Walter Tetley: Twilight of an Identity

June 6, 2001

It was not until the spring or summer of 1972, that I had ever heard of Walter Tetley.  That was so long ago that he was still alive, back then………but by that time, he was in his last years………his last few difficult years (and way past his prime).  In the spring and summer of 1972, Walter Tetley was down to his very last three to three-and-a-half years.

For W.T. enthusiasts, you have to wonder what he was doing with himself, at that time.  Surely we know that he was probably still in a great deal of pain, from his motorcycle accident (circa 1971………or perhaps as long ago as the late 60s).  But I am sure that he continued to live, and function, on other levels.  Surely there were times, when he was not just involved in rehab, or medical treatment.

We do know that he continued to work, for part of those last few years, when he could.  I also have to wonder if he was still involved with his volunteer work, with the handicapped (I had read that he started doing this work before he, himself, was in a wheelchair).

I would like to find a picture of him, as he looked then, in the early to mid 70s.  Most of the pictures, that I have seen of him, are from 30 years earlier.  Though many of those later photos, were probably not particularly flattering (due to that difficult phase of his life, and the fact that he was fast approaching the identity of a senior citizen), I would really enjoy seeing a different side of him.

The more faces, that we manage to see of an individual, the more it helps us in truly knowing him better.  I have read enough about Walter’s life that, seeing a snapshot of him in his fifties, would truly compliment my knowledge of him.

One of our readers, sent us a copy of Tetley’s death certificate.  The information, on this certificate, shows that he and fellow voice actor, June Foray, were neighbors, at some point (they both lived in Woodland Hills, CA).  His very last address, however, according to this certificate, was a convalescent home (or nursing home).

On the other hand, the late, great, veteran voice artist, Paul Frees, said, in 1975, that he thought that Walter was living in a trailer, down by the beach by that time.  All of these mysteries, and questions, surrounding Walter’s last years…….and days; they are quite intriguing.

I sometimes wonder about Harold Peary, his co-star, and the title player of The Great Gildersleeve.  I wonder if he visited Walter, when he was in the hospital, or at his home, when he got out.  I wonder if he called on Walter, from time to time, at his home, in an effort to comfort and cheer him up, after all the years, that they worked together, on that radio show.

Harold Peary, who played Walter’s “uncle”, in their radio series, was really not that much older than he.  Born in 1908, he was only about seven years his senior.  He died nearly 10 years after Walter, (in 1985) just a few months shy of his 77th birthday.  I also wonder if Harold Peary or any of the other Gildersleeve cast members, who were still living, visited Walter, during his last days, at the convalescent home.

Flashing back to 1972, however, I knew absolutely nothing about Walter Tetley, then……..and even when I learned, that he was the voice of Sherman, in Peabody’s Improbable History, I did not have the first clue, as to how famous, he had once been.

I had never heard a single adult, ever mention his name. I did not know of a single movie, that he had ever done. I had never seen him guest star on any of the TV sitcoms or  dramas, from the 70s.  I had also never seen his name, in the credits of any cartoons, other than the Rocky and Bullwinkle series.

By this time The Great Gildersleeve radio show, had been over for at least 14 years.  Any adults, who enjoyed it and remembered it, were certainly not talking about it, that much, anymore (they were especially not talking about the show, to a 12-year-old, like me, who could not begin to relate to it)……….and naturally they were not talking about Tetley’s other show, in which he played the character of Julius: The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show.

In conclusion, you could pretty much say, that I assumed that all that Walter Tetley had ever done, was just a few paltry voices, for cartoons, many years ago (when I was a baby!!)………….and that was about it………..

The pieces came together very slowly, for me………even extremely slowly……….as to who did the voice of theanimated character, Sherman……….and as to just how remarkable Walter Tetley was.

Back in the early 70s, I knew enough about June Foray, to know that she was NOT the voice of Sherman.  She would have been a logical guess, since I knew that she was Rocky’s voice (and Rocky was a boy).  Sherman’s
puerile voice just did not carry that trademark, tell-tale stamp of June’s style, germane to all her other characters.

I pretty much knew, from the start, that Sherman’s voice had to be that of a boy.  I might have held out, a small amount of doubt, that he could be voiced by a woman, had I not already known that June Foray was usually the only woman, who worked for Jay Ward cartoons.

I had read the credits, at the end of the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows, several times.  I had seen the name, Walter Tetley, but there were so many male voices listed, that it was too hard, for me, to narrow down, by process of elimination, just who was Sherman.

1972 was 13 years after the first <i>Peabody</i> cartoons had been recorded.  Without knowing more information, I had decided that, whoever voiced Sherman, was probably just a boy, back in 1959……….and could no longer do that voice, today, thanks to the wear and tear of puberty.

It was sometime, this year (or in 1973, at the latest), that I managed to find an address, for Jay Ward Productions, and actually managed to get the staff, there, to pay attention to me.  One of the studio’s secretaries wrote me a letter, answering many of my questions.  Among other things, she told me which voice artists did the voices, of their various cartoons characters.  She did acknowledge, in her letter: “I did get a little bit of help, from our co-producer, Bill Scott.”

Not much had changed, at this point; I still thought that the voice of Sherman was provided by a boy (back when I was still in my cradle); only now I had a name to go with the person. 

It was not until December, 1973, when June Foray was the first, of Jay Ward’s voice actors, to write to me, that I learned the truth of how remarkable Mr. Tetley was!

June wrote: “Walter Tetley is quite an old man, but he still has the voice of a young boy……..” (ironically he was only a couple years older than June, herself).

I was fascinated.  I wondered just how old he was……..I assumed that June was in her forties or fifties…….and there she was calling Walter “quite an old man”.  Was he in his sixties, seventies or even eighties, I wondered (this would have made him even older than my grandparents, back then; they were 55 and 57)??

To learn that he was not at all young, back then (older than my parents, for sure), and he could talk like someone my age………I was overwhelmed with how unique this man was!!  I was further intrigued, when June told me that he was no longer that active, anymore, professionally……..and then, despite the fact that she told me this, within the next 12 months, I heard his voice, as a newspaper boy, on a brand, new Keebler commercial!

It took me 28, nearly 29 years, after that, to learn anything, at all, about Walter’s radio career (and the fact that he had had some bit parts, and supporting roles, in a few movies from the 30s and the 40s).  When I learned about his Leroy Forrester part, in The Great Gildersleeve(and about Julius, from The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show), I understood, for the very first time, just why he was such a hot commodity, for Jay Ward and Bill Scott, in their Peabody cartoon show.  They probably considered it  a true honor to have this very famous radio voice, as one of their “kid voices” in that first series (undoubtedly they had also been big fans, of The Great Gildersleeve, years ago).

At any rate, there is a special place, in my heart, for the first phase of my discoveries of Walter Tetley.  Though I was quite ignorant, back then, about what made him special, I am reminded of all those precious, boyhood days, that went hand in hand, with those discoveries……………especially:

Those long, lazy summers, in Pottstown, PA, when I rode my bike, everyday………including to our local shopping center, for ice-cream or pizza……..or all the many hours, that I spent, in elementary school, junior high and high school, at our local swimming pool………..or the times that I laid out, in our nice, big, grassy, front yard, getting a suntan, and writing letters, to pass the time…….or the times that my friends, and I, enjoyed the sight of those first, glowing, fire flies, as the warm, evening breeze, massaged our faces…….

I had no idea, while I was carefree and enjoying my youth, that Walter was slowly dying………..Maybe it’s best that I never knew……… my immaturity, back then, I probably would not have been much use, or much help, had I found a way to write to him.

I hope to learn more, about the “senior Walter Tetley“…….The last Walter Tetley, who graced this earth, in the first half of the 1970s………….

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