Stan Freberg, who skewered pop culture and McCarthyism with satirical records and did cartoon voices for nearly six decades, died today of pneumonia and respiratory problems in Santa Monica. He was 88. His son Donavan confirmed the news to Deadline.
In November, Freberg was honored by his many friends at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Harry Shearer was the host, and Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks sent a video tribute from location in Germany. “It was the best evening of his life,” his wife Hunter told Deadline. “He loved it. He was an incredible man.
Freberg began his six-decade career doing impersonations on Cliffie Stone’s radio program in 1943. Soon after he began voicing characters for the now-classic Warner Bros cartoons, working with the genre’s king, Mel Blanc. He voiced Junyer Bear, Beaky Buzzard (“A-nope-nope-nope”) and Tosh, one of the two Goofy Gophers opposite Blanc, but perhaps the young actor’s most enduring portrayal was the seemingly slow Pete Puma. Said cat famously was asked by Bugs Bunny how many lumps of sugar he wanted in his tea. “Oh, three or four,” Pete drawled — before Bugs’ numerous shots to the melon with a mallet produced said lumps.
Freberg went on to work on numerous radio programs before starring in Time For Beany, the early-TV show created by Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett. The puppet show started in 1949 as a local Los Angeles program but went nationwide the following year, running for five seasons. While working on Beany, Freberg began making satirical records that targeted the popular culture of the day. The first was 1951’s “John And Marsha.” which jabbed at soap operas. It featured a man and woman simply repeating each other’s names, with exaggerated inflection to represent the implied drama.
He scored a national No. 1 hit in 1953 with “St. George And The Dragonet,” a riff on Dragnet that was the first track on the genre-spanning 1977 triple LP 25 Years Of Recorded Comedy. That same year, while under contract to Capitol Records, Freberg became a hero to many when he poked fun at McCarthyism. His record “Little Blue Riding Hood” featured the line, “Only the color has been changed to prevent an investigation.” In the following year’s “Point of Order,” he lampooned Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists in the State Department and the U.S. Army. The send-up featured a McCarthy-like character interrogating Baa-Baa Black Sheep about how many bags of wool he has. The record company, however, deleted one of the record’s best lines, in which the McCarthy character solemnly intones, “I hold in my hand the list of 27 black sheep…” It was a direct jab at McCarthy’s famous line: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names – a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.”
Freberg also hit the pop charts with such tracks as the seasonal chestnut “Nuttin’ For Christmas,” “Banana Boat Song,” the Elvis Presley roast “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Wun’erful Wun’erful,” a spot-on slap at The Lawrence Welk Show. Freberg did a typically flawless impersonation of the polka-drenched host, who implored on the record: “Turn off the bubble machine! … Help! The whole ballroom is shoving off to sea!” Later in the decade, that newfangled rock ‘n’ roll became a favorite Freberg target. Another riotous bit was “Elderly Man River,” which Freberg debuted on his radio show in 1957. It featured him battling with a censor from “the Citizens Radio Committee” who found the lyrics of “Old Man River” might offend grammarians — “He must know somethin’, but he don’t say nuthin'” — and the elderly, hence the skit’s title. (Listen to that classic bit co-starring Daws Butler below.) That track and many of Freberg’s other records enjoyed a second wave of popularity decades later on Dr. Demento’s radio show. In 1999, Rhino Records issued a box set titled The Tip Of The Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection 1951-1998.
Born on August 7, 1926, in Pasadena, Freberg would amass dozens of movie and TV credits including Lady And The Tramp (1955) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He also was a regular on the 1958 summer replacement series The Chevy Show and did an arc on Roseanne in 1996. Freberg also did voice work for such series as The Ren & Stimpy Show, Garfield & Friends, The Weird Al Show and narrated the 1985 series Wuzzles. In the early 1960s, he launched a successful career in advertising, winning more than 20 Clio Awards for his TV spots and earning the Los Angeles Area Governors Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006.
Donavan Freberg, who was injured today in a car crash today while on his way to meet with family members, told Deadline that his father had been “estranged from his family and friends for 14 years since marrying his second wife. He married her and we never heard from him again.” Even so, he added, “We all loved him very much. He left a legacy of genius that will endure forever. He will be greatly missed by his family and the world. He was a hero and he always will be. He was proud of his work and his family and his legacy. He loved everything Hollywood, and he loved being a satirist. My father loved the fact that he could poke fun at things and bring about change. He was very active politically and socially. He was proud of being a renaissance man. He left a legacy that will never be matched. He was a true pioneer of comedy. All we have for him is admiration and love. He’s my hero.”
In recent years, Freberg and his wife toured their comedy act Two Funny Frebergs. “You see the name Stan Freberg, you smile,” she said. “You listen to the work of Stan Freberg, you laugh. And if you’re lucky enough to be Mrs. Stan Freberg, you smile and laugh all the time. He was a class act; a warm, gentle and loving human being. … We had an incredible 15 years together. I’m a faucet. I can’t stop crying, but he will always be with me.”
Give a listen to “Elderly Man River” and just try not to chuckle:
David Robb contributed to this report.