from my sketchbook: joseph kearns

Martha! Bring me my nerve medicine!
Character actor Joseph Kearns began his career in the heyday of radio in the unlikely role of a pipe organ player. He soon was performing regularly on radio programs like I Married Joan, December Bride, Burns and Allen, Sam Spade and many others. He was the mysterious announcer “The Man in Black” on the radio drama Suspense. His best known radio role was that of Ed, the security guard for Jack Benny’s underground money vault, on The Jack Benny Program. The “running gag” was that Benny had kept Ed on duty at the vault’s door so long that the guard was not aware of current events. When Benny informed him that “The War had ended,” Ed asked whether the “North” or the “South” had won.

In 1951,  Joseph made his motion picture debut in the Ida Lupino-directed Hard, Fast and Beautiful  with Claire Trevor. The same year, he lent his voice to The Doorknob in Walt Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland. He appeared on both comedy and dramatic series in the early days of television. He was a regular cast member on Our Miss Brooks, Professional Father  and How to Marry a Millionaire. He even reprised his role (appearing exclusively in shadow) as Ed the guard on the TV version of Jack Benny’s show. In 1959, Joseph landed the role for which he is most remembered. He was cast as the irascible Mr. Wilson, the long-suffering neighbor of Dennis Mitchell on the CBS sitcom Dennis the Menace. For three seasons, Joseph’s Mr. Wilson was tortured by Dennis, the eternal pain-in-the ass. On February 11, 1962, CBS aired the Dennis the Menace  episode entitled “Where There’s a Will”, in which Mr. Wilson made out his will and explained to Dennis that he would inherit his gold watch when he dies. Joseph Kearns died from a cerebral hemorrhage on February 17, 1962.

A week or so ago, I called my brother to wish him a “Happy Birthday”. He was lamenting over turning 54. Later, I called him to tell him a bit of information that I hoped would make him feel better about passing another year over the half century mark. I told him that I was watching Dennis the Menace, a show we both agreed we hated watching in our youth. Feeding my obsession for the trivial, I went on to say that I was researching the fate of the show’s various cast members. I knew that Joseph Kearns had passed away during the program’s third season. (He was replaced by the equally annoying Gale Gordon.) What surprised me was Joseph Kearn’s age at the time of his death. He was 55. My brother’s reaction was the same as mine. Fifty-five!?  Jeez! I thought he was at least seventy!  I informed my brother that he looks a hell of a lot better than Mr. Wilson did at practically the same age.

I think I cheered him up. At least a little.

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6 Comments

  1. I think wearing the pants waist above the belly button automatically adds 10 years to your appearance. Conversely, wearing your pants waist around below your hips just makes you look stupid.

  2. What a great likeness! Hated Dennis The Menace…but ironically liked the Mr Wilson character as played by both Joseph Kearns and Gale Gordon. I think I was secretly hoping that one of the Mr. Wilsons would just kill the little asshole and Mr & Mrs Mitchell would celebrate and take a cruise around the world. One can have dreams!

  3. That is a very good caricature of actor Joseph Kearns. In my humble opinion, Mr. Kearns’ onscreen chemistry with Jay North as Dennis was PERFECT, and that COULD NOT be duplicated by ANYONE ELSE, not even with Kearns’ eventual replacement by veteran character actor Gale Gordon. Now, just over 49 years after Kearns’ untimely death, he is still fondly remembered, and he lives on forever on film, and won’t be forgotten. Rest in peace, Mr. Kearns!

  4. I want to compliment you on an EXCELLENT caricature of Joseph Kearns. I thought that Mr. Kearns was the PERFECT actor to play the role of George Wilson, and as one CBS executive close to the show admitted at the time of Kearns’ death: “That is the end of that show. He (Kearns) WAS the whole show.” Also, if I may, I would like to provide some additional information and one correction to the above excellent article. Ironically, the Sunday, February 11, 1962 episode, entitled “Where There’s A Will”, was broadcast on the VERY SAME DAY that Mr. Kearns suddenly lapsed into a coma from the effects of a cerebral hemorrhage, and was admitted to Park View Hospital in Los Angeles, and lay in a coma for six days until his death, never having regained consciousness. According to his death certificate, Mr. Kearns actually died on Saturday, February 17, 1962, not on February 12th, as stated above. However, February 12th, 1962 was actually Mr. Kearns’ 55th birthday. I look forward to the new first season DVD of “Dennis the Menace”. Mr. Kearns, thank you for sharing your acting acumen with all of us who are your fans. We won’t ever forget you! Requiescat in pace!

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