Eddie Bracken (b. Astoria, NY, 7 February 1915; d. Montclair, NJ, 14 November 2002) was an American comic actor with a surprisingly suave and pleasing singing voice. His career on stage, screen, and television portraying bewildered, long-suffering comic heroes spanned over seventy years, hitting its peak in the mid-1940s.
Edward Vincent Bracken was one of three sons of Catherine and Joseph L. Bracken, and although his parents had no money to invest in his musical education, he was an instinctive entertainer from the start. He sang a solo in a nursery school recital, and went on to appear before chapters of the Knights of Columbus. This led to an audition (singing “I Wonder What’s Become of Sally”) with the American Sound Studio and a contract to perform in a short silent film series called The New York Kiddie Troupers, the eastern counterpart of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies. Eddie was in vaudeville by the age of nine, and his parents ultimately sent him to the New York City Professional Children’s School for Actors.
At eighteen he got a part in a Broadway comedy (The Lady Refuses, 1933) which lasted for only seven performances, but his appearance was outstanding enough to get him steady work in six more comedies through the end of the decade. He was chosen by producer-director George Abbott to star in the last of these, Too Many Girls (Rodgers and Hart, 1939), introducing the (now standard) song “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” RKO adapted the show for the silver screen in 1940, Bracken moved to Hollywood, and his film career took off.
After Caught in the Draft with Bob Hope (1941), The Fleet’s In (1942) with William Holden, and Sweater Girl with June Preisser (1942), Eddie Bracken became a major screen sensation starring in two films by Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (filmed in 1942, released in 1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). By 1945 his was enough of a household name to launch an NBC radio show, “The Eddie Bracken Story,” and the next year, “The Eddie Bracken Show” (1946–1947) on CBS. By 1953, roughly twenty-two movies later, his particular style of comedy was beginning to fall out of favor, and Bracken decided to move back to New York and Broadway.
Signaling his return was the role of Richard Sherman in The Seven Year Itch, which he took over from Tom Ewell and Eddie Albert at the end of the show’s Broadway run, and then took on the road for a national tour. Following that, in 1957 he played the cockroach Archy in George Kleinsinger and Joe Darion’s Shinbone Alley, a Broadway musical based on archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis, opposite Eartha Kitt. (A concept album containing material for this show had been recorded in 1954 on the Columbia label, under the title archy and mehitabel, showcasing Bracken’s remarkable voice.) In the early ’60s he made a couple of sallies into producing and directing, but the results were not good. He hit his stride again as a performer, replacing Art Carney as Felix in The Odd Couple in 1965, leading that cast for close to two years, and again taking it on the road. Many later tours included Hello, Dolly! with Carol Channing, and Damn Yankees in Ray Walston’s old role of Mr. Applegate, the devil.
“I’m the theater’s number one takeover guy for everybody,” he said once in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a great compliment to be asked to replace such a variety of performers.” He never minded long tours, and said that to the best of his knowledge he had played on the road more than any other American actor then living. “I’m only tired until the curtain goes up.”
Playing Horace Vandergelder in the 1978 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! (again with Carol Channing), Eddie Bracken earned a Tony® nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Preparatory to another national tour, he also appeared in the original Broadway production of Sugar Babies in 1982.
From his first return to New York in the early ’50s, Eddie Bracken had been a prominent presence on television screens as well as the stage, in plays presented by sponsors like Gulf, Lux, Goodyear, 20th Century-Fox, Schlitz, Ford, Alcoa, Kraft, and even a reprise of archy and mehitabel on Play of the Week in 1960. Later series appearances included Rawhide (1963–4), Burke’s Law (1964–5), Dick Van Dyke (1973), Tales from the Darkside (1984), Murder, She Wrote (1985), The Golden Girls (1990), and Ed (2000). And, inevitably, Bracken returned to the large screen as well, in character roles like Mr. Walley in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), E.F. Duncan in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), and the Old Timer in Baby’s Day Out (1994). When Shinbone Alley was made into an animated film in 1971, there surely could have been no other choice for Archy’s voice but Bracken’s.
For the last two decades of his life, Bracken had a close relationship also with the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, starring in dozens of productions. A particular high point was his performance as Cap’n Andy Hawkes in their production of Show Boat, shown on PBS in 1990.
Bracken was married for 63 years to Constance Nickerson, an actress he met in a road company in 1939. They had five children, and died within three months of each other in 2002. He is commemorated with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his work in radio, and one for television.
– Lucy E. Cross