George S. Irving the voice of the beloved ‘Heat Miser’ from popular children’s Christmas special, “A Year Without A Santa Claus” and the famed pitchman for White Owl cigars on television, died at the age of 94. His daughter, Katherine Irving, said the cause of death was heart failure.
“George had a proficient jaw line with wavy hair and an unforgettable baritone voice”, said James Morgan, artistic director who worked with Irving at the York Theater. “He didn’t need a microphone,” said James Morgan. “He had this incredibly resonant voice, and total precision of diction. You can hear him on recordings — his voice just pops out from everybody else.”
On Nov. 1, 1922, in Springfield, Mass., George Irving Shelasky was born to Abraham Shelasky and Rebecca Sack.
“When I was 13 or 14, I sang in synagogues and churches when I was a boy soprano,” Mr. Irving told the theater website Broadway World. “We had a very good dramatics teacher in high school. We did ‘Julius Caesar’ and Chekhov.”
After graduating from High School, George earned a scholarship to study drama at the Leland Powers School in Boston. A year later he secured chorus work in St. Louis, MO at an outdoor theater known as the Muny.
It was here that George replaced another actor in the play, “Show Boat” and to his luck in the audience that night was Oscar Hammerstien II the musical lyricist. This chance meeting led to a job in the chorus of “Oklahoma!”
“We all gathered upstairs at the Guild Theater, and Dick Rodgers played the score for us for the first time,” he told Broadway World. “Oscar was there and he sort of mumbled the lyrics a little.”
Shortly thereafter George felt the call of WW II and enlisted into the U.S. Army, serving in the military’s Entertainment branch stationed in the Philippines and Korea.
Upon his discharge, George went back to Broadway and was cast in the popular “Call Me Mister” a show about soldiers returning from war. It was here on the set that George fell in love and met his future wife, Maria Karnilova.
In 1973 Mr. Irving won a Tony in the show “Irene” for best featured actor in a musical. Clive Barnes of The New York Times called Mr. Irving’s performance “by far the most professional and polished,” and said his Madame Lucy “stole a show that was never guarded as closely as it might have been.”
Mr. Irving was a regular on Broadway, in the musicals “Can-Can,” “Bells Are Ringing” and “Irma La Douce,” among others, and in plays like Gore Vidal’s political satire “An Evening With Richard Nixon and…,” in which he played the title role.
Also in the early 1970s, Mr. Irving’s unique face had made him very popular among Americans. One of the television ads that made him a household name was as the pitchman for White Owl cigars. Once you try a White Owl, he said with a cocky smile, “We’re gonna getcha. You know we’re gonna getcha.” After exhaling some smoke, he added, “Oh yeah.”
He later lost this job with White Owl cigars by being overheard saying, “He wanted to get his hands on a big, fat Cuban cigar”.
In 1974 he provided the voice for one of the most beloved children characters of all time the Heat Miser in the animated television movie “The Year Without a Santa Claus.” He returned to the role 34 years later in a sequel, “A Miser Brothers’ Christmas.” He also narrated episodes of the “Underdog” cartoon series.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Irving is survived by a son, Alexander; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Ms. Karnilova died in 2001.
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