Eddie Bracken: A Trouper to the End
Following a career of more than 70 years, Eddie Bracken died November 14 in Montclair, New Jersey. He was 87, though most sources list the year of his birth as 1920 and Bracken would never confirm the date, saying, with a laugh, "I'd rather have people say, 'Doesn't he look wonderful?'" He was married almost 63 years to the former Connie Nickerson, who died in August; they met in a tour of What a Life. "She was my leading lady, and has been ever since," he once told me. The Brackens were the parents of five. "I did it the hard way," he said, "one wife."
On June 1, 2001, the actor celebrated what he claimed was his 15,000th stage performance, playing the Starkeeper in a Paper Mill Playhouse production of Carousel. His milestone performance presented an occasion to interview Bracken, which I'd done three times previously. Paper Mill press representative Charlie Siedenburg introduced Bracken as "affable and congenial," and the actor -- always ready to get a laugh -- scowled, "What the hell do you want?" He noted that his record was "unofficial, because I played Hello, Dolly! [for which Bracken received a 1978 Tony nomination] overseas, I did Sugar Babies in Australia, many shows in Las Vegas. Those were not Equity shows and they weren't counted. But even if I only claimed the 11,000 that I've got in Equity, nobody's even close to that."
The youngest of three sons of Irish immigrants, Edward Vincent Bracken was born in Astoria, New York. "My father was a foreman for the East River Gas Company and my mother demonstrated appliances for Con Edison at Queens Plaza. I sang in courtyards, and people would throw coins. I did shows at the Knights of Columbus Hall. I shared a bill with Ethel Merman [then Zimmerman]; Ethel sang 'Honey, Stay in Your Own Backyard' and I did 'Cross My Heart, Mother, I Love you.'" Bracken didn't complete grade school: "I attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel but they didn't know what to do with me. I was always dreaming about other things. But it was there that a priest, Father Smith, put the bug of show business in my system."
As a child actor, he worked in Kiddie Troupers movie shorts and made his Broadway debut in 1930's The Lottery. A series of flop shows preceded three hits directed by George Abbott. After being cast in the Boston company of Brother Rat, Bracken succeeded Frank Albertson in the Broadway production. Said Bracken, "I owe George Abbott my whole life. Brother Rat was my first Broadway hit; I met my wife in What a Life; and Too Many Girls sent me to California." When Abbott signed to direct the 1940 movie version of the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls, he brought several cast members to Hollywood. Bracken, Van Johnson (who had understudied three roles), and Desi Arnaz made their feature debuts in the film and Arnaz hit it off with the film's female lead, Lucille Ball. Bracken was signed by Paramount Pictures and stayed in Hollywood a dozen years.
His most memorable movies were two 1944 Preston Sturges comedies, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. The former cast Bracken as Norval Jones, a Good Samaritan who weds pregnant Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) and becomes a national hero when she gives birth to sextuplets. In the latter, he was Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, who's mistakenly thought to be a war hero. "I think those are my favorites," he recalled. "I also loved Summer Stock, The Fleet's In, and Hold That Blonde. And National Lampoon's Vacation  and Home Alone 2  have been seen by all the kids. [Those movies] gave me a whole new career, and that's what they remember me from now."
In his biography of Judy Garland, Gerold Frank writes that Garland found Bracken so funny during the making of Summer Stock (1950) that "every time she looked at him, Judy broke up." Recalled Bracken, "They finally had to get someone else to stand off camera [in his place] so that Judy could say the lines." He claimed that movies typecast him: "I wanted a change of pace, but no one would listen. I'm not a comedian; I'm an actor who does comedy."
Bracken returned to Broadway in 1953, taking over the lead from Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, in which he later toured. In 1955, the release of the Columbia album archy and mehitabel began Bracken's long association with a cockroach-poet named archy (who could only type lowercase keys). Carol Channing did the voice of the toujours gai feline, mehitabel. A 1957 Broadway musical version, Shinbone Alley, co-starred Bracken and Eartha Kitt; in 1960, he and Tammy Grimes played the leads for PBS-TV's Play of the Week; and, in 1971, Bracken and Channing supplied the voices for an animated film version.
In 1965, Bracken returned to Broadway to take over the role of Felix Unger (his favorite stage part) in The Odd Couple, "the greatest comedy ever written." He played in the Neil Simon comedy for two years and then toured in it. "Felix is the toughest, most exhausting part I've ever played, and one of the most dramatic," he stated. "The more dramatic you play it, the funnier it gets." Bracken also did Simon's Come Blow Your Horn, Plaza Suite, and The Sunshine Boys. His most recent Broadway appearance occurred in 1982, when he filled in for a vacationing Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies. "I toured in that," he told me, "and played it over a year in Australia."
He was a dandy Cap'n Andy in a 1989 Paper Mill production of Show Boat that was taped for PBS-TV's Great Performances. He also played the role in Houston, Washington, D.C., and "for the State Department, we did it for three weeks in Cairo, Egypt. I even sailed down the Nile. They call it up the Nile, and I couldn't convince them that they're wrong." As Cap'n Andy, Bracken knew just how long to pause between syllables of "Happy" when pronouncing his troupe, "One, big, hap--py family!" Doing a duet of "Why Do I Love You?" with stage wife Parthy (Marsha Bagwell), he followed her singing of the line "I am lucky, too" with an acerbic aside: "Damn right!" And in Andy's recap of a Cotton Blossom melodrama that was interrupted by two backwoodsmen, Bracken was wonderfully funny when pantomiming a fistfight in slow motion (a routine he did as far back as 1941 at Manhattan's Paramount Theatre, in a stage show accompanying one of his movies). Trying to find just the right words to explain what it is that Cap'n Andy's wife has, the veteran performer's facial expressions got a series of laughs before he brought down the house by declaring: "A mean disposition!"