Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Rant #631: Wally World

Today would have been actor and comedian Wally Cox's 87th birthday.

Again, like yesterday's Rant about Alan Sues, I doubt a lot of kids know who Wally Cox was.

But I remember him fondly.

Cox was sort of a nerd before nerd became a word.

He always seemed to play nebbishes, milquetoasts, henpecked characters. I guess that look that he had, appearing thin and bespectacled and gaunt, added to that typecasting.

And his voice, which was very wishy washy and nasally, just added to the stereotype.

But Cox, in real life, was far from that stereotype. He was actually quite athletic.

Cox was one of TV's first created stars as the star of "Mr. Peepers," one of the new medium's seminal shows. He played a milquetoast character on that popular show, and it carried over to just about everything else he did as an actor.

Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Cox became friends with another neighborhood child, Marlon Brando, and that friendship lasted his entire lifetime.

But unlike Brando, Cox couldn't break out to more demanding roles than his stereotypical role as a nebbish. He perpetuated that role in a number of movies and guest shots on numerous TV shows, including on "The Lucy Show" and the original "Bill Cosby Show."

In the mid 1960s, Cox leaped to fame as the voice for the cartoon character "Underdog." And again, Underdog's alter-ego, Shoe Shine Boy, was a nebbish, and it fit his stereotypical character to a T.

Cox then found further fame as one of the regulars on "The Hollywood Squares" game show, where he continued in his stereotypical role. But here, he showed just how bright he was in between the laughs.

Personally, I always found Cox to be an adept comedian. Whenever he came on the screen, I knew I had to be ready for the laughs to come, because they invariably would. And when he was on "The Hollywood Squares," there seemed to be a bit of resignation about him that I couldn't put my finger on. It was as if he believed that this was the level he was stuck at, and he was going to make the best of it.

He displayed a very dry wit, and unlike Paul Lynde--who you knew was reading jokes that were given to him--Cox appeared to be answering from his own mind. Whether that was true or not is open to speculation, but I always thought that he answered himself without prompting.

Cox was married three times and had two children. He died on Feb. 15, 1973 of a heart attack. Brando scattered his ashes in Death Valley and Tahiti.

Cox's legacy can be found in all the nerdish characters that followed him, from those actors in "The Revenge of the Nerds" series of movies to the actors who currently populate "The Big Bang Theory." Even the Steve Urkel character owes a lot to Cox.

Cox set the tone for these type of roles, but to this day, nobody did that type of character better than he did.

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