Hank Stohl, a star puppeteer in the early days of local television who went on to a long career in acting and advertising, died Monday after a long illness in Whitehall. He was 81.
Mr. Stohl was best known for his children's shows weekdays on KDKA and later WTAE-TV with puppets Rodney and Knish, the latter being little more than a mop of rug yarn hair and a protruding darning egg nose. For a dozen years starting in 1952, Mr. Stohl was on live across Pittsburgh, performing puppet sketches he wrote himself, often during the noon hour when schoolchildren were home eating lunch.
It made him such a big star that his weekends were spent doing promotional appearances, while also hosting variety shows and handling sports and weather. One of the shows on KDKA, called "Big Adventure," started with cartoons hosted by Knish and Rodney, followed by an adventure feature and interviews with live guests like Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis and Chuck Connors.
He hit it off with Mr. Connors, so much that the "Rifleman" star asked him to appear on his western in 1959. It stoked an interest in acting that would drive him from the city a few years later. He spent the following decades shuttling among Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh.
Though he would appear in dozens of movies, TV series, soap operas and plays, his steadiest work came from voice-over work on commercials for Camel cigarettes, Pepsi, Taco Bell and others.
"He had a very good voice and a mug good enough to be on TV in the 50s. He got work both ways," said his friend and former Pittsburgh Press movie critic Ed Blank.
Jean Connelly picked that same voice out of an off-camera booth at WDTV to be her male co-host on "Home Edition" in 1952, one of his first on-air jobs. It would serve him well later in New York and L.A.
"He had an excellent voice. Most people out on the coasts get jobs as waiters when they're trying to break into drama. Hank did commercial work," she said.
For most in Pittsburgh, though, he would always be best known for the work with the puppets, starting on "Mitzi's Kiddie Castle" on KDKA predecessor WDTV in 1952 and finally on "Popeye 'n' Knish" on WTAE. He had some previous experience with puppets on a station in Cincinnati, but didn't have them when Mitzi McCall asked him to audition.
Hence, the mop-top puppet.
"The puppet was named Clarence, but Mitzi said 'He looks like a knish.' I thought 'Anything you want, lady,'" Mr. Stohl told the Post-Gazette in 1990. "Hey, I wasn't going to argue with the star."
Henry S. Zakowski took his mother's maiden name and started working in Ohio television in 1948, after getting a degree from the Cincinnati College of Music and serving in the Navy in World War II. Television, with a lot of time to fill, was wide open back then, and it allowed Mr. Stohl and contemporaries like a young Fred Rogers (who started on "Children's Corner" on WQED in 1954) to be free and unscripted.
A decade later, network children's fare like the "Mickey Mouse Club" and Popeye cartoons was limiting the time for his live comedy spots, and Mr. Stohl began pouring himself into local theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg. In 1964, he took his puppets to New York station WPIX but retired them four years later to make it in Hollywood.
"He got the acting bug and decided to get into more adult things," said Thom Thomas, then-theater manager at Little Lake, partially because it gave him the rush of live TV. "He loved the response of the audience. It was very encouraging."
Mr. Stohl would get spots on "Ironside," "S.W.A.T.," "The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Rockford Files" and other shows, often playing a cop or security guard. He felt typecast as a children's comedian and it didn't help that he looked a lot like another actor from the time, Skip Homeier, who took many similar crime drama roles.
It wasn't for lack of trying. Mr. Stohl continued doing theater around L.A. and would routinely drive around to casting directors' offices, dropping off theater programs with his name circled in pen. Inside he tucked official-looking stationery with "Ben Levy, Beverly Hills, California" printed at the top. "This guy is terrific. Why don't we use him more often?" the notes would say.
"Pretty soon casting directors everywhere were saying 'We must have a Ben Levy on our board,'" his friend from the KDKA days, Bob McCully, said of the made-up name. "He was such a dynamic personality, that kind of thing just came naturally with him."
Mr. Stohl stayed busy, co-writing the novel "The Many Wars of Christopher Branch," the three-act comedy "Lie A Little" and a 2005 book on early Pittsburgh children's television called "When We Were Kids." He was also a licensed pilot.
Mr. Stohl came back to Pittsburgh for a performance of "Love Letters" with Barbara Cloud, a Press and Post-Gazette columnist, in 1995 and performed with Knish, Rodney and Connie the dog at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum in 1990.
He donated his puppets to the Heinz History Center, and Knish remains on display in its special collections center. Though he had not performed with them regularly in 40 years, they remained special -- he often ended cards and letters, Mr. Thomas said, with doodles of the mop-topped Pittsburgh character.
Mr. Stohl is survived by his wife, Anita; children Donna Zeller, Henry S. Zakowski II, Julianne Gemino, Michael Hegley, Erik Stohl and Robert Perry; and sisters Leona Benson and Lois Cook.
Friends are welcome tomorrow from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. and Friday from 2 to 4 and 6 to a service at 7:30 p.m. at Beinhauer, 2630 West Liberty Ave., Beechview.
Memorial contributions may be made to The Intersection, c/o Sister Bonnie Heh, P.O. Box 827, McKeesport, PA 15132.
Tim McNulty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.