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.

On two occasions, Sterling Holloway performed with us. He was not spoiled by fame. He was down to Earth, and very friendly. We were rehearsing a Western, where Sterling got shot. I was the sound-effects man that day, and there was no device with which to simulate the sound of a gunshot. I tried clapping my hands, hitting the desk with a wooden yardstick, and others. None was right. Then Sterling bent down to pick up something he dropped. And I was seized with an inspiration. I whacked his behind with the yardstick, and the sound was perfect. I yelled, “I killed him!” The entire crew had a good laugh. Sterling feigned injury as he held the “wounded” area and moaned. “Trouble is that you killed me in real life. Let’s change the script to read that I was stabbed with a knife.”

Sterling asked how I got into show biz. I explained. At age 10, I was a “year-round” camper at Surprise Lake Camp (for kids from destitute families). I was the youngest child at the camp, and performed stand-up comedy routines. I wrote the material myself. The camp was located across the Hudson River from the Catskills, where many rising comedy actors performed for summer vacationers in the many hotels. One such unknown actor named Daniel Kominsky, heard about Surprise Lake Camp, and hoped to get a “year-round” gig — not just for the summer. He was interviewed by the head counselor, and was rejected. While he waited for the ferry to cross back to the Catskills, I met him. I told him I was a comedian and we had a long discussion. I was delighted that a grown up was willing to talk that long with a little kid like me. He told me to call him Mr. K without the period. A year later, he send me a medallion signed, Daniel K, note K without a period. And he later used that as his stage name, Danny Kaye.

In high school, when I was 15, I often had long discussions with the elderly science teachers, Mr. Max Sherrin, and Mr. Ernest Scintsen who referred to me as one of their peers. At the same time, I had written a pack of comedy skits for my English course. Odd as it sounds, I had total rapport with the teacher, an elderly woman named Mrs. Schulderfer. She said, “You’re so young, but you’re ready to mingle with the adult world.” And she gave me the name of a comedy scout who met with potential actors in front of Kellogg’s Restaurant in downtown Manhattan. I met him, and found that he overlooked my obvious very young age, and he talked to me as an adult. He held my huge pack of manuscripts as if weighing it and said, “One pound.” And he handed me $5, a lot of money in 1942, especially for a kid like me. And he stuck to that price in the years to come, coining the expression “$5 a pound for humorous skits.” He then forwarded (or sold) my material to upcoming stars in the Catskills. Wow, I was back to the Catskills! I had come full circle. I wished him a long life of success, and it came true. He was still in the funny business into his 90’s, under the name of Pal Joey — Joey Adams.

“So, Mr. Holloway, that’s my background.” Sterling Holloway said, “Can I summarize? As a child, you have been constantly dealing with adults on their standards and on their terms. Tell me something; did you get along with kids your own age?” I was embarrassed and replied, “No. That’s the down side of my ability to converse with people who were so much older than I. Kids my age shunned me, and thought I was very odd.” Sterling pursed his lips and said, “Let me tell you why I asked. There’s an actor who bears the same affliction.” I interrupted, “Affliction? No, that’s my asset.” Sterling insisted, “Yes, affliction. The actor I’m thinking of plays the role of LeRoy on a radio show called, ‘The Great Gildersleeve.’ He got the part because he looks like a child. That’s his gift. But he must deal with adults. That’s his affliction. I’m sure he could use you as his liaison.” I chuckled, “Well maybe when I get discharged a year from now.” “No, he could use you now.” He pondered a while. “Can’t you get a furlough? Never mind, let me find a way.”

Walter’s brother volunteered to pick me up at my Military Post, and as he drove, he asked me why I didn’t drive. I explained that I had lost an eye in service, and that I had not yet learned how to judge distance. So I was a potential hazard on the road. However, I was studying to be an engineer. We arrived at a small ranch, about 120 by 250 feet in the shape of the state of Nevada. It had a huge ranch-type house with built-in garage, a stable with two-horses, and a sizable built-in swimming pool (which was quite uncommon at that time). This was Walter Tetley’s home. Noting my Army uniform, Walter asked me to sign his guest register. He had always wanted to befriend a real soldier, and he treated me like a celebrity. He wanted to show me around the place, but his brother interrupted to tell him that I had lost one eye and was a wounded soldier. Walter immediately got me a chair, and he asked if I wanted something cool to drink. As I walked about, he ran ahead to move things out of my way. It was obvious that Walter was very sensitive to a handicapped person’s needs. I knew he wasn’t a child, but it certainly was a notable revelation to learn that the actor who played the role of ten-year-old Leroy was a thirty-year-old man. He was neither a midget nor a dwarf. He was a perfectly formed undersized man with a child’s voice, appearance, and mannerisms — with a round cherubic face.

Walter and I sat poolside and we had a long conversation about show biz. We laughed at the notion that silent movies had no sound, and that radio had no picture. We rehashed a number of the old movies and old radio shows. Then he said, “I wondered what a radio show would be like if the audience could see the actors on stage. But then they couldn’t be allowed to read scripts. It would be like a movie.” He scrunched up his mouth. “That wouldn’t be any good. Radio would then be the same as movies.” He thought about that for a moment. “Movies. I was in movies. And I appeared in movies with famous stars. I asked how he felt about working with celebrities. “Being on the same sound stage with an actor that I had seen in movies was a tremendous boost for my morale. It made me want to do movies forever. But later, I changed my mind and preferred radio. But I still was in about 50 movies — bit parts, and I was told, ‘There’s no bit parts — only bit actors.’ Nice phrase, but I still continued to call them bit parts.” I asked, “How do you feel about “The Great Gildersleeve show?” He huffed, “Well that sure isn’t a bit part. How do I feel? I know I’m somebody. I just wish I could make friends with the cast. I sometimes feel like an outsider.”

“Do you like reading a script instead of memorizing it?” Walter tilted his head in thought. “I never had trouble memorizing, but with a script I can do more with my voice. And in movies I never had such a large part. On this show, I don’t feel limited.” I explained, “That’s because the show is a departure from comedy show history.” “How do you mean?” I sat back and shrugged, “In the theatrical past, comedy shows consisted of a group of unrelated comic sketches — not one overall plot like a book, play or movie. The objective of such comedy shows in the past was merely a collection of jokes.” “I never noticed, but thinking back, I used to listen to all the comedy shows, and you’re right. Yes, a lot of short skits.” He thought a while. “But I thought there was a few that had a story for the whole hour. What about the Marx Brothers? And Cary Grant? I smiled, “Those were movies.” He chuckled, “Let me think. There must be one that had a story for the full hour.” He pondered a while and said, “OK, I give up. What’s the name of a show that had all one story?” I replied, “This wasn’t a riddle or a puzzle. The reason you can’t think of one is because there were no comedy shows like that.” He wrinkled his brow. “I wonder why.”

I pondered How deep can I go? Walter certainly is following me. I decided to proceed, “Hmmm. There never was a show like that in the past. But there is one now. It’s called “The Great Gildersleeve” show.” He was a bit annoyed. “Hey that ain’t fair. I’m in that show. Now that you mention it, yes, but how come?” “Your show is a pioneer in the world of comedy. It has a single story, where each scene advances the plot, as it does in a book, play or movie. That demands a lot from the writers, and performers. And you are doing wonderfully.” He grinned broadly. “Really? And they do give me the lead in some of the shows.” I chuckled, “They’re businessmen, and they know you draw an audience. And the people who pay for the ads also like that.” Walter scratched his head. “You and I have been talking grown up stuff. Thanks.” I was stunned. Had no one ever spoken to Walter Tetley as an adult?

Walter’s brother came over to us and said, “I figured that since you were an engineer, could you assemble and install an electrified trap for insects?” “I replied, “Sure it’s the least I can do to repay you for giving me a ride.” It was a metal structure about 3 feet long, and 4 by 4 inches across. There were two wires the length of the device, and when an insect passed between them, a high voltage sent a spark across the gap and electrocuted the bug. It had a protective grille to keep a person from harm. I worked well into the night before the job was completed. I tested the trap, and when a bug entered it, I heard the snap sound of the spark. Yuck. It was quite late, and I was ready to return to the Army Post. “Army Post!” I yelped and froze. “I had forgotten to report in to the Army Post before curfew.” Before I died, Walter calmly told me, “I could tell you were going to be busy a long time. So, I phoned the Commander at your Army Post and notified him of your predicament. I hope you don’t mind, but I kind of emphasized that you were half blind and could not make it back before curfew. He said OK, and he signed you in.” I was stunned by the thoughtfulness of this guy. He knew exactly what to do on my behalf. This certainly was not the behavior of a child. Walter said. “You don’t want to be traveling at night. You can sleep here.” Then he and his brother set up the guest room for me, and I slept well that night.

The next morning, I didn’t have to travel to Walter’s home. I was there already. Walter and I began our teamwork. As Walter’s liaison, one of my tasks was to write comedy material, and another job was to listen to Walter read his lines. I discovered that he read his lines immaculately. While he didn’t have the natural style of a comedian, if the script called for a humorous atmosphere, he adapted perfectly. A humorous script made him a great comedian, for several reasons: one, he read the lines with perfection. Two, he knew how to add just the right sparkle to his youthful voice. Three, he knew when to pause and how long. He really was the writer’s ideal model of an actor. He fully understood the script and never misread a part. It was Walter’s prerogative to decide whether we’d work all day or a half, how many days a week, and this changed as he saw fit. It was a bit startling for a guy who looked like a child to be so adult in his work habits. I was beginning to see a conflict in the dichotomy — he looked like a child but was really an adult. In fact he was 10 years older than I was. And this dichotomy permeated his entire life . I noticed that Walter never had any friends and we talked freely about it. The problem was that he looked, spoke, and acted like LeRoy, the child he played. So adults were NOT drawn into friendship with him, since he appeared to be a child. And 10 year old kids could not identify with him, since mentally he was a full-grown man. This was the down side of his non-aging features. I became acutely aware that he must have had long bouts with loneliness.

This dichotomy also permeated his relations with his own family. I noticed that his brother and parents treated him like the ten-year-old he played professionally. He had to ask his mother if he could go for a swim, to eat a snack before lunch, and to take something out of the garage. I’ll admit that I was shocked, but figured it was best not to interfere. Walter’s family life was outside the jurisdiction of my job as his liaison. I was hired as Walter’s liaison for a good reason. And he accepted me into his complicated life for the same reason. I felt empathy with him and I was able to help him, for I had lived the same dichotomy that he did. Walter and I were soul mates. As a momentary break from the strict and tedious routine, Walter invited me to ride one of his horses, and he took a photo of me in the saddle. However, he was loath to allow me to take his picture. This was the first time that I had witnessed his objection to a photo. He was also loath to write a letter or to sign his name. Only a few photos of Walter are available to the public. Consequently, many people in the theater business never saw Walter. They were not sure what he looked like. They imagined that he might be short. They figured he made his voice high pitched for effect. They wondered why he was always cast in kid’s roles. In answer to all these misconceptions, what about Walter’s voice? He never resorted to a falsetto, nor did he raise his voice to a high pitch. He used his natural voice, which was that of a 10 year old child — sort of high and squeaky. His height was normal for a child of 10. He was cast in kid’s roles because he looked and sounded the part.

I worked with Walter when he was the lead character in several shows. I recall a show where the subject concerned a pony that LeRoy (the character he played) wanted. There was irony in this episode to laugh at, because in real life Walter owned two horses. He and I did get a kick out of that. In several shows, LeRoy either wanted, or looked for something in great need. It required him to project the corresponding emotion, and since this was radio, he had to accomplish that with only his voice. That was one of Walter’s great talents, but it’s funny how he did it. He made faces. When he first read the script, he conjured up the emotion — be it delight or sadness — and he made the corresponding facial expression. He did it again during rehearsal, and finally when the show was on the air. Why display facial expressions when the audience cannot see it? Why? For himself. He needed that to give him the impetus to really feel the emotion. There never was anything false about Walter’s performance. And on radio, all the audience perceived was his voice, and yet Walter was able to convey the emotion emphatically.

Walter and I were getting to know one another. When we exchanged biographical histories, Walter referred to what he’d do when he grew up. This was his dilemma. He was thirty-years old, and he was grown up. Yet, because of his voice, appearance, and behavior, he considered himself a child. Yes, even Walter himself fell into dichotomy’s pit. There was little I could offer as advice, because I never had any training as a guidance counselor. The best I could do was to listen to what he had to say, and encourage him to follow his ideals. The most important concern was to treat him as an equal, and to grant him the status as the adult he really was. Never mind that he looked and sounded like child. He needed to be revered as an adult — and he deserved that honor.

One time, Walter was down in the dumps. It was his volition to call it a day and send me home. But that would only leave him feeling blue. As a comedian I had an idea. “Say Walter, how about some hot chocolate and cookies?” The little boy in him was delighted. I spoke like a professor, “But it tastes best if made with cold water. Now I offer the appropriate warning. Since the cold-water tap in on the right hand side, never turn it on with your left hand. Because you must cross the plumbing fixture.” As I said that the spigot slid up my sleeve. And when I turned on the water, we had Niagara Falls in the kitchen. The water poured out of the sleeve into the sink, which was OK. But it also gushed out of neck of my shirt. Since I wasn’t a fish, I was drowning. The scene was so funny that Walter was convulsed with laughter. By the time his guffaw died down, I had heated the drink and served it. But Walter wasn’t able to let go of the gag. Seeing the water dripping from my sleeve as I reached for a cookie, he suddenly burst out laughing. And it was a burst of monumental proportions. But his mouth was closed and the warm chocolate drink poured out of his nose. That sent him into convulsions of laughter. Of course, his laugher was contagious, and I had no control. Did you ever laugh so hard and so long that your jaws ached? He was over the blues, and we resumed working on the script.

Another time when Walter and I went over the script, he asked me why I gave him a certain series of short lines.” I explained, “I don’t always write your comedy lines. Most of the time the writers do that, but they allow me to substitute my own words, as long as it fits into what they wrote. Timing. Now, here Gildersleeve had to introduce the conflict. But it was a long, dragged out affair. At the same time, how will the radio audience know you are in the scene? So the writers gave you meaningless words to create your presence. I chose to give you a few one-liners and also had you ask Gildersleeve a question to break up his long tirade. Can you imagine the sound?” “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.” “OK, let’s ask your brother to act out the scene with me — first as it was originally written, and then as I’ve changed it.” Walter’s brother and I did that and I asked Walter his opinion. He opened his eyes wide. “You want my opinion?” “Of course. I’ve observed that you read your lines with perfect interpretation. So I know your opinion will be professional.” He shook his head in disbelief. Then he gave me his opinion. “I like your version because the long tirade is boring. And the original words are the same as if I just grunted like an animal. So master, I see that you know how to do stuff like that.” I laughed, “That’s my expertise. In show biz, each person must be great at their specialty. If the person plays the piano, he or she must know how to change the key to suit the singer. On stage, the guy who operates the spotlights must know how to follow the dancer. And the actor, like you, must know how to read the part, how to modulate the voice, how to introduce a laugh, worry, happiness or sadness in the voice. All of us expect the other person to know his specific job.” He laughed, “We’re all great, aren’t we?”

There was one show where LeRoy was sick. It called for a way to find humor in an event that was unpleasant. Of course, the writers did a good job with the dialog, but it was up to the actor to carry the ball when the show was on the air. Walter and I performed the scene to get in the mood, and to give Walter room to try a few different emotions. In a way, the task was like walking a tight rope over a conflagration. I was a bit too relaxed, counting on Walter to sort out the appropriate emotions. Finally he said, “I once was sick and I can’t see the humor in this.” Here is why I was engaged as Walter’s liaison — not his director. I placed both hands on his shoulders and spoke like a father to his son, “Walter, one of the difficult tasks for an actor is to ignore his own memories and feelings. The words are very good. The humor is good and is not forced. The staff must have spent a lot of time, and I’m sure they had little sleep this week working on that script. Remember when you and I talked about each guy who had to be good at his task? The writers did their share, and now they’re depending on the actor to breathe humor and life into their hard work. I think you’re a great actor. Now let’s see you read that script.” He did marvelously.

Another time, I asked Walter for a cold reading (sight reading a script without first seeing it) to give him practice in case of a slip up by one of the actors. Or another eventuality, what if the show somehow ran a little bit fast and there’s a few minutes left till closure? There can never be a silent moment in radio. What can you do? Sight read a last minute addition.” He eyed me strangely, and said, “That’s only done by professionals.” He shrugged, “Adults.” I replied, “Yes, that’s why I’m asking you to read impromptu. OK, Mr. Tetley, now let’s hear you read.” During the subsequent week, as Walter and I worked on the script, I could tell that he didn’t like one particular piece. He pointed out where it could be improved. By now, he voiced his opinion like the adult he was, and what’s more he portrayed a grown up point of view. I had learned to trust Walter’s judgment and we made the changes. We acted out the scene, and were delighted that it moved along very smoothly. After Walter and I went through the scene twice, I took the manuscript to the head writer. I told him that Walter had helped me to perfect the material. He found that difficult to believe. At that moment, if there ever was any doubt about why I was paid to be Walter’s liaison, now I knew.

One day, Walter and I finished early and I planned to take him to a local movie theater. We got popcorn, hot dogs, and soda. However, the theater manager wouldn’t allow us to bring food into the theater. We left in a huff, but I was undaunted, and made plans of retaliation. And I had drafted Walter into the mischievous plot. I don’t know if Walter ever did anything mischievous before this time. If he didn’t, then I was a bad influence. Nevertheless, Walter felt driven to be my accomplice. Either that, or perhaps he was laughing too hard to object. We took a taxi to a department store and we bought a child-size rag doll. We removed some of the stuffing, and filled it with the food. Walter was of little help as he was convulsed with laughter the whole time. Then we entered the building. The ticket booth was in the lobby, which was dimly lit. That was to our advantage. Walter and I began to “walk” the doll to make her look like a real child, and we bought her a ticket to enter the theater. It was a hilarious adventure, and I was afraid that Walter’s high-pitched cackle would get us thrown out of the theater. But a very funny movie with Fred MacMurray was playing, and no one noticed us. Walter was still laughing as we watched the movie and ate our contraband food. Walter never laughed so much in his life. It did my heart good to see the guy in such a state of hilarity.

Then in May of 1946, it was a sad moment when I received my travel orders for my military discharge in Sacramento, California. It was time for me to return home – – – and to leave the West coast. Walter Tetley insisted on taking me to the train station. When we got into a cab, he explained another woe. Because he looked like a child, he wasn’t allowed to get a driver’s license. As we rode, a thought hit me. “Next month he will be 31, and for a birthday gift, I hope, indeed how I hope, that I had started him along the avenue toward self-esteem.” He still had no friends, and he still was reluctant to write letters and sign his name. But he no longer asked for his mother’s permission to go for a swim, to have a snack before lunch, or to take something out of the garage. And he made sure people listened to him. He was beginning to know who he was, and that he rated the status of adulthood. He still had his child-like appearance, which was his meal ticket for life. But he no longer paid for it by being demoted to childhood. I wanted my parting words to be upbeat and objective. In a way, it became my responsibility since I had given him hope by being more than his friend. I was his associate and he was mine — two adults. And it was not to my credit — it was Walter’s. I simply talked to him like the grown-up he was, and listened to him as an equal. And he drank up the milk of professional individuality.

In years to come, I was delighted to learn that Walter Tetley did make use of his gift — without surrendering his identity. In the subsequent years he got contracts for shows and voice-over parts in animated cartoons: Julius on the Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (radio) (1948 -1954). Voice of Sherman on Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, and Peabody’s Improbable History (TV animated cartoons) (1959 -1964). Yes, he was a child in all of these — the child whose face and voice never grew older. But he was loved and honored by his audience. And their memory of him never aged. He was literally the Fountain of Youth.

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