Jesse White: Hail Fellow Well Met

Jesse White (Jesse Weidenfeld, 1917-1997) was used to being “Lonely” so I hope that his spirit will forgive my taking this long to pay him tribute on Travalanche. White was probably best known as the Lonely Maytag Repairman in a long running series of commercials that aired from 1968 to 1989.

Born in Buffalo, raised in Akron, White came across as the quintessential midwesterner. He’d been a salesman in his youth, and that was definitely a permanent weapon in his arsenal. He could play hearty, breezy backslappers, the kind of guy you’d find in the Elks Hall in Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith, with a big cigar and a pinkie ring. Or, sometimes, he could play a more working class guy (like his repairman), earthier, sometimes cranky. One associates him with that long ago time when repairmen, movers, and gas station attendants wore uniforms — with ties, no less. He could only exist in the 20th century.

White’s dumpy physique and unique nasal, raspy voice were enormous assets to his castibility. As a young man he moved to Cleveland, where he broke into vaudeville and burlesque, working the circuits until he landed the part of a salesman in the Broadway play Sons and Soldiers in 1943. The following year he landed the part of an asylum orderly in the original production of Harvey with Frank Fay, and that was the making of his career. The show ran five years. Then he played the part in the 1950 movie version, and later in a 1970 revival. All told, he was in 10 Broadway shows.

White’s instantly recognizable visage appeared in both silly movies and classics: Bedtime for Bonzo (1951, with Ronald Reagan), Francis Goes to the Races (1951, with Donald O’Connor — and a mule), Callaway Went Thataway (1951), Death of a Salesman (1951), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), The Bad Seed (1956), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), It’s Only Money (1962, with Jerry Lewis), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Pajama Party (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967, with Don Knotts), The Spirit is Willing (1967, with Sid Caesar), Bless the Beasts and Children (1971), The Brothers O’Toole (1973), The Cat from Outer Space (1978), and Matinee (1993), among numerous others.

But mostly folks knew him from television: something on the order of 150 TV credits. His recurring role on Make Room for Daddy (1953-57) led to later appearances on That Girl (1968-69) and Make Room for Granddaddy (1970). He was also a regular on The Ann Sothern Show (1960-61), made memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone, and scores and scores of others. His last professional credit, fittingly somehow, was in a 1996 episode of Seinfeld.

To learn more about vaudeville and burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.