Question: I used to watch reruns of the old Dennis the Menace show when I was a kid and was always scared of the Mr. Wilson who wore glasses. But then there was another one, too. Why did they recast that part? Lynn F., Saint Bonifacius, Minn.
Televisionary: Because actor Joseph Kearns, the bespectacled George Wilson who shook you up so with his stern demeanor (me, too, by the way) died in his sleep in early 1962 with six episodes left to shoot for the season, so producers brought in Gale Gordon (The Lucy Show) to finish up and introduced him as the other Mr. Wilson. He was George's brother, John, who was staying with Martha Wilson (Sylvia Field) while George was "away on business." Ominously, the next season he was merely "Mr. Wilson" and he and his wife (Sara Seeger) inhabited the Wilson abode as if the previous owners had simply been wished into the cornfield.
But what the heck? It was a kid's show, after all, and it was apparently easier to handle it that way than explain thrombosis and its complications to an audience of children. Besides, the confusion reigned for only one full season after the actor stepped in to save the day (the series ran on CBS from October 1959 to September 1963).
And Gordon was great at what he did. "In character, Gale Gordon does something nobody else can do," actor-director Bob Sweeney, who'd worked with him, told TV Guide in 1962. "He just stands there, not saying or doing anything, and all of a sudden he's the balloon that makes you want to reach for a pin"
Gordon had an amazing voice and diction so perfect he earned praise from the legendary John Barrymore for his work on, believe it or not, radio's Fibber McGee and Molly. Gordon credited said diction to a series of painful childhood operations he underwent to correct a cleft palate. And the pain was worth it, according to those in the industry know. "Without that voice, Gale would be playing bartenders in Westerns," a CBS source commented at the time.
If only. "I want to play a Western heavy on TV so bad I can taste," Gordon said. "I've even gone to plead with producers. They have all assured me my mere presence in a drama would get the sponsor laughed off the air." The irony there is that he nearly didn't get hired for his Fibber McGee gig his first comedy work because he was known up until that point as a Shakespearean actor.
As has happened on so many shows, Mr. Wilson wasn't intended to be a major character when the series first launched. Kearns was signed to a five-year contract and guaranteed work in seven of every 13 episodes. But the interplay between Dennis and the perpetually aggravated neighbor worked better than anyone anticipated and the character ended up in episode after episode. "Mr. Wilson, or Kearns, is to Dennis what Amos was to Andy," producer Jim Fonda said in 1959. "Yes," Kearns agreed when told of the comment, "and if I'd known it, I could have got more money."
Hank Ketcham, creator of the comic strip upon which the show was based, wasn't surprised at the turn of events, either. "It was probably inevitable," he said. "Mrs. Wilson, of course, loves Dennis and bakes cookies for him, but Mr. Wilson can't stand him or rather says he can't stand him. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition of ages and attitudes, a natural for television. Our problem now is to keep Mr. Wilson from taking over entirely from Dennis's parents."
Ketcham's bigger problem before the series ever hit the air was, well... getting it on the air. He favored an animated version of his character, who was named for his son after his wife called the boy a menace. But the networks weren't interested, so the artist concentrated on the strip. Then, once Hollywood did come calling, Ketcham's concern was having control over the character and the "spirit of Dennis," which was mischievous but not destructive. And many people didn't get that.
Take the time a photographer came to shoot Ketcham and Jay North, who played Dennis on TV, at the Dennis the Menace playground in Carmel, Cal. At one point the shutterbug rushed up and said, "Gee, Hank, you just missed a great shot. There was a man with a crutch here a minute ago. Dennis could have been kicking his crutch out from under him."
That kind of misunderstanding drove Ketcham nuts. "He is not a Katzenjammer Kid," he said. "He is a totally well-meaning, totally honest little boy. Everything he does is out of curiosity, energy or just because it is fun to do or because he thinks he is being helpful in short, all the things that are normal in a young animal. Always there is his belief that he is doing the right thing."
Soon enough, CBS did the right thing, too, and understood the character. And you and I had four seasons worth of reruns to watch when we were growing up.