Mister Ed

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Mister Ed

Mister Ed was television's mischievous talking horse, who from 1961 to 1966 led his frustrated owner, architect Wilbur Post, through various misadventures in the weekly CBS television fantasy/situation comedy, Mister Ed. The role of Wilbur Post was played by Alan Young, and the voice of Mister Ed was supplied by former Western film star Allan "Rocky" Lane. The series was a smash hit with viewers, both children and adults, who tuned in to watch the antics of a palomino who not only talked but who had more horse sense than most people. Mister Ed was network television's first non-cartoon talking animal, inspired by his film precursor, Francis the Talking Mule.

The concept of a talking horse named Mister Ed was the brainchild of writer Walter Brooks, whose short stories about the eloquent equine appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and Liberty magazine. These stories were brought to the attention of director Arthur Lubin, who had directed for Universal Pictures all but the last of seven films featuring Francis the Talking Mule. In 1957, Lubin secured an option on the Mister Ed concept with the idea of bringing the talking horse to television. The following year, Lubin obtained $75,000 in financial backing from McCadden Productions, the production company owned by comedian George Burns, to produce a pilot. The episode was shot starring Scott McKay and Sandra White as the leads, and featuring a horse other than the one that eventually appeared in the series as Mister Ed. However, the pilot failed to attract either a network or a sponsor.

Eventually, the pilot was brought to the attention of Al Simon, president of Filmways TV Productions. Simon recognized many weaknesses in the production but believed that the pilot had the potential for a hilarious television situation comedy. The Mister Ed concept was resurrected, and the leading roles were recast with Alan Young, Connie Hines, and another horse as Mister Ed. A 15-minute presentation film was prepared, containing the funniest bits from the original pilot and an introduction of the new cast. Filmways pitched the show to the Studebaker Corporation, which was interested in aligning itself with an unusual television program. The automobile company agreed to sponsor the show in syndication, and production of Mister Ed was scheduled to begin in October 1960.

The second horse that had been featured as Mister Ed in the presentation film had been sold by the time the Studebaker deal came through. With only a month remaining before the start of production, trainer Lester Hilton was dispatched to find another horse to star in the series. Hilton found his star, a Golden Palomino named Bamboo Harvester, on a San Fernando Valley farm. Filmways paid $1,500 to acquire the horse, which stood 15 hands high and weighed 1,100 pounds. Hilton brought Bamboo Harvester to his ranch to train him. Using hand signals and voice commands, Hilton trained the highly intelligent horse for stunts such as unlatching the stable door, opening a file cabinet, or dialing the telephone. Bamboo Harvester responded to commands of 20 to 25 words and took only 15 minutes to learn a scene. However, as Mister Ed, Bamboo Harvester's most amazing behavior was his ability to talk.

Since Hilton had worked with Francis the Talking Mule, the trainer used the same technique for making Mister Ed appear to speak. Hilton fashioned the horse's bridle with a nylon fishing line that fed into the horse's mouth. When the trainer tugged on the line, Bamboo Harvester tried to dislodge it by moving his lips, so Mister Ed appeared to talk. The deep, baritone voice of Mister Ed belonged to one of the most popular film cowboys of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Allan "Rocky" Lane. Lane and his horse, Black Jack, had made 38 westerns for Republic Pictures, and twice Lane was ranked among the top ten Western moneymakers. Lane took over Wild Bill Elliott's role in the Red Ryder series, playing the comic strip cowboy in seven films, then landed his own series of "Rocky" Lane films. When the "B" Western declined in the 1950s, Lane fell on hard times, finding only minor parts until he won the role of Mister Ed's voice. Embarrassed to be playing the voice of a horse, Lane preferred not to be listed in the show's credits, so Mister Ed was billed as "Himself," which contributed to the illusion that the horse really talked.

The first of 26 Mister Ed episodes premiered on 115 stations across the country in January 1961. The show was a hit during its first year, and its ratings attracted the attention of CBS, which acquired the series for the fall 1961 Sunday lineup, where it debuted that October 1. Bamboo Harvester's talents and outstanding performances during Mister Ed were honored by PATSY Awards every year from 1962 to 1965. Given by the American Humane Association, the PATSY (Performing Animal Top Stars of the Year) is the animal equivalent of the Academy Award.

CBS canceled Mister Ed in midseason 1966, and the show went into immediate syndication. Bamboo Harvester retired to Lester Hilton's ranch where the horse lived out his days until his death in 1968. The mischievous Mister Ed has left his hoofprints on American popular culture. Not only did he show that animals are smart, his endearing antics influenced the culture to recognize the talents and the star power of movie and television animal actors.

—Pauline Bartel

Further Reading:

Edelson, Edward. Great Animals of the Movies. Garden City, Doubleday, 1980.

Javna, John. Cult TV: A Viewer's Guide to the Shows America Can't Live Without. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Nalven, Nancy. The Famous Mister Ed: The Unbridled Truth about America's Favorite Talking Horse. New York, Warner Books, 1991.

Rothel, David. Great Show Business Animals. San Diego, A. S.Barnes & Company, Inc., 1980.

Terrace, Vincent. Encyclopedia of Television Series, Pilots, and Specials 1937-1973. New York, Zoetrope, 1986.