Friday, April 15, 2011

Pairing of Peary and Tetley was a magical match

From my original article in the March/April "The Radio Times."

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Lum and Abner. Fibber McGee and Molly. Burns and Allen. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Martin and Lewis.

Those are probably some of the names you think of when you reflect on great comedy teams. There's no doubt why you do; for each one of the above teams were not only funny, they had incredible sustainability and lasted many years. Not only that, each of the above has a consecrated place in the National Radio Hall of Fame.

There's a another pair however, that's not considered a "team" by classic definition. Harold Peary and Walter Tetley were together 9 years on the comedy show, The Great Gildersleeve.

Peary's background was that of a singer of Spanish melodies - not as an actor. However, he was armed with a trademark bellowing voice and made his way up from early radio baritone to a 1937 fill-in on the big NBC hit show Fibber McGee and Molly, to having his own sitcom (the first sitcom spin off in history.)

Here's what happened: Gildersleeve played many parts but finally went to writer Don Quinn and asked to settle in on just one weekly role. Quinn wrote in the character Throckmorten P. Gildersleeve who would be McGee's next door neighbor. Everything about the character would be big: his belly, his name, his voice and Quinn gave him a girdle factory to run -- a pun about rotund people, itself.

Only after about a year on Fibber McGee and Molly, Peary was actually getting applause when he entered on the show- - something no other character was getting. He and Fibber would play off each other and accuse each other of stealing and other terrible things, almost coming to blows before Gildy would say, "You're a harrrrrrrd man, McGee" - and that is he became known for when he worked on that show. His rascally laugh too, a trademark that has endured generationally.

In the NBC spin off, The Great Gildersleeve, Peary played the part of a bachelor father figure to a family that was not his own. This is a contradiction in itself because Gildersleeve was actually a child-like character, more content at having fun (singing, dating, kissing!) than working his tedious job as Summerville's Water Commissioner. He never took his job seriously as he was always late for work (always!), often played hooky and was "stuck behind the eight ball." Though I don't think he ever said this, I think Gildy actually hated his job.

The non-nuclear family aspect was a very unique concept in entertainment when the show arrived in 1942. Gildy's new family consisted of his teenaged niece Marjorie (played by another veteran actress Lurene Tuttle) and a very bright, early teen in the hyper-dimensional Leroy (Tetley.)

Girded with a part-Scottish, part Brooklyn accent and with the ability to use words to cut as sharp as a razor, Tetley contrasted well against his oafish, probably-Midwestern uncle. Gildersleeve was not the father - just a figurehead and Leroy was not the son, just a facsimile - a nephew (the son of Gildersleeve's sister.) Despite the fact they barely knew each other, Gildy and Leroy had a special relationship from day one in every sense of the word.

At the age of 7, Tetley was a star, bringing in a bundle of money. By age 16, Tetley was a minor superstar radio veteran having already amassed some 2,800 broadcasts. When Tetley got the job as Leroy he was like the cleanup hitter for the New York Yankees as far ability goes. He had been lauded nationwide as a notorious scene-stealer. Whenever he guest starred on a show the cast and audience loved him and the biggest actors and show began asking specifically for him to appear and Tetley made the rounds at both NBC and CBS on a regular basis. And while Tetley played a smart-alecky brat on all the dozens of show in which he appeared, he did it with perfect comedic timing.

Tetley and Gildersleeve both had impeccable timing. This is especially true of Tetley, who was actually quite older than he appeared to be (there's a story out there that says his mother actually had him castrated so that he could play child parts forever and keep bringing in the money.)

Leroy loved to catch his uncle doing anything that wasn't quite appropriate for an elected official to do and would almost always call him out on it, publicly or privately. Leroy's enjoyment of doing this flustered Gildy so badly he would often clamor, "Hmfph oh! Lee-eee-eee-roy...." -- much to the delight of the studio and listening audience.

One time, Leroy and Gildy had planned a trip -- but right before time to go, Gildersleeve's fleeting flame Lila would coerce "Throcky" into taking her shopping because her car was not running.

"I'll give you anything you want, Leroy", Gildy would beg, "If I can just break our date!"

"Anything, Unc?" This would allow Leroy to victimize the gigantic pants off of Gildersleeve, something he did with regularity.

Whenever Gildersleeve would be caught in a faux pas, Leroy would joyfully say, "What a character!" , right to his uncle's face. Somehow, Leroy got away with saying and doing all kinds of little naughty things like this. He was picked up by the police, he got into fights, he harassed the younger neighbor kid. He'd con kids out of their skates and brand-new magic sets. Boil it down and you find Leroy was a Tom Sawyer-type kid but with the wit of no radio character before him (and aside from Arnold Stang and Groucho Marx, none after him.) He was aware of the fun of manipulation and the power of psychology. He was not a bad boy or a delinquent, by any stretch of the imagination. It was just that inside of him was both a conniving con man and a rogue tattletale yet paradoxically, he was also an assailable, breakable, fatherless child.

If Gildy had a plan, Leroy was there to destroy it. Gildersleeve realized soon after moving in with the two kids that Leroy was going to be someone he would have to keep an eye on. Leroy often ran amok and had the audience enjoying it right along with him. Though it was easy for the audience to like Gildersleeve, Leroy made it even more fun to see Gildersleeve fail. This might be because he was big -- no, make that great. The Great Gildersleeve. And there is some sort of Freudian joy in seeing a big man fall. Leroy was the perfect foil (of many) for the pear-shaped Casanova GIldersleeve.

The verbal rapport between the two seemed natural.  They were not  about taking turns telling jokes or puns, nor was one setting up the other for a big punch line.  They would have been one of the greatest - maybe THE greatest comedy team in history had they had actually become one -- the resonance between the two simply seemed real.  And when you get two real characters together, you often find magic.

Though the two characters did not have a father and son relationship, it was obvious that the two loved each other.  There were no arguments that ended with, "You're not my father! or "You're not my son!"  Leroy actually needed the stern hand of Gildy and oddly, Gildy needed to be brought down to earth by the constant vigil of Leroy.   Both lived up to each other's needs and this is what made The Great Gildersleeve seem real and fun.  

Of course all of that came to an abrupt end when Peary left NBC for CBS.  Everyone else seemed to be jumping the NBC ship and Gildy wanted the big money that CBS was handing out, too.  It backfired - maybe one of the biggest backfires in show business history as Peary thought the show would go with him.    Kraft, the sponsor, had a long relationship with NBC and declined the move.  Peary and Tetley were no longer part of the same family anymore.

Each went their different ways and each was successful, albeit, Tetley more so than Peary.  But neither found another like each other again.   Magic, after all, doesn't last forever.

©Jimbo 2010/2011


  1. Great stuff! Tetley was good in the Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show, but, as you said, not the same combination success with Phil and Elliot as he did with Peary. Peary own show after Gildersleeve never had that much appeal to me. He needed Tetley.

  2. Thank you, Shadow!

    William Waterman and Tetley just weren't the same. Waterman did a better job than I have really give him credit for, though.


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