Crockett Johnson began his art career illustrating communist publications and ended it making mathematical abstract paintings, but in between he created two lovable and enduring cartoon children. Best known is Harold, the imaginative four-year-old with a magic pencil in Harold and the purple pencil (1955). But more influential, perhaps, was his earlier creation, Barnabas.
Barnabasa comic strip about a cute five-year-old boy with a fairy godfather, first appeared in 1942 in the pages of PMa left-wing journal funded by Marshall Field III that also featured Dr. Seuss’ work. Barnabas would later heavily inspire Charles Schulz’s book Peanuts and Bil Keane family circus. You can see it in the similar look of toddlers.
But even at the height of its popularity, Barnabas only appeared syndicated in a few dozen newspapers across the country. In comparison, blonde featured in over 800 newspapers at the time. Still, the tape proved popular enough to spawn a stage adaptation, Barnaby and Mr. O’Malleywhich played in East Coast theaters in 1946.
Go forward 13 years. Future Governor and President Ronald Reagan hosted General Electric Theateran anthology series on CBS that brings plays, short stories, and novels to the camera.
That’s exactly what happened in season eight, December 20, 1959, with “Mr. O’Malley.” The adapted holiday season episode Barnabas and Mr. O’Malley for the small screen and gave audiences a chance to see Barnaby in the flesh. If it seems odd that the production confusingly shines the spotlight on Mr. O’Malley, it’s probably because a bigger star has portrayed the character. Bert Lahr, loved for his role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Ozplayed guardian angel in raincoat and wings.
CBS hoped to turn this pilot episode into a sitcom, Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley. The actors were locked up for the possibility.
Looking back, the little boy is more remarkable. The show cast a five-year-old to play five-year-old Barnaby. Finding a child this age who can play and tell a story can be a challenge. Fortunately, they chose “Little Ronny Howard”.
“Little Ronny Howard is cute as Barnaby,” wrote one reviewer in the TV Key Previews column, “and you’ll no doubt recognize Mel Blanc’s voice as McSnoyd the Invisible Imp.”
“Ronny Howard has been a professional since he was two years old” The Tribune wrote. “He first appeared with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rance Howard of Burbank, Calif., in Baltimore, Md.’s Hilltop Summer Theater production of The Seven Year Itch, when his father was the resident manager there. .”
So the boy was three years away from his acting career at that time. That’s why other Hollywood powerhouses had their eyes on the youngster.
Producer Aaron Ruben placed a second take on Ronny for his next The Andy Griffith Show. (This according to his father, Rance Howard himself.) He bet CBS wouldn’t pick up Barnabas as a series – and he was right. So he got Ronny for his Opie.
“I remember walking in and meeting Aaron Ruben and for some reason he was like, ‘How tall are you?'” Ron Howard recalled. He didn’t know how tall he was, but he could stand under Reuben’s desk. So he went under Ruben’s desk. “We’ll measure my desk later,” Ruben said. But Howard couldn’t remember anything that looked like an audition for The Andy Griffith Showaccording to the podcast Two chairs without waiting.
Apparently Barnaby was all they needed to see.
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