Chuck McCann, comic actor and popular kids TV host, dies at 83

Chuck McCann, the goofy, good-natured comedian and TV host who was a hero to kids of all ages in and around New York City in the 1960s before he jumped into films, network television and commercials, has died. He was 83.

McCann died Sunday of congestive heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, publicist Edward Lozzi told The Hollywood Reporter.

With his cherubic face and ever-present grin, McCann epitomized fun. If the situation called for a goofy supporting character, he was your guy. An entertainment jack-of-all-trades, McCann worked as a kids show host, puppeteer, star of commercials, nightclub comic, movie actor, voiceover performer and celebrity impersonator.

The portly New York native had a key supporting role in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) and starred in the low-budget fantasy film The Projectionist (1971), appeared on scores of TV shows and did a spot-on imitation of comedy legend Oliver Hardy. (He was a founding member, along with actor Orson Bean, of the Sons of the Desert, the international fan club dedicated to celebrating Laurel & Hardy.)

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"I did everything," McCann told in a 2007 interview. "I never closed doors. If you look at my career — if I had one — I never think of it as a career, I just look at it as things I love to do. I have just as much fun doing a 30-second commercial as I do making a movie."

In fact, one of McCann's most memorable roles came in a series of TV spots for Right Guard throughout the 1970s and '80s.

Sharing a medicine cabinet with his neighbor on the other side of the bathroom wall, McCann would bellow a cheerful "Hi Guy!" from behind the glass shelves to the stunned bathrobed guy next door. McCann would then go on to extol the benefits of this particular brand of spray-on deodorant.

McCann also created the voice of Sonny the Cuckoo Bird for General Mills' Cocoa Puffs TV commercials. His loony intonation of "I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" endeared the character to generations of cereal lovers.

McCann credited famed New York kids show host Sandy Becker for giving him a big break in the mid-1950s when they two worked together on a kids show for WABD-TV, Channel 5, then a DuMont network station.

"One day he called me over and said he was going and he wanted me to take over the show," McCann told Steve Fritz in a 2006 article for Animated Shorts. "At first, I couldn't believe he was talking to me. I said, 'Me?' and he said, 'Yeah.' Then I started to think about it. So I said, 'When do I start?' He said, 'Well, today's Friday. So you start Monday.'

"I said, 'Well, where are you going?' and he turned around and said, 'South America. You start at 7 in the morning. So long!' The elevator doors close, and off he went. That was my baptism by fire. The first day was just disastrous. It was hell on earth. It was also fun. It was really fun."

Becker also introduced McCann to Paul Ashley. The master puppeteer took McCann under his wing, teaching him everything there was to know about the craft. Starting with Rootie Kazootie in the 1950s, the pair collaborated well into the '60s.

Chuck McCann was born in New York City on Sept. 2, 1934. His grandfather performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and his father, Val McCann, was a big band leader who served as the music arranger at New York's Roxy Theatre.

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McCann liked to say that he grew up in the orchestra pit in that place. His time at the Roxy exposed him to the top comedians of the day, and he fondly remembered when Lou Costello treated him to ice cream.

Val McCann also had a running gig with CBS Radio, and during one of his appearances there, a director spotted Chuck and offered him a job doing voice-overs. McCann was 7 at the time, and he worked steadily in radio into his teens.

While attending Andrew Jackson High School, McCann would keep his classmates in stitches with his impersonations, and he appeared in nightclubs in and around Manhattan and Long Island. He then helped create Wonderama, a much-loved Sunday morning show that Becker hosted.

In November 1959, McCann started on The Puppet Hotel, a Saturday morning show that emanated from WNTA-TV in Newark, N.J. He hosted the program and played the befuddled desk clerk of a hotel populated by puppets created by Ashley.

Later, McCann manned the three-hour show Let's Have Fun on Sunday mornings, pretty much doing everything. One of his bits was to read the comics, dressed as the strip's character, from the day's newspaper. Among his favorites were Dondi, Dick Tracy, Superman and The Lone Ranger. His Little Orphan Annie — complete with big, blank white eyes (which he created by using a pair of coffee creamer containers) — was a classic.

And then, starting in 1963, every afternoon from Monday to Friday, he also headed The Chuck McCann Show. Like Let's Have Fun, it ran on WPIX-TV, Channel 11, so McCann was on that station seven days a week.

His final local TV endeavor was Chuck McCann's Laurel & Hardy TV Show, which debuted in 1966 on WNEW-TV, Channel 5. Featuring Laurel & Hardy animated cartoons created by Hanna-Barbera, the series gave McCann the opportunity to do his Oliver Hardy imitation. (Ashley played Stan Laurel.)

McCann had spent hours on the phone when he was a 12-year-old in Queens trying to locate Laurel, who lived in Santa Monica. Much to the youngster's surprise, Laurel answered the phone one day, and the two talked for hours. It led to a friendship that lasted until Laurel's death in 1965. (Hardy had died in 1957.)

One of McCann's first network television appearances was playing Hardy opposite Dick Van Dyke on a 1958 episode of The Garry Moore Show. The following year, he was Hardy to Tom Poston's Laurel on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show.

In the '80s, he teamed with comedian Jim MacGeorge to re-create the duo in commercial spots for Arby's, Tony's Pizza and Anco Wiper Blades.

For a brief time, McCann also appeared on The Captain Kangaroo Show as Sailor Clyde.

In a more serious role, McCann made his film debut in 1968 in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the adaptation of Carson McCullers' best-selling novel that starred Alan Arkin. The drama saw McCann tackle the difficult role of Spiros Antonapoulos, a mentally disabled man who is mute.

The only feature starring role of McCann's career came in the quirky The Projectionist, written and directed by Harry Hurwitz, in which he played an introvert who spends his days holed up in the tiny projection booth of a New York movie house.

The Projectionist gave McCann the opportunity to show off his talent for mimicry. Staring at pictures of the Hollywood stars that lined the booth, the projectionist let his imagination run wild, imitating the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Wallace Beery and yes, Laurel & Hardy. McCann also got to play an imaginary superhero, Captain Flash.

(The Projectionist also marked the movie debut of Rodney Dangerfield, who played McCann's condescending boss.)

McCann's film résumé also included Play It as It Lays (1972), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Linda Lovelace for President (1975), Silent Movie (1976), Foul Play (1978), C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979), Ladybugs (1992), Storyville (1992), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).

McCann was a castmember of Turn On, producer George Schlatter's ill-fated 1969 attempt to go one step further than his sensational hit, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Convoluted and unfunny, Turn On was canceled after one episode.

In 1975, McCann teamed with Bob Denver for the CBS family sitcom Far Out Space Nuts. Along with Earl Doud and Sid & Marty Kroft, McCann created the slapstick series about two bumbling maintenance workers who accidently get launched into space.

McCann also had recurring roles on Santa Barbara, Knots Landing and Boston Legal (as Judge Byron Fudd) and guest-starred on such shows as Bonanza, The Bob Newhart Show, Columbo, Kojak, Little House on the Prairie, Starsky & Hutch, The Rockford Files, One Day at a Time, St. Elsewhere, Diff'rent Strokes, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Mad About You.

When he wasn't in front of the camera, McCann lent his voice to projects. He was part of the cast of the big-selling album The First Family, Vaughn Meader's 1962 satire of President Kennedy and his entourage, and he did voices for NBC's Cool McCool, a 1966-69 animated spoof of James Bond co-created by Bob Kane of Batman fame.

McCann's animation credits also included Pac-Man, G.I. Joe, The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, DuckTales, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Where's Waldo?, Animaniacs, Fantastic Four (as the voice of Ben Grimm/The Thing) and The Powerpuff Girls.

McCann married Betty Fanning, a former William Morris executive, in 1977 and had three children from his previous marriage.