Harold Peary, who rose to stardom during radio's Golden Age as the pompous but lovable "The Great Gildersleeve," died Saturday of a heart attack in a Torrance hospital. He was 76.
Best known for his portrayal of Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, the next-door neighbor of Fibber McGee, Peary's character was such a hit that he was given his own radio show entitled "The Great Gildersleeve" in 1941.
The show ran until 1958 and was considered one of the last great radio comedy series. Peary left the program in 1950 and was replaced by actor Willard Waterman, who sounded so much like Peary that their voices were almost indistinguishable.
Born Harrold Jose Pereira de Faria, Peary was the son of a Portuguese immigrant. He began his career in 1919 as an 11-year-old boy soprano, appearing professionally at weddings, banquets and other events in the neighborhood of his San Leandro home.
By the time he was 17, he had become a baritone--and a constant performer with touring companies performing musical comedy.
He began his radio career in the late 1920s, singing on an NBC show called "The Spanish Serenader" that was produced in San Francisco. He moved to big-time radio in Chicago in 1935, where the flexibility of his voice allowed him to play as many as half a dozen parts in a single radio show.
Made a Line Famous
In 1937, Peary originated the Gildersleeve role--the blundering windbag whose heart of gold was usually well concealed behind a wall of bluff.
The famous line, "You're a haaaaaard man, McGee," became a national catch-line, as did imitations of the famous Gildersleeve "dirty laugh."
Gildersleeve's departure from the McGee show to stake out his own prime-time territory as resident windbag and water commissioner in the mythical town of Summerfield (where he was joined by a niece, Marjorie, and nephew, Leroy) was both lamented and hailed as a pioneering departure.
Many radio histories record it as the first "spinoff"--a show based upon a supporting character from another series.
When Peary abandoned the role in 1950, he moved to a rival network where he created a similar character in a similar show, "Honest Harold."
That series, however, never achieved the popularity of Gildersleeve, and gradually faded away.
An accomplished character actor, Peary also played guest roles in many television series, including "That Girl," "The Doris Day Show" and "The Brady Bunch."
His movies included "Comin' Round the Mountain," "Look Who's Laughing," "Country Fair," "Here We Go Again," "Seven Days' Leave," "The Great Gildersleeve," "Gildersleeve's Bad Day," "Gildersleeve on Broadway," "Gildersleeve's Ghost" and "Clambake."
According to his son, Page Peary, the veteran actor retired in 1981 after nearly 70 years in show business. A longtime resident of Manhattan Beach, he was named honorary mayor of the city in 1956.