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What's His Name? JOHN FIEDLERTHE MAN THE FACE THE VOICE
By ELIZABETH MESSINA
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Elizabeth Messina
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Early Years
John Fiedler spent nearly six decades working as a character actor, showing us that, clearly, he was a diverse, well-rounded, and talented performer. Many remember him as Mr. Emil Peterson, the nervous, bespectacled patient of Dr. Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show. John is well remembered for his role as Mr. Hengist in the famous Star Trek episode, "Wolf in the Fold." People may recognize him as Vinnie, Oscar and Felix's poker playing buddy in the original Broadway and film productions of The Odd Couple. John was also famous for his role as Juror # 2 in the acclaimed film, 12 Angry Men. I think most identify with John's voice, however. Midway through his career, John became a renowned voice actor, bringing to life one of the most beloved and popular Disney characters of our time, Winnie the Pooh's timid and caring pink friend, Piglet.
The one sad truth is that too many people are unable to match John's name with his face and voice. Typically, a character actor portrays many different roles, and is never remembered for just one part; however, John has managed to carve his own special niche into the entertainment world. John once said, "People will come up and say, 'Gosh, I thought it was you. Then I heard your voice, and I knew.' Nine times out of ten, they don't know the name." I would like to change that, and give readers the opportunity to get to know the man behind the voice and face.
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John Donald Fiedler arrived in this world on the glorious Tuesday, February 3, 1925, in a small city in southwestern Wisconsin called Platteville. John was the eldest of three children born to Donald Fiedler and Margaret Phelan Fiedler. Donald and Margaret were married in 1923, and remained husband and wife for over forty years, until Margaret's passing in 1966. At the time of John's birth, Margaret was twenty-eight years old and Donald was thirty years old. Jim was the middle sibling, and Mary was the youngest of the three. (Jim was nearly four years younger than John, while Mary was five years younger than John.) John and his siblings were of Irish and German descent.
Donald Fiedler was born in 1895 and his wife, Margaret, was born two years later, in 1897. Donald worked tirelessly as a beer salesman at a local brewery, and although the Fiedlers struggled financially, Donald and Margaret always managed to bring their family enough money to live comfortably, and were always able to put food on the table. Margaret was a devoted wife, mother, and homemaker. Donald and Margaret Fiedler were dedicated and hard-working parents, working endlessly to provide for their children, creating a close and tight-knit family. John, Jim, and Mary loved their parents dearly, and always looked forward to the time spent together as a family
John was the typical older brother while growing up, always taking charge, and constantly watching out for his little brother and sister. As a child, John was a happy and playful little boy, filled with a friendly and caring nature. Even as a young boy, he radiated a captivating spirit, always drawing people to him. Young John was never without a smile, always ready to entertain those around him. Being around John filled anyone who was near him with joy. In fact, as a young boy, many of his teachers and friends knew that he would one day become an actor.
When John was five years old, Jim barely two, and Mary only a baby, Donald and Margaret decided to move their family to Shorewood, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Both parents felt that Shorewood would be a wonderful place to raise their children. Also, the move occurred one year after the 1929 stock market crash, and Donald believed that he would earn a larger profit from his work if he were closer to Milwaukee, a much larger city.
It was in Shorewood that John's love of acting flourished. He was always an outgoing and headstrong child, and at five years old, he knew exactly what he wanted to do in his life, and that was to act. At the tender age of five, John began to have dreams of being on the big screen, imagining that one day he might even become a movie star. Yet, John's father always wondered why his oldest son did not want to become a doctor or a dentist, like other children. Nevertheless, John had his dream, and was determined to make it come true.
Chapter TwoThe Dazzling World of Film
As John's childhood progressed, throughout the 1930's, his interest and passion for acting grew more and more intense. John always enjoyed attending school, and worked very hard at his studies, but he always found time to act and see as many films as he possibly could. The 1930's marked a turning point in America's entertainment culture, and John wanted more than anything to be part of it.
The 1930's was a decade filled with political turmoil and severe economic problems. John was only a young boy throughout the decade, and did not quite understand the impact that the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash had upon the world. However, Donald and Margaret were more than a little concerned about the future of America, as well as the rest of the world. The crash of the stock market in 1929 threw the world into an economic downfall called the Great Depression, lasting throughout much of the 1930's. As a result, several countries in Europe saw a rise of authoritarian regimes, in particular, the Third Reich in Germany, with the growing power of Adolf Hitler. Expansionist world powers invaded weaker nations such as Poland and China; leading to the beginning of World War II in 1939 (the war began in Europe, with America becoming involved in 1941). The world was in upheaval, and the future looked bleak and very uncertain.
In the late 1920's and 1930's, when John was only a little boy, radio was the most popular form of entertainment. By the time John was six or seven years old, tens of millions of Americans had at least one radio in their household, including John's family. Young John was fascinated by the radio because to him, it was this magical device from which he and his family could listen to news programs, music concerts, variety shows, and the like. Little John loved his family's radio, but became even more captivated by the world of film.
The 1930's was certainly an era filled with doubt, fear, and uncertainty. Many people were unemployed and struggling to survive. People desperately needed an escape, a place to go where they could temporarily forget the harsh realities of the times. The uncertainty and doubt that filled our country and our world led to the widespread popularity of sensational and fantastical stories. The 1930's found high success with tales of adventure, fantasy, romance, comedy, and Universal horror films. The American people wrapped themselves up in the world of film, and for some, it was the only means of escape in a world ravaged with despair. Young John knew something bad had happened in the world, and he watched his beloved parents, as well as his friends' parents, struggle to stay afloat. However, he also witnessed the amazing rise of film, and was absolutely enchanted with this whole new world.
The 1930's marked the beginning of what we now consider to be the "golden age" of Hollywood, which lasted well into the 1940's. Film stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and John Wayne formed their careers in the 1930's. People loved to laugh along with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope. America fell in love with little Shirley Temple, who was only three years younger than John. John fell in love with each of these stars, and wanted more than anything to become part of their world.
Mary remembers her brother going to every movie there was to see, hoping that one day, he too would appear on stage and screen as a professional actor. Going to the movies every Saturday afternoon became a tradition for John and his family. John enjoyed great movies such as King Kong (1933), Babes in Toyland (1934), Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Each week, he cherished that special Saturday afternoon he spent with his family, getting lost in the glorious myriad of films.
Throughout his childhood and adolescent years, John kept a precious scrapbook containing photos and excerpts from his favorite films and movie stars. John treasured his scrapbook, which was filled with splendid photos from films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein, King Kong, and Of Mice and Men; just to name a few. The scrapbook was also filled with photographs of beloved movie stars such as W.C. Fields, Clark Gabe, Spencer Tracy, Buster Keaton, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, and Fred Astaire. John was completely taken with this intriguing world of film, and little did he know that one day, he too, would be in Hollywood, receiving the chance to leave his mark in the movie business. As Mary said, "Then he got into it!" [Theater and movies]
Chapter ThreeIntroduction to Theater
As John was growing up, he loved spending several weeks each summer with a great aunt in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. While visiting his great aunt, he even had the opportunity to dabble in theater. As a child, John also attended parochial school. He was a very outgoing and friendly boy, he loved to make others laugh, and was always quick to tell an entertaining story. One of the nuns regularly reminded him that he was destined to become an actor. This constant reminder served as an even greater incentive for John to follow his dream.
Jim and Mary explained that initially, John wanted to become a movie star. However, when he was about ten years old, while attending St. Robert School, he saw his first stage production and knew that he was destined for the theater. John remained captured by films, but discovered a new found love for theater. Jim and Mary remember their brother saying, "From the time I was old enough to decide what you want to do, I knew I wanted to be an actor." When John was a small boy, he had dreams of becoming a movie star; however, he had never seen a live stage production. Jim and Mary remember their brother seeing his first live play when he was about ten or eleven years old. John was utterly spell bound, and knew that he was destined to work on stage. After seeing his first play, thoughts of becoming a movie star took a back seat.
Mary recalls her brother frequently staging productions in the family garage. John would actually build stages, and charge the neighbors a small fee (ten or fifteen cents per ticket) to attend his productions. John would act as producer, director, and actor, and was always proud of the plays he created. John virtually turned the family garage into a theater, complete with a stage and a seating area for an audience. He poured his heart and soul into his productions, taking them very seriously. John's main goal was for his audience to have a fulfilling experience while attending his plays. Both neighbors and friends absolutely loved the plays because they felt as if they were attending a real theater production. Everyone in the neighborhood knew and loved John, highly respecting his enormous passion and talent for acting.
Not only did John cast the neighborhood children in his plays, but Mary fondly remembers, "John always took Jim [John's younger brother] and me along to his plays so that we could be part of them too. He was at it all his life." However, Jim was not exactly thrilled to take part in his older brother's plays. Unlike John, Jim was not interested in acting. Jim was the sports player, while John was the actor. Conversely, John had no interest whatsoever in sports. As for Mary, well, she was the baby of the family, and had no choice but to tag along. In fact, Mary remembers a time in which John asked his younger brother to collect the money made from ticket sales. John would use a large portion of that money to buy stage props and things of that nature. However, when young Jim collected the money, he went to the local hardware store, and accidently spent all of the money from the ticket sales. Needless to say, John was not happy, but the brothers found a way to work things out and resolve the matter. During my conversations with Jim and Mary, they both agree that the one thing remaining constant throughout their brother's life was his "keen interest in acting."
In 1939, just as World War II was beginning, John became a student at Shorewood High School. Shorewood High School had, and still has, an excellent drama department. The school has a beautiful performing arts building, containing a 1,200 seat auditorium, modeled after Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Shorewood Drama (at Shorewood High School) has been putting on plays of a professional quality since its foundation in 1935. For John, Shorewood High School was absolutely perfect. He obtained a stellar education, while receiving the opportunity to really hone his acting skills. John did not know it, but he was already traveling on the road that would lead him to a glorious career in television and film.
Chapter FourThe Early Stages of Television
When John entered high school in 1939, he had no idea that television would become such a vital part of his career as a character actor. In 1939, television was not yet part of the American public mainstream. However, NBC launched their first major broadcast at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. For young John, New York City seemed like a fantastical world, a place filled with wonder and joy; but more importantly for him, New York was the heart and soul of theater. One day, he knew that he would go to New York to begin his life as an actor. John was thrilled to hear of the groundbreaking event at the New York City World's Fair, and truly wished that he could be in attendance.
In 1939, David Sarnoff was the lead of the RCA Corporation, and was in the process of making television broadcasting a huge industry. Sarnoff was well aware that the next World's Fair was to take place in New York City in the spring of 1939. Sarnoff was brilliant in his decision to have dozens of small television sets placed on the fairgrounds at RCA's headquarters as well as in a selective number of homes. John remembered hearing of a camera that would be hooked up to a transmitter in a nearby bus. The transmitter was to relay a TV signal to a tower placed atop the Empire State Building. This would allow the signal to transmit to the many TV sets placed throughout various locations in New York. John was thrilled and excited to hear that the plan was carried out successfully in April of 1939. He was not exactly sure how, but he knew that this new art form was the beginning of something monumental. Fourteen year old John was not aware at the time, but the new art of television held implications so grand that it would most likely change the dynamics of American culture. Although John did not know it, television would change the path of his career and his life.
David Sarnoff understood that in order to draw in a true TV-viewing audience, he had to go beyond the small amount of spectators present at the World's Fair, thus leading Sarnoff to schedule regular television programming. John remembered hearing of the first night of television programming a few weeks following the World's Fair. On the first American night of television programming, notable band leader Fred Waring appeared with his talented musicians, and NBC hosted the very first news broadcast, featuring the prominent Lowell Thomas as host. On that fateful night, more importantly for John, Walt Disney introduced a brand new character, Donald Duck's second cousin, Gus. (Gus went on to make his debut appearance in the 1939 animated short, Donald's Cousin Gus.) Walt Disney would one day become an integral part of John's life and career.
The first night of television programming was so successful that NBC began regular programming twice a week. Many broadcasters, as well as average people, including John, became interested in these broadcasts. Countless people, especially those in the New York area, were keen on purchasing television sets. However, television sets were quite costly, so most people could not afford one. Therefore, in 1939, RCA only sold a few thousand sets.
In 1939, Sarnoff had expectations of selling at least one hundred thousand television sets, and was more than a little disappointed at the mere few thousand that were sold. As John got older, he began to gain a better understanding of the fact that there were certain marketing barriers that had to be overcome before television sets could become more widespread in the homes of Americans. First of all, sponsoring TV programs were much more costly than sponsoring radio programs. Secondly, radio programs were already widely popular and well-established, with a radio set not costing nearly as much as a television set. Thirdly, World War II broke out in 1939, causing television development to come to a stand-still throughout the war years.
Excerpted from What's His Name? JOHN FIEDLER by ELIZABETH MESSINA Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Messina. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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