Ken Sansom: The Man of a Thousand Voices

My modus operandi in creating this blog is to constantly work a list of names on a calendar. Occasionally, a date arrives and I find myself stumped as to why I had placed a name there. Case in point, this morning I encountered the name of Ken Sansom (1927-2012) and for the life of me couldn’t remember why I’d put the guy on the list. Sansom’s most prominent credit is that he provided the voice of Rabbit in Walt Disney Winnie the Pooh films and television specials, but I’m sorry to relate that that in and of itself would never rate inclusion on this blog. Sansom wasn’t even the original guy to voice Rabbit, or even the second one. He started playing the role in 1988, nearly two decades after Disney started making Winnie the Pooh programs.

After scanning Sansom’s 125 screen credits, I stumbled on what it was that had attracted me. He has a TERRIFIC turn in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) as a security guard who does incredible, interesting impressions, including Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Brennan. Barbara Stanwyck! Not in drag, he’s just a guy who nails Barbara Stanwyck (and, yes, ALL guys want to nail Barbara Stanwyck, but not like that). So I wanted to know who this impressionist was, for he was plainly uniquely talented.  Robert Altman had obviously  felt the exact same way. So here’s the dope.

Originally from Salt Lake City, Sansom served in the Navy in WWII, and got his degree in broadcasting from Brigham Young University in 1949. He then served during the Korean War, this time as a USO performer. He studied acting briefly in Chicago, and then had shows at a succession of local radio stations in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, using the hundreds of voices in his repertoire, sometimes masquerading as funny characters calling the station, sometimes doing celebrities like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. His repertoire was so vast he could do all three Barrymore siblings, including Ethel. The ability to portray women is a rarity among straight, non-drag male impressionists, is it not? I assure you it is.

In the early ’70s Sansom got work in Hollywood as a supporting player in film and television. In addition to The Long Goodbye, his movies included The Sting (1973), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Airport 1975, and Funny Lady (1975) with Barbra Streisand, in which he plays one of the radio actors on the Baby Snooks show. One of his best TV parts was the voice of the father in the animated Christmas special Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus (1974). Most of his work was in guest shots on television shows like Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, The Odd Couple, The Jimmy Stewart Show, All in the Family, Columbo, Cannon, Harry O, Charlie’s Angels, S.W.A.T., Phyllis, Welcome Back Kotter, Baretta, Chico and the Man, Eight is Enough, Lou Grant, Quincy, and Murder She Wrote.

In the late ’80s Sansom began to concentrate on voiceover work and it became his sole focus for the last quarter century or so of his career. The Rabbit gig allowed him to live out his last decades in his beloved home state of Utah. Minor? I’m not sure the word applies when you peel back your own ignorance and realize you’ve seen the man’s face and heard his voice a hundred times.

To learn more about show business history 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.