Has a career decision so backfired on a star as Harold Perry’s decision to leave The Great Gildersleeve?
Perry debuted in the role of Gildersleeve in 1938 as one of many side characters on Fibber McGee and Molly. However, the popularity of the character led to one of radio’s first successful spin-offs and one of the most enduring sitcoms of the golden era.
However after the 1949-50 season, Perry left NBC for CBS, and as his sponsor, Kraft refused to allow the Great Gildersleeve to go with him, so Perry left the role of Gildersleeve. There are many reasons that have been given behind why Perry left. For example, he wanted to sing more on the show than Gildersleeve’s production team would allow. This was also during the famous talent raids where CBS was snatching up talent from NBC by paying higher contracts, a tactic by which they’d landed Jack Benny and his good friends, Burns and Allen. So for more money and more creative control, Perry was off to a new network.
The new show Perry created had him starred as “Honest Harold” Hemp, a local radio host with a bunch of whacky friends. It was called simply, The Harold Perry Show. The show was not a huge success in terms of ratings and all but one of its episodes were sustaining. While the shows weren’t uniformly bad or weak, it’s 37-week run was an uneven mess that suggests that Perry should never have left Gildersleeve.
There were some good points to The Harold Perry Show. First was the performance of Perry himself. He always did the best he could with the material that was wrote for him. In addition, he did have a beautiful singing voice and his crooning was a highlight of most episodes.
Then there was the Joseph Kearns as Old Doc Yancy (aka Old Doc yak yak), an elderly vetrinarian. His delivery and character were perhaps the most consistently funny part of the show.
It also has to be acknowledged that some touches were funny such as the musical chimes at the house of one of Harold’s girlfriend who was a dance teacher, and their take off on tupperwear called Warbleware, which were dishes that sang.
Finally, the show did have heart. Perry went to entertain the tropps at a Veteran’s hospital and asked the audience to help supply gifts. However, the show’s most moving moments came towards the end when Cousin Marvin came to live with Harold and Perry used the show to raise awareness for the Boys Club of America and read the now classic Alan Beck piece called, “What is a Boy” in two seperate episodes. Also, towards the end of the run, Perry recognized one boy or girl across America for acts of Honesty.
The show lacked consistency. While the supporting cast that stayed through the show’s run, including Parley Baer as Pete The Marshall, was okay. The show kept adding and removing cast members throughout the show’s run. There were at least three love interests for Harold in the series. There were the episodes where Cousin Raymond were staying with him and the Cousin Marvin episode towards the end.
In addition, to the constant rotating carasoul of side characters, it was kind of hard to get a beat on who Perry’s character was. In early episodes, the focus of the character was that he was always honest and civic minded. The honest part doesn’t last long in the world of sitcoms as people being less honest gets people into more comic trouble. As for the civic minded part, that took a downturn during the Mayoral campaign episodes.
The first five episodes of the show were fun to listen to. However in episode 6, the show began to go downhill a bit. But in Episode 7, it hit bottom and stayed there for some time. After the focus of the first seven episodes was on Honest Harold’s run for Mayor against his self-centered rival, Stanley Peabody. When Harold discovers that running for mayor is a hard job, he tries to sabotage his own campaign and then casts thd decisive vote for Peabody to avoid the responsibility. Even in a sitcom, that doesn’t make us think a lot of the character.
The show stayed at bottom through most of the next ten episodes which featured Haorld’s lazy cousin Raymond, who was little more than a stereotypical slacker. The show then clunked along until it got quite a bit better when Haorld’s little orphaned cousin Marvin came to live with him, promting some fatherly episodes that were charming and funny
These paternal episodes were far more fun and entertaining than many previous episodes which focused on unfunny romantic subplots with women we cared little about. Had the show began with this sort of focus, it might have made it.
Harold Perry billed the final show as the last show of the season. In reality, the show would never return. After more than a decade playing one of radio’s most recognizable characters, Perry found his career in decline in 1951, even while Gildersleeve would continue on for four more seasons with Willard Waterman playing Gildersleeve.
On The Harold Perry Show, a constant joke was that all was on television was old movie, but it was television that would hold the key to Perry’s future. Perry guest-starred on a wide variety of shows including Perry Mason, Red Skelton, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Public Defender. He only landed three recurring roles on TV: Herb Woodley on Blondie, Mayor LaTrivia on the unlamented Fibber McGee and Molly (which featured neither of the stars who made those roles famous) and as the voice of Fenwick Fuddy in a series of 1970s Hanna Barbara cartoons. He never approached the star status he enjoyed as Gildersleeve.
When The Great Gildersleeve came to television in 1955, the series lasted only one season with Waterman in the lead and is panned by many fans. I can’t help but wonder if Perry could have made a better go of it and enjoyed long television success as William Bendix did in bringing his great radio show, The Life of Riley to television.