John Dehner made the unusual leap from Disney animator to actor
He went from animating Bambi to cherished roles on classic TV shows.
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."