Sterling Holloway: From Broadway Baby to Bear of Little Brain

Sterling Holloway (1905-1992) was born on this day.  I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I first knew this amazing  performer as a voice — the highly distinctive voice of Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. In the end, that’s got to be his best known character, but show biz buffs know how impressive his overall resume is. He was chosen for Pooh because Americans had already known and loved that voice for decades, not just in the movies but on radio and in the theatre. But his appearance was just as remarkable as his high-pitched, scratchy voice. He was skinny, with a big parrot beak of a nose, extremely bushy eyebrows, lips like a couple of earthworms, and a tousled mop of hair you could tell was red even in a black and white movie. He was just the guy you wanted to play a store clerk or messenger boy. He often seemed kind of sleepy or like he’d just rolled out of bed, although other times he could run around in consternation as though the house were on fire. He looked like a gawky, awkward, self-conscious teenager well into middle age, which meant that he could play these kinds of parts for many years.

Cedartown, Georgia is proud to call him a son.

Amusingly, he’d actually started out in a store — his parents ran a grocery in small town Georgia. He attended the Georgia Military Academy for high school. Only 15 when he graduated, he went to New York and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his fellow pupils included Spencer Tracy and George O’Brien, useful friends in years to come, no doubt. After completing his studies, he briefly barnstormed with a stock company performing a version of The Shepherd of the Hills. Then, when only 18, he began acting in bit roles with the Theatre Guild on Broadway. The Failures (1923-1924) put him in a cast with Henry Travers, Erskine Sanford and Morris Carnovsky. Fata Morgana (1924) came next.

In 1925, he was featured in The Garrick Gaieties, a revue devised by Rodgers and Hart to raise money for the Theatre Guild (the venue for their productions was The Garrick Theatre). The benefit show was such a hit, it was held over on Broadway, and two other editions were produced in 1926 and 1930. Holloway was in all three casts. It’s a little known fact that Holloway was a gifted singer. In the 1925 edition, he introduced the Rodgers and Hart song “Manhattan”. In 1926 he introduced “Mountain Greenery.”

In 1926, he went west and had a brief career in silent comedy, another little known fact. He was in the Fox short The Battling Kangaroo (1926) with Lige Conley; the Paramount feature Casey at the Bat (1927) with Wallace Beery, ZaSu Pitts and Ford Sterling; and two Mack Sennett shorts: The Girl From Everywhere (1927), with Daphne Pollard, Dot Farley, Carole Lombard, Mack Swain, Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde; and its sequel The Girl From Nowhere (1928), with much of the same cast.

He returned to Broadway for one additional show, the short-lived and ironically titled Get Me in the Movies (1928). And then he did just that — returned to the movies, where that instantly recognizable voice now became a huge asset, because talkies had arrived. Even in bit roles, his voice allows you to know it’s him right away, and those turns are the highlight of many a Pre-Code picture. He’s in Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932), Blonde Venus (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, Lawyer Man (1932) with William Powell, all in small roles, but he leaps off the screen. He plays Joe E. Brown’s kid brother in Elmer the Great (1933). He’s in Paramount all-star films like International House and Alice in Wonderland, and the Warner Brothers musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (all released the same, remarkable year). And Life Begins at 40 (1935) with Will Rogers!

At the same time, while he was playing bit parts in major films, he starred in his own comedy shorts, while the form lasted, anyway: Not the Marrying Kind (1933), Meeting Mazie (1934),Born April First (1934), Pleasing Grandpa (1934), Picnic Perils (1934), Sterling’s Rival Romeo (1934), Father Knows Best (1935), My Girl Sally (1935), Doubles Crossed (1935), His Last Fling (1935), Bring ‘Em Back a Lie (1935), Moron Than Off (1946), and Hectic Honeymoon (1947).

Holloway’s in Professor Beware (1938) with Harold Lloyd, Preston Sturges’s Remember the Night (1940), and Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941).

In 1941 he began the long professional relationship with Disney. You can hear his voice in Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Peter and the Wolf (1946), Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947), Alice in Wonderland (1951), many Winnie the Pooh films starting in 1966, The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), and much else.

The voice had him constantly working in radio from the late ’30s through the ’50s, on shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, the Lux Radio Theatre, and many others.

Holloway had a number in the all star World War II morale booster Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and spent time during the war in uniform, producing shows to raise money for the troops. In 1945, he was one of the cast of the remarkable WWII film A Walk in the Sun (1945), one of the clear models for Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

In 1946 and 1947 he was Gene Autry’s sidekick in musical westerns, in appeared in many other westerns besides. In 1949, Preston Sturges employed him to great hilarity in The Beautiful Blond of Bashful Bend.

Staring in the 1950s, most of his work going forward was in television, in guest shots on popular programs, sometimes acting in tv movies, and getting recurring parts on such shows as The Adventures of Superman (1953-1955), The Life of Riley (1953-1956), Circus Boy (1957), The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1956-1958), The Baileys of Balboa (1964-1965), and of course Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1957-1982).

He was wisely included in the all-star 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, alongside Spencer Tracy, whom he’d known for 43 years at that point, and ZaSu Pitts, whom he’d known almost as long. And he kept working almost right up until the end. His last professional credit was a bit of narration for the tv show Moonlighting in 1986. In later years he was often cast that way, to bring a bit of nostalgic magic. Entire generations had grown up with him, as a small but cherished part of their lives.