May 28, 2005

Actor Eddie Albert Dies at Age 99

Eddie Albert, the versatile stage, screen and television actor who co-starred as the Park Avenue lawyer who sought happiness down on the farm in the popular 1960s' sitcom "Green Acres," has died. He was 99.

Albert, an outspoken environmentalist and humanitarian activist, died Thursday night at his home in Pacific Palisades of pneumonia, according to his son Edward Laurence Albert.

According to his son, Albert was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 10 years ago, but still lived an active and happy life and remained at his home throughout.

In an acting career that spanned more than six decades, the blond, blue-eyed Albert was initially typecast as what has been described as an amiable fellow with a "corn-fed grin."

As Gregory Peck's news photographer pal in "Roman Holiday" (1953), Albert earned the first of his two Academy Award nominations for best supporting actor.

His second Oscar nomination came two decades later playing Cybill Shepherd's wealthy, exasperated father in "The Heartbreak Kid," the 1972 Neil Simon-Elaine May comedy.

Among Albert's nearly 100 film credits — a mix of comedies, dramas and musicals — are "Oklahoma!," "I'll Cry Tomorrow," "Teahouse of the August Moon," "The Sun Also Rises," "The Joker Is Wild," "Beloved Infidel," "The Young Doctors," "The Longest Day," "Captain Newman, M.D." and "Escape to Witch Mountain."

Albert, who scored critically acclaimed dramatic performances on live television in the 1950s, was particularly memorable when he turned his good-guy screen image on its head — as he did playing the sadistic warden in director Robert Aldrich's 1974 comedy-drama "The Longest Yard," starring Burt Reynolds.

"There's no actor working today who can be as truly malignant as Eddie Albert," Aldrich told TV Guide in 1975. "He plays heavies exactly the way they are in real life. Slick and sophisticated."

At the time, Albert was co-starring as a retired bunco cop opposite Robert Wagner as his former con man son in "Switch," a private-eye drama that ran for three seasons on CBS.

But Albert is best remembered for "Green Acres," which aired on CBS from 1965 to 1971 and continues to have an afterlife on cable TV. In it, Albert played Oliver Wendell Douglas, the successful Manhattan lawyer who satisfies his longing to get closer to nature by giving up his law practice and buying — sight-unseen — a rundown 160-acre farm near the fictional town of Hooterville. Eva Gabor co-starred as his malaprop-dropping socialite wife, Lisa.

A spin-off of "Petticoat Junction," "Green Acres" featured a zany cast of hayseed characters, including Mr. Haney (Pat Buttram), the con man who sold the tumbledown farm to the big-city couple.

Albert previously had turned down series offers, including "My Three Sons" and "Mister Ed," unwilling to forgo his movie career for a medium he felt was "geared to mediocrity."

But then his agent told him the concept of the proposed CBS comedy series: a city slicker comes to the country to escape the aggravations of city living.

"I said, '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,'" Albert told TV Guide. "I knew it would be successful. Had to be. It's about the atavistic urge, and people have been getting a charge out of that ever since Aristophanes wrote about the plebs and the city folk."

Of course, the ancient Greek playwright didn't create characters like pig farmer Fred Ziffel (Hank Patterson), whose scene-stealing pet pig, Arnold, watched television.

"Eddie Albert had an easy-going, friendly, guy-next-door appeal, and it translated perfectly to television," said Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Radio and Television in New York. "His personalty was exactly the sort of laid-back charm that is necessary to succeed in television for a long time."

Indeed, Albert not only starred in his own TV series in three different decades — the `50s, `60s and `70s — he hosted two variety shows and a game show in the early `50s and frequently showed up through the years as a guest star in comedy and drama series, as well as variety shows. At the close of the 1960s, Albert even appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," reading legendary radio writer Norman Corwin's "Prayer for the `70s."

"His versatility and likability," Simon said, "were his major emblems on television."

The son of a real estate agent, Albert was born Edward Albert Heimberger on April 22, 1906, in Rock Island, Ill. When he was a year old, his family moved to Minneapolis, where he developed an early interest in show business.

To pay his way through the University of Minnesota, where he studied drama, Albert washed dishes and worked nights managing a movie theater, where he served as master of ceremonies for a weekly magic show.

Albert, who also sang at amateur nights, left the university in his junior year and joined a musical trio that performed on a local radio station. After the announcers kept referring to him on the air as Eddie Hamburger, he dropped Heimberger and adopted his middle name for his last.

The singing trio performed in Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati, but broke up after playing small clubs in New York. Albert eventually teamed with a singer named Grace Bradt and they spent a year as the singing stars of "The Honeymooners," an NBC morning radio show.

After working in summer stock, Albert landed his first Broadway role in "O Evening Star" in 1935. The play closed in less than a week, but Albert was back on Broadway in 1936, co-starring in producer-director George Abbott's production of "Brother Rat," a hit comedy about three friends at a Virginia military academy.

The now-established Albert appeared in another Abbott comedy production, "Room Service," in 1937 and, in 1938, co-starred in the Rodgers and Hart musical "The Boys from Syracuse."

The same year, he made his movie debut re-creating his stage role in the Warner Bros. film version of "Brother Rat." While signed to the studio, the restless Albert would take long sailing trips down the California coast in a ketch.

In 1939, while sailing off the coast of Baja California, he heard rumors of secret submarine fueling stations, and when he returned home he reported to Army intelligence that Japanese "fishermen" were making hydrographic surveys of the coast.

On later sailing trips, he made reports of German Nazi activities in Mexico. Prior to Pearl Harbor, he joined a Mexican circus owned by his friends, the Escalante Brothers. And while touring Mexico as the "flyer" in a six-man trapeze act, Albert gathered even more intelligence.

"Between shows, I'd be able to wander around and pick up information," he said in a 1947 interview. "I had the perfect disguise, of course. It was a very profitable trip. Despite the Rover Boy overtones, I got solid satisfaction whenever I sent a tip in."

Seven months after the war began, Albert joined the Navy. After graduating from officers training school, he was assigned to an amphibious transport ship and saw action in the South Pacific. Later, he was assigned to the Navy's training films branch.

After the war, Albert returned to Hollywood "utterly forgotten, and rightly so," he told the Toronto Star in 1988. "What had I ever done? I took everything they could throw at me. Pictures like 'The Dude Goes West' and 'The Fuller Brush Girl.' I worked myself back up, but I never wanted to be a star. I was aiming to play the star's best friend."

Inspired by his experience with military training films, he launched Eddie Albert Productions in 1946. The company made 16-millimeter industrial films and educational films for schoolchildren, including two then-controversial sex-education films.

Albert also returned to Broadway in 1949, singing and dancing as the leading man in the musical "Miss Liberty." It ran for 308 performances before Albert returned to a Hollywood that was being transformed by a new thing called television.

Albert, who had made his television debut in 1948, appeared in numerous live dramatic showcases throughout the 1950s such as "Playhouse 90," "Studio One" and "General Electric Theater."

In 1952, he starred in a short-lived family situation comedy for CBS-TV, "Leave It to Larry." He later hosted a live musical variety series ("Nothing But the Best"), hosted and sang, danced and acted in another live NBC variety series ("Saturday Night Revue") and hosted a CBS game show ("On Your Account").

In 1954, Albert and his former actress-singer wife, Margo, whom he married after his Navy discharge in 1945, had a successful nightclub act that played New York and other cities around the country. In 1960, Albert returned to Broadway, replacing Robert Preston in the title role in "The Music Man."

Over the years, Albert explored remote parts of the world. In the 1930s, he spent time on a tiny, deserted island in Nova Scotia as well as in the Mexican wilderness. In the 1950s, he visited the Congo to discuss malnutrition with Albert Schweitzer. He stayed with Schweitzer for several months and later wrote about the experience. And in 1969, Albert flew to the Klondike with an expedition trying to find the arctic cabin where Jack London searched for gold and did some of his writing. They found the cabin, which was dismantled and reassembled in Oakland's Jack London Square.

In the late 1960s, Albert's attention turned to ecology. He did extensive reading on the subject as well as talking to experts in the field.

In 1969, he accompanied a molecular biologist from UC Berkeley to Anacapa Island off the California coast to observe the nesting of pelicans. What they found were thousands of collapsed pelican eggs

"The run-off of DDT had been consumed by the fish, the fish had been eaten by the pelicans, whose metabolism had in turn been disturbed so that the lady pelican could no longer manufacture a sturdy shell," Albert told TV Guide in 1970.

After learning more about the effects of DDT, he said, "I stopped being a conservationist I became terrified. The more I studied, the more terrified I got."

Sharing his ecological concerns on the "Tonight" and "Today" shows, he became, in the words of a TV Guide reporter, "a kind of ecological Paul Revere." The TV appearances led to speaking engagement requests from high schools, universities and industrial and religious groups.

Albert formed a new company to produce films to aid in "international campaigns against environmental pollution."

Home base for the actor-activist was an unpretentious Spanish-style house on an acre of land in Pacific Palisades, where Albert turned the front yard into a cornfield. He also installed a giant greenhouse in the backyard, where he grew organic vegetables.

But a reporter learned better than to call Albert an ecologist.

"Ecologist, hell!," he scoffed in the 1970 TV Guide interview. "Too mild a word. Check the Department of Agriculture; 60% of the world is hungry already. With our soil impoverished, our air poisoned, our wildlife crippled by DDT, our rivers and lakes turning into giant cesspools, and mass starvation an apparent inevitability by 1976, I call myself a Human Survivalist!"

Albert, who in 1963 served as special world envoy for Meals for Millions — a philanthropic project providing nutritious, low-cost meals to the underprivileged around the world — helped launch the first Earth Day in 1970 and served as a special consultant at the World Hunger Conference in Rome in 1974.

He also served stints as director to the U.S. Commission on Refugees, national conservation chairman for the Boy Scouts of America and chairman of the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation. He was a trustee of the National Recreation and Parks Assn. and a consumer advisory board member of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Margo, Albert's wife of 39 years, died in 1985.

In addition to his son, Albert is survived by a daughter, Maria Zucht; and two granddaughters. Services will be private.

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