Walter Tetley, Fountain of Youth

By our Guest Columnist, Ira Cochin

November 10, 2005:

Walter Tetley played the part of a 10-year-old child named LeRoy Forrester on a radio show called, “The Great Gildersleeve.” Each episode was a half-hour long and was broadcast weekly from August 1941 to June 1954. Walter Tetley looked like the 10-year-old child he played. His voice had the twang of a child. His mannerisms were that of a child. He moved about and handled objects exactly as a child. If you stood close to him, you could not detect the slightest indication of a beard --- not even peach fuzz. His face was as smooth as that of a child. He was “child” personified. And he sustained all these features till he was 40 years old!!!! Picture a man of 40 who had all the features of a child of 10. He was literally the Fountain of Youth.

Walter Tetley was born in June 2, 1915. When I met him in 1945, he was 30 years old. He was a talented actor --- particularly if he was not seen. So radio and voice-over were his expertise. He was able to convey emotional feeling using only his voice. And having the natural voice of a child, he became a much-sought performer for child parts --- yes, all the way into his 40’s and beyond. Imagine a child actor who never grew old. There was no need to replace him as the years flashed by. And imagine how effectively a man of 40 could play the part of a child. And even if you studied him with a microscope, you couldn’t ever tell his age. Walter Tetley had the features of a 10 year old for more than half his life!

Walter was just about the only “child” in the world who was able to convey feelings and desires perfectly using only voice and no face. So “The Great Gildersleeve” radio show was the perfect venue to showcase his talents. Was this non-aging miracle an asset? Of course --- magnificently so. Picture a crowded waiting room at the casting office. Many, many wanabe actors struggle to get a part in some theatrical event --- any part --- no limits --- no choice --- any part. And they may wait months or even years. Then the casting director needs a child who can read lines immaculately. Only an adult who looks convincingly like a child gets the part. As a result, Walter appeared in over 60 films and shows. However, on the flip side of the situation, he only was given child-like roles. Thus, he was often the elevator boy, the bus boy, or a child lost in the crowd. His asset was also his liability.

Then, how and why did I enter this talented man’s life? The story begins in an Army hospital in 1945 during WWII. As a soldier when I was 20, I had lost an eye. For the healing and rehabilitation process, I remained in the Army as a patient at Birmingham General Hospital in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was a very long stay, and for diversion, I became involved in the hospital radio broadcasting system. The soldier patients broadcast a radio show twice a week. Since this was radio, without a studio audience, no one saw the performers, permitting them to read scripts, obviating the need to memorize the dialog. Various Hollywood actors and actresses volunteered to perform, and in return, our radio broadcast provided a vehicle to showcase their talents. It was of mutual benefit, a pleasant activity that provided camaraderie and fun for us all.

He looked and found the following: WWII ended and peace was declared. Time for the nation to demilitarize. The military couldn’t discharge all soldiers and sailors at the same time, and employed a priority system. In the meantime, servicemen waiting for discharge could get permission from the Army Commander to be employed part time by civilian firms. But since they were still soldiers, they had to wear their soldier’s uniform, and had to report in before curfew each day. Sterling Holloway had found a way! I obtained permission from the Commanding Officer, and Sterling arranged for me to be interviewed. I was hired as a free-lance scriptwriter for “The Great Gildersleeve” radio show, and I had the job till I was discharged. But my real task was to act as liaison for Walter Tetley, and to work with him at his home in Encino California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Next Page