Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joe Flynn

Joe Flynn,” By ABC Network –, front of photo, back of photo, Public Domain.

For most of us, we remember actor Joe Flynn as the stuffed-shirt, bumbling Captain Wallace Burton Binghamton (or “Old Leadbottom”) whose characteristic response was “What is it, What, WHAT, WHAT!?” I grew up watching McHale’s Navy from 1962 to 1966 and I delighted in seeing how McHale (Ernest Borgnine) would find ways to work around or outfox Captain Binghamton in each episode.

Even though we laughed at Captain Binghamton, Joe Flynn was a source of pride for all of us who grew up in Youngstown. He was one of our own, and even though he had a successful career, often as the comic foil, he never forgot the place where he grew up. He was born in Youngstown, November 8, 1924, the son of Dr. Joseph A. and Gracie McGraw Flynn. He grew up on the North side and graduated from the Rayen School. He went on to spend a year at Notre Dame (according to The Vindicator obituary of July 20, 1974–Wikipedia says Northwestern) before three years in the Army Medical Corps during the war. He then went to the University of Southern California, majoring in political science.

His TV career goes back to the early days where he was in a sitcom, Yer Old Buddy, in 1948. He also appeared in a number of stage plays. He came back to Youngstown in 1950 and put his political science degree to work, making an unsuccessful run for the Ohio Senate, to represent Youngstown. In 1951, he was chosen to be the director of the Canfield Players, mounting successful productions of “Harvey,” “Antigone,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” and “Petticoat Fever.”

He starred in some horror productions, including The Indestructible Man with Lon Chaney, Jr. and some Alfred Hitchcock productions, but quickly realized that his best roles were comedic ones, often as the stuffy, bumbling figure. In all, he acted in over thirty Disney films including The Son of Flubber, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and The Love Bug and many others.

One of his early credits was in an episode of The Life of Riley in 1953. He was on a number of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and 34 episodes of the Joey Bishop Show. He worked every year between 1953 and 1974 according to TMDB. Over his lifetime he played over 500 roles. None, however, was as recognized as his role as the self-important and incompetent Captain Binghamton. He played this role in 138 episodes (all but one) and in two McHale movies. Later, he co-starred with Tim Conway on the Tim Conway Show, playing the boss of a small airline

He returned often to Youngstown, visiting his family’s home on Elm Street. He helped with United Appeal community fund-raising efforts. His work in broadcasting earned him an Ohio Association of Broadcasting award. He was a regular at the Kenley Players in the early 1970’s. He was scheduled to perform there the week after he died.

Joe Flynn died on July 19, 1974. He went for an early morning swim in the pool at his home and was found dead, submerged in the water. He died of a heart attack at age 49. Yet his work outlasted him. He appeared in 1975 as Dean Higgins in The Strongest Man in the World and in voiceovers for the Disney animated film The Rescuers in 1977, as the voice of Mr. Snoops. I remember this being one of my son’s favorite videos.

He was not a sex symbol. He was a character actor who figured out what he could do well. He could make people laugh, often at him. Contrary to his often stuck-up characters, it seems that he was anything but in real life–humble enough to know what he was good at and never forgetting where he came from. He was married to the same woman, Shirley, at the time of his death, who he married in 1955.

We may have laughed at the characters Joe Flynn played but we were always proud of him. And he gave us the chance to enjoy his talents at the Kenley Players, where we could enjoy and applaud him in person. He understood the special bond between actor and audience. He never forgot us and perhaps this is a small way of doing the same for him, We remember, Joe Flynn.

*I’d like to thank Boardman native David Rickert for the suggestion of this post.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

7 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joe Flynn

  1. I enjoyed reading your post thank you.
    I believe I once heard Ed O’Neal tell a story about Joe Flynn that they were cousins and for a short time lived at the same residence on North side.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you again for providing the interesting information on Y-town’s finest.
    Had always heard Flynn was from “home” but was not aware that he lived on the Northside, and close to St Ed’s!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know,or remember, Joe Flynn being from Youngstown. He was a funny character on TV. He also played and undertaker on the Night Gallery program.

    Liked by 1 person

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