Hal Smith: Oceans Beyond Otis

Today we raise a pint bottle to Hal Smith (1916-1994), best remembered for playing Otis, the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-66). The gag was that he was generally the only regular inhabitant of the jail, though a frequent one. It was virtually his flophouse — he checked himself in to sleep it off and came and went as he pleased. I always thought his costume was a wonderful touch. He wore a suit, tie and hat, suggesting he was either one of the town merchants, or a salesman — something white collar. He just had a problem with booze. It was a touch of specificity that gave a truth to it. And his performance was brilliant, which was why we included him on our list of the “Best Comic Drunks“.

While Otis looked the very picture of a Good Ole Boy, Smith himself grew up in Massena, New York, right on the Canadian border. He was of the generation that broke into the business through radio, getting his first job as an announcer at a local Utica station at age 20. He worked at WIBX from 1916 through 1943, then joined Special Services (armed forces entertainment division) for the duration of the war. The B movie western Stars Over Texas (1946) was his first of over 300 screen credits. You can also see him in movies like Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), The Apartment (1960), The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (1962), Critic’s Choice (1963), The Great Race (1965), and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) with his old Mayberry cohort Don Knotts. When not cast as a drunk, Smith was also frequently cast as sidewalk Santa Clauses. Sometimes he was both at the same time.

Besides Otis, Smith’s second best known character may be the part of Owl in Disney’s various Winnie the Pooh films (1977-1994). He worked a lot as a voice-over actor in animated cartoons, both in films like The Jungle Book (1967), Shinbone Alley (1970), An American Tail (1986) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and on TV shows, including nearly all the Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers classics, usually in supporting roles or subbing in the better known characters.

Smith guest starred in a classic Brady Bunch episode as the Kartoon King, a local tv host, a sly reference to his own local Los Angeles kids show The Pancake Man, sponsored by IHOP. Other live action tv work included appearances on The Addams Family, Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Adam-12, The Doris Day Show, The Streets of San Francisco, Little House on the Prairie, The Dukes of Hazzard, Fantasy Island, etc etc. And let us not forget the 1986 TV movie Return to Mayberry. Like I say, 300 credits. 

For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.