A horse is a horse, of course, of course
And no one can talk to a horse, of course
That is, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed!
We all know the theme song, even if some of use weren’t even alive when the show aired. For those who might not know, the song is from a show from the 1960’s, Mr Ed, that featured a talking horse. It was groundbreaking at the time, being network television’s first non-cartoon talking animal.
Bamboo Harvester, a palomino saddlebred/arabian cross was the star. He was born in 1949 out of an Arabian Antez mare named Zetna, by a saddlebred stallion named The Harvester (sounds pretty ominous!) He was a talented performer with a unique personality, and his role as Mr. Ed made him one of the most beloved animal actors of all time.
The show was inspired by a series of movies, Francis the Talking Mule. The creator of Mr Ed, Arthur Lubin, originally wanted to develop Francis the Talking Mule for television but had been unable to secure the rights. His secretary introduced him to the children’s series Freddy the Pig, written by Walter R. Brooks, a series of short stories about farm animals that talk to people. From that, Lubin developed the Mr. Ed show, based around a horse that talks to only one person.
Lubin sourced $75,000 to produce a pilot episode, with different actors and a different horse, but the episode fell flat. Neither a network nor a sponsor was interested in the show.
Eventually the pilot was shown to Al Simon, president of Filmways TV Productions. He saw flaws, but believed the show had potential. The concept was brought back to life, with new casting, and a sponsor. The Studebaker Corporation agreed to fund the show in syndication, and they were ready to begin in October of 1960.
Finding the Horse
With one month to go before filming started, the production had a new problem. The original horse they had used for the pilot had been sold. Trainer Lester Hilton, who trained under the famous cowboy entertainer Will Rogers, was assigned to find a new horse.
He found his new star on a San Fernando Valley farm for $1,500. Bamboo Harvester had been a show and parade horse, and was chosen due to his intelligence, trainability, and good looks. Bamboo was brought to Hilton’s farm to be trained by him.
Mr. Ed starred Alan Young as Wilbur Post, a mild-mannered architect who moves into a new house with his wife, Carol (Connie Hines). The house comes with a talking horse named Mr Ed (Bamboo Harvester). Wilbur is the only one who can understand Mr. Ed’s speech, and frequently Mr. Ed is advising Wilbur on life, although often with a twist. In spite of being a horse, Mr. Ed is very clever about the way the world works.
Mr. Ed was a huge success with audiences. The show was praised for its humor, its heartwarming relationship between Wilbur and Mr Ed, and its innovative use of special effects.
Mr. Ed ran for six seasons and produced 143 episodes. The show was nominated for several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Alan Young.
Life as a Horse Actor
Bamboo was trained by Les Hilton for anything the show needed, and he was good at it. It reportedly only took him 15 minutes to learn whatever trick he needed to do in a scene.
But Bamboo was also known for his dive-like behavior on set. Although he never missed a day of filming, he would often walk off set if he was done.
He also had a love of sweet tea and drank it by the gallon.
Bamboo Harvester had a stunt double, his barnmate Pumpkin. He was used for the more dangerous scenes, but eventually became a star in his right. He was hired for the show Green Acres and starred in a pudding commercial.
When Bamboo Harvester wasn’t filming Mr. Ed, he lived a very comfortable life at Hilton’s ranch in North Hollywood. He had his own private stall and paddock, and he was treated like a member of the family.
How Did Mr. Ed “Talk”?
The most important part of the show, naturally, was Mr. Ed talking. But unnaturally, horses don’t talk. For a long time, people thought that the talking movement was made by peanut butter rubbed on the his gums. But, although this seems plausible, it’s actually false. Alan Young said in interviews that he invented the story.
Al Simon and Arthur Lubin, the producers, suggested we keep the method [of making the horse appear to talk] 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.Alan Young, Actor
So how did Bamboo actually show talking? Hilton initially ran a nylon thread in the horse’s mouth, hidden in the halter. But Bamboo was a smart horse, and he learned to “talk” every time his trainer touched his hoof. Eventually, Bamboo started doing it on his own as soon as Young had said his own lines.
The End of the Show
In 1966, the show was canceled, with the network saying the show had become too “bucolic.” While it’s impossible to know exactly what went on inside the tv network, it could be theorized that the show was becoming outdated. Much of the plots of the show had been firmly rooted in the value’s of the 1950’s, with the character of Wilbur being a stereotypical male, making all the decisions for the household. The world was changing, and Mr Ed was looking outdated. Viewership was declining, and the TV network was interested in more edgy and provocative programming.
With the show canceled, Bamboo Harvester was retired. But after that, there are different accounts of what happened. One story says that he lived with Les Hilton for the next two years, but then had age related health problems and was euthanized. Another says he retired to a farm in Oklahoma, were he passed away in 1979.
His former co-star says differently though. Alan Young said he visited Bamboo frequently after his retirement, and at one point, a caretaker saw the horse struggling and gave the horse tranquilizer to calm him down, but unfortunately it killed him. At the time, Pumpkin, his stunt double, had been doing appearances as Mr. Ed, so they didn’t want to draw public appearance to his death. Pumpkin died in Oklahoma in 1979, but Young didn’t want to shatter the illusions that the horse being memorialized wasn’t the official Mr. Ed, so he remained quiet.
The reaction in 1979 to his “death” showed how much people still loved the horse. Mr. Ed had been a beloved icon for many.
Mr. Ed was a groundbreaking sitcom that paved the way for other shows with animal characters, such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and ALF. The show is still fondly remembered by fans today, and it remains a classic example of 1960s television.