It was the early 1920s, and radio, a new invention, was penetrating American living rooms at an alarming rate. With hours each day to fill with content, producers were looking for young men and women who were willing to work long hours and enjoy little of the glamour associated with the theater. Reed was just this man: He showed up at the office of a big-time producer and asked to audition for a part. The producer’s secretary looked at the pudgy 19-year-old and laughed; the only role they had was that of a mobster, she said, and there was no way a kid could convincingly play a mafia don. Undeterred, Reed waited for the secretary to leave for lunch then picked up her telephone and dialed her boss, the producer. The man picked up, and Reed, channeling every Italian neighbor he’d ever known, put on the thick accent he thought was needed for the part.
“I’m just gonna tell you somethin’,” he told the shocked producer. “I’m comin’ into your office in a couple of minutes. You’re gonna give me a job, or you’re goin’ for a ride.” Then, he hung up and marched over to the producer’s office. He was hired on the spot.
Within months, Reed became one of radio’s most sought-after actors. The new medium, as comedian Steve Allen famously put it, was the theater of the mind, and it needed performers who could invoke an entire world with a slight shift in tone or a subtle change of diction. A master of mimicry, Reed gave his voice to one ludicrous character after another.
On The Fred Allen Show he played Falstaff Openshaw, an effete Irish poet specializing in hackneyed ditties like “Said the little bear to the big giraffe/ Let’s eat a hyena, just for a laugh.” On NBC’s popular Abie’s Irish Rose —a comedy show about a nice Jewish boy and his Irish Catholic sweetheart—he played Solomon Levy, Abie Levy’s censorious father. And on CBS’s Life With Luigi, a howler about Italian immigrants in Chicago, he was Pasquale, a restaurateur hell-bent on marrying off his obese daughter.
These characters all sounded different, but they had one thing in common: They all had a touch of Abraham Greenberg, Reed’s grandfather. For all the broad comedy and exaggerated accents, Reed realized that at the heart of every immigrant’s story was buried a deep uncertainty, a throbbing anxiety, a certain confusion about preserving the old world’s values in the new one. As a child, Reed had witnessed these emotions overwhelm his grandfather, and he resented the old man and his ways. As an adult, however, he could turn the maddening into the sublime, recreating one Abraham Greenberg after another and giving his creations the gift of warmth and humor.
It was a gift that only came through on radio, however; whenever he pranced on stage or appeared on screen, Alan Reed was just another burly comic whose large frame allowed little subtlety to seep through. As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Reed was scantily employed. Barbera’s call, then, was a thrill. Working in animation, Reed realized, he would once again be just a voice.
When he walked into the studio to audition for the part, he read as if Fred Flintstone was just another Pasquale or Solomon or Falstaff, ambitious and anxious and a little bit perplexed. Herein lies the true genius of Fred Flintstone, which is to say, the true genius of Alan Reed—although the character and its exploits are taken directly from the Gleason canon, Reed made no effort to imitate Gleason’s flat, clipped cadence, that all-American voice crafted by screenwriters eager to cram as many punch lines into a sentence as they could.
Instead, Reed’s Fred spoke in a soulful voice, with a note of hurt quivering beneath each cheerful statement and a touch of insecurity making even the most straightforward lines tremble just a bit. It was a voice that sounded like it belonged to someone living in the outskirts of society and doing his best to pass for one of the guys, a voice Reed had heard so often growing up from immigrants veteran and new. It was, in other words, the perfect voice for Fred Flintstone.
Reed was hired on the spot.