Although on screen he was the quintessential seven-stone weakling, Arnold Stang, who has died aged 93, brought considerable nuance to such roles. "I look like a frightened chipmunk who's been out in the rain too long," was his own description, but his performance as Sparrow, the dedicated side-kick to Frank Sinatra's junkie in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), is generally considered to have been an influence on Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy; indeed, it's easy to see, in an earlier era, Hoffman being fitted for horn-rimmed glasses and being stereotyped into milquetoast roles too.
Though Stang's default voice was a nasally Brooklynese, he could make it edgier and stronger, versatile enough to play a variety of roles in radio and in animation voice-overs, including a long run as the eponymous hero in Top Cat, the successful cartoon homage to Sgt Bilko. Among American baby-boomers, he might be best remembered as the star of commericals for Chunky chocolate bars, in which he exclaimed with fervour "what a chunka chocolate!"
Stang was born in New York in 1918 and raised in Brooklyn, though he claimed to have come from Boston's Chelsea area to New York aged nine for his first radio audition. Even so, he was working on the children's show Let's Pretend and on the Horn & Hardart's Children's Hour before he was a teenager. He played the obnoxious teenaged neighbour Seymour Fingerhood on the very popular series The Goldbergs. He debuted on Broadway aged 14 in All in Favor, and it was on stage that he met Milton Berle. After stints on radio comedies with the likes of Berle, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny, Stang played an adult version of the Seymour character, called Gerald, on the very popular Henry Morgan Show.
He debuted in Hollywood films in 1942 with an uncredited role in the Rosalind Russell vehicle My Sister Eileen, then was billed in the "Great Gildersleeve" comedy Seven Days' Leave, but his film work would always be sporadic. However, he became the cartoon voice of Popeye's friend Shorty, and then Herman ("Hoiman") the Mouse, in the Herman and Katnip series, a sort of low-budget Tom and Jerry.
In 1949 Stang married JoAnne Taggart and joined a TV series called The School House. His biggest TV role would come on Berle's Texaco Star Theater as an obnoxious stagehand who constantly heckled the star. He appeared in the TV version of The Goldbergs, and in December Bride, but also guested on variety programmes and was a popular game-show panellist. He featured in a number of off-beat dramatic roles, most memorably as a Chinese man called Ah Chong in the Western series Wagon Train. He appeared in anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and The Dick Powell Show, guested as a character called Jake the Weasel in an episode of Bonanza, and was a regular on a navy comedy called Broadside.
In 1954 Stang noted that on radio he had "played roles completely unlike my appearance, including romantic leads, and I'd like to try that in television." But at 5ft 3in, and barely over 100lbs, he was even smaller than Alan Ladd, and such roles never materialised. Indeed, when he was involved in a serious car accident in 1959, Stang allegedly told the plastic surgeons, "for God's sake, don't make me look pretty."
His most memorable film role came in Stanley Kramer's 1963 attempt at an all-star comedy, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Stang and Marvin Kramer play the owners of a desert garage which is destroyed by Jonathan Winters, in pursuit of Phil Silvers. Stang played the scene despite having broken his arm, and if you watch closely you can spot his cast, and the way he protects the arm hanging limply at his side. His oddest role may have been as Pretzie, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Austrian's film debut, Hercules in New York (1970).
Stang continued mixing television comedy, commercials, and animation voice-overs, though he remained trapped as the Chunky guy to the general public. He appeared in Dennis the Menace and with Bill Cosby in the 90s, and in the 1995 TV special The Buick Berle Show, 1954. His last credits came voicing multiple characters on the animated series Courage the Cowardly Dog, between 1999 and 2002.
Arnold Stang, actor: born New York City 28 September 1918; married 1949 JoAnne Taggart (one son, one daughter); died Needham, Massachusetts 20 December 2009.Reuse content