Arnold Stang, a character actor whose bespectacled, owlish face and nasal urban twang gave him a singular and recognizable persona, whether on radio or television, in the movies or in advertisements, or even in cartoons, died on Sunday in Newton, Mass. He was 91 and lived in Needham, Mass.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son, David.
Mr. Stang considered himself a dramatic actor who could play serious roles. But even he was aware that with his signature heavy glasses and a manner that could be eagerly solicitous, despondently whiny or dare-you-to-hit-me pugnacious, his forte was comedy.
Like Wally Cox, who was a friend, and Don Knotts, Mr. Stang was a natural for roles requiring a milquetoast, a pest or a nerd. At 5 foot 3 and never much more than 100 pounds, he once said of himself, “I look like a frightened chipmunk who’s been out in the rain too long.” And in a story he frequently told, after an auto accident in 1959 that left him needing extensive plastic surgery, he said to the doctor, “For God’s sake, don’t make me look pretty.”
His memorable moments as an actor were oddly varied signposts of popular culture. He was the spokesman for Chunky, the candy bar, in the 1950s, delivering the slogan: “Chunky! What a chunk o’ chocolate!”
In Otto Preminger’s 1955 film about drug addiction, “The Man With the Golden Arm,” he played Frank Sinatra’s pal Sparrow in a performance that is often cited as a precursor of Dustin Hoffman’s turn as Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy.”
On “Top Cat,” the animated television series of the early 1960s, he was the voice of T. C., a k a Top Cat himself, the leader of a mischievous cat gang. (The character was based on Phil Silvers’s Sergeant Bilko.)
He was one of two gas station attendants (Marvin Kaplan was the other) who witness the destruction of their station by Jonathan Winters in the 1963 lunatic film comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
Most sources indicate that Mr. Stang was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1925, but according to his family, though he had relatives in Chelsea, he was born in Manhattan on Sept. 28, 1918. His father was a lawyer until the 1929 stock market crash and earned a living afterward as a salesman.
The Chelsea story was one Mr. Stang perpetuated himself; he told interviewers that he got his first job in radio in 1934 at age 9 after he wrote to “Let’s Pretend,” a New York children’s radio show, and asked for an audition. Told he could audition when he was next in New York, he took the bus from Boston, alone, the following Saturday and was hired.
“We were married 60 years and I never managed to get him to correct that,” his wife, JoAnne Stang, said in an interview Monday.
The truth, Ms. Stang said, was that her husband grew up mostly in Brooklyn and graduated from New Utrecht High School. He wrote the note asking for an audition from Brooklyn, and he was older than 9.
He began his show business career as a teenager — his first radio appearances were on the shows “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” and “Let’s Pretend” — and he went on to perform on dozens of radio programs in the 1930s and ’40s, including soap operas, mysteries and comedies, and was often called on to play more than one role.
He was probably best known at the time for “The Goldbergs,” the long-running family series set in Bronx on which he played the character Seymour Fingerhood, the teenage neighbor to the title family, and later as a sidekick to stars like Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and especially Milton Berle.
Mr. Stang was a regular on “The Henry Morgan Show,” a showcase for Morgan’s astringent satire, often playing a complaining, goofball New Yorker named Gerard who traded banter and one-liners with the host. After Berle moved his radio show to television, Mr. Stang appeared from 1953 to 1955, bringing along his character, Francis, a pain-in-the-neck stagehand who bugged the star relentlessly.
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1949 (Wally Cox, a skilled goldsmith, made their wedding rings, she said), and his son, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Stang is survived by a daughter, Deborah Stang, of Brighton, Mass., and two granddaughters.
Mr. Stang landed on Broadway three times, the last being a revival of “The Front Page” in 1969. He was a regular on the 1960s comedy “Broadside,” a short-lived, distaff version of “McHale’s Navy,” and was a guest star on numerous series, including “Bonanza,” “Batman” and “The Cosby show.”
He was also the voice of many cartoon characters, including Nurtle the Turtle in the 1965 film “Pinocchio in Outer Space.” Other film credits include Otto Preminger’s 1968 gangster comedy “Skidoo,” with Jackie Gleason; “Hercules in New York” (1970), a comedy with Arnold Schwarzenegger; and “Dennis the Menace” (1993), with Walter Matthau.
“He loved the cartoons, and he liked doing commercials, too,” Ms. Stang said of her husband. “But most of all, he loved radio. It offered him such a span of roles.”
Born: 9/28/1918, Manhattan, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 12/20/2009, Newton, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Arnold Stang's westerns - actor:
Wagon Train (TV) - 1961 (Ah Chong)
Bonanza (TV) - 1961 (Jake 'The Weasel')