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Eddie Albert, 99; Versatile Stage and Screen Actor Best Known for Role in 'Green Acres'

May 28, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

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 of pneumonia at his home in Pacific Palisades, said 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, full and happy life and remained at his home throughout.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Eddie Albert obituary -- The obituary of actor Eddie Albert in Saturday's California section referred to the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City as the Museum of Radio and Television.

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 "cornfed 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 officer opposite Robert Wagner as his former con-man son in "Switch," a private-eye drama that ran for three seasons on CBS.

But he 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, a successful Manhattan lawyer who satisfies his longing to get closer to nature by giving up his law practice and buying -- sight unseen -- a run-down 160-acre farm near the fictional town of Hooterville. Eva Gabor co-starred as his malaprop-dropping socialite wife, Lisa.

A spinoff 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 said 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 frustrations 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 such as pig farmer Fred Ziffel (Hank Patterson), whose scene-stealing pet pig, Arnold, watched television.

"Eddie Albert had an easygoing, 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 City. "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 decades -- the 1950s, '60s and '70s -- he presided over two variety shows and a game show in the early 1950s and often showed up through the years as a guest star in comedy and drama series, as well as on 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 were his major emblems on television," Simon said.

The son of a real estate agent, Albert was born Edward Albert Heimberger in Rock Island, Ill., on April 22, 1906. 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.

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