Larry Manley has achieved what many aspiring actors dream of: His acting debut was a starring role on a national television series.
Yet no one will ever see him.
Manley's face and voice were disguised as he became "Officer McGruff"--a nationally recognized cartoon symbol--on the ABC sitcom "Webster." He has played the Columbo-like mutt for more than a year and a half, teaching school children in Redondo Beach and surrounding areas how to "take a bite out of crime."
Manley, a Bellflower resident, said he is not disappointed that he won't be seen out of costume. He sees it as a chance for Officer McGruff--not Crime Prevention Specialist Manley of the Redondo Beach Police Department.
"There's two people here: there's me and there's McGruff," he said. "I think he'll do great on television."
Manley's 9-year-old son, Matthew, who watched the taping at Paramount Studios in Hollywood last week, also doesn't mind that his dad will not be seen as himself. In fact, he is upset his father's name is listed among the show's credits, fearing that other children will learn the true identity of Officer McGruff and reduce the character's effectiveness.
Manley was recommended for the part by the National Crime Prevention Council because of his strong McGruff program in Redondo Beach, according to Allie Bird, director of program development for the council. The crime council, the Advertising Council and the U. S. Department of Justice are the primary sponsors of the national McGruff campaign.
John Symes, vice president of current programming at Paramount, watched Manley's presentation to students at Birney Elementary School in Redondo Beach before choosing him for the "Webster" part.
"I don't mind admitting it," Manley said of his television debut, "it's fun, and I get paid for it, and I'm working with kids . . .
"(But) to be an actor--no. Never."
Manley said he's getting between $1,285 and $1,800 for his appearance.
But Officer McGruff seems to be more than just a role to Manley--he seems to be a part of him. As Manley sat in his dressing room between tapings, waiting for his next call and talking with visitors, he softly petted the McGruff head resting in a box to his left. The dog's trench coat hung neatly behind him, his paws lay on the dressing table to his right. Manley drank warm water and sucked on throat lozenges to prevent his voice from failing him when he lowered it to the dog's characteristic gruffness.
On "Webster," Manley played Officer McGruff to convince Webster (played by Emmanuel Lewis) and his classmates at Franklin Cooper Elementary School to identify the bully who has been extorting their lunch money. The bully threatened to beat up the children if they tattled.
"If someone's being hurt, it's OK to tell," Officer McGruff tells the children.
But Webster's father (played by Alex Karras) wonders whether "the kids are going to respect someone who wears a flea collar."
The school children in the show, naturally, loved Officer McGruff, but it took some coaxing from the director to get enthusiastic responses. Susan Clark (who plays Webster's mother) added a little levity to the prerecorded tapings by barking as the stage crew tried to prepare the children for McGruff's scenes.
Ironically, the child performers seemed more awed by the character off camera than on. At one point between tapings, the stage crew had to clear the children away from Manley so he could rehearse his lines.
After watching his father tape the show before a studio audience, 12-year-old Shane Manley, said, "It was better than I expected. I thought he would mess up more than he did. I expected that . . . they would have to do the scenes over and over again."
He was a tougher critic than the show's executives.
Paramount Vice President Symes said Manley "really is terrific. He knows the voice, and he has the mannerisms of the character."
But, Symes explained, since Manley never acted professionally before, actor Charles Hoyes was chosen to play Officer Shanley--the out-of-costume McGruff.
Lewis, the show's thigh-high star, said he has never had any problems with bullies in real life, but pointed out, "There's always a security guard with me." Some children look up to him, he theorized, and he said he hopes they will remember the show's message if they ever need help.
Manley believes the "Webster" show will be a good way to get McGruff's crime prevention lessons to children.
McGruff can reach children in a way parents and other authorities cannot, Manley said. "It's hard not to tell that it's a costume, but the kids make the difference," he said.
"I never dreamed I'd have so much fun with it."
The police-officer dog, Bird said, is "a creative way to teach kids because they look up to McGruff, and it's a way to teach about sensitive subjects" like child abuse or drugs.
McGruff is "kind of like the Superman of crime prevention," said Karen Brown, a Redondo Beach police officer and crime prevention supervisor.
The special episode of "Webster," entering its fourth season, is scheduled to air at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 20 on ABC.