Wally Cox: What a Crazy Guy

A celebration today of comic actor Wally Cox (1924-1973). While Cox did enjoy some starring roles, notably the leads in the sitcom Mr. Peepers (1952-55) and the animated show Underdog (1964-67), most off his roles were bit parts, making it a little tough to convey to people who weren’t around then what a legendary show biz character he was. Cox played a bespectacled, bookish little dude with a high-pitched voice. I say he “played” that character, because by all reports in real life he was an athletic guy and even an army vet. His boyhood friend and first New York roommate was Marlon Brando, the most macho actor of his generation. But this one particular character caught on so Cox stuck with it, and was very much in demand as a result of it.

As a young man he studied at City College and NYU, and (at Brando’s behest) took acting classes with Stella Adler. He began doing comedy monologues at bohemian downtown NYC venues like the Village Vanguard. A 1949 appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts is what brought him to national attention. RCA Victor released a recording of his comedy routine “What a Crazy Guy” — a monologue told from the point of view of a kid who recounts all the cruel pranks he and his friends played on some lummox.

He began getting guest roles on TV around the same time, culminating in his own vehicle Mr. Peepers, in which he played a junior high school science teacher. Regulars on the show included Tony Randall and Jack Warden. This was followed by a short-lived and now forgotten show called The Adventures of Hiram Halliday (1956-57). Movies he appeared in included State Fair (1962), the unfinished Marilyn Monroe film Something’s Got to Give (1962), Spencer’s Mountain (1963), Morituri (1965, with Brando), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970), The Boatniks (1970), Up Your Teddy Bear (1970), and The Night Strangler (1973, the TV movie sequel to the original The Night Stalker movie). As a kid I knew him of course from some of those films, as well as Underdog, and from his many guest appearances on shows like Hollywood Squares, The Odd Couple (which reunited him with his old Mr. Peepers cohort Tony Randall),  Here’s Lucy, etc. And he was in Carol Burnett’s 1972 TV production Once Upon a Mattress. 

In 1973 he left the world at the young age of 48, dead of a sudden heart attack. And the legendary performer passed even deeper into legend.