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Wally Cox was a beloved character actor who made his mark in television and ranks as one of the medium's most memorable performers. His ability to show his range likely was limited by his short stature, slight frame, and high-pitched voice, which along with his talent for being very funny, made him ideal for comedy parts such as his memorable turn as Professor P. Caspar Biddle in "The Bird-Watchers" episode of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962) in 1966. His television persona was that of a shy, timid man in horn-rimed glasses who spoke in a tentative, though distinctly enunciated, voice. It was a persona that his long-time friend Marlon Brando said was completely at odds with the real man.
Born Wallace Maynard Cox on December 6, 1924, in Detroit, Michigan, his family moved to Evanston, Illinois, when he was a child, and he became friends with the young Brando. The child Marlon once tied Wally to a fence as a prank and left him in bondage overnight. After World War II, Cox moved to New York City and studied metal-working, becoming a master craftsman. In New York, he met up again with Brando, and the two rekindled their friendship and became roommates, with Cox eventually moving out as he reportedly could not abide Russell, Marlon's pet raccoon. Brando interested Cox in acting, and he studied with Brando's mentor Stella Adler. Cox and Brando both shared a delight in book-reading and learning, though Cox was the more accomplished intellectual.
After appearing in many TV productions in the 1940s and early '50s, Cox achieved fame as the mild-mannered teacher on the live television sitcom Mister Peepers (1952) (1952-55), a summer replacement show that was inserted into the regular line-up after receiving good reviews and strong ratings. The episode in which Peepers married his girlfriend, the school nurse Nancy, was one of the highest rated TV shows of 1954. Although the role made him a star and won him two Emmy nominations, one as Best Comedian of 1953 and one as Best Male Star of a Regular Series in 1954, Wally Cox hated Robinson Peepers. He always referred to the character as "Mr. Goodboy" and insisted he was nothing like him, that in fact, he was a "terrible person." His persona on the The Hollywood Squares (Daytime) (1965), a quiet man with a thinly veiled layer of sarcasm, probably was more like the real Cox. Outside of performing, Cox liked to ride motorcycles and take long nature walks.
After the show's cancellation due to declining ratings, Cox appeared as the lead in the TV series The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (1956) for the 1956-57 season. Although he never again headlined a live-action series, he played character roles in a score of theatrical and TV movies and frequently guest-starred on series television. He also remained prominent in the public eye as a regular panelist on the television game show The Hollywood Squares (Daytime) (1965), appearing in the upper left-hand cubicle from the series' debut in 1966 until his death in 1973. While many of the stars' responses were actually scripted, Wally Cox apparently wasn't one of them, more often using sarcasm and responding with an ironic attitude as with a witty one-liner.
He was introduced to a generation of children as the voice of the animated cartoon character Underdog on Underdog (1964) (1964-1973). He was also a singer, cutting albums and singles for the Arvee, George, and Wand record labels, including the 45-RPM singles "Love Me With Soul" backed with "Some Wonderful Day" for George and "This Man" backed by "I've Had Enough" for Wand in 1961, the latter platter sang in a style noted as "classic Northern soul floor shaker" by an appreciative fan. Another memorable record of his was "There Is a Tavern in the Town" in 1953, sang in a unique style featuring "tremulous yodeling" that was truly one of a kind. Wally also made a memorable appearance on the syndicated show Tom Smothers' Organic Prime Time Space Ride (1971) as a singer/yodeler, singing the cowboy song "That's How the Yodel Was Born."
Cox always will be remembered as the eponymous "Mr. Peepers" and the voice of "Underdog," but he was an actor of wider talents seldom used by the industry, as can be seen in his turns as the sonar operator in The Bedford Incident (1965) and as the potential suicide Wally Haverstraw in The Bill Cosby Show (1969) episode "Goodbye, Cruel World" in 1970. Dying unexpectedly on February 15, 1973, from what some newspapers described as an accidental overdose of sedatives but which Marlon Brando in his autobiography said was a heart attack, Wally Cox's cremated remains were kept hidden in a closet by his old friend for three decades. According to Brando's son Miko, both his father's and Cox's ashes were scattered at the same time in Death Valley, California, in a ceremony following Brando's death, thus reuniting the lifetime friends.