Alan Young, the Canadian-English actor best known as Wilbur on CBS’ 1960s talking-horse sitcom Mister Ed who also provided the voice of Disney’s Scrooge McDuck for more than three decades, died Thursday. He was 96. He had been living at the Motion Picture and Television Fund campus in Woodland Hills.
Born in 1919 in North Shields, Northumberland, England, his family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was a small child and shortly after to Vancouver, B.C.. After an early start in radio, Young served in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. After his service, he resumed his career in radio, moving to the U.S., where in 1944 he created the radio program The Alan Young Show. The situation comedy was broadcast on both NBC and ABC at various points, and in 1950 was turned into a CBS TV series that lasted until 1953 and won two Emmys.
Young made several films during during the next decade, most notably receiving second billing in George Pal’s iconic 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Other films from this period include the title role in Androcles and the Lion, and the Jane Russell musical comedy Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.
In 1961 Young began the role for which he is most well known. Mister Ed premiered in October, starring Young as Wilbur Post, a mild-mannered architect who discovers that he owns a talking horse, voiced for all five seasons by Allan Lane. The show saw Young playing the straight man to Lane’s jocular, somewhat mischievous Mister Ed. Among the show’s running gags, Ed would only ever talk to Wilbur, making it look as though Wilbur might be crazy as he constantly appears to be talking to himself. Mister Ed premiered in syndication and then moved to CBS with its cast intact — one of the few syndie shows to be picked up by a network for a primetime run.
Following Mister Ed‘s cancellation in 1966, Young acted for a brief spell before taking a nearly decade-long break from the industry. During that time, he established a broadcast division for the Christian Science Church. Returning to acting in the late 1970s, Young would go on to appear in numerous guest roles on television, including The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, St. Elsewhere, Party of Five, ER and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.
But from this point on, he worked primarily as a voice actor. Able to expertly affect a Scottish accent, Young was hired in 1983 to voice Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He would reprise the role four years later in the classic cartoon series Duck Tales. Drawing heavily from the comic book series Uncle Scrooge that was created, written and drawn for much of its run by Carl Barks, Young voiced the thrifty Scottish duck who lives in the city of Duckberg and defends his vast fortune (and number one dime) from greedy enemies from 1987-90. Young delivered a definitive take on Scrooge McDuck and would remain the voice of the character until his death.
Other voice roles include Farmer Smurf on The Smurfs, 7-Zark-7 and Keyop in Battle of the Planets and Hiram Flaversham in The Great Mouse Detective, along with guest spots on The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and more.
“I worked it out that you go to an audition feeling you’re going to give your concept of what this part is you’re not going to try to get anything,” Young said in a 2001 interview with the American Archive of Television. “If the producer likes it, whether you get the part or not, you’ve given. It takes away all the anxiety and the weight. That’s my best advice. Just give, and then trust.”
Here’s an extended montage from that interview, in which he discusses the transformation from radio to the small screen and his ensuing TV career: