NEW YORK — Chuck Mc-Cann, a comic whose loopiness defined live children’s television beginning in the 1950s and who later became a familiar TV and film character actor and a versatile voice on cartoons, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 83.
The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter Siobhan Bennett said.
The Brooklyn-born son of the music arranger at New York’s famous Roxy Theater, Mr. McCann was precocious, irrepressible, and persistent.
“You’ve got to be able to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and do it all over again,” he said in a 2007 interview with the American Comedy Archives. “Persistence alone is omnipotent; you have to keep hanging in there.”
He began by doing voice-overs on radio when he was 6 and struck up an enduring cross-country friendship by telephone with Stan Laurel when he was 12 — leading to roles impersonating Laurel’s huskier other half, Oliver Hardy. (He was a founder of the Laurel and Hardy fan club Sons of the Desert.)
He got his big break in his early 20s while performing on “The Sandy Becker Show,” a children’s TV program on what was then WABD in New York. Without advance notice, Becker left on a Friday for two weeks in South America and asked Mr. McCann to host his show beginning Monday.
“'So long!'” Mr. McCann recalled Becker saying. “The elevator doors close, and off he went. That was my baptism by fire. The first day was just disastrous.”
Mr. McCann survived to become the host of his own children’s programs and to voice cartoon characters in “DuckTales,” “Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers,” “Garfield and Friends,” “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” and commercials for Cocoa Puffs cereal (as the cuckoo bird, crying, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”). He also appeared as a character actor on “Bonanza,” “Columbo,” “Little House on the Prairie,” and other television series.
Along with Soupy Sales, Buffalo Bob Smith, Bob Keeshan (better known as Captain Kangaroo), and Fran Allison, Mr. McCann helped shape zany, impromptu preteen programming in television’s formative years.
In his book “Politics and the American Television Comedy: A Critical Survey from ‘I Love Lucy’ Through ‘South Park’” (2008), Doyle Greene compared “The Chuck McCann Show” on WNEW in the mid-1960s to a blend of “Howdy Doody” and the spontaneous, experimental comedy of Ernie Kovacs.
To Greene, the McCann show represented a “deconstruction of TV taken to Dada levels (whether driving around the studio smashing into props on a scooter while lip-syncing a song, or doing a lengthy impersonation of Jack Benny playing screeching violin worthy of Stockhausen).”
Mr. McCann, a Brooklyn native, hosted Laurel and Hardy fill-ins during rain delays on New York Yankees broadcasts.
During the 114-day New York City newspaper strike in 1962-63, he kept his young television viewers up to speed on the comic strips by playing the characters on camera, echoing a role Mayor Fiorello La Guardia played on radio during a newspaper strike in the 1940s.
In his movie debut, Mr. McCann played opposite Alan Arkin to critical acclaim as a mentally disabled deaf mute in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCuller’s novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
He went on to play the lead role in “The Projectionist” (1971), as the lonely title character in a movie theater’s projection booth. The film gave him a vehicle with which to demonstrate his dexterity imitating movie stars. Rodney Dangerfield, in his movie debut, played his boss.
Mr. McCann had two mantras: have as much fun as possible and keep working.
“I did everything,” Mr. McCann told TVParty.com in 2007. “I never closed doors. If you look at my career — if I had one — I never think of it as a career, I just look at it as things I love to do. I have just as much fun doing a 30-second commercial as I do making a movie.”