From 1961 through 1966, Mister Ed, CBS’s talking horse on a weekly fantasy/situation comedy, led his disgruntled owner, the architect Wilbur Post, on a series of escapades. Alan Young played Wilbur Post, while the late Western movie star Allan “Rocky” Lane provided Mister Ed’s voice. The series was a huge sensation with kids and adults alike, who tuned in to see what would happen next in the adventures of a talking, super-smart palomino.
Based on the success of Francis the Talking Mule in the movies, Mister Ed was the first non-cartoon talking animal to appear on network television. Short stories by Walter Brooks about his intelligent equine creation, Mister Ed, were first featured in the Saturday Evening Post and Liberty magazine. Director Arthur Lubin, who had previously helmed six of Universal Pictures’ seven Francis the Talking Mule pictures, was made aware of these tales.
Lubin thought it would be a good idea to bring the talking horse Mister Ed to television, so he bought an option on the idea in 1957. Lubin was able to secure $75,000 in funding to make a pilot the next year from McCadden Productions, the business owned by comedian George Burns. Scott McKay and Sandra White were originally cast in the episode, and a different horse than Mister Ed was used in production. Unfortunately, neither a network nor a sponsor was interested in the pilot.
Al Simon, president of Filmways TV Productions, was seen as the pilot at some point. Simon saw several flaws in the production, but he thought the pilot had great promise as a TV situation comedy. Alan Young, Connie Hines, and a new horse were cast as the leads in a revival of the Mister Ed story.
The show’s new cast members and the best moments from the original pilot were compiled into a 15-minute presentation film. Studebaker was interested in partnering with a unique television show, and Filmways presented the idea to them. Mister Ed was set to premiere in October of 1960, and the automaker had already committed to becoming the show’s syndication sponsor.
By the time the Studebaker purchase went through, the second horse that had played Mister Ed in the presentation picture had been sold. Lester Hilton, the show’s trainer, was tasked with finding a replacement horse for the lead role with barely a month left before filming began. Bamboo Harvester, Hilton’s Golden Palomino, was born and raised on a farm in the San Fernando Valley, where Hilton discovered him.
Filmways spent $1,500 for the 15-hand bay horse that weighed 1,100 pounds and had a price tag of $1,500. In order to teach Bamboo Harvester, Hilton transported him to his property. Hilton trained the smart horse to do tricks like opening the stable door, retrieving a file, and even dialing a phone using only hand signals and verbal commands.
It only took Bamboo Harvester 15 minutes to memorize a scenario and it only required 20 to 25 words in order. The ability to communicate was by far the most impressive aspect of Bamboo Harvester’s transformation into Mister Ed.
The trainer employed the same method on Mister Ed that he had done on Francis the Talking Mule, with whom Hilton had experience. Hilton used a length of nylon fishing line that ran into the horse’s mouth as a bridle. While the trainer pulled on the line, Bamboo Harvester moved his lips to try to free himself, giving the impression that he was speaking.
Allan “Rocky” Lane, one of the most famous cowboys of the late 1940s and early 1950s, provided the deep, baritone voice of Mister Ed. Together, Lane and Black Jack had starred in 38 Republic Pictures westerns, with Lane twice being named one of the top ten Western earners of all time. After replacing Wild Bill Elliott as the comic strip cowboy in seven films in the Red Ryder series, Lane was offered his own film franchise as “Rocky” Lane.
Once the popularity of the “B” Western began to dwindle in the ’50s, Lane struggled to find work and had to settle for bit parts until he was cast as the voice of Mister Ed. Lane, embarrassed to be credited as the voice of a horse, asked that Mister Ed be credited simply as “Himself” in the show’s credits, furthering the impression that the horse actually spoke.
In January of 1961, the first of 26 episodes of Mister Ed debuted on 115 stations around the country. The show’s success in its first season led CBS to pick it up for their fall 1961 Sunday program, when it made its premiere on October 1. From 1962 to 1965, Bamboo Harvester received an annual PATSY Award for their great performance in Mister Ed. The PATSY (Performing Animal Top Stars of the Year) Award, presented by the American Humane Association, is often considered the “Oscar” of the animal world.
In the middle of the 1966 season, CBS canceled Mister Ed, and it quickly moved into syndication. After his retirement, Bamboo Harvester went to spend his days at Lester Hilton’s property. The horse died in 1968. Mister Ed’s antic footprints can be seen all throughout American society. Not only did he prove the intelligence of animals, but his charming antics also helped elevate the status of animal actors in Hollywood and on television.