Frank Albertson: Prop Boy Makes Good

You can be forgiven for scowling, Frank Albertson. It’s the anniversary of your birth, yet the occasion finds me as speechless as Harpo, with who you co-starred, so to speak, in Room Service (1938). It’s not that you did little in your short 55 years on this earth. On the contrary, according to your IMDB entry, you did MUCH, and very much of it in high profile vehicles. But as to what can be SAID… Even your NY Times obituary has nothing better to offer than that you “had roles in movies and plays.” Undoubtedly true. But the same can be said of a lamp or any other number of props.

Not to compare Albertson (1909-1964) to inanimate objects! It’s more like a nice seque into the fact that he began his career as a prop boy in silent pictures. This led to him being an extra in James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), which led to proper roles. He’d also been a photo lab assistant in his early years, which makes it all the more astonishing that he sang and danced in musicals in the early days of talkies. He seems not to have done time in the theatre, previous to movies, although he did some later. He was somewhat goofy looking and acting — I mentally associate him with Grady Sutton, although he was much better looking than that…not THAT goofy looking and acting! The combination made for a good Zeppo stand-in in Room Service. Gradually he moved up from chorus parts and bit roles to slight better ones. Early stuff included two films with Majorie Beebe, The Farmer’s Daughter (1928), and The Plumber and the Lady (1933). He played the title character’s brother in Alice Adams and had a good role in Ah, Wilderness, both in 1935. But he was generally a supporting player. One of his most notable turns was as Sam Wainwright (“Hee haw!”) in Capra’s It’s a A Wonderful Life (1946). Hitchcock liked him, and used him on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Psycho (1960 — he’s that dude who deposits the wad of cash which Janet Leigh steals).

One of his last roles was the Mayor in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). By that point he’d also had lots of Broadway experience. He was in a half dozen shows on Broadway: Brother Rat (1936-38), The More the Merrier (1941), The Walrus and the Carpenter (1941), Mr. Adam (1949), Seventeen (1951) and Late Love (1953-54). His last credit was in a 1964 episode of The Third Man. He was only 55 when he died suddenly and mysteriously in his sleep later that year. “Not with a bang, but a whimper”.