Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bryan sang in a number of churches in the New York City area and had plans to be a professional singer. He sang tenor with the Seiberling Singers and the Jeddo Highlanders on NBC radio.
He grew up with a deep desire to go into show business, stumbling through the industry for several years before finding steady if unsatisfying work as a bit player and occasional film narrator in Hollywood. Bryan came to prominence in the late 1930s as the voice of Egghead and Elmer Fudd at Warner Brothers animation unit, headed by Leon Schlesinger.
Along with several characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, or Porky Pig, all voiced by Mel Blanc, one of Warner's early big stars was Bryan's Elmer Fudd. The slow-talking, slower-witted, enunciation-challenged Mr. Fudd is a game hunter whose Brooklynesque speech (courtesy of Bryan's own childhood upbringing in the borough) was exaggerated for memorable effect by his habitual substitution of W for the letters L and R, an effect further immortalized by the tongue-in-cheek screen credits of the 1941 Bugs Bunny short Wabbit Twouble.
When watching him perform, director Bob Clampett (or "Wobert Cwampett" in the screen credit) thought Bryan's girth added to the hilarity of his dialogue, and redesigned Fudd as a fat man patterned after Bryan's real-life appearance. After a few shorts, Clampett decided it was a mistake, and Fudd returned to his classical form. But fat or slimmed, Bryan's Fudd was so popular that the character's shorts were used to create and develop the character of Bugs Bunny, with the first official (released) Bugs Bunny appearance coming in the Fudd cartoon A Wild Hare.
Bryan's name does not appear in Looney Tunes credits because of Mel Blanc's contract with Warner Brothers, which stipulated that only Blanc would receive on-screen credit for voice work. Despite this, Bryan and Blanc remained good friends throughout their careers with Warner Brothers.
In the late 1920s, Bryan was an announcer at WOR radio in New York City. Contemporary radio listings in a daily newspaper indicate that he was still at WOR as late as September 13, 1931. In October 1931, he began working as an announcer at WCAU in Philadelphia, and in 1933 he moved to Philadelphia's WIP By 1934, he was heard on WHN in New York. In 1938–1939, he was a regular on The Grouch Club on the CBS Pacific network and was featured in some short-subject films made by the group.
Bryan's work in animation did not go unnoticed by radio producers. Although his first forays into that medium were accompanied by instructions that he use the Fudd voice, Bryan soon came to the attention of Don Quinn and Phil Leslie, the production and writing team responsible for Fibber McGee and Molly and their supporting characters, two of whom spun off into their own radio hits, The Great Gildersleeve and Beulah. The Gildersleeve character, played by Harold Peary, became series broadcasting's first successful spin-off hit; that plus the onset of World War II (which cost Fibber McGee & Molly their Mayor La Trivia, when Gale Gordon went into the Coast Guard in early 1942, and "The Old Timer" Bill Thompson was drafted almost a year later) nabbed nearly every other remaining male voice.
Bryan was first hired for the new Great Gildersleeve series, to play the part of Cousin Octavia's secretary/assistant, Lucius Llewellyn (using the Elmer Fudd voice), and later one of Gildersleeve's cronies, Floyd Munson, the barber. His work on the series (in Bryan's natural voice) so impressed Quinn and Leslie, that Bryan was added to the cast of their main show, Fibber McGee and Molly, in 1943. On Fibber, Bryan found himself in the unusual position of being smarter than, more educated than, and generally superior to his foil, titular braggart McGee. Playing Doc Gamble, Bryan was a polar opposite of the Fudd character—Gamble was well-spoken, even-tempered, and usually got the better of McGee, which Elmer could never do with Bugs.
In the early 1940s, Bryan played Waymond Wadcliffe on the Al Pearce & His Gang program on CBS. Bryan starred as Major Hoople (from June 22, 1942 to April 26, 1943) in The Charlotte Greenwood Show. and played Lt. Levinson on radio's Richard Diamond, Private Detective (from September 6, 1950 to June 29, 1951). In the mid-1940s, he had the role of Duke on Forever Ernest.
Bryan first became involved with the movie industry when he moved to Hollywood in 1936 to become a scenario writer for Paramount Pictures.
Bryan's live action work remained largely in uncredited cameo roles, usually employing the Fudd persona, or minor supporting roles in B-movies (like the apoplectic newspaper editor in the Bela Lugosi thriller The Devil Bat). He did work steadily, appearing in dozens of films over the years, in such successful releases as Samson and Delilah; two Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" films, Road to Singapore and Road to Rio; and the Ozzie and Harriet feature Here Come the Nelsons. He appeared frequently in live-action short-subjects for Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures.
Bryan continued as the Fibber show's secondary male lead, even after Thompson and (for a time) Gordon returned to the show, and he stayed as Dr. Gamble all the way through its final incarnation on the NBC Monitor series in 1959, as well as playing Floyd on "Gildersleeve" through its conclusion in 1954. Bryan's final original work as Fudd came in the Warner Bros. Edward R. Murrow spoof Person to Bunny.
Bryan was a panelist on the early TV quiz show Quizzing the News (1948–49). He would be found in numerous productions in the early 1950s predominantly in 1-episode bit parts, such as in the early filmed for television comedy, Beulah. He also landed a minor television role in 1955, as the handyman Mr. Boggs in the short-lived CBS sitcom, Professional Father, starring Stephen Dunne as a child psychologist and family man. On The Halls of Ivy, Bryan played Professor Warren, head of the college's history department, a role he also had on the radio program of the same name.
Bryan died of a sudden heart attack on November 18, 1959 in Hollywood. Hal Smith assumed the voice of Elmer Fudd in later Looney Tunes productions, and beginning in the early 1970s Mel Blanc would voice this character for various special television appearances. Bryan is buried in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery.
The DVD specials for some cartoons such as What's Opera, Doc?, in Looney Tunes Golden Collection, includes bits of conversation between Bryan and Mel Blanc, affording a rare opportunity to hear them working together, and to hear Bryan's natural voice. Bryan's natural voice is also heard as the tired hotel guest in A Pest in the House, in which Bryan "talks to himself", Elmer Fudd being the hotel manager.The Great Library Misery (1938) – Mr. F.T Smith
A Feud There Was (1938) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
Broadway Serenade (1939) – Process Server
Dangerous Dan McFoo (1939) – Dan McFoo (voice)
I Stole a Million (1939) – Cafe Mgr. Forbidding Dancing
These Glamour Girls (1939) – Dance Customer
Dad for a Day (1939) – Spanky's Father
Little Accident (1939) – Customer
Elmer's Candid Camera (1940) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
Road to Singapore (1940) – Bartender
Millionaire Playboy (1940) – J.B. Zany
Confederate Honey (1940) – Ned Cutler (voice)
The Hardship of Miles Standish (1940) – John Alden
South of the Boudior (1940) – Thomas Bailey
Swing with Bing (1940) – Golf Duffer
A Wild Hare (1940) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
The Devil Bat (1940) – Joe McGinty
Elmer's Pet Rabbit (1941) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
Manpower (1941) – Drunk Texan
Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime (1941) – Book Salesman
Look Who's Laughing (1941) – Mayor Duncan's Aide
Wabbit Twouble (1941) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
The Wabbit Who Came to Supper (1942) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
Grand Center Murder (1942) – Medical Examiner (uncredited)
Johnny Doughboy (1942) – Irish Mayor (uncredited)
She Wouldn't Say Yes (1945) – Train Passenger in sleeping car (speaking in Elmer Fudd voice)
The Life of Riley (1953–1957) – The Country Store Owner, Curtiss
Wideo Wabbit (1956) – Elmer Fudd (voice)
The Adventures of Jim Bowie (1957) – Hotel Clerk, Henri
A Mutt in a Rut (1959) – Elmer Fudd (voice)