One hundred and five years ago on this date, one of radio and television’s most prized sidekicks was born to a family of show business performers…and as such, Eddie Anderson would follow in his mother and father’s footsteps, joining with his older brother in a group called The Three Black Aces. The Aces started out singing in hotel lobbies for spare change before working their way up through the vaudeville circuit to play the Roxy and Apollo theaters…and eventually the Los Angeles Cotton Club out west.
His first onscreen credit was 1932’s Hat Check Girl, in which he played a waiter—and for the most part, those types of roles (along with porters, bootblacks and other servile occupations) would be his cinematic bread and butter, despite landing a prestigious part of “Noah” in The Green Pastures. But Anderson’s big break would come about from a one-shot appearance on a March 28, 1937 Jack Benny Program broadcast in which he played a insouciant train porter; his raspy voice (which resulted from his having hawked newspapers as a kid) struck a chord with Benny and listeners and the comedian used him intermittingly before finally finding a permanent place for him on the program as Benny’s wisecracking valet, Rochester Van Jones. His popularity on the program would result in his being billed as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson for the remainder of his career.
Eddie’s success on the Benny program led to his appearing with his “boss” in three feature films based on the show: Man About Town (1939), Love Thy Neighbor (1940) and Buck Benny Rides Again (1940). (Anderson also played Jack’s sidekick in the 1943 film The Meanest Man in the World—though his character goes by “Shufro” in that vehicle.) His association with the comedian often stretched to the films he made without Benny; in 1941’s Topper Returns his chauffeur character, planning to leave the employ of Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) after tangling with ghostly apparitions, announces he’s going back to Benny because “ain’t nothin’ like this ever happened there.” But Anderson was able to keep a high profile in non-Benny vehicles, among them Jezebel (1938), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), You Can’t Cheat a Honest Man (1939), You Can’t Get Away With Murder (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), Tales of Manhattan (1942), Cabin in the Sky (1943—which may very well be his finest hour onscreen), Brewster’s Millions (1945), I Love a Bandleader (1945) and The Show-Off (1946).
He followed Benny into television and, along with announcer Don Wilson, was pretty much the only cast member from the radio version to stay with the program until it left the air in 1965. His film and television roles were sporadic after that, with the most memorable being a cab driver in the all-star comedy extravaganza It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)…which also features his former employer, though they appear separately from one another in the movie. Eddie left this world for a better one on February 28, 1977 but his comic legacy on radio, television and in the movies will live on forever here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.