Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Mister Ed was given small electric shocks to make him move his mouth to make it look like he was talking.
There’s little doubt that special effects have come a long way in the world of television. In just fifty years, we’ve gone from Star Trek using salt shakers for Dr. McCoy’s medical equipment to a TV show using computer-generated imagery to add an actor into a TV show without people even noticing! The early days of television special effects played a major role in one of TV’s most beloved early sitcoms, Mister Ed. Mister Ed was a television sitcom about a man, Wilbur (played by Alan Young, who we sadly just lost this week) and his horse, Ed. The twist was that Ed could TALK, a skill he kept hidden from everyone else but Wilbur.
The show ran for six seasons from 1961-1966, first as a syndicated show for a season and then for five seasons on CBS (one of the very rare shows to go from syndication to a network. I did a legend once about how the move from syndication to network made things awkward for the show’s sponsor, leading to some creative financial thinking).
Uncredited old cowboy actor Allan “Rocky” Lane provided Ed’s voice (when the show became a hit, Lane objected to the “uncredited” part, but he never did get credit while the show was originally airing). But for decades, people have wondered how exactly, did the show get the horse (Bamboo Harvester) to moves its lips when Ed talked? The mystery has led to some interesting rumors over the years, including that the show would give the horse mild electric shocks to make him move his lips!
Is that true?
No, it is not.
While the show was on, Bamboo Harvester’s trainer, Les Hilton, did not want to reveal how they got Ed to talk, so that allowed the rumors to grow unchecked. The electric shock theory just doesn’t make sense, especially since Les Hilton was known to not be a cruel guy (a strict disciplinarian, but not a cruel one), so actively hurting the horse doesn’t track. In addition, there’s never been any proof or anyone ever saying out loud that that is the case. That’s just an unsubstantiated rumor.
A stronger rumor was started by none other than Alan Young himself! He told people that they would put peanut butter on Bamboo Harvester’s gums and the horse would then move its lips to get rid of the peanut butter. Young would later explain why he made up the story:
Al Simon and Arthur Lubin, the producers, suggested we keep the method a secret because they thought kids would be disappointed if they found out the technical details of how it was done, so I made up the peanut butter story, and everyone bought it.
The truth was that Ed originally was made to talk through a nylon in his teeth. Young explained in an 2009 SFGate interview with John Clark:
I started a lie saying that they used peanut butter under his lip. That wasn’t true. The trainer put a piece of nylon thread under his lip, and he’d try to get rid of it, but on cue. He stopped on cue, and he started on cue. That was the trick.
Over time, Bamboo Harvester learned to do it without the use of the nylon. Young explained it to Nick Thomas in a 2013 MyDailyFindInterview (the same place he explained why he lied about the peanut butter):
It was initially done by putting a piece of nylon thread in his mouth. But Ed actually learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof. In fact, he soon learned to do it when I stopped talking during a scene! Ed was very smart.
So there you go!
If you look at the early episodes, there definitely is a distinct difference between how Ed talks. It does look like he’s being bothered by something in his teeth, which was not the case in later seasons.
The legend is…
Thanks to the late, great Alan Young and Nick Thomas and John Clark for the information!
Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.