Monday, January 16, 2017

Hal Smith, Massena’s Shining Star (Part 4)

Hal Smith‘s heavy workload was more than paying the bills, and in 1952 he began building a home in the San Fernando Valley. Bit parts in so many TV shows led to appearances in multiple episodes of popular programs like Broken Arrow and Have Gun, Will Travel, and countless opportunities in the world of commercial advertising. For several years he was too busy to get away often, so in late 1959, instead of visiting his parents in Old Forge, he flew to Detroit to buy a new Dodge, drove to the Adirondacks, and brought them back to California for a six-month stay.

Constant work, smart money management, and wise investments culminated in great financial and professional success for Hal, with 1960 definable as a banner year. In modern times, most people know him as Otis Campbell, the lovable town drunk he began portraying that year on The Andy Griffith Show. Much less is generally known about his “other” career as a voice artist, based on skills he developed in high school and on radio shows. Most of us didn’t know that many of the voices we heard in 1960’s cartoons like Quick Draw McGraw, The Bugs Bunny Show, The Flintstones (he was the original Barney), The Yogi Bear Show, The Jetsons, Magilla Gorilla, Mr. Magoo, The Road Runner Show, Scooby Doo (portraying five characters), The Pink Panther Show, and others were provided by Hal Smith.

During the same period, he played roles in many major television shows like Bonanza, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, The Lucy Show, The Red Skelton Show, Hogan’s Heroes, and (most fittingly, considering the large Alcoa plant at Massena) Alcoa Premier Theater. He was also the on-camera spokesman or voice artist for many advertising campaigns that were widely distributed. Of all the people in show business, he was one actor never wanting for work.

While he mixed and acted and hung out with some of Hollywood’s most famous stars, one thing never changed: he was still good old Hal Smith from the North Country. Late in 1960, he responded to a letter from the Massena town clerk, confirming details about his successful career and how it had enhanced his personal life. Hal had long vowed that, unlike many actors, he would save his money, spend wisely, and avoid going broke. Real estate investments that paid off handsomely kept him true to his word.  At that time, his acting gigs alone brought in well over $50,000 a year (equal to about $400,000 in 2017). He owned a large home in Santa Monica just 800 feet from the beach; a catamaran powered by two large motors, and with room to sleep six in the large cabin; and a second home in the California mountains. Life was pretty darned good, and he loved it.

For Massena folks looking to see him on TV, his letter to the clerk mentioned recent appearances on Dennis the Menace, Leave it to Beaver, Route 66, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and a half dozen other programs. New endeavors that year also included three commercials for Three Musketeers Bars and five for Adolph’s Tenderizer; voicing Elmer Fudd for Kellogg’s in the new fall Bugs Bunny show; and providing several voices (including Goliath) for the new Davey & Goliath “Claymation” series.

By the mid-1960s, his financial success was the envy of many fellow actors. Just one endeavor — voicing several characters in a new animated series — brought in $25,000 annually (about $192,000 in 2017). On radio and television combined, he was doing more than 100 commercials a year. There were also several lucrative investments: profits from valuable land he owned near Los Angeles; a second home that brought in substantial rent; an apartment house in Van Nuys; and other California acreage that was being subdivided. A three-acre lot he purchased a decade earlier for $8,500 sold in the early 1960s for $139,000 ($1.1 million in 2017).

Near Yreka, close to the state’s northern border, he owned 400 acres on the Klamath River, where he planned to raise cattle, alfalfa, and eventually thoroughbred horses. Besides the large family home he built there, Hal was working on plans to construct a sportsman’s lodge, complete with 40 rooms, 8 cabins, and a landing strip for private planes. Although he wasn’t one of acting’s most famous stars, constantly working and carefully investing had made him very comfortable.

Popular in show-business circles, wealthy, and known to millions through his work, Hal remained a down-to-earth, all-round nice guy who still called Massena home, visiting there on several occasions. In both 1961 and 1962, he spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays in St. Lawrence County. At the height of his fame as Otis Campbell, he made a trip back home in 1963 to reminisce with old friends, including Joe Calipari, his former band mate. Turning back the clock, Hal even took the stage and sang with the band at a performance in Ogdensburg.

He was also an excellent host when local folks vacationed out West. As his good friend and supporter Anthony Romeo wrote in his Massena Observer column, “Many people do reach the heights, but many forget the folks they knew back home. We have had reports recently of Massena people visiting the West Coast. They tell us of the warm treatment they received at the hands of Hal. He has not lost his amiability or his geniality, and above all, his humility.” In recent years, Hal had, in fact, hosted a number of Massenans on several occasions, sharing his home with them and providing studio tours, which sometimes involved meeting famous actors from movies and television. It was great fun for all.

Next: Hal Smith, the conclusion. (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 as Otis; 1965 Massena movie advertisement mentioning Hal Smith; Hal Smith as Otis

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.

2 Responses

  1. Terry says:

    The tales of Hal keep getting better, Larry!
    We can’t wait until next week’s concluding piece!
    Thanks for a very interesting series.

  2. Larry says:

    Thanks Terry. Your nice comments are very much appreciated.