Actor Willard Waterman was born this week in Madison in 1914. Although he played many roles, he’s best known for his work as the title character in The Great Gildersleeve. Norman Gilliland tells us his story.
The Great Gildersleeve was one of radio’s great hits in the 1940s. But in 1950, after nine years on the air, the star of the show, Harold Peary, called it quits. To keep the show going, the producers had to come up with someone else to play the blustery bungling big-hearted Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve.
It was a tough act to follow, the kind of challenge that gives actors nightmares.
Peary had a very distinctive voice and a trademark laugh that were closely tied to the character.
The producers offered the part to a seasoned actor with a voice strikingly similar to Peary’s. His name was Willard Waterman.
Waterman was from Madison.While attending Central High School, he’d sung in a quartet that performed musical interludes between programs on WIBA. At the University of Wisconsin he joined Theta Chi fraternity and the Men’s Glee Club. From 4 to 5 pm on Tuesdays, he was the student announcer at WHA. His picture in the 1934 Badger Yearbook shows a twenty-year-old with a mischievous smile well-suited for the comic roles he played on stage.
With all of those extracurricular pursuits, one thing Waterman had little time for his was engineering major, so in 1935, the UW kicked him out.
He went to Chicago and landed a part in the radio adventure series Chandu the Magician. He got two different roles in the popular western serial Tom Mix. He also played one of the leads in the soap opera The Guiding Light and joined the cast of the glamorous First Nighter Program.
Within a few years, Waterman was working on an average of 40 shows a week during workdays that stretched from 7 in the morning till ten at night. Within a 45-minute span each day, he could be heard on three different networks.
In 1950, CBS hired away many of NBC’s big-name talents, including Harold Peary. Peary wanted to take the Great Gildersleeve with him to CBS, but Kraft, the show sponsor, wanted to keep it on NBC and that meant getting someone else to play the lead.
With his matching voice and vast experience Willard Waterman was the obvious choice, but the character was so closely associated with Peary that Waterman risked ruining his career if he failed to win over the audience.
For the season opener, the writers took a chance and called attention to rather than gloss over the change of actors:
Waterman didn’t try to imitate Peary’s trademark laugh and other mannerisms. He relied on his own technique and the script to carry him through, and by the end of that first show, he had won over the audience, the cast, and the reviewers.
The show went on for another seven years, by which time there was a new medium in town. Gildersleeve came to terms with it in a show on March 26, 1952.
The show even had a season of its own on TV, but the magic wasn’t there. Waterman went on to appear in a host of other TV shows, ranging from Dennis the Menace to Maverick, but Willard Waterman remains best remembered for his friendly takeover of one of radio’s most enduring and endearing characters, the Great Gildersleeve.