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

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.

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 &mdash 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 mdash; 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 Television & Radio 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.

Albert, who also sang at amateur nights, left the university in his junior year and joined a singing trio that performed on a local radio station. When announcers kept referring to him on the air as Eddie Hamburger, he dropped Heimberger and adopted his middle name as his last.

The trio performed in Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati but broke up after playing small clubs in New York. Albert eventually teamed with a singer named Grace Bradt, and they spent a year as the singing stars of "The Honeymooners," an NBC morning radio show.

After working in summer stock, Albert landed his first Broadway role, in "O Evening Star" in 1935. The play closed in less than a week, but Albert was back on Broadway in 1936, co-starring in producer-director George Abbott's "Brother Rat," a hit comedy about three friends at a Virginia military academy.

The now-established Albert appeared in another Abbott comedy, "Room Service," in 1937 and, in 1938, co-starred in the Rodgers and Hart musical "The Boys From Syracuse."

The same year, he made his movie debut re-creating his stage role in the Warner Bros. film version of "Brother Rat." While signed to the studio, the restless Albert would take long trips in a ketch down the California coast.

In 1939, while sailing off Baja California, he heard rumors of secret submarine fueling stations. When he returned home, he reported to Army intelligence that Japanese "fishermen" were making hydrographic surveys of the coast.

After later sailing trips, he submitted reports of Nazi activities in Mexico. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined a Mexican circus owned by his friends, the Escalante Brothers. And while touring Mexico as the "flyer" in a six-man trapeze act, Albert gathered even more intelligence.

"Between shows, I'd be able to wander around and pick up information," he said in a 1947 interview. "I had the perfect disguise, of course. It was a very profitable trip. Despite the Rover Boy overtones, I got solid satisfaction whenever I sent a tip in."

Seven months after the United States entered World War II, Albert joined the Navy. After graduating from officers training school, he was assigned to an amphibious transport ship and saw action in the South Pacific.

He was credited with saving scores of Marines from a deadly triple cross-fire during the bloody battle for Tarawa.

Later, he was assigned to the Navy's training films branch.

After the war, Albert returned to Hollywood "utterly forgotten, and rightly so," he told the Toronto Star in 1988. "What had I ever done? I took everything they could throw at me. Pictures like 'The Dude Goes West' and 'The Fuller Brush Girl.' I worked myself back up, but I never wanted to be a star. I was aiming to play the star's best friend."

Inspired by his experience with military training films, he launched Eddie Albert Productions in 1946. The company made 16-millimeter industrial movies, as well as educational films for schoolchildren — including two that were controversial for the time because they dealt with sex education.

Albert returned to Broadway in 1949, singing and dancing as the leading man in the musical "Miss Liberty." It ran for 308 performances before Albert returned to a Hollywood that was being transformed by a new phenomenon called television.

Albert, who had made his TV debut in 1948, appeared in numerous live dramatic showcases in the 1950s, including "Playhouse 90," "Studio One" and "General Electric Theater."

In 1952, he starred in a short-lived family situation comedy for CBS, "Leave It to Larry." He later presided over a live musical variety series ("Nothing But the Best"), sang, danced, acted and served as host in another live NBC variety series ("Saturday Night Revue") and presided over a CBS game show ("On Your Account").

In 1954, Albert and his former actress-singer wife, Margo, whom he married after his Navy discharge in 1945, had a successful nightclub act that played New York and other cities around the country. In 1960, Albert returned to Broadway, replacing Robert Preston in the title role of "The Music Man."

Over the years, Albert explored remote parts of the world. In the 1930s, he spent time on a deserted island in Nova Scotia as well as in the Mexican wilderness. In the 1950s, he visited the Congo to discuss malnutrition with Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He stayed with Schweitzer for several months and later wrote about the experience.

In 1969, he flew to the Klondike with an expedition trying to find the cabin where Jack London searched for gold and did some of his writing. They found the cabin, which was dismantled and reassembled in Oakland's Jack London Square.

In the late 1960s, Albert's attention turned to ecology. He read extensively on the subject and spoke with experts in the field.

In 1969, he accompanied a molecular biologist from UC Berkeley to Anacapa Island off Ventura County to observe the nesting of pelicans. What they found were thousands of collapsed pelican eggs.

"The runoff of DDT had been consumed by the fish, the fish had been eaten by the pelicans, whose metabolism had in turn been disturbed so that the lady pelican could no longer manufacture a sturdy shell," Albert told TV Guide in 1970. After learning more about the effects of DDT, he said, "I stopped being a conservationist.... I became terrified. The more I studied, the more terrified I got."

Sharing his ecological concerns on the "Tonight" and "Today" shows, he became, in the words of a TV Guide reporter, "a kind of ecological Paul Revere." The TV appearances led to speaking invitations from high schools, universities, and industrial and religious groups.

Albert formed a company to produce films to aid in "international campaigns against environmental pollution."

Home base for the actor-activist was an unpretentious Spanish-style house on an acre in Pacific Palisades, where Albert turned the frontyard into a cornfield. He also installed a giant greenhouse in the backyard, where he grew organic vegetables.

But a reporter learned better than to call Albert an ecologist.

"Ecologist, hell!" he scoffed in the 1970 TV Guide interview. "Too mild a word. Check the Department of Agriculture; 60% of the world is hungry already. With our soil impoverished, our air poisoned, our wildlife crippled by DDT, our rivers and lakes turning into giant cesspools, and mass starvation an apparent inevitability by 1976, I call myself a human survivalist!"

In 1963, Albert served as special world envoy for Meals for Millions, a philanthropic project providing nutritious, low-cost food to underprivileged people around the world. In 1970, he helped launch the first Earth Day on April 22 — his birthday — and four years later he served as a special consultant at the World Hunger Conference in Rome.

He was also director of the U.S. Commission on Refugees, national conservation chairman for the Boy Scouts of America and chairman of the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation. In addition, he was a trustee of the National Recreation and Parks Assn. and a consumer advisory board member of the U.S. Department of Energy.

In Southern California, Albert and his wife — who was born in Mexico City — started teaching arts and music to children on L.A.'s Eastside in the late 1940s. Their efforts helped to create Plaza de la Raza, a community arts center in Lincoln Heights that has been operating officially since 1970. Albert was chairman of the board for many years. The center now includes the Margo Albert Theater, an outdoor stage and an art gallery.

Margo Albert died in 1985, also at the family home in Pacific Palisades. They were married 39 years.

A lifelong fitness enthusiast, Albert was still extremely active while battling Alzheimer's. His son, who was his primary caregiver over the years, told The Times that his father was shooting baskets and doing push-ups as recently as last month.

"The value of the things I got from him these last years was far beyond anything I was required to give," his son said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

FOR THE RECORD

May 23, 2016: The original version of this obituary, published June 1, 2005, erred in referring to the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City as the Museum of Radio and Television.

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