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Stage, Film Actor Robert Alda Dies at 72 : Father of Star Alan Alda Had Early Success in ‘Guys and Dolls’

Times Staff Writer

Actor Robert Alda--who scored successes as George Gershwin on film, as Sky Masterson on stage and as “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda’s father in private life--died Saturday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness.

He was 72, and friends said he had never entirely recovered from the effects of a stroke he suffered two years ago.

“But until he got sick, he was always working,” Alda’s longtime friend and agent Lew Sherrell said Sunday. “He was a beloved man in the entertainment industry--and a very good father. There was great love between him and (younger son) Antony and Alan.”

Actress Vivian Blaine, his co-star in the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls,” said news of Alda’s death came as “Gloom, doom and disaster. He was a good friend, we worked together after “Guys and Dolls” and were good friends--I loved him, most people did. It’s a major loss and a dreary day.”

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In addition to his sons, Robert Alda leaves his wife, Italian actress Flora Marino; a sister, Anne Ciaffone; a brother, Vincent D’Abruzzo, and four grandchildren. Funeral services in Los Angeles will be private.

Born Feb. 26, 1914, in New York City, Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo was the son of a barber and studied architecture at College of the City of New York before entering show business.

“I was paid $24.50 a week to work as a draftsman on plans for what finally became Radio City,” he later recalled, “and there was a singing contest at a theater called the Academy of Music. I entered--I don’t know why, maybe because I’m Italian--and I won!

“Well, the prize was $25. Fifty cents more than I made in a week. And I said, ‘This is for me . . .!”

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Alda broke into professional ranks as a singer, performing in Borscht Belt resorts of the Catskills and as a singing straight man in the burlesque of the late 1930s. He also worked regularly in radio and appeared with dramatic stock companies. But his first major notice came when he was signed by Warner Bros. for the leading role of George Gershwin in “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The film--and Alda--were a critical and box office success.

But there were problems:

“We made the picture in 1943,” Alda said, “but it wasn’t released until 1945, and in between, Warners wanted to ‘keep me under wraps’ so I was told to twiddle my thumbs. I almost went crazy. . . .”

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The inactivity soured him on movies, and though he made others under his contract--"Cinderella Jones,” “Cloak and Dagger,” “Nora Prentiss,” “April Showers” and Alda’s cult favorite, “The Beast With Five Fingers"--he fled to New York as soon as possible, where he scored a major Broadway success with the starring role of Sky Masterson in the musical “Guys and Dolls.”

He also scored stage successes with “Harbor Lights,” “My Daughter, Your Son,” “The Front Page” and “What Makes Sammy Run?”

Son Alan Alda, by first wife, actress Joan Browne, began his own career doing Abbott and Costello routines opposite his father at the old Hollywood Canteen, and then the two appeared together on stage in Rome and on television in Amsterdam.

“It was the best year of my education,” Alan Alda recalled.

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“It was great,” his father agreed. But all the same, he insisted that the budding actor finish college at Fordham before turning professional.

“So, when he graduated--he was ready. Wow, was he ready . . .!” Robert Alda laughed.

During the ‘50s, Robert Alda appeared in an early television series, “Secret File: U.S.A.,” shot in Amsterdam, and moved to Italy, where he starred in a stage musical and made a score of films including “Beautiful but Dangerous” with Gina Lollabrigida, “Cleopatra’s Daughter,” “Toto e Peppino divisi a Berlino” and “The Serpent.”

Returning to the United States, he starred in the short-lived television series “Supertrain,” had a major role in the daytime television serial “Days of Our Lives,” had roles in such films as “Imitation of Life,” “I Will, I Will . . . for Now,” and “Bittersweet Love,” appeared with son Alan in segments of “M*A*S*H” and wrote a cookbook, “100 Ways to Cook Pasta,” with his wife.

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