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Wally Cox was a little-known, 28-year-old actor when he made his first appearance as science teacher Robinson J. Peepers on July 3, 1952. The situation comedy, "Mr. Peepers," which a few months later would also introduce Tony Randall as history teacher, Harvey Westkit, remained on the air for three years, and firmly established the image the mild-mannered Cox would play for the rest of his career.

While Tony Randall would go on to have a long and successful career in movies and on television, including a long run with Jack Klugman as "The Odd Couple," Cox showed up only sporadically until his death in 1973, at the age of 48. Perhaps his biggest success after "Mr. Peppers," came from providing the voice of "Underdog," in a long-running animated series.

At the time of my interview with him, Wally Cox was doing a popular series of commercials for a laundry detergent. In person, Cox was very much like Mr. Peepers:

Akron Beacon Journal, May 31, 1964
The cheerful, chubby waitress spotted him and bounced across the room to meet him.

“Why . . . why . . . you’re Salvo!” she stammered before she broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggling.

“Tell me,” she pleaded when her giggling subsided, “do you use one tablet or to when you wash your clothes.”

“Depends, he replied, “if it’s a top-loading machine, use two tablets. If it’s a front-loading machine, use one. It tells you on the box.”

A scene from a commercial?

Heck, no. It was a typical scene in Cleveland recently when Wally Cox paid a two-day visit to “The Mike Douglas Show.”
It was also typical of the change that’s taken place in the image of the one-time Mr. Peepers, who has become better known as the man who sells the fortified detergent.

But TV’s detergent salesman and the science teacher from the old TV series have qualities in common. For one thing, each is approachable. The inquiring waitress is proof of that.

I interviewed Cox at a Cleveland restaurant, and our conversation attracted the restaurant hostess. We thought she had something to tell us, but, no, she was just eavesdropping and didn’t care who knew it. “I want to see if he really talks the ay he does on TV,” she said, giggling.

Another waitress came by and ordered Cox to sing “Happy Birthday” for one of the employees. That’s right — ordered him. She didn’t ask.

“Apparently I don’t frighten anyone,” said Cox. “I run into this everywhere I go.”

And there’s no reason he should frighten anyone. A TV executive once described Wally Cox as “the perfect milquetoast.”
Take a good look at Cox and you could well imagine that when he swats a fly, the fly swats back.

He talks so quietly and slowly it’s often difficult to hear him —
even at a distance of three feet. And if noise drowns out his voice, Cox doesn’t raise his voice. He waits for the noise to go away.

He seems too nice to intimidate people, probably the biggest reason strangers take chances with him they wouldn’t attempt with other celebrities.

Because of the way he was welcomed into the restaurant, our interview began with a brief discussion of his commercials

“I was reluctant to do them at first,” he said. “I always thought doing commercial was a good way to ruin a career. That’s all changed now. Everybody is doing them. A few people —Julia Meade, for one — have become successful as a result of doing commercials.”

A soothing factor, too, is the money. Cox says the detergent commercials account for half his annual income. “And they take up just two weeks of my time.”

Another plus is the commercials have done as much to popularize Wally Cox as any TV series could have. He has filmed 21 commercial in the past two years, and those minute-long segments are frequently funnier than most situation comedies. He will continue to do commercial as long as the detergent sales climb. If they level off, someone at the company may push the panic button, suggesting the Cox commercials be replaced by another ad campaign.

Meanwhile, Cox has been offered several ideas for television series, but he’s not buying any.

“I’m allergic to repetition . . . needless repetition, anyway, and that’ all you get in a TV series. I did 100 episodes of ‘Mr. Peepers.’ That was about 99 too many,” he said.

His reluctance to attempt a series is costing him a lot of money each year, but Cox says he’d rather pursue a movie career despite the rough going in that end of show business.

“I’ve been in four movies so far,” he said. “I haven’t been overwhelmed with offers because, for one thing, I live in Connecticut. That way I miss those parties around Hollywood swimming pools where movies are cast. I’m thinking about taking my family to the West Coast to live, but so far I haven't made a decision.

“I’ve learned you’re closer to New York in California than you are to California in New York. I mean, if you’re not in California, people just forget you. But if you’re not in New York, people there just assume you’re in California.

“Things are rough for me movie-wise because, as one man put it, I’m not ‘financeable.’ There are only a few stars that people are willing to advance money for. Needless to say, I’m not one of them.”
Thus far Wally Co’s movie roles have been small. He is attempting to remedy the situation by writing movie script for himself. Naturally, he’d be the star.

“I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. I had always wanted to write, but didn’t get started until six years ago when I wrote a book, ‘My Life as a Small Child.’ The book was fairly simple to write because it was all about me. I used to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and have my mind go blank. It was like all of a sudden I had gotten completely stupid.

“I developed another case of blank mind after I finished my book, but resumed writing after I got a part in ‘Spencer’s Mountain,’ a movie that attracted hardly any attention. We filmed it in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a beautiful place. I had a wonderful time, and everything about it made me feel very much alive.

“I had plenty of time on my hands between scenes and usually I’d go some place and sit and write. I wrote on any paper I could get my hands on. I wrote seven short stories on the back of my movie script alone.”

Cox was born in Detroit and broke into show business as a nightclub comic. He settled in New York City after World War Two and switched from nightclubs to acting on radio and TV. His big break came as a result his role in “The Copper,” an October, 1951, presentation on “Goodyear Playhouse,” in which he played a rookie policeman to impress the daughter (Pat Carroll) or a tough police sergeant (Ernie Borgnine).

That performance was instrumental in Cox being name “most promising TV star of the year.” He began hot property who was measured for a series.

“At first I was supposed to play a rookie cop,” he said. “Then someone suggested I play a priest. The idea was to establish a profession from which I could get into as many situations as possible in the community. Finally, it was decided to have me play a high school science teacher. That’s how ‘Mr. Peepers’ was born.” Patricia Benoit, Tony Randall and Marion Lorne also were featured in the series that ran from 1952-55.

Cox went from "Mr. Peeper"s back to nightclubs and then into a series called “The Adventures of Hiram Holliday.”

That program flopped, but Cox wasn’t exactly crushed by the failure. The show had gotten him a three-year contract with NBC, and for the last two years of the agreement he collected $1,000 a week for doing nothing.

Which is an appropriate background for a guy who now does commercials.

Little known at the time of my interview with Cox that one of his closest friends — perhaps the closest friend — was his former roommate, Marlon Brando, then one of America's most respected actors and a leading man still a few years from resembling a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Trying to picture Cox and Brando sharing an apartment during their early days in New York is as funny as watching Randall and Klugman (or Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, for that matter) in "The Odd Couple." Which reminds me, one of Cox's last television appearances was on "The Odd Couple" in 1972 when he played a member of a writing class in which Randall (as Felix Unger) also was enrolled.

Cox was married three times — to Marilyn Gennaro (1954-61), Milagros Tirado Fink (1963-66) and Patricia Tiernan from 1967 until his death. Cause of death was listed as an accidental overdose of sedatives, but Brando claimed the actual reason was a heart attack.

Cox was cremated, as was Brando in 2004. Brando had kept Cox's ashes all that time, and those ashes were scattered with Brando's in Death Valley, California, in 2004.

 
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