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Ben Frank, 56; TV, Film and Stage Actor

September 17, 1990|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ben Frank, a veteran character actor who recently starred in California's controversial anti-smoking commercial, has died from a heart attack. He was 56.

Frank died Tuesday in Los Angeles, his wife, producer Bobbi Frank, announced last week.

Frank, who characterized himself as part of "the long gray line" of character actors whose faces but not names are well-known, recently told The Times that he was proud of his nameless starring role in the television spot produced by the California Department of Health Services.

"It's the first time in my life I felt like I was doing something good," he said of his part as a tobacco-industry executive who encourages his underlings to enlist more smokers.

Because the commercial portrayed tobacco leaders as evil, some television stations refused to run it. The spot, which attracted national attention as the first government effort of its kind to curb smoking, concluded with Frank's ominous laugh as he admonishes his colleagues: "We're not in this business for our health!"

Although Frank never achieved top billing, he had a successful career from his early childhood. Born in New York City, he sang on stage from age 6 through 12. Later, he boxed professionally, winning 20 bouts and losing only twice.

His 28-year acting career included 125 television roles, 20 motion pictures and 20 stage plays. Frank also estimated that one-third of his income was from work in commercials.

"I believe that an actor's real job is looking for a job," Frank jokingly told The Times. "When you have a job, you're on vacation, so enjoy it."

"I believe," he added, commenting on the constant auditioning an actor must do, "when you die and go to heaven, St. Peter's going to ask you to read."

In television, Frank guest-starred on popular series such as "L.A. Law," "Growing Pains," "Cagney & Lacey" and "Who's the Boss?"

His film roles included "Thelma and Louise," "Hollywood Vice Squad," "Death Wish II" and "Don't Answer the Phone." His stage credits included "Three Men on a Horse," "King of the Schnorrers" and "Decisions, Decisions."

Frank had recently made his directing debut with a comedy series of one-act plays, "Zeitgeist," at Studio Barbara Feldman in Beverly Hills.

In addition to his wife, Frank is survived by his daughter, Modi Frank, his mother, two sisters, two stepchildren and one step-granddaughter.

Memorial services will be conducted at 7 p.m. Wednesday, at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

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