Cornfed comic actor Pat Buttram (1915-1994) was known primarily for three things: 1) playing Mr. Haney on the sitcoms Green Acres and Petticoat Junction; 2) highly recognizable voice-overs in Disney animated features such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound; and 3) being the comic western sidekick to Gene Autry. One is tempted to claim his quavery, torturous voice as Buttram’s most distinctive feature, but it is equally easy to conjure his hound dog face with its conspicuous lazy eye.
Born Maxwell Emmett Buttram, he initially studied to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Methodist minister in his native Alabama. As a young person Buttram had performed in college plays and on his local radio station. He got his big break at age 18 when he attended the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, where he was interviewed by a local radio announcer and made a hit with his comical country observations. This got him cast as a regular on National Barn Dance, produced out of WLS in Chicago. Buttram appeared on this show and many other national radio programs over the next several years. His first movie appearance was the National Barn Dance film in 1944.
In 1948, Buttram replaced Smiley Burnett as Gene Autry’s sidekick in films, on radio, and on television. This relationship lasted through 1956. In 1952 he married actress Sheila Ryan, who also had appeared in several of Autry’s films, as well as several Charlie Chan mysteries and Laurel and Hardy’s Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942).
Following the end of The Gene Autry Show in 1955, Buttram expanded his television footprint enormously with appearances on the variety programs of Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, George Gobel, and Arthur Godfrey. In the early ’60s he was in several episodes of The Real McCoys. And there were additional movies such as the Elvis Presley vehicles Wild in the Country (1961) and Roustabout (1962), and the Frankie Avalon/ AIP musical Sergeant Dead Head (1965) in which he played The President, an obvious dig at LBJ. Buttram attained his greatest fame as the slick salesman Mr. Haney on Green Acres (1965-1971), with a few crossover appearances on Petticoat Junction. During these years he also made multiple appearances on The Joey Bishop Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Jim Nabors Hour, and others.
Following the Rural Purge we described here (which resulted in the cancellation of Green Acres and Petticoat Junction), Buttram continued to make appearances on TV variety and talk shows, to do cartoon voice-overs, and to do guest shots on shows like Adam-12, Emergency!, Love American Style, The Love Boat etc. His last screen credit was a voice-over in Disney’s The Goofy Movie (1995).
To learn more about the variety arts (including radio and TV variety), 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.