Wallace Maynard Cox (December 6, 1924 – February 15, 1973) was an American actor and comedian, particularly associated with the early years of television in the United States. He appeared in the U.S. television series Mister Peepers from 1952 to 1955, plus several other popular shows, and as a character actor in over 20 films. Cox was the voice of the animated canine superhero Underdog of the TV show of the same name. Although often cast as meek, he was actually quite athletic, as well as a military veteran. He married three times.
Cox was also featured in the first episode of the television series Mission: Impossible.
Early life and education
Cox was born on December 6, 1924, in Detroit, Michigan. When he was 10, he moved with his divorced mother, mystery author Eleanor Blake, and a younger sister to Evanston, Illinois, where he became close friends with another child in the neighborhood, Marlon Brando. His family moved frequently, eventually to Chicago, then New York City, then back to Detroit, where he graduated from Denby High School.
During World War II, Cox and his family returned to New York City, where he attended City College of New York. He next spent four months in the United States Army, and on his discharge attended New York University. He supported his invalid mother and sister by making and selling jewelry in a small shop and at parties, where he started doing comedy monologues. These led to regular performances at nightclubs, such as the Village Vanguard, beginning in December 1948. He became the roommate of Marlon Brando, who encouraged him to study acting with Stella Adler. Cox and Brando remained close friends for the rest of Cox’s life, and Brando appeared unannounced at Cox’s wake. Brando is also reported to have kept Cox’s ashes in his bedroom and conversed with them nightly.
In 1949, Cox appeared on the CBS network-radio show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, to the great amusement of host Godfrey. The first half of his act was a monologue in a slangy, almost-mumbled punk-kid characterization, telling listeners about his friend Dufo: “What a crazy guy.” The gullible oaf Dufo would take any dares and fall for his gang’s pranks time after time, and Cox would recount the awful consequences: “Sixteen stitches. What a crazy guy.” Cox’s decidedly different standup routine was infectious in its ridiculousness, and just as the studio audience had reached a peak of laughter, Cox suddenly switched gears, changed characters, and sang a high-pitched version of “The Drunkard Song” (“There Is a Tavern in the Town”) punctuated by eccentric yodels. “Wallace Cox” earned a big hand that night, but lost by a narrow margin to The Chordettes, but he made enough of a hit to record his radio routine for an RCA Victor single. The “Dufo” routine (“What a Crazy Guy”) was paired with “Tavern in the Town.”
He appeared in Broadway musical reviews, night clubs, and early television comedy-variety programs between 1949 and 1951, including the short-lived (January–April 1949) DuMont series The School House and CBS Television’s Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town starring Faye Emerson. Cox had a huge impact in 1951 with a starring role as a well-meaning but ineffective policeman on Philco Television Playhouse. Producer Fred Coe approached Cox about a starring role in a proposed live television sitcom, Mister Peepers, which he accepted. The show ran on NBC Television for three years. During this time, he guest-starred on NBC’s The Martha Raye Show.
In 1953, Cox’s comedy sketches were featured in The Ford 50th Anniversary Show, a program that was broadcast live on both NBC and CBS. Cox’s four sketches consisted of a man trying to improve his physique, an expert on relaxation methods, techniques that allowed him to change from wallflower to popularity, and learning to dance. The program attracted an audience of 60 million viewers. Forty years after the broadcast, television critic Tom Shales recalled the broadcast as both “a landmark in television” and “a milestone in the cultural life of the ’50s”.
In 1959, Cox was featured in the guest-starring title role in The Vincent Eaglewood Story on NBC’s Western series, Wagon Train. Cox played a prominent supporting role as Preacher Goodman in the Earl Hamner novel brought to the screen, Spencer’s Mountain (1963). Cox played the role of a Navy sonar man in The Bedford Incident (1964) and the role of a drug-addicted doctor opposite Brando in the World War II suspense film, Morituri (1965).
Other roles were as the hero of The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, based on a series of short stories by Paul Gallico and co-starring with Ainslie Pryor. He was a regular occupant of the upper left square on the television game show Hollywood Squares, and voiced the animated cartoon character Underdog. He also was a guest on the game show What’s My Line? and on the pilot episodes of Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief. Cox made several appearances on Here’s Lucy, as well as The Beverly Hillbillies, Lost in Space, I Spy, and evening talk shows. He played a pickpocket in an episode of Car 54, Where Are You?. He also appeared on The Twilight Zone, season five, episode number 140, titled “From Agnes—With Love”.
He played character roles in more than 20 motion pictures and worked frequently in guest-star roles in television drama, comedy, and variety series in the 1960s and early 1970s. These include a supporting role in the 20th Century Fox´s unfinished film Something’s Got to Give (1962), the last film of Marilyn Monroe. He was cast in a role as a down-on-his-luck prospector seeking a better life for his family in an episode of Alias Smith and Jones, a Western comedy, and Up Your Teddy Bear (aka Mother) (1970) in which he starred with Julie Newmar. His television and screen persona was that of a shy, timid, but kind man who wore thick eyeglasses and spoke in a pedantic, high-pitched voice.
Cox wrote a number of books, including Mister Peepers, a novel created by adapting several scripts from the television series; My Life as a Small Boy, an idealized depiction of his childhood; a parody and update of Horatio Alger in Ralph Makes Good, which was probably originally a screen treatment for an unmade film intended to star Cox; and a children’s book, The Tenth Life of Osiris Oakes.
In a 1950s article on Cox’s series Mister Peepers, Popular Science reported that Cox kept a small workshop in his dressing room. (Cox’s Hollywood Squares colleague Peter Marshall recalled in his memoir Backstage with the Original Hollywood Square that Cox installed and maintained all the wiring in his own home.)
While he mostly maintained a meek onscreen persona, TV viewers did get to see a glimpse of Cox’s physicality on an episode of I’ve Got a Secret, aired on May 11, 1960, in which he and host Garry Moore ran around on stage assembling furniture while the panel was blindfolded. On the May 15, 1974 installment of The Tonight Show, actor Robert Blake spoke of how much he missed his good friend Cox, who was described as being adventuresome and athletic. Cox married three times: to Marilyn Gennaro, Milagros Tirado, and Patricia Tiernan, and was survived by his third wife and his two children.
His close friendship with Marlon Brando was the subject of rumors. Brando told a journalist: “If Wally had been a woman, I would have married him and we would have lived happily ever after.” Writer/editor Beauregard Houston-Montgomery said that while under the influence of marijuana, Brando told him that Cox had been the love of his life. However, two of Cox’s wives dismissed the suggestion that the love was anything but platonic.
A Democrat, he supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential election.
Cox was found dead on February 15, 1973 in his home in Hollywood, California at age 48. According to an autopsy, Cox died of a heart attack caused by a coronary occlusion. Initial reports indicated that he wished to have no funeral and that his ashes would be scattered at sea. A later report indicated his ashes were put in with those of Brando and another close friend Sam Gilman and scattered in Death Valley and Tahiti.