the Talking Mule, eponymous star--and don't think I haven't thirsted for years to use that word in a column--of the 1950s movie series. While we're on the subject I might mention, just in case you were wondering about certain suspicious conceptual similarities here, that the first six F the TM films were directed by Arthur Lubin, coexecutive producer of the Mr. Ed series.) Now, where was I? . . . Ah, right. Though the wad of quasi peanut butter was harmless, Ed, being a horse (of course), naturally wanted to get rid of it, which he did by working his lips. When this was synced up with a voice-over by the inimitable Allan "Rocky" Lane, Ed looked like he was talking.

Young reports that the real problem wasn't getting Ed to talk, it was getting him to stop talking. After a while the horse apparently tumbled to the idea that the humans wanted him to move his lips on camera, and thereafter every time Young would finish saying his lines Ed would commence to orating whether the script called for it or not. Eventually Hylton worked out a system whereby a crop placed against Ed's foreleg was the signal for him to clam up.

The original Mr. Ed was a gelding ("It happens to all of us in show business," Young avers) whose real name, believe it or not, was Bamboo Harvester. Sad to say, he died about a dozen years ago, followed a short time later by the heartbroken Hylton. Allan Lane has also departed this vale of sorrow. However, talking-horse buffs who feel they have pretty much plumbed the depths of nuance to be found in Mr. Ed reruns need not despair. Young tells me a Mr. Ed TV special is currently in the negotiation stage. (Presumably a nationwide talent search will be conducted to find replacements for the missing members of the original team.) I think this is a fitting tribute to the staying power of an animal who has become one of the leading cultural icons of our time, right up there with Elvis--and hey, Ed didn't go in for drugs, gluttony, or tacky interior decorating. I don't know about you, but I know who I want my kids to grow up to be like.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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