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!