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Eddie Anderson Overview:

Legendary character actor, Eddie Anderson, was born Edmund Lincoln Anderson on Sep 18, 1905 in Oakland, CA. Anderson appeared in over 70 film and TV roles, many uncredited. His best known films include You Can't Take It with You (as Donald), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (as Rochester), Gone with the Wind (as Uncle Peter, Coachman), Topper Returns (as Chauffeur) and Cabin in the Sky (the lead, Little Joe Jackson, opposite Ethel Waters). Anderson died at the age of 71 on Feb 28, 1977 in Los Angeles, CA and was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.

Early Life

Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was born on September 18th, 1905 in Oakland, California. Anderson was born into a family of performers; his father, "Big Ed," was often seen on the minstrel stage while his mother, Ella Mae, was a tightrope walker. When Anderson was ten years old, he and his family packed their bags and moved to San Francisco. Sometime between the age of 12 and 14 Anderson was forced to leave school to join the work force and help his family financially. While working as newsboy, he yelled "Extra, extras, read all about it," so loud that he temporarily lost his voice. The incident would leave Anderson with a scratchy sounding raspy voice that would later be his trademark over the American airwaves. Much like his parents, Anderson seemed to have performance in his blood and would eventually start performing on the street corners with his brother and eventually won an amateur vaudeville contest at a local theatre. He then joined an all black revue at the age of 14, thus beginning his career in show business.

Early Career

He and his brother, Cornelius, began working the vaudeville circuit as a song and dance duo.  The two were quickly snatched up by a vocal group called "Three Black Aces" and worked with them on shows such as Struttin' Along and Steppin' High. They then traveled with differing entertainment groups, including the California Collegians, performing with a then unknown Fred MacMurry and later the Strut Mitchell Troupe. Their song and dance numbers were incredibly successful with audiences and allowed the siblings to travel across the country, performing coast to coast, eventually ending up at Harlem's famous Cotton Club in New York City. In 1926 Anderson began to add comedic elements to his song and dance numbers, adding another layer depth to his already popular performances. The added element only enhanced Anderson's popularity.

In 1932 Anderson made his film debut as an uncredited butler in the George Cukor drama What Price Hollywood? For the next couple of years, Anderson continued to split his time between the vaudeville stage and the silver screen. Like most black entertainers of his time, Anderson was first offered nothing but a slew of uncredited, stereotypical parts, such as a Chauffeur in False Faces, Behold my Wife and a bellhop in His Night Out. It wouldn't be until 1937, that the hard working Anderson would have his efforts truly pay off, when he was cast on the famed radio series The Jack Benny Program.

The Jack Benny Program

When Anderson was first cast on The Jack Benny Program he wasn't meant to be a full-time cast member; he wasn't even the first choice. When Jack Benny needed a porter for his newest comedy sketch, which involved Benny traveling by train from Chicago to Hollywood, he first asked a friend Oscar, who was the shoeshine man at the studio. When he asked for too much money, Benny called upon Anderson, who was happy to accept the role. Over the next few months Anderson was asked multiple time to return to the show, quickly making himself seem right at home on the set. Before long his popularity with audiences, cast, and crew grew and he was eventually written into the show as Benny's butler, Rochester van Jones. After Anderson was cast as regular on The Jack Benny Show he became the first Black American to be cast on nationwide radio program. Anderson's Rochester quickly began a tremendously popular character with many believing Rochester was his real name. By the 1940s Anderson had grown so popular that he received over 2,000 fan letters a week.

Movie Success

During this time Anderson also remained busy at the movies, appearing in over 70 films during his career. Thanks to his radio fame, Anderson was also finally credited for his work in the industry after five years of uncredited roes. He appeared as a supporting role in steady stream of A-picture films such as Jezebel, Gold Diggers in Paris, You Can't Take It with You. In 1939 he appeared as Uncle Peter in the epic hit Gone with the Wind. The next Anderson made an appearance as Rochester Van Jones on the big screen, starring opposite Jack Benny and Ellen Drew in the western parody Buck Benny Rides Again. Venturing the character into new filmic territory proved to be worthwhile effort as the film was the tenth highest grossing of the year. The next year he revived the character on screen once again, this time without Benny in the Roy Del Ruth comedy Topper Returns. He reappeared as Rochester again in the 1942 musical revue Star Spangled Rhythm.

In 1943 Anderson was cast in one of his few leading roles in the all-black Hollywood musical Cabin in the Sky directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the Faustian film Anderson played Little Joe Jackson, a man given one last chance to repent his sinful ways after being shot due to a dispute over his outstanding gambling debts. The film also featured other prominent black figures in Hollywood such as Ethel Waters, Lena Horn, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. The film was a hit with both audience and critics, with many praising the films for its dignified portray of black Americans, an unfortunate rarity in the world of Classic Hollywood cinema.  His 1945 film, Brewster's Millions, was banned in some theaters in the Deep South due to his prominent and positive role in the films, and was seen said to be far too "familiar" with his white costars. Of course, during the course of his film career he remained busy on air, continuing to star on The Jack Benny Program, now often first billed right next to Jack Benny himself.

Later Career and Life

Not only was Anderson an astute entertainer, but he went into other ventures as well. He opened a nightclub in Los Angels in the late 1930s but unfortunately was forced to close just a year later, due to his generosity to his friends and family. He also believed in giving back to the black community and during World War II opened an all-black owned and operated parachute company called Pacific Parachute Company. He continued to remain popular on air and in 1949 starred as Rochester in the TV movie special The Jack Benny Program, which acted as the pilot episode for the eventual Jack Benny Program television program. The show would enjoy a long run and was on the air from 1950 to 1965.

By the mid-1950s and into the 1960 Anderson was now a mainstay on the American television set.  He was seen on series such as The Red Skelton Hour, Shower of the Stars, and The Dick Powell Theatre. He also still made the occasional film appearance; such as the 1963 star-studded comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Anderson spent the rest of his career mostly on TV, and made his final appearance as Rochester in the 1969 TV movie Jack Benny's New Look. His final silver screen appearance came the next year with the Mario Van Peebles comedy Watermelon Man. He made his final television performance on The New Adventure of Scoobie-Doo Movies in 1973. He then quietly retired, spending his twilight years with his beloved horses, which had always been one of his hobbies. Eddie Anderson died of heart disease on February 28th, 1977. He was 71 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).

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Anderson was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame . Anderson was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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