Wallace Maynard Cox (December 6, 1924 - February 15, 1973) was an American comedian and actor, particularly associated with the early years of television in the United States. He appeared in the U.S. television series Mr. Peepers (1952-1955), plus several other popular shows, and as a character actor in over 20 films. Cox was the voice of the popular animated canine superhero Underdog. Although often cast as a meek milquetoast, he was actually quite athletic as well as a military veteran. He married three times and was a close friend of Marlon Brando.
Early life and education:
Cox was born in Detroit, Michigan. When he was 10, he moved with his divorced mother, mystery author Eleanor Blake, and a younger sister to Evanston, Illinois, where he became close friends with a neighborhood child, Marlon Brando. Cox's family moved frequently, eventually to Chicago, Illinois, then New York City, then back to Detroit, where he graduated from Denby High School.
During World War II Cox and his family returned to New York City, where he attended City College of New York. He next spent four months in the Army, and on his discharge attended New York University. He supported his invalid mother and sister by making and selling jewelry in a small shop and at parties, where he started doing comedy monologues. These would lead to regular performances at nightclubs, such as the Village Vanguard, beginning in December 1948. He became the roommate of Marlon Brando, who encouraged him to study acting with Stella Adler. Cox and Brando remained close friends for the rest of Cox's life, and Brando appeared unannounced at Cox's wake. Brando is also reported to have kept Cox's ashes in his bedroom and conversed with them nightly.
In 1949, Cox appeared on the CBS network-radio show Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, to the great amusement of host Godfrey. The first half of his act was a monologue in a slangy, almost-mumbled punk-kid characterization, telling listeners about his friend Dufo: "What a crazy guy." The gullible oaf Dufo would take any dares and fall for his gang's pranks time after time, and Cox would recount the awful consequences: "Sixteen stitches. What a crazy guy." Cox's decidedly different standup routine was infectious in its ridiculousness, and just as the studio audience had reached a peak of laughter, Cox suddenly switched gears, changed characters, and sang a high-pitched version of "The Drunkard Song" ("There Is a Tavern in the Town") punctuated by eccentric yodels. "Wallace Cox" earned a big hand that night, but lost by a narrow margin to The Chordettes. But he made enough of a hit to record his radio routine for an RCA Victor single. The "Dufo" routine ("What a Crazy Guy") was paired with "Tavern in the Town." He appeared in Broadway musical reviews, night clubs, and early television comedy-variety programs between 1949 and 1951, including the short-lived (January-April 1949) DuMont series The School House and CBS Television's Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town starring Faye Emerson. Cox had a huge impact in 1951 with a starring role as a well-meaning but ineffective policeman on Philco Television Playhouse. Producer Fred Coe approached Cox about a starring role in a proposed live television sitcom, Mister Peepers, which he accepted. The show ran on NBC Television for three years. During this time, he guest starred on NBC's The Martha Raye Show. In 1959, Cox was featured in the guest-starring title role in "The Vincent Eaglewood Story" on NBC's Western series, Wagon Train, with Read Morgan. In 1963 Cox played a prominent supporting role as Preacher Goodman in the Earl Hamner novel brought to the screen, Spencer's Mountain. Cox played the role of a Navy sonar-man in the The Bedford Incident in 1964. In 1965, he played the role of a drug addicted doctor opposite Brando in the World War II suspense film, Morituri.
Other roles were as the hero of The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, based on a series of short stories of Paul Gallico, as a regular occupant of the upper left square on the television game show Hollywood Squares, and as the voice of the animated cartoon character Underdog. He also was a guest on the game show What's My Line? and on the pilot episodes of Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief. Cox made several appearances on Here's Lucy, as well as The Beverly Hillbillies, Lost in Space, I Spy, and evening talk shows. He also appeared on The Twilight Zone, season 5, episode number 140, titled "From Agnes -- With Love".
He played character roles in more than 20 motion pictures and worked frequently in guest-star roles in television drama, comedy, and variety series in the 1960s and early 1970s. Among these was a role as a down-on-his-luck prospector seeking a better life for his family in an episode of Alias Smith and Jones, a western comedy, and Up Your Teddy Bear, aka Mother (1970) in which he starred with Julie Newmar. His television and screen persona was that of a shy, timid but kind man who wore thick eyeglasses and spoke in a pedantic, high-pitched voice.
Cox published a number of books including Mr. Peepers, a novel created by adapting several scripts from the television series; My Life as a Small Boy, an idealized depiction of his childhood; a parody and update of Horatio Alger in Ralph Makes Good, which was probably originally a screen treatment for an unmade film intended to star Cox; and a children's book, The Tenth Life of Osiris Oakes.
During the 1960s and into the 1970s, Cox became frustrated by his being typecast as a prim, polite bookworm (or birdwatcher, or accountant), and protested in vain to reporters and interviewers that he was nothing like Peepers. He was physically quite strong, hiked and rode a motorcycle, and was a master electrician. In a 1950s article on Cox's "Mr. Peepers" TV show, Popular Science Magazine reported that Cox kept a small workshop in his dressing room. (Cox's Hollywood Squares colleague, former Hollywood Squares "square-master" Peter Marshall, recalled in his memoir, Backstage With The Original Hollywood Square, that Cox installed and maintained all the wiring in his own home.) Such misperceptions no doubt contributed to the sarcastic and peevish personality that Cox displayed as a comedian; they might also have helped inspire the character of Underdog, whose "Shoe-Shine Boy" persona, in the animated cartoons, reflected the kinds of roles Cox was often given.
TV viewers did, however, get to see a glimpse of Cox's physicality on an episode of I've Got a Secret transmitted on May 11, 1960, in which he and host Garry Moore ran around on stage assembling furniture while the panel was blindfolded. A rare glimpse of Cox's athletic build can be seen in the Mission: Impossible pilot, when he works as a safecracker in a tight, sleeveless t-shirt.
On the June 14, 1976, installment of The Tonight Show, actor Robert Blake spoke of how much he missed his good friend Cox, who was described as being adventuresome and athletic. Cox married three times, to Marilyn Gennaro, Milagros Tirado, and Patricia Tiernan, and was survived by his third wife and two children.
On February 15, 1973, Cox died of a heart attack in his Hollywood, California, home. According to an autopsy, Cox died of a coronary occlusion. Initial reports indicated that he wished to have no funeral and that his ashes would be scattered at sea. A later report indicated his ashes were put in with those of Brando and another close friend Sam Gilman and scattered in Death Valley and Tahiti.
Mad magazine once ran a mock issue of Chicken: The Magazine for Gentle Men that included an advertisement for "The Sheraton Squeamish," managed by Wally Cox.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license