February 4, 1905 – Sterling Holloway:
“I delivered so many telegrams and jerked so many sodas I got tired of it.”
Sterling Holloway was a quintessential character actor who appeared in over 100 films and 40 television shows. He was a favorite of The Walt Disney Company, who knew how to use his distinctive voice, the original voice of the title character in Disney’s Winnie-The-Pooh (1966).
He introduced the Rodgers and Hart standard I’ll Take Manhattan in 1925, and in the 1926 edition of Garrick Gaieties, he introduced their song Mountain Greenery (“… where God paints the scenery”).
Dancing Lady (1933) is a pre-Hays Code musical starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, and featuring Franchot Tone and Algonquin Round Table humorist Robert Benchley. The film has a hit song in Everything I Have Is Yours by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson. Dancing Lady marks the film debut of a young dancer named Fred Astaire, who appears as himself.
In the movie, Crawford plays a young dancer who is reduced to stripping in a Burlesque show. Arrested for indecent exposure, she is bailed out by millionaire playboy (Tone) who was attracted to her while slumming at the theatre with his society swells. When she tries to get a part in a Broadway musical, Tone intercedes with the director (Gable) to get her the job, in return, he will put his money into the show.
When, after hard work and perseverance, Crawford is elevated to the star’s part, Tone’s character is afraid he will lose any chance of gaining her affection if she becomes a star, so he closes the show, and Crawford, out of work, goes away with him. Gable starts rehearsals again using his own money, and when Crawford returns and finds out that Tone has deceived her and manipulated things behind the scenes, she dumps him and joins up with Gable to put on the show, which is a smash hit.
There was a very amusing scene in Dancing Lady; Holloway is playing an obviously gay playwright, who was very emotional that Gable doesn’t like his book for the musical. Holloway looks like he might explode at any second from the sheer stress of it all, unfortunately, Gable’s character, the director, ends it all on a very homophobic note, saying:
“We had a cousin like you. We took him out and shot him.”
Holloway used his unique raspy voice in the animated film version of Winnie-The-Pooh and he was the voice for the snake in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). Disney put Holloway’s voice to good use in other animated films, including the voice of the adult Flower in Bambi (1942), the narrator of the Antarctic penguin sequence in The Three Caballeros (1944). He was the narrator in the Peter And The Wolf sequence in Make Mine Music (1946); the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland (1951); Dumbo (1941) as the stork; and Roquefort in The Aristocats (1970).
In the Christmas movie Remember The Night (1940) starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, Holloway shines with a touching rendition of the song A Perfect Day while Stanwyck accompanies him on the piano.
In the war drama A Walk In The Sun (1945), his role was against type and he is very good. In real life, Holloway was a solider in the Army during World War II. He was in the Special Services Unit and performed for his fellow servicemen near the front lines.
But for billions of baby boomers, he will always be the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh in Disney’s eleven Winnie-The-Pooh features through 1977. He was honored as a “Disney Legend” in 1991, the first person to receive the award in the Voice category.
His final film role was a friendly moonshiner in Thunder And Lightning (1977). He played roles in more than 50 television series, including Moonlighting in 1986, his final acting gig.
Holloway was born in Georgia in 1905. He left home as a young teenager to start his acting career, traveling with a theatre company, that put on religious pageants. He moved to New York City and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first movie was The Battling Kangaroo, a silent short, released in 1926. He made other silent movies, and at one point was told by a director he was ”too repulsive” for the screen.
When the talkies came out, it probably seemed Holloway’s voice might be a huge stumbling block. Yet, with his goofy face, scrawny build, curly shock of red hair, and that high-pitched reedy voice, he found himself cast in a variety of comic roles. He often played country bumpkins, soda jerks, singing telegram guys or delivery boys. His laconic line delivery made for lengthy dialogue in his movies.
In the 1930s and 1940s, he played comic roles in films Gold Diggers Of 1933, Blondie Johnson (1933), a pre-Code drama starring Joan Blondell, and Preston Sturges‘ The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949), a comedy Western film starring Betty Grable. Holloway made 19 films just in 1933 alone. He preferred to play in ensemble pieces. When Louis B. Mayer offered him a contract at MGM he turned it down because he said didn’t want to be a star.
For the honey-grubbing Pooh, Holloway created a sweet and innocent, sing-song voice. In The Jungle Book, his snake character sang the memorable Robert B. Sherman / Richard M. Sherman song Trust In Me as he hypnotized Mowgli, the wolf boy.
On television, Holloway was a regular on NBC’s The Life Of Riley with William Bendix from 1953 to 1958, as Riley’s friend Waldo, an amateur inventor. He also appeared in a Gilligan’s Island knock-off ,The Baileys Of Balboa, in 1964-65.
Holloway had remained active until shortly before his death, doing commercial voice-overs and children’s recordings. During the 1970s, Holloway was the voice for Purina Puppy Chow dog food and sang their familiar jingle, “Puppy Chow/For a full year/Till he’s full-grown!”. He also provided the voice for Woodsy Owl in the 1970s and 1980s United States Forest Service commercials.
Holloway amassed a considerably important collection of contemporary art. During the 1960s and 1970s he lived in Laguna Beach, where he was known to host all-male parties.
Of own his acting, Holloway remarked:
“Of course, I thought I was going to burn up the world with my acting. I first considered being a tragedian, but my teacher asked ‘Have you ever regarded yourself in the mirror?’ That decided me on comedy.”
In his obituaries, the newspapers used that popular euphemism for queer, ”Lifelong Bachelor”, but he wasn’t a bachelor at all, Holloway had a longtime partner. As other gay artists did in the era of the closet, he adopted his boyfriend to insure his inheritance.
Holloway was 87 years old when he was taken by a heart attack in 1992. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean. A street in Hollywood was named after Holloway in the 1980s. Richard Holloway seems to have vanished.
Holloway once admitted that the hardest voice for him was Roquefort in The Aristocats:
“…because it is awfully hard to do a mouse and not sound like Mickey.”