Walter Tetley: Tribute to a Long-Forgotten Entertainer

SHERMAN!!!………..No, not General William T. Sherman, as glorified in the Civil War and the Gone with the Wind Halls of Fame……….Sherman, as in Mr. Peabody and the Way Back Machine……….that very clever, very adult animated side-show of the Rocky & His Friends (1959-1961) and The Bullwinkle Show (1961-1964) series.

What is so special about Walter Tetley, that he deserves a Web Page? After all, as far as I know, that orange-haired, “four-eyes” pre-teen cartoon boy,that he voiced, for Peabody’s Improbable History, was the only character that he did at all for Jay Ward’s many animated series. Certainly he could not hold a candle to the likes of the other voice-over artists, that Ward used (Ward also produced the Hoppity Hooper and George of the Jungle series).

Walter Tetley deserves a Web Page because he is an extremely interesting man. The last few years of his life were also of an extreme nature………that of extreme sadness, due to a tragic twist of fate around 1971. Coincidentally, it was shortly after that year, that I put on my “junior detective hat”, as a young man, not too much older than Sherman (I was about thirteen or fourteen, at the time). I tried to track him down, in an attempt to write him a letter. I wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed his work, and learn a little bit about what made him tick. I was also hoping to get an autographed picture and see, for the very first time, what he looked like.

I had already received letters (and in some case pictures), from all of the other voice artists from this same cartoon dynasty. I was thinking that my collection would really be complete, if I could exchange letters with Mr. Tetley. Though I never did manage to touch base with him, I uncovered quite a few interesting facts, in my relentless search for him, that I might never have learned otherwise. Recalling my search, now, makes me feel a little like the author who penned, In Search of J.D. Salinger (though I was nowhere near as relentless, as he, and I did not wind up in court, as did that author, with my subject).

The majority of what I learned, about Walter, came from people, with whom I communicated, in the mid 70s. I did glean, a few added details, in 2000, when I bought my first computer. The information that I did learn on the computer, however, was on a website which was really difficult to find, for the average person. When I had tried to pull information up, on him, simply by using the Search option, there were absolutely no entries found at all (at least no entries which showed his name in the heading). I then got to thinking…….’Why not create my own web page for Walter Tetley?’ (doubtless, no suprise to anyone, in the last year or so, there are now quite a few more sites, on-line, about Walter.)

Enter now this chamber of the home page, and meet a man, whom surely only an extremely small percentage of the population knows anything about. Walter Tetley was born June 2, 1915 in New York City. Some of the earliest information, that I know about him, is that, even when he was well into his twenties, in the 30s and the 40s, he was still playing boys in the movies. This, coupled with the fact that he portrayed a perfect child-like voice, for Mr. Peabody’s side-kick, Sherman, when he was already well into his forties, leads me to two conclusions.

I always knew that Walter’s voice had to be really quite high, in real life, since there was not even the tiniest trace, of a grown man, behind Sherman. The quality of Sherman’s voice had yet one other characteristic, that made Walter a rare commodity. Sherman was 100% all boy. Many boyish cartoons, have been voiced by women, over the years. Though many of these actresses have done a good job, if you listen, very carefully, you can detect the tell-tale sign that the voice is, in fact, female. Not so, with Tetley’s Sherman. Not only was there not the slightest trace of a man, but there was not the slightest trace of an adult PERIOD (or a young girl, either, for that matter). As I said, Sherman was 100% all boy.

When I later read, in 2000, about the fact that he was still playing boys, at a time when he was in his mid to late twenties, I realized my second conclusion………that, not only did this grown man talk very much like a boy, but he probably was quite small (and most likely had a “baby face”). Thus history was made, and his fate was sealed, that he would NEVER become a “movie star”. Yet his juvenile voice did land him a spot, in the Animation Hall of Fame, when he decided, on that fateful day, in 1959, to provide the voice of Sherman………..everybody’s all American, bookish, boy scout-like hero. He was 44-49 years old, when he breathed life into that foil of Mr.  Peabody……….In doing so, he was the rarest of anomalies, among grown men……………

Long before he did cartoons, he still had enough work to keep him busy, in Hollywood. Besides the occasional film role, he was popular, as a child impersonator in the medium of radio. It is actually here where Walter attained his greatest fame and his strongest following of loyal and devoted fans.  Most records show that he dabbled in radio, for the very first time, somewhere around the mid to late 30s.  Then, beginning in the early 40s, he played Leroy, in the radio series, The Great Gildersleeve.  In this show, Tetley played the loveable, little nephew, of the character of the title name.  He played this role for at least 13 years (some accounts say longer—-as long as 17 years).

During this same general era, he also played another puerile character: Julius, on The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show.  Julius was known for having a “much rougher edge” and a nastier disposition, than Gildersleeve’s Leroy. 

Another noteworthy fact, about Walter’s pre-animation career (“pre-animation”, as far as Jay Ward Productions, is concerned): in the early 50s he was tapped, by Capitol Records, to record many of the juvenile voices, for their children’s and adult’s albums.

Finally…….a footnote, regarding his his career in the animation field:  Tetley actually did do at least a few cartoon voices, even as far back as the 40s and the 50s.  According to Keith Scott, in his book, The Moose That Roared, Walter did at least one cartoon, for the Warner Brothers Studios, in the 1940s.  Never mind the fact that the credits always say that Mel Blanc did everything…….There were many, many voice artists, over the years, besides Blanc, who did voices, but were never credited.   The reason for this was because Mel’s contract indicated that he would get exclusive credit for all voices

Keith Scott also points out that Tetley did some voices for a few of Walter Lantz’s cartoons (the creator of Woody Woodpecker) and for the animation giant of this era, Tex Avery (Tex Avery had collaborated, over the years, with both Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera).  So there is at least a modest amount of animation work that he did, long before Rocky and Bullwinkle ever hit the air waves.

1964 brought the cancellation of the Rocky and Bullwinkle series and, in turn, Peabody’s Improbable History felt the ax. I assume that he kept working steadily after that. From what June Foray hinted at, in her December 1973 letter to me (June voiced Rocky and Natasha in Rocky and His Friends and in The Bullwinkle Show), he continued to be active for the next seven years.

By 1971 Tetley’s star, though not exactly a rising star, began to fade………and fall………Now well into his fifties, he was still riding a motorcycle. He had an accident, while riding this vehicle (A curious spectacle, is it not?………..that a fifty-something voice, behind cartoons, would be riding a motorcycle?……..but then I guess voice-over artists are no different from the rest of us……..). June Foray described his accident as dreadful. When he left the hospital, he started out with a cane. Ultimately, he found that it was necessary to turn to a wheelchair, instead.

He tried to continue working, after that, but he did not do very much, for the balance of his life. Voice-over legend, Daws Butler, told me that, within one year of that accident, he and Walter were recording a show for a Hanna-Barbera animated Christmas special. Butler said that Tetley had commented, during the show, just how very terrible the pain still was in his leg.

Somewhere between 1972-1974, I heard his voice as a newspaper boy (what an appropriate role for him!) in a Keebler’s cookie commercial. There was absolutely no doubt that that was Walter. The paper boy’s voice was 100% all boy and 100% all Sherman! My guess would be that that was the very last job that he ever took

In December, 1974, Paul Frees (often dubbed as The Man of a Thousand Voices)answered my question, in his letter, as to the whereabouts of Walter Tetley. By this time, I had been trying to track down Tetley, for over a year. Frees said that, the last that he had heard, Walter had been living in a trailer near the beach. He did not say, however, how long ago that had been. He hastened to add that, he had absolutely no idea where he was, then, for sure.

If what Paul Frees said was accurate, I thought about how very sad this must have been for Walter. I could picture him, in his wheelchair, alone in that trailer, God knows where………..(from what I gathered he never  married, so that is why I am assuming that he was alone……..or at least without that special female companionship, which can hold a man, in good stead, in the twilight years of his life). I also assumed that, if this was indeed correct, that he had moved into a trailer, he had probably lost his house. I am taking for granted that, after all the years that he worked in Hollywood, that he had bought a house. How heart-breaking, if my educated guess is correct that, he did lose his house.

Nine months later, on September 4, 1975, Walter Tetley died. He was sixty years old. How very tragic that, that 1971 day on that motorcycle may have contributed to his relatively young death………..and that the world lost this very talented individual, that day. How equally tragic that his last days could not have been brighter…………

I think that I was the hottest on Walter Tetley’s trail, after I heard his Keebler cookie commercial. Then, only in my early teens, I wrote to the Keebler Company, in Elmhurst, Illinois, inquiring if they could help me make contact with him. Never in a million years did I think that they would take me—–this twelve to fourteen-year-old kid—–seriously, but they did! They actually forwarded my letter to the company which did advertising for Keebler. And they did so, promptly, after only just one letter from me!

This office was either in New York or Chicago. Still more incredible was the fact that a man, from that advertising office, called me at my home and spoke directly to me! He told me that he was presently in pursuit of Walter Tetley’s whereabouts, and he would contact me as soon as he learned more. I just couldn’t believe it!!! This gentleman interacted with me as if I were a very important client, and he was working for me (for nothing)!!

He made another contact, with me, by letter. He said that he was in touch with the agent who used to handle Walter Tetley. The man added, in his letter, that he was not completely sure if Tetley was still alive, but, in the same “breath”, he added in parentheses: “though I heard he was” (this was before 1975, so, yes, he was still living).

Shortly after that, I got another letter, from someone else. This individual lacked the warmth, and enthusiasm, that my original “headhunter friend” had had. The letter said, in so many words, that they could not find him and they had no idea where he was………. PERIOD!………FINITO!………The ball had been dropped. I, in turn, dropped my own ball. It was not until 2000, that I learned that he had died.

On a broader front, departing for a moment from Walter Tetley, and expanding to the topic of Peabody’s Improbable History, I would say that, despite the fact that this side-show of Rocky and Bullwinkle never spun off into its own show (as did Dudley Do-Right) and despite the fact that a movie was never made, based on this cartoon (as had been the case with some of those shows), this cartoon appears to still hold much interest to this day.

While I was unable to find a website for Walter Tetley, I found a number of entries for Peabody’s Improbable History, including one which sported an amateur attempt at a Peabody and Sherman comic strip. Though the comic strip drawings were quite crude, and primitive, it was a rather lengthy and interesting strip.

After the first 2000 Presidential debate, I saw a cartoon, in my local newspaper (originally from the Dayton Daily News) which pictured the moderator, of the debates b ringing them to a close. At one podium was Mr. Peabody, with a book in hand (I assume Al Gore) and at the other was Sherman, looking somewhat innocent and “wet behind the ears” (most likely George W. Bush). After all these years, Peabody and Sherman were actually being likened to 21st Century politicians!

From my own personal opinion I will say, about this show, it was probably the most adult of all the side-shows on Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. It did, after all, touch on historical figures such as Galileo, Ghengis Khan, Calamity Jane and the like. I also really enjoyed the music, and the animation, in the introductory scenes, of that cartoon. I really thought that the opening segment, of the show, was a true “attention grabber”. I do not think that I can do that introduction justice, by mere words.

May Walter rest in peace and his memory burn on through his episodes on the Way Back Machine………

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