Wally Cox's reedy voice and nebbishy demeanor made him an in-demand character actor throughout the '50s and '60s, but he also had his moments in the spotlight. He provided the hero's voice for the cartoon series Underdog, distributed acerbic quips on The Hollywood Squares, and made his reputation and ruined his life with the early-'50s sitcom Mister Peepers. As a world-class intellect who studied with Stella Adler, roomed with Marlon Brando, and hobnobbed with New York City's thespian elite, Cox resented being typecast as the meek, naĂŻve soul he played on Mister Peepers. He died at age 48 of a heart attack brought on by an overdose of sleeping pills, after several years in which his public appearances were marked by surly, snappish behavior.

But Cox's sad end shouldn't dim his bright beginning. His three-year run on Mister Peepers—26 episodes of which have recently been collected on a four-DVD set—remains a TV treasure, notable for its gentle humor and theatrical pedigree. The show was broadcast live weekly on NBC between 1952 and 1955, with Cox as a junior-high science teacher whose unflagging decency touches everyone he meets. Because of its live origins, Mister Peepers only exists now on kinescopes, with a slightly muddy picture and sound that dulls some of the comedy. But truth be told, Mister Peepers was hardly hilarious. Most episodes involved Cox stumbling into mild trouble and stumbling back out without realizing what he'd done, and the jokes were often padded to fill the half-hour.

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Still, Cox and a cast of New York professionals (including a young Tony Randall) knew how to work a studio audience, and Cox in particular could express volumes with just a raised eyebrow and a satisfied smile. It's tough today to conceive of a series where Tony Randall was the cast's manly man, but that's because Cox represents a character type rarely seen on TV anymore: the unapologetic brainiac with a good heart and a dear circle of friends. Maybe Cox is to blame for creating a character so beloved that his fans never wanted to see him bleed.

Key features: The original pilot episode (with no studio audience or laugh track), and a brief conversation with Dom DeLuise about Cox's legendary friendship with Brando.