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William Schallert: Ordinary voice, extraordinary man

Edge Studio

William Schallert passed away last week at age 93. Along with memorable roles as the TV father of Patty Duke and in Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” episode, and steady TV, film and stage work over seven decades, he did a lot of voice-over. He was also President of the Screen Actors Guild at a time when the emergence of pay TV began shaking up the industry. He remained active as an actor and union officer into his nineties.

Although he played a goodly share of villains and other characters in comedic and serious roles, employing a range of accents and mannerisms that came to him rather readily, his go-to persona on screen and in the booth was “warm and friendly.” In VO, Bill Schallert was one of the classic yet ordinary “everyday” voices of male authority, a sort of TV father to us all.

“If I could play somebody’s dad,” he later reminisced, “I was home free.” But actually, he was a more complex actor and person than that.

Despite growing up in Los Angeles and being the son of the LA Times’ drama critic, Schallert said he “kind of stumbled into acting” when someone at a party asked him to read for a play. Schallert hadn’t thought he had much potential, as he didn’t resemble leading men like Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor. He was well received in that play (noting that the role was an old man, and that, with a lot of old people in his family, which included a German-accented grandmother and two alcoholics, he had familiar models to draw on). He informally studied acting at UCLA. During the war, stage facilities were scarce, so students worked in a new format — theater-in-the-round. After WWII, he helped form LA’s Circle Theater, which Schallert later described as a “serious” theater (as opposed to an extension of acting instruction), something rare in LA in those days.

Although Schallert didn’t have extensive formal training, he did take a course in directing, which helped him get the hang of it. He soon enjoyed consistent success on the stage, gaining a reputation for being able to play a wide range of roles. In 1947, he landed his first movie role – three days of work, after which he didn’t work again in film for a year. But that would soon change, especially once he ventured into TV.

Schallert explained that, despite being thought of as an actor who could play almost any role, and never being typecast, each of the major casting agents in Hollywood did think of him as a particular type. Luckily, each considered him a different type, gaining him a lot of work. He did assorted science fiction shows and films (such as The Twilight Zone and The Incredible Shrinking Man) and TV westerns (including Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, and Wanted Dead or Alive), live anthology TV (including the first production of Playhouse 90), comedies (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Burns and Allen, The Jack Benny Program, The Red Skelton Show, I Love Lucy) and other productions. He played 57 times in 1959 alone.

Schallert came to enjoy being a character actor, even if his own appearance and character wasn’t very distinctive. He was good with accents, liked playing old characters and such, so he kept finding work, as bad guys, good guys, ordinary guys, and historical greats. (As he once observed, he didn’t look so very different as he grew older, so while other character actors became grizzled, or short, eccentric, or whatever, Schallert had to keep working on the “character” angle. But he kept working.)

Although most remembered perhaps for portraying the father on The Patty Duke Show, Schallert had other recurring roles in other very popular series. He played various characters in episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. An early recurring role was as the teacher Mr. Pomfret, in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Both those series, rather than use canned laughter, would play each show later for a live audience, whose actual laughs would be added to the sound track. Schallert was impressed that George Burns always knew exactly where the laughs would come. In contrast, when Schallert delivered his first lines in Dobie Gillis, the writer and director didn’t think he was funny. But later, the live audience broke up even when Schallert simply said, “Good Morning, class.” He was redeemed.

Schallert recalled, “I figured I wouldn’t have to worry anymore, because that wasn’t [even] a laugh line.”

Landing the role on The Patty Duke Show was almost a fluke. “I was second choice for almost everything I did of any importance,” he said. This was one of those cases. But his warm and friendly persona was right for the part, and he worked well with the young actor.

“I always thought of her as my real daughter,” he said, noting that in real life he and his wife had four boys, and suddenly they had a girl. “She seemed a pretty well adjusted, happy girl, it was amazing, considering what she was going through.” (Schallert said the reason the show was produced in New York was because of the state’s much more relaxed child labor laws, and, playing two roles, Patty Duke worked 12 hours a day.)

When the Patty Duke series ended, and with a mortgage to pay in California, Schallert turned to voice-over at the suggestion of an agent.

Soon William Schallert became one of the go-to voices for jobs that called for “warm and friendly.” Although, as he admitted, he didn’t have the vocal range and versatility to make a strong showing in animation, his facility with accents and character voices also served him well in the booth.

His disarming manner made memorable work of lines such as “California Prunes, the funny fruit that does so much for ya.” He became the voice of Milton the Toaster for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. That voice came from having read to his children, adding an exaggerated New York twist.

Of voice work, he said, “I never worked that much in my life … for 3 years I was the flavor of the month. I got every job I went for, my average was 1 out of 2. If I auditioned at the office, it was 1 out of 4.” For the next decade, he remained strongly in demand for commercials and promos.

“It was wonderful,” he recounted later. “All you had to do was go in there and do it, you didn’t have to put makeup on, you didn’t have to learn anything. I also had a knack for timing. They’d say, now that was 32 seconds. I’d say what do you need? They’d say 28. I said, so that’s twelve and half percent off. I’d do it and I’d be right on the tick. The percentage was the trick. I said I can take up to 20% off from almost anything, but no more. And especially if it’s really short, I can’t do it.”

“For example, ‘Somewhere there’s a greasy dirt that Era won’t get out completely, but it’ll almost always do better than powders.’ It used to take me 6 seconds.”

But Schallert also kept working on the screen. There was that “Tribbles” role as agricultural secretary Nilz Baris. In 1968, Schallert appeared with Elvis Presley in Speedway. And he made several appearances on Get Smart as Admiral Harold Harmon Hargrade, a very old man who had a bad memory and kept falling over.

“I didn’t bother to read it. I said, oh, I know what I’m going to do. He was supposed to be 97, but I tried to make him, like 106. I loved doing the show, it was just such a riot to play that old guy. And they gave me wonderful stuff.”

One of the lines they gave him was when the Admiral had been given a watch: “It’s inscribed!” “What does it say?” “Bulova.”

Schallert had created the character in an improvisational workshop, more gentle and more physically and mentally frail than old characters he’d played earlier. “Everything I did on that show felt right to me,” Schallert said. “I think that Don Adams used to think I was too slow. I said ‘There’s nothing I can do about that, Don.’ Eventually he warmed up to me, but you know, that was airtime that I was using.”

In 1979, William Schallert was elected President of the Screen Actors Guild, serving for 2 years. “It felt like 10 years,” he later said, because of failed negotiations. A couple years earlier, he had been involved in talks that had gone very well for the Guild, but, he said, on the issue of pay television producers were “determined not to let that happen again …This was a new area, and they didn’t want to give anything. Nobody knew for sure what was going to happen with pay television, so it was terrible and we ended up in a strike.”

But his tenure also had a lasting high point.

“I did manage to do one thing while I was there,” he said. “I started a committee for performers with disabilities. That’s my legacy to the Guild.” By maintaining a database of actors’ skills and talents, including disabilities, SAG was able to promote the hiring of physically-challenged actors and fill a wide range of needs.

Schallert also chaired a committee to merge SAG and AFTRA. The two unions’ differing approval processes had made approving the strike settlement awkward, almost placing SAG in the position of crossing AFTRA picket lines, and a lot of actors belonged to both unions. Ultimately both approved the contract, but the situation demonstrated a need for coordination. From then on, the two unions conducted negotiations in unison. This arrangement remained in place until digital production technology blurred the lines between the two organizations, resulting in another awkward situation in 2008. SAG and AFTRA merged to form SAG-AFTRA in 2013.

As it happened, Patty Duke later ran for SAG President. “I supported her,” recalled Schallert. “I tried to hang in there with her and see if I could be of any help, but we were at one meeting where I tried to make a suggestion to her in a public part of the meeting, and it sent her up the wall — it was like I was still playing her Daddy, and she couldn’t stand it.” Eventually, Schallert said, the two got back together and everything was fine.

Schallert remained active as an actor for the rest of his life.

“When you’re an actor, it’s like being a musician and not practicing anymore — your fingers will get stiff,” he said. “And you’ve got to do it with another person, it’s not the same as being by yourself and doing it solo.” So he joined a workshop, and switched to an agent interested in sending him for one-day jobs.

(We hasten to add that voice acting can be done alone at the mic, but for most people – including many trained actors – it’s a skill to be developed, honed and maintained.)

Schallert’s last acting appearance was in 2014, even though by then he was hindered by four cracked vertebrae and peripheral neuropathy. He could use a walker, but preferred a wheelchair. Steven King specified Schallert to play in Bag of Bones in 2011. The character used a wheelchair, which Schallert said actually enabled him to be more mobile on the set than if he had been walking.

Despite so many film, TV and stage appearances, Schallert regretted that he never performed on Broadway. In a 2012 interview, Schallert said his proudest acting achievement was performing in a Broadway-style production of the musical Candide. “Somehow, in spite of the fact that my voice is not anywhere near up to that standard, I still managed to do it,” he said. In that interview, he also said his first love had been music. He had studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, who, after hearing Schallert play the piano, invited Schallert to study at the graduate level. But Schallert came to realize that others in his class were more adept at hearing music in their heads, and he would never be fast enough at composing to make a living.

As the saying goes, music’s loss was popular entertainment’s gain.

Despite such sophisticated goals, achievements and associations as he enjoyed throughout his life, maybe it’s not so surprising that Schallert, known for playing “everyman” roles and all sorts of characters, said his favorite part — the one he’d most like to be remembered for — was a simple, non-threatening type that was simply a joy to do: Get Smart’s Admiral Harold Harmon Hargrade.

If you know where we can find a video example of the Admiral online, please write [email protected].