Phil Harris, the brash, bourbon-swigging, fast-drawling band leader who became a comic radio star as a Jack Benny sidekick in the 1930s and then enchanted new generations of fans as the unlikely voice of Baloo the Bear in Walt Disney’s “Jungle Book,” died Friday night at his home at the Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 91.
Whether as part of the famous Jack Benny radio ensemble from 1936 to 1952 or as the star of his own show with his wife, Alice Faye, from 1946 to 1954, Harris, with his black curly hair, wide, toothy grin and trademark “Hi ya, Jackson,” was the epitome of the slang-slinging, wisecracking slacker, a drummer given to one liners and two fingers of bourbon.
As a Jack Benny regular, Harris became such a favorite of the show’s huge audience that NBC gave him his own half hour show immediately after the Benny broadcast on Sunday nights.
He had a distinct southern accent and affected down-home humor with such songs as “That’s What I Like About the South,” “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” “Woodman, Spare that Tree,” “The Preacher and the Bear,” and “Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette,” he delivered the lines with a rapid-fire staccato. His biggest hit was “The Thing.”
Harris’ radio work led to a string of movie parts, mostly playing himself but including a role in “The High and the Mighty,” in 1954.
He was retired and largely forgotten in 1967 when Walt Disney picked him for the voice of Baloo the Bear in his animated cartoon version of Kipling’s “Jungle Book.”
Neither Harris nor the Disney associates quite understood why Harris had been picked, a mystery that deepened when Harris did his first reading of his lines, finding them too plain for his style.
As he later recalled it, after a wooden reading of a line like, “Now, Mowgli, you be careful because you’re in this bad jungle,” he asked if he could do a bit of improvising and was told to go ahead.
“I came out with something like, “You keep foolin’ around in the jungle like this, man, you gonna run across some cats that’ll knock the roof in.”
The Disney staff was so impressed that the entire movie was rewritten, incorporating the personalities of the actors into the cartoon characters they portrayed.
Harris, whose song in the film, “The Bare Necessities,” was nominated for an Academy Award, became famous all over again, much to his surprise and delight.