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Happy Birthday, Paul Frees!

“Paul Frees is EVERYWHERE!”  A cartoonist of my acquaintance adopted that statement as both a personal mantra and a tribute to the man born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago on this date in 1920.  For a time during the 50s/60s/70s, it was nigh impossible to sit through a movie or TV episode without hearing Frees’ incredible four-octave voice.  Paul not only narrated films and the trailers for same, he was often called upon to “loop” dialogue in features for actors who either had thick, unintelligible accents or were the victims of problems with the sound equipment.  For example: listen carefully to Tony Curtis’ “Josephine” the next time you make an appointment to watch Some Like It Hot (1959).  As incredible as this may seem, Curtis simply couldn’t do the falsetto required of his “drag” character…and so Frees was brought in to dub him.  Paul also voices four different characters in Spartacus (1960)—notably the guard hamstrung by Kirk Douglas in the movie’s opening sequence.

The artist who gave Mel Blanc serious competition in “The Man of a Thousand Voices” department began in show business as an impressionist, billed as “Buddy Green.”  A man of Paul Frees’ talents was a natural for radio, of course, and by 1942 he was actively employed in the medium until his career was interrupted by World War II.  Wounded in action in the Normandy invasion of D-Day, Paul was mustered out and sent home to recuperate…and during that convalescence decided to pursue a career studying art at the Chouinard Art Institute on the G.I. Bill.  When the health of his first wife began to fail, Frees abandoned his artistic ambitions and returned to radio for steady work.

We’re not kidding about the “steady work,” either.  To list all of Paul Frees’ radio credits would be a Herculean task, but as a point of reference, he made the rounds on such favorites as The Adventures of Frank RaceThe Adventures of Philip MarloweThe Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintBold VentureBox 13Broadway’s My Beat, The Casebook of Gregory HoodDangerous AssignmentEllery QueenJeff Regan, InvestigatorLet George Do It, The Line UpThe Man Called XNight BeatPat Novak for HireRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveRocky Jordan (and its original incarnation, A Man Called Jordan); Rogue’s GalleryThe Silent MenThe Story of Dr. KildareTales of the Texas RangersThis is Your FBIT-ManVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whisperer; and Wild Bill Hickok.  Frees had occasional roles on Gunsmoke…and in one episode (“The Cast”) filled in for an absent Howard McNear as “Doc Adams.”  And yes, just like every radio actor (practically, anyway), Paul could be heard on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Frees’ versatility helped him secure gigs on many a radio anthology series, notably Crime ClassicsSuspense (he was the series’ announcer for a time), and The Whistler…but Paul also stood behind the microphone on ConfessionThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreThe First Nighter ProgramThe Hallmark Hall of FameHollywood Star PlayhouseThe Lux Radio TheatreMr. PresidentNBC Presents: Short StoryNBC Star PlayhouseThe NBC University TheatreOn StagePresenting Charles BoyerThe Prudential Family Hour of StarsThe Railroad HourRomance, and Screen Directors’ Playhouse.  The lighter side of Mr. Frees surfaced when he worked alongside comedic duos such as George Burns & Gracie Allen, Phil Harris & Alice Faye, and Jim & Marian Jordan (a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly), and while plying his trade on sitcoms and comedy programs headlined by Edgar Bergen, Dennis Day, Stan Freberg, Penny Singleton, and Alan Young.

Paul Frees didn’t spend all his time on the air as a supporting player.  He performed as a “one-man theater” on the 1948 syndicated series The Player (a show reminiscent of The Whistler), giving voice to ALL of the characters (he did similar duties on the syndicated Studio X).  In the summer of 1949, he portrayed “Jethro Dumont” on CBS’ The Green Lama, an adventure series in which Dumont used “his curious and secret powers in his singlehanded fight against injustice and crime.”  (Dumont’s description as a “wealthy young American” no doubt prompted comparisons to another mysterious radio crimefighter; the Lama character was the subject of numerous pulp fiction tales penned by Kendall Foster Crossen as “Richard Foster.”)  Two summers later, Paul was the titular star of Mr. Aladdin on CBS; ”Robert Aladdin” was yet another crimefighting sleuth imbued with otherworldly powers…though if the character could perform miracles, perhaps it would have been more to his benefit to use that talent to keep his show on the air.  Paul Frees’ claim to radio immortality resides on the radio adventure series Escape.  Along with William Conrad (they alternated weekly), he was heard as “the voice of Escape” (“Tired of the everyday grind…?”).  Like Conrad, Frees also performed in both lead and supporting roles on the series.  For example, in the classic “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (02/22/48), he can be heard as a parrot!  The actor would remain a radio man till the end of his life—he was the announcer on NPR’s Bradbury 13 in 1984, an anthology that dramatized tales from science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury.

Crashing the motion picture industry was easy for Paul Frees—his voice was his ticket to fortune, and he used his gift working at cartoon studios like MGM (he was the voice of Barney Bear in a series of cartoons in the 1950s) and Walter Lantz (where he gave voice to Woody Woodpecker’s nemesis Wally Walrus and another ursine star, Charlie Beary of The Beary Family).  His earliest live action credit—according to the IMDb—was portraying a bellhop in the opening scene of my favorite John Garfield movie, Force of Evil (1948—he asks Julie’s character for advice on playing the numbers).  But Frees had notable roles in such films as A Place in the Sun (1951), The Star (1952), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), and Suddenly (1954) …and three movies in which he doesn’t receive credit include The Thing from Another World (1951—Paul is one of the scientists…as is George Fenneman!), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Harder They Fall (1956), where he plays a priest in Humphrey Bogart’s valedictory film.  (Several sources say Frees was called upon to dub Bogie’s voice in post-production—I’ve watched the movie multiple times and I just don’t believe this to be true.)  In 1960, Paul went behind the camera to direct and executive produce The Beatniks (he even wrote the songs!), an oddity that many might recognize as one of the many films that received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.  Whether you’re watching the 1949 Columbia serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad (Frees is the voice of “The Black Knight”) or the classic 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate, there’s just no “escape” from Paul.

On the small screen, Paul Frees could be heard weekly on The Millionaire as the voice of the rarely-seen John Beresford Tipton, the philanthropist who entrusted assistant Michael Anthony (Marvin Miller) to hand out million-dollar checks to deserving people.  Most of Frees’ TV gigs, however, involved giving voice to cartoon characters.  He had a close working relationship with Jay Ward, and voiced Rocky & Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov (channeling Akim Tamiroff) and the long-suffering Inspector Fenwick (impersonating Eric Blore), Dudley Do-Right’s superior.  Paul later used his Ronald Colman imitation as the ape named Ape on Ward’s George of the Jungle (in addition, Frees borrowed Ed Wynn’s tones as the voice of Fred, the lion sidekick of Super Chicken on that show).  For Hanna-Barbera, Paul used his Peter Lorre impersonation for Morocco Mole, the aide-de-camp to Secret Squirrel, while contributing to such shows as Shazzan! and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

He was Oliver Wendell Clutch on Calvin and the Colonel (an animated series featuring the voices of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy), and voiced half of the Fab Four (John Lennon and George Harrison) when The Beatles were the subject of a King Features cartoon series (Frees had also contributed to that studio’s versions of Barney Google & Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat).  Fans of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials will hear Paul as Santa on Frosty the Snowman and the Burgermeister in Santa Claus is Coming to Town…but he also worked the company’s Saturday morning offerings like The Jackson Five and The Osmonds.  Other animated TV series featuring Paul’s work include The Mr. Magoo ShowThe Dick Tracy ShowThe Super 6Super President, and The Fantastic Four.  The actor couldn’t even find time for a station break, providing the voices of the Pillsbury Doughboy and Kellogg’s Froot Loops pitchbird Toucan Sam in commercials.

As you can see—we could be here all day totaling up Paul Frees’ credits…and I’m sure there are some we overlooked.  But we would be remiss if we didn’t mention his lengthy working relationship with the Walt Disney Studios, which encompassed such feature films as The Shaggy Dog (1959—Paul narrates and plays the psychiatrist) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).  In the fall of 1961, when the TV series Disneyland became Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Frees was tabbed to provide the voice of Ludwig von Drake, the show’s animated host.  Paul would later provide the voices for various Disneyland attractions like the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Hall of Presidents, and the Tomorrowland ride Adventure Thru Inner Space.  To the end of his days, Paul Frees kept busy, busy, busy…and upon his passing in 1986 at the age of 66, there was a noticeable silence in the world of entertainment.

My good friend Ben Ohmart is the author of Welcome, Foolish Mortals…The Life and Voices of Paul Frees; it’s a must-own biography of today’s birthday celebrant and can be found at a friendly neighborhood online bookstore near you.  Here at Radio Spirits, you’ll hear Mr. Frees in our Escape collections EssentialsEscape to the High SeasPerilThe Hunted and the Haunted) and Suspense compilations (Around the WorldSuspense at WorkTies That BindWages of Sin).  You’ll also make Paul’s acquaintance on such old-time radio favorites as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Sucker’s RoadNight Tide), Broadway’s My Beat (Dark Whispers), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), The Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show (The Funny Fifties), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), The Line Up (Witness), The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (Quite an Affair), Rogue’s Gallery (Blue Eyes), and The Whistler (Root of All Evil).  For dessert, Frees is one of the many voices on the DVD Beer Commercials of the 50s and 60s, which presents vintage ads highlighting the cause of—and solution to—all our problems: beer!  (Little Simpsons joke for you in the audience.)

 

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