One of the most versatile American movie actors of the mid-20th century, Eddie Albert missed out on stardom but, instead, enjoyed a 50-year-plus screen career that encompassed everything from light comedy and zany satire to the most savage war dramas. Born Edward Albert Heimberger in Rock Island, IL, he attended the University of Minnesota. After working as everything from soda jerk to a circus acrobat (with a short stint as a nightclub and radio singer), Albert headed for New York City, where he scored a hit in the play Brother Rat, portraying military cadet Bing Edwards. He also starred in Room Service on-stage before heading to Hollywood, where he was signed by Warner Bros. to recreate his stage role in the 1938 film Brother Rat. Albert was known for his comedic work during the early years of his career -- his other early major credits included The Boys From Syracuse and Boy Meets Girl on-stage and On Your Toes (1939) onscreen. When he did appear in dramas, such as A Dispatch From Reuters (1940), it was usually as a light, secondary lead or male ingénue, similar to the kinds of parts that Dick Powell played during his callow, youthful days.
Albert had an independent streak that made him unusual among actors of his era -- he actually quit Warner Bros. at one point, preferring to work as a circus performer for eight dollars per day. The outbreak of World War II sent Albert into the U.S. Navy as a junior officer, and he distinguished himself during 1943 in the fighting on Tarawa. Assigned as the salvage officer in the shore party of the second landing wave (which engaged in heavy fighting with the Japanese), his job was to examine military equipment abandoned on the battlefield to see if it should be retrieved; but what he found were wounded men who had been left behind under heavy fire. Albert took them off the beach in a small launch not designed for that task, earning commendations for his bravery. A bona fide hero, he was sent home to support a War Bond drive (though he never traded on his war experiences, and didn't discussing them in detail on-camera until the 1990s).
When Albert resumed his acting career in 1945, he had changed; he displayed a much more serious, intense screen persona, even when he was doing comedy. He was also a much better actor, though it took ten years, and directors Robert Aldrich and David Miller, to show the movie-going public just how good he was. Ironically, when Albert did return to films, the roles weren't really there for him, so he turned to television and theatrical work during the early '50s. His best movie from this period was The Dude Goes West (1948), an offbeat comedy-Western directed by Kurt Neumann in a vein similar to Along Came Jones. The mid-'50s saw Albert finally achieve recognition as a serious actor, first with his Oscar-nominated supporting performance in William Wyler's hit Roman Holiday (1953) and then, three years later, in Robert Aldrich's brutal World War II drama Attack!, in which he gave the performance of a lifetime as a cowardly, psychopathic army officer. From that point on, Albert got some of the choicest supporting dramatic parts in Hollywood, in high-profile movies such as The Longest Day and small-scale gems like David Miller's Captain Newman, M.D. Indeed, the latter film, in which he played a more sympathetic disturbed military officer, might represent his single best performance onscreen. His ability at comedy wasn't forgotten, however, and, in 1965, he took on the starring role of Oliver Wendell Douglas (opposite Eva Gabor) in the TV series Green Acres, in which he got to play the straight man to an array of top comic performers for six seasons. The show developed a cult following among viewers, ranging from small children to college students, and became a pop-culture institution.
The movie business had changed by the time Albert re-entered films in 1971, but he still snagged an Oscar nomination for his work (in a difficult anti-Semitic role) in Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid (1972). He also remained one of Robert Aldrich's favorite actors, and, in 1974, the director gave him a choice role as the sadistic warden, in The Longest Yard. He had another hit series in the mid-'70s with Switch, in which he and Robert Wagner co-starred as a pair of private investigators whose specialty was scamming wrongdoers. Albert was still working steadily into the early '90s, when he was well into his eighties.
From the mid-'40s, the actor had acquired a deep, personal interest in politics, and produced a series of educational films intended to introduce grade-school students to notions of democracy and tolerance. By the '60s, he was also deeply involved in the environmental movement. Albert was married for decades to the Mexican-American actress Margo (who died in 1985); their son is the actor Edward Albert.