Walter Tetley is one of Radio’s most beloved character actors also had one of the era’s saddest, and loneliest stories.
Walter Tetley practically cornered the market as the “fresh-mouthed kid” character on radio. The precocious kid, who always managed to take the stuffing out of pretentious adult males, has always been a feature in situation comedy, from Charlie McCarthy, Henry Aldrich, and Jughead Jones, to TV’s Bart Simpson. Few actors were able to pull off the character as convincingly or as successfully as Tetley. This is because Tetley, despite the youthful voice heard on the radio, was a full grown man. (Bart Simpson is voiced by actress Nancy Cartwright.)
Chronologically, Tetley was fully grown throughout his entire radio career; physically, he had never gone through puberty. Tetley got his start in show business while still actually a child, doing imitations of Scottish comedian Harry Lauder, and appearing on a few radio children’s shows. In 1934, he took a break from radio to do a music-hall tour of England. By now Walter’s eternal youthfulness had become obvious. It is thought that Tetley had been born with a rare hormonal disorder, possibly Kallman’s Syndrome, although there is a rumor that his mother had him “fixed”, castrated, so that he could continue to work as a child actor.
When he returned from England, Tetley was a seasoned performer with expert comic timing, and he was a terrific fit with Fred Allen‘s Mighty Allen Art Players. At the age of twenty, Walter was still well suited to playing twelve year olds. Fred Allen’s urbane comedy was a great forum for the various kids Tetley played utterly to deflate whichever authority figure was available. After two years with Allen, Tetley’s mother took him to Hollywood to try his luck in pictures in 1937.
The movies weren’t friendly Walter Tetley. Although he had a young boy’s voice, his pudgy looks had a tough time finding a place in films. He was mostly relegated to uncredited roles; bellboys and elevator attendants. The timing of Tetley’s move was rewarded by radio, however; this was the time that the networks were moving a lot of their production from New York to the West Coast.
This boom in the Hollywood radio industry kept Tetley working in everything from children’s shows to Lux Radio Theater. In 1941, Fibber McGee and Molly‘s solid success was enough for one of their characters, Throckmorton Gildersleeve, to strike out on his own. Gildersleeve, played by Harold Peary, was the perfect blowhard to play against Tetley. The Great Gildersleeve program was built around confirmed bachelor Gildy taking custody of his pretty and popular niece and her smart mouthed little brother.
The Great Gildersleeve ran from 1941 through 1954. Other characters on the program saw some development through the years. Sister Marjorie went from popular high school girl to a young mother. Tetley’s Leroy pretty much stayed a precocious kid. Eventually, Leroy would enter junior high and discover girls, but only just barely.
Because of his condition, discovering girls, indeed most normal social interaction, was pretty much denied to Walter Tetley. Even though his fellow actors recognized his talent and professionalism, it was hard for them to avoid treating him like the child that he appeared to be. Tetley’s mother also continued to dominate him as though he indeed remained 12 years old. Outside of work, Tetley became withdrawn and isolated.
In 1948, Jack Benny‘s band-leader, Phil Harris, landed his own show with his movie-star wife, Alice Faye. One of the favored characters in the company of the Phil Harris-Alice Faye show was the smart-mouthed neighborhood grocery boy, Julius Abbruzio. Julius was of course able to get the best of Harris, and held a serious crush on Alice Faye. Faye’s character took him about as seriously as women took Tetley in real life.
As television dominated radio, Tetley found some work voicing cartoons. For a time in the late 1960’s, he found some solace in the solitary sport of motorcycling, but an accident in 1970 left him crippled and confined to a wheelchair. Although he still found sporadic voice over work, the accident had left him financially crippled as well.
Tetley closed out his remaining years, living alone in a trailer in Encino, CA. He passed away in 1975, at the age of 60, due to stomach cancer and complications from the motorcycle accident.