American actor and vocal artist George S. Irving (b. Springfield, MA, 1 November 1922) is known primarily for his comedy and character roles in Broadway musicals, but he has also worked extensively behind the scenes doing voice-overs, especially for children’s cartoons on television. His career has now spanned over six decades.
Born George Irving Shelasky, he moved the “S” of his last name to its new position after making his Broadway debut as Joe in the original 1943 production of Oklahoma!. Almost immediately after the premiere of that landmark show, Irving was drafted to serve in World War II. But as soon as he was back home, in April 1946, he was back on Broadway, hopping from one original musical or revue to another, working his way up to higher and higher billing (Call Me Mister 1946, Along Fifth Avenue 1949, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 1949, Two’s Company 1952, Can-Can 1953, Me and Juliet 1953) until he was starring with Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin in Bells Are Ringing in 1956.
In 1958 Irving was featured as Benjamin Hubbard in the New York City Centre revival of Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina, and on the Columbia Masterworks recording of that production. He also sang the role of Jigger Craigin on Columbia’s 1955 Studio Cast Recording of Carousel, with Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel, Florence Henderson, and Gloria Lane.
Irving first appeared on television in February 1957 in a play called Ruggles of Red Gap on the “Producers’ Showcase.” He did not embark on his voice-over career, however, until 1960, when he contributed a number of character voices to the cartoon series “King Leonardo and His Short Subjects.” He also lent his voice to the singing part of Macheath in the overdubbed English soundtrack of the German film Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1962), but this film was so universally panned that it seemed prudent to abandon that particular path. Irving returned to cartoons with two television series, “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” (1963) and “Go Go Gophers” (1968).
Meanwhile he continued his prosperous career on Broadway in, among other musicals and plays, Irma la Douce (1960), Romulus (1962), Bravo Giovanni (1962), and Tovarich (1968). In 1968 he starred with Robert Goulet and David Wayne in the Tony®-nominated The Happy Time, and in 1972 won the Drama Desk Award for his Outstanding Performance as Richard M. Nixon in Gore Vidal’s An Evening with Richard Nixon and …. The next year he won a Tony® for his portrayal of Madame Lucy in Irene (with Debbie Reynolds). Starring roles followed in the Richard Rodgers/Martin Charnin musical of I Remember Mama (1979), The Pirates of Penzance (1982) with Kevin Kline, Estelle Parsons, and Linda Ronstadt, and the long-running Me and My Girl (1986–89), for which Irving was nominated for another Tony®.
On television, George S. Irving’s face was nearly as familiar as it was on Broadway: he guested on “Car 54, Where Are You?” (1962), “Naked City” (1962), “The Patty Duke Show” (1964), “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” (1967), “All in the Family” (1975), and “Captain Kangaroo” (1980); he narrated the cartoon series “Underdog” (1964) and played recurring roles on “The Dumplings” (1976) and “Ryan’s Hope” (1981).
But Irving’s most enduring screen presence is probably as the voice of the Heat Miser in the 1974 Christmas cartoon by Rankin & Bass, The Year Without a Santa Claus. Thirty-four years later, a sequel to this perennial favorite, A Miser Brothers’ Christmas, premiered on cable TV’s ABC Family, with Irving in the same role (a remake of the original had been produced in 2006, with an entirely different cast). The 2008 production was nominated for an Annie Award. Irving had supplied the voice of Geppetto in another animated Rankin & Bass Christmas feature in 1980, Pinocchio’s Christmas.
Irving was not entirely absent from the big screen, either: He appeared with Barbra Streisand in Up the Sandbox (1972), with Jerry Orbach in Fore Play (1975), and with Don Murray and James Earl Jones in Deadly Hero (1976).
In 2008, Irving got rave reviews for his bawdy rendition of “The Butler’s Song” in the off-Broadway musical Enter Laughing (a remake of the 1976 dud So Long, 174th Street, in which he played the same three roles). Then, having just passed his eighty-sixth birthday in November, he gave a sensational one-man cabaret show at Feinstein’s in New York, and a few weeks later was given the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.
George Irving was married to dancer and actress Maria Karnilova for 53 years – from 1948 until her death in 2001.