John Dehner made the unusual leap from Disney animator to actor

He went from animating Bambi to cherished roles on classic TV shows.

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For The Andy Griffith Show episode "Aunt Bee’s Medicine Man," prolific character actor John Dehner was brought in to play a huckster selling Aunt Bee on some snake oil.

You might recognize Dehner best by his bushy mustache, which he started wearing at the age of 19 and never stopped.

But at 19, Dehner didn’t know he wanted to be an actor yet. His dad was a painter, and he planned to follow in his footsteps, so Dehner went to art school in New York.

With a dream of becoming a top animator, Dehner took his first job at Walt Disney Studios, working in a role known as an "in-betweener."

Dehner said an in-betweener "is a guy who draws everything that goes ‘in between’ bits of action as sketched by the animators."

One of the earliest films he worked on was the gorgeous Fantasia, followed by The Reluctant Dragon, and then Bambi. Dehner said he wasn’t the one sending Mickey’s mop marching in Fantasia or making Thumper thump in Bambi, though.

"Sometimes I spent days merely drawing curly lines to simulate waves, or cloud outlines, or horizons," Dehner said.

While Dehner was sending colors swirling over the animation cels, he was dreaming of moving up at Walt Disney Studios. Some days he would draw until his fingers felt numb and he would start seeing double, but it was worth it because he imagined that one day, he’d become a film tycoon.

But we know now that wasn’t the future that awaited Dehner. Instead, Dehner fell in love with a secretary working in the front office who had the greatest smile he’d ever seen, then got drafted, cutting his animation career short.

While at war, Dehner discovered the radio, becoming a popular announcer and newscaster, and when he returned, he wanted to try acting.

Through the early 1940s, Dehner took on any role he could get in the movies, quickly falling in love with acting, even though he broke his hand throwing a punch in his first scene he ever filmed.

His determination helped him soon become typecast as a villain, appearing in bigger roles the longer he kept at it, with his distinct mustache making him an increasingly familiar face onscreen.

"I was a good bad man in the old movies," Dehner told the Columbia Record in 1972. "I worked a good while before I was able to do anything I wanted."

It turns out that what Dehner wanted most in his career was a chance to do more comedy. But after making his name through movie roles, in the 1950s, he still got typecast to play dramas and Westerns, shows like Perry Mason and Wagon Train.

As an actor, Dehner came to idolize Gary Cooper, though, and he never gave up hope that he’d eventually be able to do more varied roles.

"To me the greatest actor was Gary Cooper," Dehner said. "He was my hero. The fellow could do anything. He wasn’t limited to Westerns."

It wasn’t until The Andy Griffith Show gave Dehner his first comedic role in 1963 that the veteran character actor finally got a chance to prove how funny he could be.

"Aunt Bee’s Medicine Man" paved the way for what would become Dehner’s favorite role he ever played when he got cast as Cy Bennett on The Doris Day Show in the early Seventies.

Finally, he had found exactly what he wanted to be doing with his life: playing editor to Doris Day.

"In drama, you have a lead into what you’re doing, but comedy is instant," Dehner said. "There’s more improvisation. It’s much faster and your best sense of timing is constantly being called upon."

As Cy Bennett, Dehner felt free to improvise and found himself constantly trying to bring more to scenes, even when he was just in the background.

He found this work more demanding and more satisfying, and in the Seventies, declared he was much more interested in appearing on television than in movies.

"Because it’s fast and puts demands upon you," Dehner said of TV acting. "One has to produce quickly. On a movie set, you can sit for four hours doing nothing. Television is also teaching me some important lessons in life. I’m learning to enjoy myself more. I’m really enjoying John Dehner for the first time. I am playing the character I like, and enjoying what happens to me."

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ClemCarpenter 23 months ago
Dehner was hilarious in an episode of The New Temperature's Rising Show in the 70's alongside Paul Lynde and Cleavon Little, where he played this high ranking MD who loves to get three sheets to the wind, if you remember that particular episode.....
RandySkretvedt 26 months ago
The people who send colors swirling over animation cels are painters, not in-betweeners. In-betweeners sketch in pencil on paper. Their work is then photographed onto a pencil-test reel, a film which will show if the animation has any flaws. Once everything is correct, the pencil sketches go to inkers, who paint the outlines in black onto cels, and then to painters, who fill in the colors.
ww245 26 months ago
I've seen John Dehner in all kinds of movies and character. Never knew he was an animator for Walt Disney. Doesn't surprise me though. What a great actor and I believe he could pull off about anything he got a job for from a bar rat to a priest....I know, not much difference to some, but I hope you all know what I mean. He was a neat guy on the screen from what I've seen.
Robertp 26 months ago
I remember Mr Dehner mostly on Gunsmoke. To me he wasn’t a believable villain. He came across as a nice guy. I bet he was in real life.
UTZAAKE 26 months ago
John Dehner was so hilariously uptight as Cy Bennett in The Doris Day Show. Always answered the telephone with a comically forceful "Yellow!"
Spiro 26 months ago

Mr. Dehner was in many Gunsmoke episodes. And a hilarious episode of the Rockford Files. With Jack Riley (Carlin on Bob Newhart) Steve Landesberg (Dietrich on Barney Miller) and Stuart Margolin. Dehner does this funny deadpan look. The comedy and action work well.

Also in the same comedic vein check out Andy Griffith and Joyce van Patton in a comedy episode of Hawaii Five-O. They play a family of grifters. Hilarious!
Coldnorth Spiro 26 months ago
Did he appear on the Wild Wild West?
Spiro Coldnorth 26 months ago
I'm sure he did.
Likable guy.
Jon 26 months ago
Mr. Dehner also made 3 TWILIGHT ZONE appearances, 2 in starring roles.
Mikeluvme 26 months ago
In the article he mentions his favorite actor is Gary Cooper. He worked with him in a good movie called”Man of the West”. It also highlights Lee J. Cobb - who ran Shiloh Ranch on “The Virginian” at one time just like John Dehner’s character. You can see Julie London - from the show “Emergency “ - in an entirely dramatic role and Jack Lord from “Hawaii 5-0” absolutely terrific as a vicious villain. Watch for the fight between Lord and Cooper and the undressing Lord receives.
MarkSpeck 26 months ago
TV Guide interviewed him when he co-starred on The Doris Day Show and asked why he never smiled. With that, he smiled for them. The writer said that when Dehner smiled, he looked like a dishonest used car salesman!
GregV 26 months ago
Since this article highlights his Andy Griffith work, a sidelight is his appearance in a Wagon Train episode, The Annie Griffith Story, in 1959.
ERColby 26 months ago
Regular listeners to satellite radio's Radio Classics channel can tell you that John Dehner played Paladin on the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel while Richard Boone was playing the role on TV. He also starred in a series called Frontier Gentleman and was a frequent guest actor on the radio version of Gunsmoke, which starred William Conrad as Matt Dillon, as well as on many other radio series.
TimBeasley 26 months ago
As he was an arist at Disney for "Bambi," I'm hoping he knew famed artist and movie art director John "J.L." Datu Arensma, who also worked on "Bambi." I have 6 of John Datu Arensma's paintings!
Shatner1 26 months ago
Terrific actor! Could do it all! His comedy timing was perfect!!!
JHP 26 months ago
you couldnt swing a dead cat by the tail and not hit/or hear John Dehner on old time radio (xm ch148)

him - bill conrad - parley baer - raymond burr and a few others
WVsass 26 months ago
He played Morgan Starr in “The Virginian”.
Mike 26 months ago
MeTV+ (next channel over) has started running 77 Sunset Strip weeknights.
John Dehner made at least a half dozen appearances here, different parts each time.
My favorite: Roger Smith had a case at a movie studio, and John Dehner played HIMSELF, an actor friend who helped out with the detection.
BOLO, as they say ...
wade 26 months ago
He was Lieutenant Broggi on “ENOS”.
Big3Fan 26 months ago
I nominate Dehner and Conrad for the voice HoF. Interesting that the television version of HG-WT debuted a year before the radio version.
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