The summer of 1960 was a challenging one for Joe Barbera. A mogul of animation—together with his partner, Bill Hanna, he had created immensely popular characters like Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, and Quick Draw McGraw—he was set to embark on a more ambitious project than he’d ever tried before, a half-hour, prime-time animated show, set to air that fall.
The concept had a disastrous history—neither CBS’s Cartoon Theater, which featured animated shorts previously shown in movie theaters, nor The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, which was based on an Academy Award-winning short, survived more than a few months. But Barbera believed he had an idea that couldn’t fail: an animated take on Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, then one of TV’s biggest hits, set in the Stone Age. But to pull it off, he knew he needed someone who could channel the same affable, empathic energy as Gleason, someone who could sound gregarious and warm and all-American. Two months before the show was to debut, Barbera had yet to find his star.
One by one, Barbera summoned Hollywood’s most august voice-over actors to audition for the new role, the character he had tentatively named Fred Flagstone. Bill Thompson—whose soulful, monotonic baritone had made a huge star of Droopy, the dog detective who starred in a series of supremely popular cartoons for MGM—read for the part but couldn’t produce the gravelly vocal depths Barbera had in mind. Neither could Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi and most of Hanna-Barbera’s other beloved characters. These actors were used to sounding like cartoon characters, and Barbera needed someone who could sound more like a regular guy. Someone suggested giving Alan Reed a call. Which is how the grandson of an Orthodox Jewish immigrant, raised among newcomers in one of New York’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, came to be the voice of Fred Flintstone, American icon and everyman.
Reed was far from an obvious choice. By 1960, his career was moribund. A successful radio actor whose time in the movies was short and sour—his most notable role was the hapless Ezra Kennedy in The Postman Always Rings Twice—Reed had all but given up on being an entertainer and made a nice living manufacturing and marketing cigarette lighters, novelty pens, and other knickknacks. And yet he continued to solicit acting gigs. Acting, he felt, was his destiny, the only thing he’d ever loved doing, the vocation he’d pursued since he was a young boy. It was his life.
Born in 1907 as Theodore Bergman, Reed spent his early years in a lavish apartment in the then-upscale Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. With his father struggling to make a living as a lawyer, the family depended on the generosity of Abraham Greenberg, Reed’s maternal grandfather. Greenberg, however, was not a particularly generous man, especially when it came to his son-in-law: The man was a Galitzianer, the descendant of Ukrainian Jews, whereas Greenberg and his family were Litvaks, Jews who hailed from Lithuania. The internecine scuffle soon led to familial discord, infidelity, divorce. Writing years later, Reed recalled nightly quarrels, with his mother shouting “Adulterer!” and his father yelping “You bitch!” Reed, 10 years old, would sob. Before too long, he began looking for a way to drown out the domestic drama.
He found it by chance. A teacher had taken him and his class to a local theater to see an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The difficult language and intricate plot were too much for most of the children to comprehend, but Reed was different. In Shylock, he saw a Jewish character not unlike his grandfather, miserly and controlling and mean. Even more striking, however, was the actor who played Shylock. Reed watched the man carefully, stared with admiration as he strutted on stage, observed a room full of people looking on in awe, clapping and cheering. This, Reed thought, was what he wanted to do.
But Abraham Greenberg would hear none of it. Young Theodore, he thought, had to go to college, to get the education his grandfather never had. This was particularly true as the old man lost a significant chunk of his wealth to bad investments and had to move his family to a more down-market, ethnically diverse New York neighborhood. With some funds he’d saved, he dispatched his grandson to Columbia University, to study journalism.
Reed hated every minute of it. He had no passion for reporting. The only joy he found came from hanging out in the courtyard back home, talking to the Italian and Irish and German immigrants, listening to their singsong accents and sweet turns of phrase. Reed would impersonate them every now and then, ignoring his grandfather’s scolding. Before too long, Reed decided to defy the old man, quit school, and find his way to Broadway.
It was the early 1920s, and radio, a new invention, was penetrating American living rooms at an alarming rate. With hours each day to fill with content, producers were looking for young men and women who were willing to work long hours and enjoy little of the glamour associated with the theater. Reed was just this man: He showed up at the office of a big-time producer and asked to audition for a part. The producer’s secretary looked at the pudgy 19-year-old and laughed; the only role they had was that of a mobster, she said, and there was no way a kid could convincingly play a mafia don. Undeterred, Reed waited for the secretary to leave for lunch then picked up her telephone and dialed her boss, the producer. The man picked up, and Reed, channeling every Italian neighbor he’d ever known, put on the thick accent he thought was needed for the part.
“I’m just gonna tell you somethin’,” he told the shocked producer. “I’m comin’ into your office in a couple of minutes. You’re gonna give me a job, or you’re goin’ for a ride.” Then, he hung up and marched over to the producer’s office. He was hired on the spot.
Within months, Reed became one of radio’s most sought-after actors. The new medium, as comedian Steve Allen famously put it, was the theater of the mind, and it needed performers who could invoke an entire world with a slight shift in tone or a subtle change of diction. A master of mimicry, Reed gave his voice to one ludicrous character after another.
On The Fred Allen Show he played Falstaff Openshaw, an effete Irish poet specializing in hackneyed ditties like “Said the little bear to the big giraffe/ Let’s eat a hyena, just for a laugh.” On NBC’s popular Abie’s Irish Rose—a comedy show about a nice Jewish boy and his Irish Catholic sweetheart—he played Solomon Levy, Abie Levy’s censorious father. And on CBS’s Life With Luigi, a howler about Italian immigrants in Chicago, he was Pasquale, a restaurateur hell-bent on marrying off his obese daughter.
These characters all sounded different, but they had one thing in common: They all had a touch of Abraham Greenberg, Reed’s grandfather. For all the broad comedy and exaggerated accents, Reed realized that at the heart of every immigrant’s story was buried a deep uncertainty, a throbbing anxiety, a certain confusion about preserving the old world’s values in the new one. As a child, Reed had witnessed these emotions overwhelm his grandfather, and he resented the old man and his ways. As an adult, however, he could turn the maddening into the sublime, recreating one Abraham Greenberg after another and giving his creations the gift of warmth and humor.
It was a gift that only came through on radio, however; whenever he pranced on stage or appeared on screen, Alan Reed was just another burly comic whose large frame allowed little subtlety to seep through. As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Reed was scantily employed. Barbera’s call, then, was a thrill. Working in animation, Reed realized, he would once again be just a voice.
When he walked into the studio to audition for the part, he read as if Fred Flintstone was just another Pasquale or Solomon or Falstaff, ambitious and anxious and a little bit perplexed. Herein lies the true genius of Fred Flintstone, which is to say, the true genius of Alan Reed—although the character and its exploits are taken directly from the Gleason canon, Reed made no effort to imitate Gleason’s flat, clipped cadence, that all-American voice crafted by screenwriters eager to cram as many punch lines into a sentence as they could. Instead, Reed’s Fred spoke in a soulful voice, with a note of hurt quivering beneath each cheerful statement and a touch of insecurity making even the most straightforward lines tremble just a bit. It was a voice that sounded like it belonged to someone living in the outskirts of society and doing his best to pass for one of the guys, a voice Reed had heard so often growing up from immigrants veteran and new. It was, in other words, the perfect voice for Fred Flintstone.