Frankie Thomas, 85; Starred in TV’s ‘Tom Corbett, Space Cadet’
Frankie Thomas, a popular stage and screen juvenile actor in the 1930s who gained widespread fame on TV in the early 1950s as the star of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” has died. He was 85.
Thomas, who later became a leading recreational bridge instructor and an author, died Thursday of respiratory failure at Sherman Oaks Hospital, said his stepdaughter, Julie Alexander.
The Manhattan-born son of actors Frank M. Thomas and Mona Bruns, Thomas established himself on Broadway in the early 1930s.
After appearing in the drama “Wednesday’s Child,” the teenage Thomas came to Hollywood to appear in the 1934 film version at RKO.
Over the next few years, he shuttled back and forth between Hollywood and New York, appearing in plays such as “Remember the Day,” “Seen but Not Heard” and “Your Loving Son” and in films such as “A Dog of Flanders,” “Boys Town” and “The Major and the Minor.”
The curly-haired Thomas also starred in “Tim Tyler’s Luck,” a 1937 adventure serial. And he played Nancy Drew’s droll boyfriend, Ted Nickerson, in four of the teenage sleuth films starring Bonita Granville in 1938 and 1939.
After serving in the Navy and the Coast Guard during World War II, Thomas moved back to New York and worked frequently in radio and early television, including the soap opera “A Woman to Remember.” In 1950, he was cast in the title role of Tom Corbett, a Space Academy cadet in training to become a member of the elite Solar Guard, 400 years in the future.
In landing the title role in the children’s adventure show, Thomas beat out a number of young actors, including Jack Lemmon.
“Frankie looked like the all-American boy,” said Jan Merlin, who played the wisecracking cadet Roger Manning (“So what happens now, space heroes?”).
“There was a style of acting that kids in those days had, particularly Hollywood kids,” Merlin told The Times. “If you were playing the all-American boy, you talked a certain way, you tensed your jaw in a certain way, and he fitted it.
“Everyone in the room knew immediately this was the guy we were going to get.”
“Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” debuted in October 1950 as a 15-minute, three-nights-a-week series on CBS. The show later expanded to 30 minutes and aired variously on ABC, NBC and the DuMont networks. There also was a radio version.
In that pre-Sputnik era, the adventures of Tom Corbett and his fellow space travelers quickly caught on with viewers, who included a surprising number of adults.
“The disc jockeys all picked up our lingo: ‘Blast your jets,’ ‘Don’t fuse your tubes, ‘Spaceman’s luck,’ ” Thomas recalled in a 2005 interview with Starlog magazine. “We were hearing all of this and we said, ‘Hey, if they’re saying it, they’re watching it.’ ”
Eventually, Thomas told the Asbury Park Press in 2000, “there were 135 different products bearing the name of ‘Tom Corbett.’ Kellogg’s, which was a wonderful sponsor, renamed their second-biggest seller, Kellogg’s Pep, the ‘Solar Cereal.’ They had my picture on the box.”
Because the show aired live, it was prone to occasional flubs.
“Frank had a wonderful retentive memory, and frequently if an actor went up with his lines, Frankie would pop in and say the guy’s lines for him,” Merlin said.
On one occasion, Merlin recalled, “a fella was so nervous he began with Frank’s line. So Frank answered with his line, and they did that through the entire scene. At the end of the scene, the director came out of the booth and said how wonderful they were and didn’t realize they had changed lines.
“Frank was delighted with that; he had a marvelous sense of humor.”
After the TV series ended in 1955, Thomas gave up acting and wrote for television and radio for a time. He then played on the bridge circuit with master players and taught recreational bridge for many years. He also was the longtime editor of the American Bridge Teachers’ Assn. Quarterly Magazine and served as president of the organization.
Thomas also wrote a string of mystery novels, including “Sherlock Holmes and the Masquerade Murders,” featuring Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character.
Thomas’ wife, Virginia, died in 1997. In addition to his stepdaughter, he is survived by his stepson, James Aicholtz, and a step-grandson.
At his request, Thomas was buried Tuesday in his “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” costume.