Howard McNear: TV Tonsorialist

It’s always amused me that though Howard McNear (1905-1969) was a key member of the ensemble on The Andy Griffin Show from 1961 to 1967 he did not play Howard. That was Jack Dodson. McNear was of course, Floyd, the Barber. They were both loveable small town characters, but McNear’s was vastly more eccentric and strange, so singular in fact that one seeks in vain for apt adjectives. Breathy, twitchy, wide-eyed, and somehow very, very earnest and very, very silly at the same time? The very specificity of the character (and McNear’s personality) make it recognizable somehow, even if you never met anyone exactly like him before. The long list of Boomers who became indie directors, guys like David Lynch, John Waters, the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch etc all seem to have a penchant for grotesque characters in their mini-universes that make them truer in some fundmental way than the kind of soap opera visions that posit a world where no one has any personality. I’m going to guess that the more original directors carry memories of something like Mayberry around in the back of their brains, planted there in childhood by characters like McNear, and people they’ve actually known. Schitt’s Creek is something like Mayberry, and one can’t help observing that one of Eugene Levy’s most PRICELESS impressions on SCTV decades earlier had been that of McNear as Floyd the Barber, exaggarated to the point of insanity, and yet somehow right on the money.

Ironically, McNear grew up not in some backwater burg in the heartland, but in Los Angeles. He attended the Oatman School of Theatre and acted with stock companies and in vaudeville for years. And yet, though he was an actor living in the movie capital of the world, he didn’t step in front of cameras until he was nearly 50 years old. McNear’s initial success at the national level, starting in the mid 1930s, came on radio. Hence that unique voice! Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police (1937-1940) was one of his first shows. He could also be heard regularly on such shows as Lux Radio Theatre, Cavalcade of America, The Whistler, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, The Adventures of Maisie, and — most applicable to his future Mayberry employment — Lum and Abner. His biggest and most well-remembered radio role was the character of Doc on Gunsmoke (1952-61); Milburn Stone was to give the character a very different spin on the TV version.

Despite his late start, McNear was to appear in films and on television constantly throughout the 1950s and ’60s. In addition to The Andy Griffith Show, you could see him on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (7 episodes), The Jack Benny Program (7 episodes), Gunsmoke (6 episodes, in roles other than Doc), and scores of other programs. A born ensemble player, he also had an enviable track record in motion pictures. Some of his better known ones include The Long Long Trailer (1953) with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Public Pigeon No. 1 (1957) with Red Skelton, The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957) with Jane Russell, Bell Book and Candle (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1958), Irwin Allen’s The Big Circus (1959) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Heller in Pink Tights (1960), and Jerry Lewis’s The Errand Boy (1960). He appeared in no fewer than three Elvis Presley movies: Blue Hawaii (1961), Follow That Dream (1962) and Fun in Acapulco (1963), followed by the Rick Nelson picture Love and Kisses (1965). Billy Wilder was also clearly a fan, for he cast him in Irma La Douce (1963), Kiss Me Stupid (1964), and The Fortune Cookie (1966).

A stroke in 1963 began to hamper McNear’s abilities to perform, though devoted colleagues like Griffith continued to cast him, usually filming him seated and from certain angles. McNear retired in early 1967. Felled by another stroke two years later, he finally succumbed to the ensuing pneumonia. He was 63.

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