Frank Nelson, a regular on the Jack Benny radio and television shows for more than 30 years and a professional actor for six decades, died Friday at his home in Hollywood after a long illness. He was 75.
Although he was an accomplished dramatic actor and in his early days played leading-man roles, he was best known for his comedic skills, and especially for his work with Jack Benny.
"Frank Nelson was superb in his roles of screwball floorwalkers, doctors and professional men, marking his entrance with an inevitable squeal that came out 'Yeeeeeeeees??!' " wrote John Dunning in his "Tune in Yesterday" encyclopedia of old-time radio.
Nelson was a founding member of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA), which later became the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA). He served as president of the union's Los Angeles chapter for 7 1/2 years, and as national president from 1954 to 1957. He was instrumental in creating the union's pension plan for actors, and despite his years-long battle with cancer, remained active professionally and in the union, friends said.
His acting career began in radio at what he called "a rather tender age"--he was 15--playing the role of a 30-year-old man in a series broadcast from station KOA in Denver. He came to Hollywood in 1929 and immediately found work in local radio dramatic shows, usually playing the leading man.
His first sponsored national show was "Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel," starring Groucho and Chico Marx.
Besides his regular appearances with Jack Benny, Nelson performed a broad range of roles on countless radio and television shows, including such hits as the "Burns and Allen Show," "Fibber Magee and Molly," "The Bing Crosby Show," "The Eddie Cantor Show," "The Bob Hope Show," "Abbott and Costello" and "The Great Gildersleeve."
AFTRA national President Frank Maxwell said Friday that Nelson "fought fiercely for the things he believed in. . . . His devotion to the welfare of his fellow members will leave its stamp on AFTRA for as long as the union lasts." Nelson is survived by his wife, actress Veola Vonn; son Doug Nelson, and daughter, Bonnie Esther.
Funeral services will be private. A memorial service is scheduled at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Church of the Hills in Forest Lawn-Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.