Born as José Pereira de Faria in San Leandro, California to Portuguese parents, Peary (pronounced Perry) began working in local radio as early as 1923, according to his own memory, and had his own show as a singer, The Spanish Serenader
, in San Francisco, but moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1937.
In Chicago his radio work came to a peak when he became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly, where he originated the Gildersleeve character as a McGee neighbor and nemesis in 1938. ("You're a haaa-aa-aard man, McGee" was a famous catch-phrase.) The character actually went through several first names and occupations before settling on Throckmorton Philaharmonic Gildersleeve and his stewardship of a lingerie factory. He also worked on the horror series Lights Out and other radio programs, but his success and popularity as Gildersleeve set the stage for the character's own program.
From Wistful Vista to Summerfield
Johnson's Wax, which sponsored Fibber McGee & Molly, sponsored an audition recording for The Great Gildersleeve, and the Kraft Cheese Company signed on as the show's regular sponsor. Gildersleeve was transplanted from Wistful Vista to Summerfield with more than just a locale change---now a bachelor (his character had a never-heard wife onFibber McGee & Molly; and now the water commissioner instead of the owner of the Gildersleeve's Girlish Girdles company), with much of his pomposity and cantankerousness toned down, he was also newly-domesticated and appointed guardian of his orphan niece Marjorie and nephew Leroy. Implicitly well-off though by no means wealthy, Gildersleeve was also depicted winding up his lingerie-making company and taking up a new life as Summerfield's water commissioner. Peary's Gildersleeve proved popular enough that it was thought to try the character in his own show.
The Great Gildersleeve premiered August 31, 1941 and became a steady hit for the rest of the decade, Peary's sonorous voice and flustered catchphrases ("You're a brii-iii-iight boy, Leroy!" was a modification of his famous McGee catchphrase) among radio's most familiar sounds. Lurene Tuttle played Marjorie; Walter Tetley, a veteran of Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight cast and other shows, played Leroy; and, Lillian Randolph played Gildersleeve's ego-puncturing maid and housekeeper, Birdie.
The show's humour, like that of McGee, was drawn through clever word-play and phrasemaking as well as Gildersleeve's earnest stumbling and basically warmhearted nature. His new nemesis was Judge Horace Hooker (Earle Ross) ("That crook of a Hooker has hooked our cook!"), who oversaw his guardianship of Marjorie and Leroy and became a friend and periodic rival in various schemes. Periodically, storylines were serialised, such as some of Gildersleeve's romantic interests (especially his aborted marriage plans with Leila Ransom) and political aspirations (he once ran for Summerfield mayor); in time, some of the clever word playing was toned down.
Peary also found occasion to weave his singing voice into show episodes, such as "Mystery Voice" [5/10/1942] in which he referenced his former Spanish Serenader radio persona in a plot involving a Brazilian singer on a local radio show (Mel Blancguested as the station manager), concurrently referencing his Portuguese heritage. But his best-remembered vocalism would be what radio historians have called his "dirty laugh," a descending giggle that could start from sarcasm and finish in embarrassment or substitute for being at a schoolboy-like loss for words.
Other characters in and out of the Gildersleeve orbit included Richard LeGrand as Peavey the druggist (his dry, almost mumbled "Oh, now, I wouldn't say that" also became a familiar catch-phrase), Arthur Q. Bryan (making a name as sarcastic Doc Gamble on Fibber McGee & Molly) as Floyd the barber, Ken Christy as police chief Gates, Shirley Mitchell as Leila Ransom, Bea Benaderet as another Gildersleeve paramour Eve Goodwin, and occasionally Gale Gordon (Mayor LaTrivia on McGee) as Rumson Bullard, a neighbour who served Gildersleeve the way Gildersleeve had once served Fibber McGee---an equal for obnoxiousness.
Peary also featured in four Great Gildersleeve feature films during the 1940s, the only member of the main radio cast to appear in the films.
By 1950, however, Peary's run as Gildersleeve was over. With CBS in the middle of a talent raid that had already lured Jack Benny and other NBC stars, Peary was offered a CBS deal of his own, after he chafed over NBC's and Kraft's reluctance to let him use his singing voice more often on Gildersleeve and to give him more part in the show's ownership than he already had. Radio historian Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio, said Peary and his agents at MCA had negotiated fruitlessly to get Peary a bigger stake in the show's ownership. When CBS began luring Benny (also an MCA client) and others away from NBC, mostly by offering the performers better capital-gains terms against the still-high postwar U.S. taxes than NBC was willing to do, Peary listened and signed with the network.
The problem was that Kraft wasn't willing to make the move with him. And they had a successor ready---Willard Waterman, whose voice resembled Peary's and who had known Peary since their early Chicago days. Waterman refused to appropriate the famous Gildersleeve laugh, believing Peary alone should have title to that trademark, but otherwise slipped easily into the role. Without Peary, however, Gildersleeve struggled on a few more radio years (by its final season, listeners heard only repeat broadcasts of earlier episodes) and bombed on television.
At CBS, Peary began a new situation comedy, The Harold Peary Show, sometimes known as Honest Harold, a title that was actually the name of the fictitious radio show the new character hosted. Radio veteran Joseph Kearns (later familiar as Mr. Wilson on television's Dennis the Menace) played veterinarian Dr. Yancey, known better as Doc Yak-Yak and resembling former foil Judge Hooker. The new show also borrowed a few Gildersleeve plot devices, such as running for mayor and engagements to two women. In what was possibly a desperate attempt to recreate the Gildersleeve magic, it even brought in actress Shirley Mitchell, virtually recreating her Gildersleeve role of Leila Ransom, under the name of Florabelle Breckenridge. Additionally, Honest Harold's secretary at the radio station, Glory, bears a more than passing resemblance to Gildersleeve's Water Department secretary, Bessie: both are stereotypical giggly blondes. Despite these efforts to recreate the power and ratings of "The Great Gildersleeve", The Harold Peary Show lasted only one season of 38 episodes.
Films and television
Other than the four Gildersleeve films, Peary appeared in the Walt Disney movie A Tiger Walks (1964) and the Elvis Presley entry Clambake (1965). He also worked in television, playing murderer Freddy Fell in the 1965 Perry Mason episode, "The Case of the Lover's Gamble." He also appeared in situation comedies including roles as Herb Woodley on the TV version of Blondie, Mayor LaTrivia in the TV version of Fibber McGee and Molly, and made guest appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Brady Bunch and The Addams Family. In the 1970s, Peary also featured in a popular television ad for Faygo soda pop.
Peary spent most of the rest of his life voice-acting in animated work by Rankin-Bass and Hanna-Barbera and others, before his death of a heart attack at the age of 76.