Possessing an immediately recognisable, gravelly voice that was something like a foghorn, there can be no denying that Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was one of the most popular radio and television stars of the 20th Century regardless of race. In the course of his career he became the highest paid African American actor for a time and one of the highest paid stars in radio. And while Eddie Anderson is best known as Rochester, he also had a highly successful career as a character actor in motion pictures. Indeed, Paramount considered Eddie Anderson such a box office draw that they once wanted him for one of their Bob Hope movies. Jack Benny, who had Mr. Anderson under contract, turned Paramount down with the words, ""It's bad enough having him steal my pictures." Jack Benny may have had little success in motion pictures, but his comedy partner Eddie Anderson was a bona fide movie star, one who could have easily stolen a Bob Hope movie out from under Mr. Hope's nose.
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson was born on 18 September 1905 in Oakland, California. Both of his parents had been in the entertainment industry. His father, "Big Ed" Anderson, had been a minstrel performer and was later part of the comedy team of Anderson and Goines, which played the vaudeville circuit. His mother, Ella Mae, had been a circus tightrope walker, her career cut short when she suffered a fall. Eddie Anderson developed his trademark voice while he was still young, straining his vocal chords while selling newspapers in San Francisco. As might be expected of the son of two performers, Eddie Anderson would enter show business while still young. He and his brother Lloyd formed a song and dance act, performing for military men at San Francisco's Presidio. Young Eddie Anderson later joined the chorus of Struttin' Along. Later still Mr. Anderson, his brother Cornelius Anderson, and a friend would form a song and dance trio, The Three Black Aces. The Three Black Aces would prove rather successful. Starting on the vaudeville circuit, they eventually performed at such venues as the Apollo Theatre and the Roxy. It was after The Three Black Aces spent two and a half years performing at the Cotton Club in Los Angeles that Eddie Anderson decided to make the move to Hollywood and seek work in film.
While Eddie Anderson's career in films was on the rise in the mid to late Thirties, it would not be films that would make him a star, but radio instead. It was in 1937 that an episode of The Jack Benny Programme featured a Coleman porter who would have an encounter with penny pinching Jack Benny. Eddie Anderson proved to be a hit in the role, so that a month later he was brought back to play the part of a waiter named Pierre. Once again Eddie Anderson proved popular with the audience. Many weeks later, Eddie Anderson was brought back on the show again, this time playing a character in a dispute with Jack Benny over a watch. Notably, Mr. Anderson's character came out on top in the exchange, something that probably would not have happened between a black character and a white character on another radio show or in a motion picture. Eddie Anderson once more proved to be a hit on the show. It was then not long before Eddie Anderson was made a regular member of the cast of The Jack Benny Programme, playing Jack Benny's valet and chauffeur Rochester (who would eventually be given the surname "Van Jones").
In the early days the character of Rochester owed a good deal to commonly held racial stereotypes. He loved to drink, particularly gin. Rochester loved gambling and chasing women. His tastes in food ran to fried chicken and watermelon. Even in the early days while Rochester may have resembled many of the common black stereotypes, at the same time he differed a good deal from them as well. Rochester was decidedly not dim witted the way that Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best's characters were, and while he was a servant he was not exactly servile either. Like the white characters on The Jack Benny Programme Rochester mocked and belittled Jack. And like every other character on the show Rochester always got the better of Jack as well. Ultimately Rochester would confront and even ridicule Jack in ways that no other black character in any other radio show or any motion picture would have been permitted to do to a white man at the time.
In the end Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson became a comedy team, much in the same way that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or George Burns and Gracie Allen were. What made them a success as a team was not simply that they were two very talented men, but that they were also very close friends who were quite comfortable with each other. When Eddie Anderson had a heart attack in 1958, Jack Benny was visibly worried about him. When Jack Benny died in 1974, Eddie Anderson not only teared up during interviews about his former employer and comedy partner, but he openly wept at Jack Benny's funeral.
Of course, here it must be pointed out that not only did Jack Benny change the character of Rochester from a near stereotype to a much more positive and affirmative character, but in his own way he also stood up against segregation on behalf of Eddie Anderson. Once Eddie Anderson was denied a room in a hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri at which Jack Benny's cast and crew had planned to stay, Jack Benny told them, "If he doesn't stay, neither then do I." The hotel relented and gave Eddie Anderson a room. The South was not the only place where racism against Eddie Anderson took place. Once in New York, a couple at a hotel at which the cast and crew were staying complained about being in the same hotel as Eddie Anderson. The hotel manager tried to convince Eddie Anderson to move to another hotel. The show's producer and Mary Livngstone's brother, Hilliard Marks, told the manager that Eddie Anderson would be happy to move to another hotel. The following day the entire cast and crew, 44 people in all, checked out of the hotel.
Eddie Anderson would continue to appear as Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme through its transition to television until its end in 1965. Along with the rest of the cast of The Jack Benny Programme he provided his voice in the classic Warner Brothers short "The Mouse That Jack Built (1959)." After The Jack Benny Programme went off the air, Eddie Anderson appeared with Jack Benny in two television specials.
Even while Eddie Anderson played Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme, he continued to have a successful movie career. Of course, even in some of the films he made without Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson played the ever popular character of Rochester. He also appeared as Rochester in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and got to display his skill as a song and dance man with the "Sharp as a Tack" number (easily one of the highlights of the film). Finally, he appeared as Rochester in What's Buzzin', Cousin? (1943), receiving an unheard of second billing to Ann Miller.
Eddie Anderson's film career would continue unabated in the Forties, as he appeared in several films aside from those he made with Jack Benny or appeared as Rochester without Jack Benny. He had a fairly high profile role as the nameless chauffeur in Topper Returns (1941), although sadly the character had more in common with Mantan Moreland's Birmingham Brown from Monogram's "Charlie Chan" series than Rochester. In Birth of the Blues (1941) he played Louey, the manservant (not unlike Rochester) to Bing Crosby's character Jeff Lambert. Sadly, Eddie Anderson's next film, Tales of Manhattan (1942), would see him playing a somewhat stereotypical black preacher in the last segment of that film. Indeed, the film was offensive enough that Paul Robeson turned his back on Hollywood afterwards.
Aside from Little Joe Jackson in Cabin in the Sky, Eddie Anderson's most notable movie role in the Forties may have been that of Jackson the butler in Brewster's Millions (1945), the fifth adaptation of George Barr McCutcheon's novel of the same name. In this version of Brewster's Millions it is Dennis O'Keefe who plays Monty Brewster, a newly demobilised soldier who must spend a million dollars in two months if he is to inherit eight million dollars form his late uncle. As one of Monty Brewster's chief allies, the character of Jackson plays a central role in the film. What is more, he is also cut very much from the same cloth as Rochester--a black butler who is not afraid to speak his mind, even to white people. Lloyd T. Binford, chairman of Memphis, Tennessee's Board of Censors, felt that Jackson "...has much too familiar a way about him, and the picture presents too much social equality and racial mixture." As a result he barred the film from Memphis, an action which resulted in nationwide condemnation of Binford and his actions.
Sadly, it was in 1977 that Eddie Anderson died at the age of 71 from heart failure. Not surprisingly, the headlines announcing his death referred to him as "Rochester" nearly as often as they did "Eddie Anderson."
The Thirties and Forties were not a particularly good time for African American actors. The vast majority of parts available to them tended to be either stereotypes or servants, often both in the same role. Eddie Anderson would play more than his fair share of stereotypes and servants. Indeed, it must be noted that as independent as Rochester was, in the end he was ultimately Jack Benny's valet. Ultimately, however, Eddie Anderson played roles that transcended the stereotypes of the day. Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme, Cheerful in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, and Jackson in Brewster's Millions were all roles in which Eddie Anderson played intelligent, resourceful men who were much brighter than their employers. At a time when many African American characters in film and on radio were dim witted, lazy, or servile, Eddie Anderson was playing characters who were intelligent, resourceful, and independent.
What is perhaps more remarkable than the fact that Eddie Anderson was given the chance to play such characters is the fact that he proved enormously successful doing it. Eddie Anderson became the first African American actor to have a regular part in a radio show. He also became the highest paid African American radio star. For a time in the Forties he was the highest paid African American actor in film. With but few exceptions (such as a certain board of censors in Memphis), audiences obviously had no objections to Eddie Anderson's characters who were often brighter than their bosses and treated as intelligent individuals rather than mere servants. Eddie Anderson's success in film playing witty characters would pave the way for actors such as Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr., Paul Winfield, and many others. His success as a comedian would pave the way for such comics as Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby, and many others. At a time when most black actors were playing outright stereotypes, servants, or both, Eddie Anderson was paving the way for black characters who were both intelligent and independent.