Mr. Ed, the talking horse, was a staple of my childhood. The series ran from 1961 to 1966 — so I must have watched it a bit later than that, but I was still young enough for it to be magical. And not entirely unbelievable.
“A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course. That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.
Although it’s hard not to laugh at this show now, it was popular enough that 143 episodes were made. All in black and white, of course. The show was based on a series of short stories by Walter R. Brooks, which were first published in 1937. The concept also mirrored the Francis the Talking Mule movies (I remember those, too!). In both series, the horse/mule talks, but only to one person. The pilot episode was funded by comedian George Burns for $70,000 — the equivalent of $586,961 today.
Mister Ed was played by gelding Bamboo Harvester and voiced by Western film actor Allan Lane. Bamboo Harvester was half Saddlebred and half Arabian according to his papers. He was a successful show horse, as was his sire, Harvester. He was born in 1949 and died in 1970.
So, how did they get Bamboo Harvester to “talk?” When I was growing up, I heard they put peanut butter under his lip. That was the story circulated by Alan Young, who played Mr. Ed’s owner/confidante Wilbur Post. The truth is more interesting.
In his 2001 interview for the Archive of American Television, Alan Young revealed the secret. “Lester (Hilton, the horse trainer) had a knack. He used a soft nylon thread put under the lip (of Mr. Ed); and then he had the end going down the bridle, and you just gave it a little tug, and Ed tried to get rid of it; that was his cue.” But Ed was a smart horse. For the second year, he already knew it was expected of him to move his lips whenever Alan stopped talking and he frequently did. Sometimes he moved his mouth also when Alan was riding him.
It turns out that Bamboo Harvester was as much of a character as his television persona.
- Bamboo Harvester spent the first 11 years of his life as show horse. He was still a stallion when he was sold to Les Hilton.
- Bamboo Harvester had to be first all the time. The gelding was stabled next to Pumpkin, but if visitors went to his stunt double first, Bamboo wouldn’t perform. Instead, he’d pout and slam the top of his Dutch door shut.
- Bamboo Harvester’s other tricks included hitting a baseball and riding a surfboard.
- He would only take direction from his trainer, so Hilton had to be on set at all times.
- He could really open his stall door and he could also pick up a phone.
- When he was tired of working, he’d walk off set.
- He drank gallons of sweet tea every day.
- Bamboo and Alan Young were “friends” in real life, too. Young often visited Bamboo at Le Hilton’s ranch to ride him.