As one of American radio’s busiest and best-known character actors during the 1930s and ‘40s, Stang almost single-handedly invented the modern comic persona now popularly called a "nerd," years before that term was coined. Think back to a familiar character you’ve seen and heard many times on classic radio and TV–a gangly, smart-aleck "egghead," typically named Seymour or Stanley, with round spectacles, an oversize bowtie, buckteeth, and a high-pitched voice with a heavy Brooklyn accent—and chances are you’re thinking of Arnold Stang.
The golden age of broadcasting ended long ago, but Stang has never lost his hold on young audiences. In the early 1950s he charmed the first TV generation with his memorable commercials for Chunky candy bars—"Chunky…what a chunk o’ chocolate!" And he’s still winning over new generations of TV fans around the world through reruns of the classic 1960s animated-cartoon series "Top Cat," in which he plays the starring role.Stang was born in the Boston suburb of Chelsea, the son of a lawyer. At the age of nine he impulsively sent a postcard to the producers of his favorite radio show, Let’s Pretend, and was astonished to receive an invitation to audition for the show. The youngster promptly took a bus to New York City, where he auditioned at CBS headquarters and was hired on the spot. "I knew nothing about radio," Stang recalled, "except that I felt I ought to be on that show. I guess I was just this strange little kid, and they decided I’d be an interesting addition to the show." Although his parents didn’t share young Arnold’s enthusiasm for show business, they agreed to let him move in with relatives in New York and join the cast of Let’s Pretend. It was the beginning of an exhausting, but enormously productive radio apprenticeship that was to lead to genuine stardom in the years ahead. "I really grew up living out of a suitcase," Stang recalled. "I was averaging four or five shows a day, starting very early in the morning. I ran from studio to studio all day." During the 1940s, in addition to his other radio jobs, Stang was a regular on The Goldbergs as Seymour Fingerhood, the Goldberg family’s teen-age neighbor. "I learned a tremendous amount from that show," Stang recalled. "Gertrude Berg was a wonderful teacher and a very good director, and she wrote the show. She was brilliant. Seymour was the character that introduced me to the show, but she would always have me play other characters. You had to learn to be very flexible, and to be able to improvise and think on your toes."
During the ‘40s Stang was also a fixture on Milton Berle’s top-rated radio show. Berle branched out into television in 1948, but Stang was reluctant to follow. He finally relented in 1953, and went on to chalk up hundreds of appearances in TV comedies, dramas, and commercials over the next four decades. "I didn’t really want to do television," Stang recalled. "I much preferred radio, and I thought television was just a passing phase. I never got makeup on my collar doing radio. I felt it was a much more creative medium." In 1961 Stang landed another of his choicest roles: the plucky star of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon series Top Cat, a hip, wisecracking Broadway alley cat based on the Ernie Bilko character portrayed by Stang’s friend and colleague Phil Silvers in the 1950s hit TV series Sergeant Bilko. "I knew Phil very well," Stang said. "In fact he was responsible for me marrying my wife. I thought he was a wonderful man."
Stang has also appeared in numerous films, including It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Man With The Golden Arm, and Dennis The Menace. He enjoys doing occasional guest appearances on TV shows, and he still lends his unmistakable voice to a variety of TV commercials, more than four decades after those classic ads for Chunky."I started out intending to be a serious actor," Stang said, "and I found that being very serious about doing comedy also paid off." By Scott Wheeler (originally published in The Enterprise newspaper, Brockton, MA. USA in May 1997)
Update: Mr. Stang died om December 20, 2009, at the age of 91. He was in a Boston area hospital being treated for pneumonia.