Harold Peary was born in San Leandro, California, on July 25, 1908. The son of Portuguese immigrants, he was given the name Harrold Jose Pereira de Faria. By the age of eleven, he was singing at local parties, weddings and other events. He began his radio career as a thirteen year old singer billed as The Oakland Tribune’s Boy Caruso, and by 1928 he was a regular on San Francisco radio, featured on an NBC program called The Spanish Serenader, a role he parodied in the classic Gildersleeve episode, The Mystery Voice in which Gildersleeve becomes romantic Brazilian baritone Ricardo.
Harold Peary was a popular and busy actor in the 1930’s, and in 1935, he came to Chicago, making the rounds of many major programs. He was equally adept at comedy and drama, and he was adept at accents and dialect, and his vocal range was so flexible that he often played several parts in the same program.
Around 1937 he began playing various characters on Fibber McGee and Molly, including Chinese laundryman Wu Fu, and a blustery, stuffed shirt named Gildersleeve, the most pompous name writer Don Quinn could think of. Continuity and consistency were not considerations, so Peary played many variations on the Gildersleeve, who was occasionally known as George, but later settled into a permanent role as the McGees’ next door neighbor and adopted one of the most memorable names of radio, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, named for Peary’s address,Throckmorton Place.
Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve was a perfect foil for the argumentative Fibber McGee. The character evolved gradually– in some Fibber McGee episodes, Gildersleeve, who later became the perpetual bachelor, had a wife. His “dirty laugh” and his catchphrase, “You’re a ha-a-a-a-rd man, McGee,” became popular and were much imitated by listeners.
Actor Harold Peary created the Gildersleeve character, in association with some very talented writers. In 1941, Peary was given his own show, the first successful radio spin-off. The Gildersleeve character continued to develop. Gildersleeve’s love for his niece and nephew added warmth to the character, and Gildersleeve’s tendency to “speechify” made him a perfect spokesman for wartime homefront issues.
Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve developed as a multi-dimensional character, with many faults as well as good qualities, leading him into some interesting situations. He was deeply civic minded and committed to traditional values, but he was also vain and self-centered. He often learns a lesson by the end of an episode.
Harold Peary’s vocal talents made Gildersleeve an unusually vivid character in a medium that depended heavily on the listener’s ability to visualize characters. There are frequent references to his appearance, especially his rotundity (his weight is given on a few occasions as 230 lbs.) and his mustache. More importantly, Gildersleeve is an extremely noisy character, when he is not speaking in his distinctive, booming voice or trilling his distinctive laugh, he is sighing, moaning, groaning, sputtering and giving various other little sounds of interest that serve as the radio equivalent of facial expressions and body language.
In 1950, Harold Peary left the program to move to another network and a new, short-lived program, “Honest Harold.” Although many people (including Harold Peary)believed that “The Great Gildersleeve” could not survive without Peary, Willard Waterman assumed the role, and many listeners didn’t even notice the difference. As Bob Beckett notes in a posting to the OTR list:
“Waterman did an amazing job in nearly perfectly capturing the tone and subtleties of Peary’s voice on a consistent basis, and interrelated with the show’s other characters just as well as Peary also. It was a great imitation. But there was really only ONE Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, and that of course was Mr. Harold Peary. Waterman just imitated him…and did a wonderful job in keeping the integrity and spirit of the originator. To change it in any way would have been a mistake.”
Peary and Willard knew each other well, having both been active in Chicago radio for many years. In fact, this was not the first time that Waterman had replaced Peary– Waterman had replaced Peary as the Sheriff on the “Tom Mix Ralston Sharpshooter” program in the 1930’s. Peary and Waterman had such similar, booming voices, that Waterman later recalled that if they were cast on the same program, they’d decide ahead of time who would use a high voice and who a low voice.