Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hal Smith, Alias Otis Campbell, Massena’s Shining Star (conclusion)

In 1964, plans were made to celebrate the success of Massena’s nationally famous friend with a special event: Hal Smith Day. Virtually every business and every family in town became involved in the planning, with such crowds expected that tickets and reservations for many events were in hot demand.

Included in the festivities were a group breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a royal welcome that featured a crown made of (what else?) aluminum from the local plant; a visit to the hospital, where he entertained patients; an autograph session at a vacant store transformed by area merchants into a replica of the Mayberry jail; all-day limousine service; band music at several venues; the theater playing movies that Hal appeared in, and autographs for each attendee; a reunion with old schoolmates; induction as a member of the St. Regis Indians; and at the Highland Hotel that night, Hal appeared in the floor show.

It was without a doubt one of the greatest days of his life. For a man who earned a wonderful living with his voice, he was left nearly speechless when several dignitaries and old friends spoke his praises early in the day. Deeply moved, he replied, “All that I can say is thank you. I can’t keep back the tears.”

Reporter Leonard Prince’s comment in the Massena Observer said it all: “It was like old home week in Massena. He was humble, he was gracious, he was entertaining. People laughed themselves into hysterics, and people cried.”

In the same newspaper, columnist Anthony Romeo closed with, “Massena has a big heart and remembers the things it should remember. Hal Smith’s remark when it was concluded: ‘I was never more exhausted or more happy in my whole life,’ — this with tears trickling down his face.”

Hal thanked everyone repeatedly, and followed up with a letter to Town Supervisor Walter Bayer after returning to California. “Dear Walter: Having seen your picture in the paper so much and after having met you, I feel that we are old friends. It was such a thrill for me to be in Massena and have such a great honor bestowed upon me. Thank you for the many hours of hard work you put in to make it a success. My family and I are still talking about it and will for many years. Thanks again. Very sincerely, Hal.”

Despite one of the busiest schedules in Hollywood, Hal was again back in Massena a year later — quietly this time, staying at a local inn while visiting with friends and family. He had just completed a week-long stint at Butler University’s Hilton Brown Theater in Indianapolis, where he played the ship’s captain, Andy Hawkes, in a traveling production of Show Boat. The accompanying program literature said he had been in show business for 43 years, and described him as “a pioneer in the field of broadcasting, having been active in the media for 28 years.”

Several months later, as he did so often, Hal hosted Massenans who were out West as part of a vacation trip, offering them a brief look at Hollywood from the inside. They also saw episodes of the popular West Coast children’s show, The Pancake Man, sponsored by IHOP and starring their good friend, Hal Smith.

In 1966, he was honored again in the North Country, this time by selection as King of the Winter Carnival at Old Forge, where his elderly parents had resided for the past 20 years. The event coincided with a world tour touting the musical, Show Boat. After the carnival, Hal joined the traveling troupe for a Toronto performance before heading off to stops that included London, Moscow, and Hawaii.

Despite the fact that he had been in show business all his life and performed nearly nonstop since leaving high school, Hal’s next quarter-century of life alone would have constituted an excellent career for any actor. While still voicing parts in many famous cartoons that he had begun doing in the 1960s, there were many new roles in series and specials during the ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s. Besides playing Disney’s Goofy for 25 years, he was on Garfield, Casper, Popeye, Richie Rich, The Smurfs, and spent 17 years working on Winnie the Pooh, portraying Owl and often covering Winnie as well. Along with numerous other voice roles, he appeared in shows like The Odd Couple, Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, The Brady Bunch, Highway to Heaven, Sesame Street, Hollywood Squares, and The Streets of San Francisco.

He also did commercials for hundreds of products. Bell Telephone, Chicken of the Sea, General Mills, Green Giant, Hickory Farms, Ivory Soap, Mattel, Pizza Hut, and Toyota are just a few of the companies he provided with voices or on-screen characters.

But in the eyes of the public, his greatest claim to fame was portraying Otis Campbell. He was so good at it that many fans assumed he was a heavy consumer of alcohol, but friends and Hal himself said he was nothing more than a social drinker at best. He was not a teetotaler, as some websites indicate — he was simply a very good actor. Typecasting only affected him for a brief period, and he never regretted playing Otis, but instead embraced the character for the remainder of his career. More than once he made the comment, “It’s the best kind of drunk a man can be. It pays well and you never get a hangover.”

The Andy Griffith Show ran from 1960 to 1968, with Otis Campbell appearing intermittently, and sometimes entire episodes focusing on his character. While some sources say he appeared about 32 times, Hal himself said that Otis was in “46 or 48” episodes. He also joined in more than a half-dozen cast reunions since the show went off the air. In 1986, when the TV movie Return to Mayberry aired, many of the regulars, including Hal, took part. Because of concerns about portraying excessive drinking as somehow acceptable, Otis had become an ice-cream-truck driver. He was also much slimmer, having shed the extra weight that the character once carried. In the future, he filmed advertisements for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), opening the spots briefly as an inebriated Otis before looking soberly into the camera and cautioning viewers against the dangers of drinking and driving.

In 1988, Hal was honored in Nashville by TAGSRWC (just for kicks, stop reading here for a moment to try deciphering that unusual acronym). Now that you’ve most likely failed (but kudos if you got it), the letters stand for The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club. It started as a joke among some college guys who were rabid fans of the show, but grew to a membership of more than 14,000. At least ten of the chapters chose names related to Hal’s character. On this special occasion, the Vanderbilt University chapter sponsored Otis Campbell Day, complete with a lecture by Hal, interviews, an Otis Campbell lookalike contest, and deputization of Hal by the Nashville Sheriff’s Department.

After a long and successful career, Hal died in January 1994 at the age of 77. According to his manager, Smith suffered a heart attack at his home and passed away while listening to a radio drama, the very type of show he worked on before breaking into television in the 1950s. He lives on today through reruns, not only of The Andy Griffith Show, but of thousands of episodes of other shows in which he voiced characters or appeared in person—a wonderful legacy from a wonderful man who made Massena, New York, so proud.

Perhaps the village might take a cue from Jamestown, New York, and how they honor Lucille Ball (if you’re a Lucy fan, you really should make the trip). After all, both I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show are considered landmark series and often appear in top-ten lists of the all-time best comedy shows. A statue of Otis Campbell and an annual Hal Smith week, say, in August, would give tourists and locals alike the opportunity to fondly honor his memory and the pleasure he brought to millions.

(A nod goes to Tracy Negus Robertson, whom Jill and I met when we were guests at TAUNY in Canton in early December. While perusing one of my books, she noticed a story about a character from The Andy Griffith Show, Arnold Winkler, who was played by a child actor from Plattsburgh. She mentioned that Otis was from Massena, and that started me digging, which culminated in this five-part review of his remarkable life. Thanks, Tracy!)

Photos: Hal Smith; 1966 headline; one of Smith’s appearances on the Brady Bunch

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

Tags: , ,

7 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    I can’t say enough, Larry, of how much my family and I enjoyed this series on Hal Smith. Is there a book in the future??
    I hope Massena folks consider a ‘Hal Smith Day.’ We’d be there!

  2. Dick Carlson says:

    Excellent piece! Thanks!

  3. Larry says:

    Terry and Dick … thanks very much for the nice comments. I don’t expect to do a book about him, but after enjoying the Lucille Ball exhibits in Jamestown, I’d love to see how Massena could “do it up” for Otis.

  4. pat says:

    A very enjoyable story. Thanks, Larry, for your time-consuming, detailed research. I haven’t watched the Andy Griffith Show in decades, since my childhood, but I do remember Otis. Yes, I hope Massena devotes a memorial to him. It might be worth a visit.

  5. Larry says:

    Thank you Pat. We still enjoy reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. Despite Hal’s great characterization of the town drunk, I’m always reminded when I see him that he was so much more in real life.

  6. Bob says:

    I enjoyed reading all about Hal Smith, Larry. I’ve also
    read many of your short stories of the people an places
    of the Adirondacks. Keep up the good work. I think, as
    someone had suggested, you should put together a book
    of short stories.


  7. Larry says:

    Thanks very much, Bob. I wasn’t sure if you were joking at first when you suggested a book of short stories on “people and places of the Adirondacks.” We actually just released Volume 7 of our ongoing series, “People & Places of the Adirondacks & Foothills.” Each volume contains 200 pages of stories. You can find those books in our online store and can view the contents of each volume.
    Maybe we can agree that great minds think alike!