Trace the influence of and on forgotten genius Wally Cox.
| I recently published an article suggesting that similarities between actors Sean Penn and Marlon Brando were so great that Penn was essentially this generation’s Brando. But what of Wally Cox, Brando’s lifelong friend and iconic antithesis? Cox of the thick eyeglasses in TV’s Mr. Peepers and Hollywood Squares, the lisping nasal voice of the classic cartoon series Underdog. Who is our Wally Cox?
A better question might be, who isn’t?
Traces of Cox’s influence are all over every popular media. From the giggling nerd Irkle from TV’s Family Matters to the title character recent animated feature Chicken Little; every little man in big glasses, every brainiac and nerd, every belabored bookworm and bureaucrat character owes a nod to Wally Cox, who made the look acceptable, even popular with modern audiences. It’s not just the eyeglasses, even though his breakthrough role of Robinson Peepers did seem predicated on that look (not an affectation but Cox’s genuine appearance). One can scarcely put on a pair of glasses without invoking the archetype Cox perfected.
But beyond the glasses, Cox perfected the befuddled everyman shtick that Bob Newhart would later become famous with; the stammering moral center of an immoral, comedic universe. The comic and the straight man rolled into one.
And it’s hard to imagine the snickering sarcasm of Drew Carey without recalling Wally’s oft-peevish retorts on Hollywood Squares: When asked by host Peter Marshall, “What your average gorilla weighs?” Cox answered, “Well, I don’t have an average gorilla.”
Wally Cox was an intellectual, a philosopher, a humanist; a Woody Allen without the cult following. Indeed, the traces of Cox’s understated delivery are echoed in Allen’s, voices lodged in the middle of the clenched throat. Would America have warmed to Allen without the familiarity implanted by Cox? Both men trade in a school founded by earlier comics, as we’ll investigate shortly, but Allen cannot stand without some measure of Wally Cox’s shadow passing over him.
Wally Cox was more than a sitcom actor, however. Many don’t know he was a nightclub comic, specializing in characters and sketch-type storytelling, the like of which made Bill Cosby famous in the years after Cox’s success. And his characters had a surreal Americana, a twisted normalcy that would later be Jonathan Winters’ stock in trade. To imagine Winters doing Cox’s bit about the scoutmaster who gets his troops lost on the way back to camp is a glimpse at comedy heaven. The line is even more direct from Wally Cox to the humor of Johnny Carson, loopy midwesterners like Cox’s Dufo and Carson’s Aunt Blabby and Art Fern are kindred spirits. This was America portrayed by Americans; honest, weird, dark America.
And, to make an even riskier connection, to caustic and criminal Lenny Bruce, as far from Cox’s bookish societal cog as the animalistic Marlon Brando. Wally Cox was every bit as ahead of his time as the late comic Bruce. Cox did a bit about the then-outlandish idea of a man who brings his dog to a therapist. Thirty years later people were actually doing that... and they’re doing it today.
But Cox’s influence extends beyond his individual look or style. Popular scholastic sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter and Head Of The Class were really just Mr. Peepers updated for their eras. And unlike Peepers, those other series’ refocused quickly on the more interesting students in the class and lost sight of the teachers. But Cox never lost his audience’s attention, something Gabe Kaplan and Howard Hessman cannot say.
And Cox has a part of a dubious part in TV lore as well; his series Mr. Peepers was predicated on a “Will-they/won’t they?” sexual tension that later drove popular series like Cheers and Fraiser. But when Cox’s Peepers married his longtime girlfriend Nancy (Patricia Benoit), the show began a ratings decline that resulted in its cancellation. This was the first time a series ever “Jumped the shark,” one of the key footnotes to Mr. Peepers’ place in TV history.
The influence of Hollywood Squares on the modern preshow has been well documented. But suffice it to say that, with Wally Cox as a regular in the show’s formative years, Squares influenced every game show from Match Game to the Gong Show to Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? After Squares, game shows had to be funny, and Wally Cox was a big part of establishing that comedic tone, not only for Squares but for game shows that followed.
Of course, Wally Cox did not exist in a vacuum. Also noteworthy is the tradition that Wally Cox carried on. Cox is a forgotten heir to the Chaplin line of comic character, that tragic little man who triumphs against overwhelming odds by sheer purity of soul and cleverness of wit, even if success means only one more day of survival. Willing to dream in a world that has cast dreams aside, a gentle expression of his will standing up to great adversity; how like Chaplin greats City Lights or The Gold Rush does Wally Cox’s minor work Ralph Makes Good seem in retrospect.
To read Cox’s autobiographical My Life As A Young Boy is to see a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life. One might think it the supple, philosophical work of O. Henry or Will Rogers. Rogers said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Wally Cox wrote, “Hurt a minimum of people.” The gentle misanthropy of that line recalls Mark Twain and Twain’s inspirations Benjamin Franklin and Davy Crockett.
Cox also liked to say, “Walk softly and carry a little twig.” Wally Cox; forgotten comedy genius, TV pioneer, patron saint of nerds and brainiacs everywhere, with generations of protégées to carry that little twig onward into the vast, funny darkness.