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Obituaries

Eddie Bracken, 87; Comedy Star in Film and on Broadway

November 16, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Eddie Bracken, a mainstay of Paramount comedies and musicals in the 1940s and a favorite of director Preston Sturges, who cast him in the madcap "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero," has died. He was 87.

Bracken died Thursday from complications of surgery in a hospital in Montclair, N.J., according to his oldest daughter, Judy Gordon. She said her father had crushed a disk in his neck in a fall in his home in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Connie, Bracken's wife of 62 years, died in August.

"He missed her, but he loved life and was carrying on nicely," Gordon said. "He had a couple of movie offers and was being interviewed for books. He was full of life and looking forward to lots of things."

Bracken brought that same sense of vitality to his film roles in the '40s and early '50s, when he was often cast as the over-eager bumbler with names like Basil "Dizzy" Evans, Norval Jones, Woodrow Lafayette Pershing True- smith, Ogden Spencer Trulow III, Orville Wingait and Frederick Winthrop Clopp.

One critic at the time described the typical Bracken role as "the long-suffering, plaintive type who muddles through difficult situations, never knowing quite how he escapes with a whole skin."

Among Bracken's 35 films are "Caught in the Draft" (1941), with Bob Hope; "The Fleet's In" (1942), with Betty Hutton; "The Star Spangled Rhythm" (1942), with Bing Crosby and Hutton; "The Girl from Jones Beach" (1949), with Ronald Reagan; "Summer Stock" (1950), with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly; and "We're Not Married" (1952), with Mitzi Gaynor and Marilyn Monroe.

"When I think of Eddie Bracken, I just want to smile," Ann Miller, who co-starred with Bracken in the 1940 film "Too Many Girls" and decades later on stage in "Sugar Babies " and "Follies," told a reporter last May. On Friday, Miller said, "His kind of comedy would be good today -- he never went out of style."

Bracken achieved his greatest screen successes in "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero." The films, both released in 1944, established Bracken as both an actor and a comedian.

In the hilarious and racy-for-its-time "Miracle," he's cast opposite Hutton, who drinks at an all-night party, gets pregnant and can't remember the name of the father. Bracken is her faithful boyfriend, who winds up marrying Hutton and becoming father to the "miracle": sextuplets.

In the satirical "Hail the Conquering Hero," he plays a small-town military reject who unwillingly poses as a Marine war hero who is caught up in a wave of hometown hero worship.

Writer-director-producer John Hughes, who worked with Bracken on three of his later films -- "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" and "Baby's Day Out" -- describes Bracken's '40s-vintage screen persona as "sweet and manic."

"There was a real sort of boy-next-door quality to him," Hughes told The Times Friday. "But he had this mania about him. The reason we used him in 'Vacation' was that tongue-tied bit that he did, where he's about to blow up and then he just stops.... 'What were you saying?' He could turn that on a dime."

Hughes first met Bracken on the set of "Vacation," the 1983 comedy starring Chevy Chase, which marked a return to the big screen for Bracken.

"You'd see him arrive, and you'd think it was a poet laureate or something; you didn't think it was this comic actor," Hughes recalled. "He was a very dignified man and just so tremendously skilled in that old style."

Whenever he could, Hughes said, he would sit and chat with Bracken, this "direct link" to Sturges and old-time Hollywood.

"He'd tell Preston Sturges stories, and I'd sit there and think, 'He was actually there. He was part of that whole thing.' "

Born in Astoria, Queens, in 1915, Bracken was 4 or 5 when he began a show that became an older brother to amateur contests at the Astoria Grand Theater. Bracken would sing and dance and then take home first prize.

While in elementary school, he began appearing as the rich kid in "The New York Kiddie Troupers," a series of silent movie shorts filmed in New York.

As a teenager, he toured the country in a show called "Lottery," a parody of early melodramas. He received his big break in the mid-1930s when director George Abbott cast him as the lead in the national touring company of "Brother Rat," a comedy about life in a Virginia military academy.

Bracken went on to appear in Abbott's Broadway production of the comedy "What a Life," the forerunner to the radio and film series about teenager Henry Aldrich, whom Bracken played when the play went on tour. By the end of the national tour, his leading lady, Constance Nickerson, became his wife.

In 1939, he was co-starring on Broadway in "Too Many Girls," a Rodgers and Hart musical, when he caught the eye of Hollywood, which brought him out to appear in the movie version.

While Bracken was waiting, his daughter said, he was cast in the comedy "Life with Henry," which starred Jackie Cooper as Henry Aldrich and Bracken as his best friend, Dizzy.

During his early days after being placed under contract at Paramount, Bracken had to compete with Bob Hope for parts.

"Which was ridiculous because we're nowhere near alike," he said in an interview last May. "And then we did 'In the Draft' together, and Louella Parsons said I stole the picture, so he refused to work with me again."

Bracken earned two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his radio series, "The Eddie Bracken Show," and the other for his work on television, including appearances on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Rawhide" and "Murder She Wrote."

Bracken, who returned to the New York stage in the 1950s, appeared with Carol Channing in the late '70s touring revival of "Hello, Dolly!" which also ran on Broadway and earned Bracken a Tony nomination.

In addition to his daughter Judy, Bracken is survived by his four other children, Carolyn, Michael, Susan and David; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The family is planning a memorial service.

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