Eddie Albert: From “Grace & Eddie” to “Green Acres”

There are many ways to skin a cat. Edward Albert Heimberger’s (1906-2005) pathway to the top in show business was unconventional but it got him there. The kid who would become “Eddie Albert” grew up in Minneapolis, where he went to high school with Ann Sothern, and belonged to the drama club. He studied business at the University of Minnesota, but then the Depression hit, and he found himself doing a wide variety of odd jobs. But he stayed close to show business. He was a clown, high-wire, and trapeze performer in Escalante Brothers Circus. He sang in night clubs.

Eddie and Grace prepping for one of the earliest tv broadcasts, 1936!

By 1933 he was co-starring in the popular NBC radio show The Honeymooners/ Grace and Eddie Show with Grace Bradt (no connection to the later Jackie Gleason program). The show ran three years. In 1936, he and Bradt also participated in one of the first ever television broadcasts, an NBC experiment that also featured Ed Wynn, Hildegarde, The Ink Spots, and Betty Goodwin.

Radio success led to Broadway — which is kind of the opposite of the way it usually worked in those days. He starred in four shows in the late ’30s: O Evening Star (1936); Brother Rat (1936-38); Room Service (1937-38, in the part played by Frank Albertson in the Marx Brothers’ version); and The Boys from Syracuse (1938-39). Next came the first phase of his Hollywood career (1938-1943), including the film version of Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel Brothers Rat and a Baby (1940), as well as the film version of the music On Your Toes (1939), and about a dozen other films.

He served in the Coast Guard and the Navy during World War II, earning a Bronze Star for his service as a Lieutenant during the Invasion of Tarawa.

In 1945 he married Mexican actress María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O’Donnell, known professionally as “Margo”. This great love affair was to last until she passed away in 1985.

Albert returned to Hollywood in 1946. Some of his notable films from this period, include Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) with Susan Hayward; the comedy western The Dude Goes West (1948) which we wrote about here; The Fuller Brush Girl (1950) with Lucille Ball; and Roman Holiday (1953). He returned to Broadway in 1949 to star in the original production of Miss Liberty.

Albert began acting in television in 1948 (not counting the experiment from a dozen years earlier). It is perhaps not well known that he starred in no less than THREE different tv shows prior to his best known one, Green Acres. The first was the sitcom Leave it to Larry (1952-53), in which he costarred with Ed Begley. Then in 1953, he had his own daytime talk and variety program The Eddie Albert Show. And in 1954, he hosted The Saturday Night Revue, a variety program that replaced Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. He also starred in the 1956 Frank Capra made-for-tv documentary Our Mr. Sun. Albert guest starred in numerous episodic tv dramas throughout the decade of the 1950s and the early ’60s.

In 1955 he played the problematic part of Ali Hakim in the film version of Oklahoma! and was paired again with Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the Lillian Roth biopic. Other films of the time included Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and the Joe E. Lewis biopic The Joker is Wild (1957). In the late ’50s he did lots of tv, and was a replacement in the starring roles in the original Broadway productions of The Seven Year Itch, The Music Man, and Say Darling. Movies of the early ’60s included Who’s Got the Action? and The Longest Day, both 1962.

In 1965 Eddie Albert was hired by Paul Henning to star in the second and final Beverly Hillbillies spinoff (following Petticoat Junction), Green Acres. Adapted from the short-lived radio show Granby’s Green Acres, the show was about a couple of rich city slickers (Albert and Eva Gabor as his wife) who move to a farm in the country. Albert’s character is determined to make a go of it; his wife hates it. The show has become a sort of shorthand for any occasion when city people find themselves in rural areas, and feel inconvenienced by the experience. The theme song is one of the most memorable in sitcom history. (Footnote: a distant relative of mine, Frank Cady, played storekeep Sam Drucker on the show). Also in the cast: Pat Buttram as the predatory salesman Mr. haney. The show was a smash hit; it remained on the air for six years, and in syndication ever after.

So this is what Albert has become best known for (in the saddest of cases, what he is only known for) but as we have seen, and as we shall see, he did much else, even while the show was still on. For example, in 1966, he was in John Ford’s last film 7 Women. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and narrated Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax that same year. He’s in memorable episodes of Columbo and McCloud, and has great turns in the films McQ (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975).

Then he had another tv series! From 1975 through 1978 he co-starred with Robert Wagner in Switch, a series about a retired bunco cop (Albert) who teams with a reformed con artist (Wagner) in a private detective agency. The men get to have their cake and eat it too, by performing elaborate long-cons in order to catch crooks. This entertaining show was my introduction to Eddie Albert; I watched it in prime time long before I ever saw a rerun of Green Acres. 

A lot of guys would have retired after Switch went off the air, but Albert kept going in dozens of roles over nearly two more decades. He has smaller roles in movies like How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980), Take This Job and Shove It (1981), and Dreamscape (1984). In later years he was often cast a villain, and was surprisingly effective at it. He played such a role on Falcon Crest, and had earlier done so in movies like McQ and The Longest Yard. Eddie Albert continued to act on film and tv right up until 1997, when he was over 90 years old. If you have been keeping score, he went to the top in no less than four media: radio, Broadway, film and tv, often at the same time!