Leif Erickson, Veteran Actor, Dies at 74

Times Staff Writer

Leif Erickson, a one-time band vocalist and trombone player who became a prominent film actor and appeared in dozens of movies and television shows during more than 40 years, died Wednesday evening in Pensacola, Fla., after a struggle with cancer.

He was 74.

Erickson’s daughter, Susan, said he died in Baptist Hospital, where he had been for more than a week while he and his wife, Anne, were staying at their Pensacola home. The couple also have a home in Malibu.

A big, strapping man who frequently portrayed intelligent second leads, Erickson appeared in such films as “The Fleet’s In,” “Eagle Squadron,” “The Snake Pit,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “Show Boat,” “On the Waterfront” and “Tea and Sympathy.” His first film was “Wanderer of the Wasteland” in 1935. He was working in movies through the late 1970s, when he was in “Winter Hawk” and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.”


He was also in “Conquest” with Greta Garbo and “Nothing But the Truth” with Bob Hope. During the late 1960s, he starred as the brawny Big John Cannon in the NBC television series “High Chaparral.”

It was during the filming of the series that he told an interviewer that pressure to eliminate violence on television was resulting in better scripts and story lines. “No longer,” he said, “can we resolve a situation with a gunfight or banging someone over the head.”

He may have suspected at the time that it was a premature observation, for he added, “I don’t know how the public will go for them.”

Born William Anderson on Oct. 27, 1911, in Alameda, Calif., he was educated at the University of California, sang with the dance band of Ted Fio Rito during the 1930s, and it was Fio Rito who changed his name to the more memorable Leif Erickson.


Erickson also was a trombone player in the orchestra of the zany Olson and Johnson “Hellzapoppin” stage show, eventually finding his way to the stage for a brief career before making his film debut.

From 1934 to 1942, while appearing in such films as “Waikiki Wedding,” “The Big Broadcast of 1938" and “Nothing But the Truth,” he was married to actress Frances Farmer. That marriage ended in divorce.

His only son, William Leif Erickson, was killed in a traffic accident in 1971.

In 1976, at what turned out to be near the end of his film career, Erickson went on tour with Rock Hudson and Claire Trevor in a production of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body.” The show was directed by John Houseman.


Reviewer Sylvie Drake, attending a rehearsal, noted that Erickson, “tall and craggy, a cigar between his teeth, brush and keys hanging from a back pocket, looks more like a weathered stagehand than the large-voice actor he is.”

Erickson’s agent, Jimmy McHugh, said the actor had been semi-retired for the last several years, but had been doing guest appearances here and there. “He spent a lot of his time sailing, which was his big thing,” McHugh said.

He added, “He was a very nice man.”

Some of Erickson’s other films included “Joan of Arc” (1948), “My Wife’s Best Friend” (1952), “Kiss Them for Me” (1957) and “The Young Lions” (1958.)


His daughter said services will be private in Pensacola and that the family would appreciate any contributions made in his name to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital.