Saturday, September 22, 2012

What a Character: Eddie Anderson

It is a sad fact of life that the Golden Age of Hollywood was not a Golden Age for African Americans. Particularly in the Thirties, African American characters were often outright stereotypes. It was the era of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, actors whose speciality was playing characters who were stereotypically lazy, dim witted, and illiterate. Even in an era when offensive stereotypes permeated everything from big budget feature films to Warner Brothers cartoons, however, there were African American actors whose work would change the image of blacks on film for the positive. Among these actors was comedian Eddie Anderson, best known for playing Jack Benny's valet Rochester on the long running Jack Benny Programme.

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.

Eddie Anderson made his first appearances on his film, with an uncredited role in What Price Hollywood? (1932). Over the next several years Eddie Anderson appeared in such films as Hat Check Girl (1932), False Faces (1932), Billion Dollar Scandal (1933), I Love That Man (1933), Behold My Wife (1934), and His Night Out (1935) , generally playing uncredited roles as chauffeurs, porters, and the like. It was in 1936 that Eddie Anderson received his biggest part yet, playing Noah in The Green Pastures. The same year he appeared in Three Men on a Horse, playing the elevator operator Moses. In 1937 Eddie Anderson would appear in such films as Melody for Two (1937) and One Mile from Heaven (1937).

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.

It would be during World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge, that Jack Benny and his writers made the decision to remove all traces of ethnic stereotyping from Rochester's character. Gone were the jokes about Rochester drinking gin, gambling, chasing women, eating fried chicken, and eating watermelon. Already intelligent and somewhat mocking towards Jack Benny, Rochester became the American equivalent of Jeeves, a sly, assertive manservant who more or less has his employer's life under his control. It is Rochester to whom Jack Benny goes when he needs to know how to spell words like "superfluous" and "discrepancies." And it is often Rochester who gets Jack out of trouble. While Rochester was still Jack Benny's valet and chauffeur, he was very much treated as Jack's equal.

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 also appear with Jack Benny in many of Mr. Benny's movies. He appeared in the films  Man About Town (1939), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940), Love Thy Neighbour (1940), and The Meanest Man in the World (1943) (surprisingly he did not appear in The Horn Blows at Midnight, Jack Benny's movie that he joked about for years). In all but The Meanest Man in the World he played Rochester. In the book From Sambo to Superspade: the Black Experience in Motion Pictures author Daniel J. Leab noted that Paramount "...recognized how much Rochester bolstered the weak box- office draw of Benny, who was not at his best in the movies." Indeed, in Jack Benny's films, Eddie Anderson's role as Rochester is nearly as large as that of Mr. Benny. What is more, the Rochester of Jack Benny's movies is nearly recognisable as the Rochester of the later radio show and the television series. In the films he regularly outwits his boss and in Man About Town it is ultimately Rochester who saves his boss's hide.

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.

Of  course, as popular as the character of Rochester was, it seems likely that Eddie Anderson would have had a film career had he never played the character. After all, his film career was already on the rise when he first appeared on The Jack Benny Programme. His film career would continue to grow even in his first years on The Jack Benny Programme. He appeared as Gros Bat in Jezebel (1938), the big budget Southern given to Bette Davis as compensation for losing the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Eddie Anderson also appeared in Gone With the Wind, playing Scarlett's coachman Uncle Peter. Aside from Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, he was the top credited African American in the cast. Eddie Anderson also appeared in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (1938), playing the maid Rheba's boyfriend and handyman to the Sycamore family, Donald. He appeared in the W. C. Fields feature You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), alongside fellow radio stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. In the film he played a character very much like Rochester named "Cheerful." Like Rochester, Cheerful is intelligent and independent. And like Rochester he outwitted his boss.

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.

Throughout his career Eddie Anderson generally played supporting roles. Even the second billing he received in  What's Buzzin', Cousin? was a rarity. With Cabin in the Sky (1943) Eddie Anderson was the male lead. In the film Eddie Anderson played Little Joe Jackson, a man who is murdered after accumulating a good deal of gambling debts and is given six months more to live in which he must redeem himself to enter Heaven or else be condemned to Hell. To this end Lucifer Jr. (played by Rex Ingram) tries everything in his power to corrupt Little Joe, including the temptress Georgia Brown (Lena Horne). In the film we get to see Eddie Anderson sing once more, and in duets with both Ethel Waters and Lena Horne at that. While Cabin in the Sky is a much more positive portrayal of African American than many other films of its era, sadly the film still contains some stereotypes. Eddie Anderson's Little Joe is a gambling addict. Ethel Waters' Petunia, Little Joe's wife, is perhaps overly religious. While much more affirmative than many films of its time, then, Cabin in the Sky can still prove jarring to modern day audiences.

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.

Eddie Anderson would only make a few more films following Brewster's Millions. He appeared in such films as I Love a Bandleader (1945), The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945), and The Show-Off (1946). The Fifties would see him make no feature films at all, although he did continue to appear on television as Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme. He also reprised his role as Noah in The Green Pastures for The Hallmark Hall of Fame during the decade. In the Sixties he would guest star as Rochester on the TV show Bachelor Father (in the episode Bentley Gregg, played by John Forsythe, subcontracted Rochester from Jack Benny). He also guest starred in episodes of It Takes a Thief and Love, American Style. It was in the Sixties that Eddie Anderson would make his final appearances in feature films. He appeared as a cabbie in the epic, all star comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and he had a cameo in the Godfrey Cambridge comedy Watermelon Man (1970).

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.


  1. I think this is one of the best pieces I have ever read about Eddie Anderson. The way you described the friendship he had with Jack Benny and the way he mourned at Benny's funeral made me a little weepy.

  2. This is an excellent article. I love the information you've provided on an important character actor of his day. Eddie Anderson was important in his field in many ways, mainly because he was truly funny, with hysterical delivery. He and Benny were a great team.

  3. I enjoyed reading your profile of Eddie Anderson. A lot of younger people who know of him probably know he's funny, but they don't know his story. He was a talented comedian, and by the loyalty his inspired, he must have been quite a man off-camera and off-mike, too. You're right that early African-American portrayals can be problematic, but even today he brings laughter in his performances and not winces from the material he's in. I like how you highlighted his relationship with Jack Benny. That was very touching.

  4. Your article reminded me that it's been too long since I gave myself the pleasure of listening to a Mr. Benny and Rochester program. Wonderful selection and article for the blogathon.

  5. Great! I haven't watched Eddie in many movies, but for sure I'll pay more attention to him. His partnership with Jack Benny was amazing and nice for both of the comedians.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)