Chuck McCann, a comic whose loopiness defined live children’s television beginning in the 1950s and who later became a familiar TV and film character actor and a versatile voice on cartoons, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 83.
The Brooklyn-born son of the music arranger at New York’s famous Roxy Theater, McCann was precocious, irrepressible and persistent.
“You’ve got to be able to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and do it all over again,” he said in a 2007 interview with the American Comedy Archives. “Persistence alone is omnipotent; you have to keep hanging in there.”
He began by doing voice-overs on radio when he was 6 and struck up an enduring cross-country friendship by telephone with Stan Laurel when he was 12 — leading to roles impersonating Laurel’s huskier other half, Oliver Hardy. (He was a founder of the Laurel and Hardy fan club Sons of the Desert.)
He got his big break in his early 20s while performing on “The Sandy Becker Show,” a children’s TV program on what was then WABD in New York. Without advance notice, Becker left on a Friday for two weeks in South America and asked McCann to host his show beginning Monday.
“'So long!'” McCann recalled Becker saying. “The elevator doors close, and off he went. That was my baptism by fire. The first day was just disastrous.”
McCann survived to become the host of his own children’s programs and to voice cartoon characters in “DuckTales,” “Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers,” “Garfield and Friends,” “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and commercials for Cocoa Puffs cereal (as the cuckoo bird, crying, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”). He also appeared as a character actor on “Bonanza,” “Columbo,” “Little House on the Prairie” and other television series.
Along with Soupy Sales, Buffalo Bob Smith, Bob Keeshan (better known as Captain Kangaroo), Fran Allison and his mentor, the puppeteer Paul Ashley, McCann helped shape zany, impromptu preteen local programming in television’s formative years.
In his book “Politics and the American Television Comedy: A Critical Survey from ‘I Love Lucy’ Through ‘South Park'” (2008), Doyle Greene compared “The Chuck McCann Show” on WNEW in the mid-1960s to a blend of “Howdy Doody” and the spontaneous, experimental comedy of Ernie Kovacs.
To Greene, the McCann show represented a “deconstruction of TV taken to Dada levels (whether driving around the studio smashing into props on a scooter while lip-syncing a song, or doing a lengthy impersonation of Jack Benny playing screeching violin worthy of Stockhausen).”
Charles John Thomas McCann was born on Sept. 2, 1934, in Brooklyn to Valentine J. McCann (whose father had performed in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show) and the former Viola Hennessy.
After the family moved to Queens, he attended Andrew Jackson High School, where he once convulsed his classmates by performing a King Kong satire standing on a chair and inviting them to toss paper airplanes at him.
Besides getting his high school diploma, he was educated at the Roxy, the majestic midtown Manhattan movie palace and setting for vaudeville-style stage shows, where his father played trombone in the orchestra.
“He was not only a great musician, but he was a great arranger,” McCann said of his father, “and that’s where I think the show business bug bit me, sitting in the pit of the Roxy watching those comedians.”
His mother’s relatives wanted him to follow in the family tradition and become a firefighter, but an introduction to Paul Ashley, the puppeteer, led to a stint on the “Rootie Kazootie” television puppet show.
McCann later hosted Laurel and Hardy fill-ins during rain delays on New York Yankees broadcasts as well as another children’s show, “Let’s Have Fun,” on WPIX in New York.
During the 114-day New York City newspaper strike in 1962-63, he kept his young television viewers up to speed on the comic strips by playing the characters on camera, echoing a role Mayor Fiorello La Guardia played on radio during a newspaper strike in the 1940s.
“Mayor La Guardia did it many, many years before,” McCann said, “and I was the first one to do it on television.”
He also helped launch Becker’s Sunday morning show “Wonderama” on WNEW.
McCann’s local television finale in New York was “Chuck McCann’s Laurel & Hardy TV Show,” in 1966, which featured Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the titular comic duo and McCann’s Oliver Hardy impersonations.
In his movie debut, McCann played opposite Alan Arkin to critical acclaim as a mentally disabled deaf mute in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
He went on to play the lead role in “The Projectionist” (1971), as the lonely title character in a movie theater’s projection booth. The film gave him a vehicle with which to demonstrate his dexterity imitating movie stars. Rodney Dangerfield, in his movie debut, played his boss.
In addition to his daughter Siobhan, McCann is survived by another daughter, Jennifer Strasser, from an earlier marriage, which ended in divorce; his wife, the former Betty Fanning, who was an executive with the William Morris agency; three grandchildren; and a sister, Moe Sanders. A son, Sean, from a still earlier marriage, died in 2009.
McCann had two mantras: to have as much fun as possible and to keep working to survive, whether he was appearing at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention in Newark, New Jersey, or as the exasperating neighbor bellowing “Hi, guy!” through a shared medicine chest in an early 1970s commercial for Right Guard deodorant.
In 1969, after he moved to California, he appeared in the cast of “Turn On,” George Schlatter’s aborted attempt to match his success in producing “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” “Turn On” lasted one episode.
“I did everything,” McCann told TVParty.com in a 2007 interview. “I never closed doors. If you look at my career — if I had one — I never think of it as a career, I just look at it as things I love to do. I have just as much fun doing a 30-second commercial as I do making a movie.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.