(b. 22 April 1906 in Rock Island, Illinois; d. 26 May 2005 in Los Angeles, California), stage, motion picture, and television actor, generally cast as a friendly innocent or the hero’s good-natured sidekick, who found stardom as the city slicker-turned-farmer on the television sitcom Green Acres (1965–1971).
Albert was born Edward Albert Heimberger, the eldest of five children of German immigrants. Some sources erroneously give his birth year as 1908; this date entered the public record because his mother, who was not married at his birth in 1906, altered his birth certificate to show a later date. When he was a year old, his family moved from Illinois to Minnesota. After owning and managing two small restaurants, his father, Frank Daniel Heimberger, sold them and went into the insurance business. His mother, Julia (Jones) Heimberger, was a homemaker. While attending Saint Stephen’s Parochial School in Minneapolis, the shy young Albert developed an early interest in acting. In his senior year at Central High School he acquitted himself creditably in a production of the Scottish playwright James M. Barrie’s A Kiss for Cinderella.
To finance his studies at the University of Minnesota, where he studied drama and dance, Albert washed dishes and at night managed a cinema, where he also hosted a weekly magic show. Leaving college after two years (1927–1929), he worked as an insurance salesman until two friends persuaded him to join them in a radio singing act, The Threesome, in St. Louis. “I decided to do it temporarily in order to eat,” Albert recalled. “I had really sold no insurance at all except to my father.” The act moved to New York City, where it soon broke up. Albert then paired with the entertainer Grace Bradt, forming a singing duo, the Honeymooners—Grace and Eddie, on National Broadcasting Company (NBC) radio in 1935, when he dropped his surname because radio announcers kept calling him Eddie Hamburger.
Albert was one of the world’s first television actors. In June 1936 he appeared in the first experimental television broadcast of Radio Corporation of America (RCA)/NBC in New York City. He made his Broadway debut with a small part in O Evening Star (1936), a five-performance flop, and then landed three successes in a row under the direction of the Broadway showman George Abbott: Brother Rat (1936), Room Service (1937), and The Boys from Syracuse (1938), his first musical. In 1938 Warner Bros. signed Albert to act in the film version of Brother Rat. He remained in Hollywood, making eight more films until his career came to a sudden halt due to the rumor that he was having an affair with the wife of Jack L. Warner, the studio’s head of production. Albert left Hollywood, went to Mexico, and joined the Escalante Brothers Circus as a clown and an aerialist. While there, he photographed German U-boat activity as an amateur spy for U.S. Army intelligence.
In 1942 Albert joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the USS Sheridan. He drove a landing craft vehicle in the first invasion wave at the Battle of Tarawa in 1943, rescuing seventy marines who were wounded or stranded on the beachhead, a feat for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. He returned to the United States as a lieutenant assigned to the training films branch. On the day of his discharge, 5 December 1945, he married the Mexican film actress Maria Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estella Bolado Castilla y O’Donnell, better known by her stage name, Margo, who would remain his devoted wife until her death from brain cancer in 1985. The Alberts would have two children, an adopted daughter, Maria, and a son, the actor Edward Albert, Jr., born 20 February 1951.
After World War II Albert formed his own film company, producing and narrating a series of 16-millimeter educational reels, including sex education films, while at the same time appearing in a string of second-rate motion pictures. In 1953 he approached stardom in Roman Holiday in his role opposite the actors Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, for which he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also played a memorable role in the film version of the musical Oklahoma! (1955). In 1956 he gave an extraordinary performance as a cowardly army officer in the filmmaker Robert Aldrich’s Attack! “Bob gave me the best role I’ve had in my career,” Albert later claimed. Unfortunately, he had to wait eighteen years for another highly challenging role when Aldrich cast him as a sadistic prison warden in The Longest Yard (1974).
In 1960 Albert received critical acclaim when he replaced the actor Robert Preston as Harold Hill in The Music Man on Broadway. But his greatest success was in the television sitcom Green Acres, playing Oliver Wendell Douglas, a New York City lawyer who fulfills his lifelong dream of becoming a farmer and drags his glamorous wife, played by Eva Gabor, to rural Hooterville. The show, which ran from 1965 to 1971, became a cult favorite. In 1972 Albert received another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for playing Cybill Shepherd’s domineering father in The Heartbreak Kid. In 1974 he returned to Warner Bros. to play a police officer alongside John Wayne in McQ, his first film at the studio in thirty-three years. Albert went on to costar with Robert Wagner in the television police drama Switch from 1975 to 1978 and appeared regularly on the evening soap Falcon Crest during the show’s seventh season in 1987–1988. Altogether, he performed in more than eighty films and made more than one hundred appearances on television. His last major appearance was in the television movie The Barefoot Executive (1995).
In addition to his acting, Albert was a leading activist in the fight against pollution and world hunger. He made many public service announcements for the Environmental Protection Agency and was in the forefront of the drive to outlaw the pesticide DDT in the United States. He often testified before Congress and gave speeches around the country. Earth Day is celebrated on his birthday, 22 April. In 1986 he was given a presidential citation for his work in helping to feed the world’s poor. As early as the 1950s he had visited the Congo to discuss malnutrition with the philosopher and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. He often traveled the world with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and helped to establish the United Nations’ program Meals for Millions. Another of his concerns was child welfare. He produced educational films for children and helped found City Children’s Farms, an organization formed to create gardens for children in inner cities. With his family Albert founded Plaza de la Raza, a Los Angeles arts foundation for disadvantaged Latino children.
Albert was himself a health food enthusiast, maintaining an extensive vegetable garden at his home. Toward the end of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, but he could still play basketball in a wheelchair with his granddaughter. He died of pneumonia at age ninety-nine at his Pacific Palisades, California, home. Albert was buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, not far from his Green Acres costar, Eva Gabor. He once claimed, “I don’t really care how I am remembered as long as I bring happiness and joy to people.”
An analysis of Albert’s best-known television show, Green Acres, is in Jaime J. Weinman, “Hurrah for Hooterville,” Maclean’s (9 Dec. 2005). Obituaries are in the New York Times (28 May 2005), the Daily Telegraph (London) (31 May 2005), and the Seattle Times (1 June 2005).
John J. Byrne