Joseph Sherrard Kearns (February 12, 1907 – February 17, 1962) was an American actor, who is best remembered for his role as George Wilson ("Mr. Wilson") in the CBS television series Dennis the Menace from 1959 until his death in 1962, and for providing the voice of the Doorknob in the animated Disney film, Alice in Wonderland.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Kearns moved with his family to California when he was very young. His mother was Cordelia M. Kearns (née Peterson) (1877–1962), a concert pianist, from whom Kearns derived his love of music. Kearns' acting career began in 1916 when he joined 'The Rising Generation," a vaudeville troupe of eleven children that toured for 14 months. He went to college at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, where he earned his tuition by teaching a course in theatrical makeup. He graduated with a degree in music. Kearns started in radio and theatre as a pipe organist. Later, he built his soundproof Hollywood home around a 26-rank Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.
Kearns began his acting career in radio in the 1930s (playing the Crazyquilt Dragon in the serial The Cinnamon Bear), becoming active during the 1940s, with appearances on the shows The Adventures of Sam Spade, Burns and Allen and dozens of other shows. On Suspense, he was almost a mainstay, heard regularly as the host "The Man in Black" in the early years, announcing many episodes in the later run, and playing supporting and occasional lead roles in hundreds of shows throughout the series' tenure in Hollywood, from judges to kindly old-timers to cowards.
His best-remembered radio role was that of Ed, the security guard for Jack Benny's underground money vault, on The Jack Benny Program. The 'running gag' was that Benny had kept Ed on duty at the vault's door so long that the guard was not conversant with current events. When Benny informed him that "The War (World War II) had ended," Ed asked whether the "North" or the "South" had won, assuming that the American Civil War was the one Benny was referring to. He was also the first actor to play the part of Matt Grebb, one of a pair of police detectives in the radio version of the procedural cop series The Lineup, relinquishing the role to Wally Maher in 1951. He appeared in regular roles on The Mel Blanc Show (as the cantankerous father of Mel's on-air girl friend, Betty, played by Mary Jane Croft) and The Harold Peary Show as Old Doc Yak-Yak.
Kearns made his film debut in Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951). He was the voice of the Doorknob in Disney's animated film, Alice in Wonderland (1951). Kearns appeared in other movies, making his final film appearance as the crime photographer in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).
Joseph Kearns (right) with the cast ofDennis the Menace
On television, Kearns reprised his radio roles on The Jack Benny Program and also appeared with Eve Arden and Richard Crenna in Our Miss Brooks(1953–1955) - first as Assistant Superintendent Michaels and later (in eight episodes) as Superintendent Stone, a role that he had played on radio. He appeared in at least one episode of I Love Lucy, My Little Margie, I Married Joan, December Bride, It's a Great Life, Walter Brennan's The Real McCoys(in the 1957 episode "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man"), Angel, and Ronald W. Reagan's General Electric Theater
Kearns played Fred, a neighbor of Dr. Tom Wilson (Stephen Dunne) in the 1955 CBS sitcom, Professional Father, co-starring Phyllis Coates, Barbara Billingsley, and Beverly Washburn. In 1959 Kearns appeared as Criminologist Edward Langley in the Perry Mason episode, "The Case of the Perjured Parrot."
Dennis the Menace
Kearns' final role was as George Wilson in CBS's Dennis the Menace based on the comic strip by Hank Ketcham. After his death, Kearns was replaced by Gale Gordon, who played George Wilson's brother John. Kearns and Gordon had worked together prior to Dennis the Menace, on the old radio showThe Cinnamon Bear.
In the last episode that aired before Kearns' death, episode 89 entitled "Where There's a Will", the story dealt with Mr. Wilson making out a will and explaining that Dennis would inherit his gold watch when he dies. The last episode Kearns filmed was titled "The Man Next Door", episode 100, and shown on May 6, 1962. Sylvia Field as George's wife Martha remained for a few more broadcasts, with John Wilson appearing in episode 103, "John Wilson's Cushion", which aired on May 27, 1962. There were references to George being 'back east' in subsequent shows.
While Kearns was still filming episodes, the show introduced Edward Everett Horton as George's Uncle Ned, beginning with episode 90. Horton subsequently appeared twice more. Field was eventually replaced by Sara Seegar in season four, playing John Wilson's wife Eloise.
Kearns died of a cerebral hemorrhage during the third season of Dennis the Menace at the age of 55.