April 22, 2017: Theatre yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
For those who only knew of his work on the 170 episodes of the 1960s sitcom Green Acres, Eddie Albert was actually an actor of wide versatility and accomplishments. He created the leads in numerous Broadway plays and musicals and was nominated twice for the Academy Award (Roman Holiday in 1953 and The Heartbreak Kid in 1972). He was also a humanitarian, social rights activist and environmentalist, deeply committed in word and deed to a host of important causes. Born on this day in 1906, it’s both coincidence and providence that today is Earth Day. Among his many accomplishments, Albert founded City Children’s Farms in the 1970s, bringing gardens to inner cities throughout the United States. He produced, wrote and narrated TV specials on the environment and was an early proponent of banning the use of the pesticide DDT.
Having lived to the the ripe old age of ninety-nine, Albert’s life and career are worth at least a thousand words … so here goes.
Of German background, Edward Albert Heimberger, the eldest of five children, grew up in Minneapolis. The product of a Roman Catholic parochial school education, Albert was a poor student with no idea what his life would be once he entered the work world. As he himself described it, “Prosperity was at its height then. You couldn’t pick up a newspaper or magazine that didn’t have some big-business success story staring you in the face. When I graduated from high school [in 1924], I planned to try the same thing my father was doing — selling insurance.”
He failed. And because he was poor, he had to work dozens of odd jobs to pay for the two years of college he managed to attend before quitting (“I was always tired. I couldn’t concentrate. I slept through my classes”). With a talent for singing, playing the banjo-ukelele and performing magic tricks, he worked his way up from local dives to mid-west radio shows. Finally making it to New York at the height of the Great Depression, it was hardly the “big time” for Albert. But he was lucky to befriend Garson Kanin, the future playwright-director. In 1936, when Kanin was hired to assist the venerable director George Abbott on a new play Brother Rat, he wound up responsible for landing his friend a featured role in what turned out to be a hit show. Abbott took a liking to Albert and cast him in his very next production, the hilarious farce, Room Service. Albert was two for two, so naturally Hollywood beckoned with the lure of a contract.
Repeating his role in the film of Brother Rat was a mixed blessing. Its success prompted the studio to make a sequel with the terrible title of Brother Rat and a Baby (don’t ask). The next few movies for Albert were all B-pictures that did nothing to advance his career. When a call came from George Abbott to return to Broaddway, Albert managed to wrangle himself free, allowing him to create one of the two leads in Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. But this proved only a temporary out from his seven-year contract, so Albert was eventually forced back to the west coast for another slew of inferior films. Feeling miserable, he took some of the money he earned, bought a boat, and with five friends sailed away in hopes the studio would forget about him. An iconoclast and an adventurer, Albert said, “I bummed around Lower California and Mexico, and hooked up with a one-ring circus in Mexico for awhile as a clown and trapeze artist.””
After World War II broke out, Albert enlisted in the Navy and went to Officer Candidate School at the age of thirty-five. He was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade and saw action in the South Pacific and Central Pacific. He was credited with saving scores of Marines from a deadly triple cross-fire during the bloody battle for Tarawa and was awarded the Bronze Star.
He was also assigned the task of making training films and after the war decided to keep it ongoing. He formed a production company to shoot educational films, one of which concentrated on the work being done by the famed Dr. Albert Schweitzer in the 1950s to raise awareness and feed the third world suffering from malnutrition — which led Albert to travel to the Congo to meet the great man, with whom he stayed for several months.
Later, alongside his wife, the actress Margo (born Margo Belado in Mexico City), Albert taught arts and music to children in downtown Los Angeles. Plaza de la Raza, a community arts center in Lincoln Heights, was founded by the Alberts and the Margo Albert Theatre, an art gallery and outdoor stage, still stands.
Returning to the theatre in 1949, Albert starred in Irving Berlin and Robert Sherwood’s musical Miss Liberty. Being back in New York allowed him to take part in the early days of New York television, back in that thriving and highly creative time, where he did everything from host a daytime program to act in nighttime dramas. And in 1953, a most wonderful opportunity came his way when he played opposite Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in the classic film comedy Roman Holiday (earning him that aforementioned Oscar nomination). Then in 1959, he was chosen to succeed Robert Preston in the highly coveted role of Harold Hill in The Music Man, and made a a number of notable Hollywood films thereafter.
When television reached its zenith in popularity in the 1960s, Albert was finally drawn in after previously turning down the leads in My Three Sons and Mister Ed. When his agent told him of an idea for a new CBS comedy series with the log-line: “A city slicker comes to the country to escape the frustrations of city living,” Albert’s response was: “Swell; that’s me. Everyone gets tired of the rat race. Everyone would like to chuck it all and grow some carrots. It’s basic. Sign me.”
His Green Acres co-star was Eva Gabor, whose standard costume for life on a farm was wearing outrageous feather outfits. As a committed conservationist, Albert once asked Gabor if she was aware some animals may have been killed in order to provide her wardrobe. She told him not to worry, that feathers didn’t come from birds.
“Well, where do feathers come from?” Albert asked. In her extravagant Hungarian accent, Gabor replied, “Pillows, dahling, pillows!”
Albert and his wife had a daughter, Maria (who became her father’s business manager) and a son, Edward Albert Jr (whose godfather was — of all people— Laurence Olivier). He followed in his father’s footsteps becoming an actor, and had early success winning a Golden Globe Award as “Newcomer of the Year” in 1972 for his perfomance in the film version of the Broadway hit comedy Butterflies Are Free. In the late 1990s, Edward put his own career on hold in order to care for his father, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the final ten years of his life. In his Los Angeles Times obituary, the paper wrote: “A lifelong fitness enthusiast, Albert was still extremely active while battling Alzheimer’s. His son, who was his primary caregiver over the years, told the Times that his father was shooting baskets and doing push-ups as recently as last month.”
Eddie Albert died a month following his 99th birthday. Edward Albert Jr, who was just 55, passed away from lung cancer 16 months later.
“The value of the things I got from him these last years was far beyond anything I was required to give,” the younger Albert told the Times. “Once we were sitting together and, I said to him ‘You’re my hero.’ I saw him struggling to put together the words, and he looked at me and said: ‘You’re your hero’s hero.’ I’ll take that to my . . . grave.’”
A hero indeed, in so many ways. Think about some of this the next time Eddie Albert shows up in a movie or TV program. His is a legacy well worth noting — and it took me 303 words more than a 1,000 to write about it.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/