Is This a Frank Nelson Tribute? Ooooooh, Is It!

Is This a Frank Nelson Tribute? Ooooooh, Is It!Here at the Scene Stealers corner of Movie FanFare, we try to pay tribute to that large group of often-unsung supporting actors and actresses who rarely received star status or got their name above the title, but still achieved popularity and garnered fans through their performances. In many cases (Edna May Oliver, for example, or S.Z. Sakall), their first couple of minutes on the screen would be enough to trigger an appreciative reaction from the audience. In the case of today’s subject, silver-tongued master of comic sarcasm Frank Nelson, all it took was a turn of the head and a single word…”Yeeeesssss?”

If the name Frank Nelson isn’t familiar, you’re probably under the age of 50. For those of us over-50 folk, in fact, it still might not ring a bell by itself. Born 100 years ago today–May 6, 1911–in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Frank Brandon Nelson began his acting career while still a teenager at a Denver radio station, playing a man in his 30s (as Nelson wrote in a look back at his career,  “My wife was played by a very lovely 32-year-old redhead. So much for missed opportunities.”). By 1929 he made the move out west to Hollywood, where he became a sought-after voice talent for local, then national, radio dramas and comedies. Groucho and Chico Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Eddie Cantor were some of the notables he worked with, and regular roles on such shows as Fibber McGee and Molly and Blondie helped keep him busy.

Nelson’s most memorable moments, however, came courtesy of his recurring appearances on The Jack Benny Program. Benny, who generally gave his repertoire of players the punchlines and got laughs from his reactions to them, frequently cast Frank as a seemingly omnipresent sales clerk, waiter or store manager. Never referred to by a name and never playing the same character twice, Nelson’s marvelously disdainful demeanor and snappy retorts to the hapless Jack’s queries were always a highlight on the show, and were carried over from radio to television in 1950. A typical exchange between the two would go as seen below:

His wealth of airwave experience also came in handy when movies needed to have someone announcing radio broadcasts in them, and Nelson’s distinctive baritone can be heard in such films as the 1937 Humphrey Bogart actioner Black Legion and Martin and Lewis’s 1953 comedy Money from Home. Actual on-screen roles, however, were relatively rare. Frank co-starred with Donald O’Connor and Jimmy Durante in 1950′s The Milkman, and with Dick Powell (who played a German Shepherd reincarnated as a private eye to solve his own poisoning death) in the oddball 1951 fantasy You Never Can Tell. That same year he could be glimpsed as an “impatient hotel guest” in the noirish drama Fourteen Hours, and he later was an exasperated hotel manager dealing with Navy pilots Cary Grant, Ray Walston and Larry Blyden’s escapades in 1957′s Kiss Them for Me. He also appeared in several of Warner’s Joe McDoakes short subjects starring George O’Hanlon (The two would later do voicework together on The Jetsons cartoon series).

Behind the scenes, Nelson was one of the founding members of the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) and, after it became AFTRA to accommodate television performers, served as the union’s president from 1954 to 1957. The rise of TV in the ’50s opened up new avenues for Nelson’s comic abilities; along with his turns on Jack Benny’s show, he also made frequent appearances on I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, The Real McCoys and The Flintstones, along with guest shots on The Danny Thomas Show, The Addams Family, Petticoat Junction and other programs. The 1970s found Frank doing more cartoon voices for Hanna-Barbera and other studios, but he also managed to make several cameos on Sanford and Son, always introducing himself with the now-standard “Yeeeesssss?”.

His final TV turns came in a cameo as a newsstand vendor in a 1981 Saturday Night Live sketch with Tim Curry and as, of all things, a waiter in a 1983 episode of Alice. And an otherwise not-particularly memorable 1986 jigglefest called The Malibu Bikini Shop (sometimes inexplicably shortened to just The Bikini Shop), in which Frank plays a lawyer who lets siblings Bruce Greenwood and Michael David Wright know they’ve inherited the title store from their late aunt, would turn out to be Nelson’s acting swan song before succumbing to cancer that same year. That people to this day remember Frank–if not necessarily by name, then by his persnickety persona and trademark delivery, is evidenced in the fact that a character bearing a striking resemblance to him appears every so often on The Simpsons:

Is Frank Nelson still thought of fondly by comedy fans? Ooooooh, is he!

  • Jim

    Yesss! One of my all-time favorites! Thanks for honoring him.

  • JSG

    It’s nice to see him mentioned, there are so many wonderful unsung supporting players, thank you.

  • JCW

    Let’s also remember his Klenzrite & H2O Cola TV announcer in “It’s Always Fair Weather”

  • eddie moscone

    don’t for get mel blanc

  • Kevin

    For those who have lived or are still in the Chicago area, Frank Nelson was the voice of Hubert the Harris lion for Harris Bank.

  • Publius

    I stole from Frank when I was cast in a Moliere comedy. As Mr. Aragan, I let Scapin go with a Frank Nelsen which as I remember brought down the house. I remembered him as the voice of the caterer on THE FLINTSTONES. (“I’m the only caterer in town.”) When I got into old time radio, I then heard his superb comic timing on THE JACK BENNY SHOW. Incidentally, to those who are interested, Chuck Schaden has compiled a whole bunch of excerpts and interviews about the BENNY SHOW, and in one of them, Frank tells the story to Mr. Schaden that the longest laugh he ever got on the Benny show was not planned, but was an accident. He was suppossed to say to Jack: “Who do you think I am?–Nelson Eddy?” Jack didn’t like the joke and asked the writers to change it, but no one could come up with a replacement gag. Finally on the night of the show, Don Wilson mis-pronounced the name of a famous radio news commentator, and it came out “Dreer Pooson.” It was so funny that the writers motioned for Frank to come into the booth during the broadcast and told him when he got to the Nelson Eddy line to change it to Dreer Poosen. At first Frank refused because “you didn’t do things like that to Jack.” The writers said they would take full responsibility, and when he said the line to Jack, who was not expecting the punch line, Benny slid down the microphone pole in uproarious laughter and could not go on. Check out “Those Were The Days” website.

  • Gord Jackson

    Thanks for this. I always liked Frank Nelson and one other guy who appeared a lot with Lucille Ball and Eve Arden, the never-to-be-forgotten Gale Gordon. I don’t know if you have ever done a story on this fine comic actor, but if not I would love to see one.

  • David Wechter

    As the writer/director of the “not-particularly memorable 1986 jigglefest “The Malibu Bikini Shop,” I am proud to have cast the wonderful Frank Nelson in his final role. He was sweet, kind and professional. I’ll never forget the morning he told me, with tears in his eyes, that he had cancer. He insisted on finishing the film. Working with him was a dream come true, as it was directing other favorite character actors from my childhood, including Kathleen Freeman (in “Bikini Shop”) and John Fiedler, Marvin Kaplan, and Irene Tedrow (in “Midnight Madness”). I wish there were great players like them around today! Happy Birthday, Frank!

  • Thomas

    Red Foxx-are you the pilot?
    Frank Nelson-yeeeeesssss
    Redd Foxx-this is my first long flight.
    Frank Nelson-mine too!!
    Redd Foxx-how long does it take to get to Hawaii?
    Frank Nelson-I don’t know, we never made it.
    Red Foxx-heart attack

    Sanford and Son episode “the Hawaiian Connection”

  • Bernard Seto

    There is a charity fund for needy actors set up by
    the American Federation of Television and Radio
    Artists (AFTRA), the “other” national labor union
    for actors, this fund is named FRANK NELSON BENEFIT
    FUND–to commemorate Frank Nelson, the actor. If you
    know any actors who had fallen on hard times, feel free to apply for aid at AFTRA.com

  • Miki McDaniel

    Thanks Frank Nelson for all the ‘great moments’ from Stage ,Radio, Movies, and T.V. How you addedd so much with just a few words! Your special talents are sorely missed in programming today……but, it is very interesting that a thread of it is carried over into some Animae like the Simpsons. Boy! How I wish we still had the GREAT Second layer of support actors of yore!

  • Chuck Neumann

    Frank Nelson was always great on the Jack Benny Show. Interesting to see “he” is on the Simpsons. People may not know his name – but they don’t forget his work.

  • Victor Brown

    Bless you for filling me in on the details of one of the most memorable characters from radio and television of the Twentieth Century. He helped to define that century. You have done media fans a great service.

  • Thomas A. Petillo

    Frank Nelson was/is fantastic.
    The skits on the Jack Benny Show are to be savored.
    Just Great! He was just a one-of-a-kind, funny, funny man.

  • Honut Sinti

    I always loved Frank Nelson and his voice character. Very talented man.