Edward Albert Heimberger was born in Rock Island, Illinois, on April 22, 1906, the oldest of the five children of Frank Daniel Heimberger, a realtor, and his wife, Julia Jones. His year of birth is often given as 1908, but this is incorrect. His parents were not married when Albert was born, and his mother altered his birth certificate after her marriage.
When he was one year old, his family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Young Edward secured his first job as a newspaper boy when he was only six. During World War I, his German name led to taunts as "the enemy" by his classmates. He studied at Central High School in Minneapolis and joined the drama club. His schoolmate Harriet Lake (later known as actress Ann Sothern) graduated in the same class. Finishing high school in 1926, he entered the University of Minnesota, where he majored in business.
When he graduated, he embarked on a business career. However, the stock market crash in 1929 left him essentially unemployed. He then took odd jobs, working as a trapeze performer, an insurance salesman, and a nightclub singer. Albert stopped using his last name professionally, since it invariably was mispronounced as "Hamburger". He moved to New York City in 1933, where he co-hosted a radio show, The Honeymooners - Grace and Eddie Show, which ran for three years. At the show's end, he was offered a film contract by Warner Bros.
In the 1930s, Albert performed in Broadway stage productions, including Brother Rat, which opened in 1936. He had lead roles in Room Service (1937–1938) and The Boys from Syracuse (1938–1939). In 1936, Albert had also become one of the earliest television actors, performing live in one of RCA's first television broadcasts in association with NBC, a promotion for their New York City radio stations.
Performing regularly on early television, Albert wrote and performed in the first teleplay, The Love Nest, written for television. Done live (not recorded on film), this production took place November 6, 1936, and originated in Studio 3H (now 3K) in the GE Building at Rockefeller Center (then called the RCA Building) in New York City and was broadcast over NBC's experimental television station W2XBS (now WNBC). Hosted by Betty Goodwin, The Love Nest starred Albert, Hildegarde, The Ink Spots, Ed Wynn, and actress Grace Brandt. Before this time, television productions were adaptations of stage plays.
In 1938, he made his feature-film debut in the Hollywood version of Brother Rat with Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, reprising his Broadway role as cadet "Bing" Edwards. The next year, he starred in On Your Toes, adapted for the screen from the Broadway smash by Rodgers and Hart.
Prior to World War II, and before his film career, Albert had toured Mexico as a clown and high-wire artist with the Escalante Brothers Circus, but secretly worked for U.S. Army intelligence, photographing German U-boats in Mexican harbors. On September 9, 1942, Albert enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and was discharged in 1943 to accept an appointment as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat "V" for his actions during the invasion of Tarawa in November 1943, when, as the pilot of a Coast Guard landing craft, he rescued 47 Marines who were stranded offshore (and supervised the rescue of 30 others), while under heavy enemy machine-gun fire.
During the war years, Albert returned to films, starring in ones such as The Great Mr. Nobody, Lady Bodyguard, and Ladies' Day, as well as reuniting with Reagan and Wyman for An Angel from Texas and co-starring with Humphrey Bogart in The Wagons Roll at Night. After the war, he continued to appear in leading roles, including 1947's Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, opposite Susan Hayward.
From 1948 on, Albert guest-starred in nearly 90 television series. He made his guest-starring debut on an episode of The Ford Theatre Hour. This part led to other roles such as Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, Suspense, Lights Out, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Studio One, Philco Television Playhouse, Your Show of Shows, Front Row Center, The Alcoa Hour, and in dramatic series The Eleventh Hour, The Reporter, and General Electric Theater.
In 1959, Albert was cast as businessman Dan Simpson in the episode "The Unwilling" of the NBC Western series Riverboat. In the story line, Dan Simpson attempts to open a general store in the American West despite a raid from pirates on the Mississippi River who stole from him $20,000 in merchandise. Debra Paget is cast in this episode as Lela Russell; Russell Johnson is Darius, and John M. Picard is uncredited as a river pirate.
The 1950s also had a return to Broadway for Albert, including roles in Miss Liberty (1949–1950) and The Seven Year Itch (1952–1955). In 1960, Albert replaced Robert Preston in the lead role of Professor Harold Hill, in the Broadway production of The Music Man. Albert also performed in regional theater. He created the title role of Marc Blitzstein's Reuben, Reuben in 1955 in Boston. He performed at The Muny Theater in St. Louis, reprising the Harold Hill role in The Music Man in 1966 and playing Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady in 1968.
In the 1950s, Albert appeared in film roles such as that of Lucille Ball's fiancé in The Fuller Brush Girl (1950), Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises (1957), and a traveling salesman in Carrie (1952). He was nominated for his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor with Roman Holiday (1953). In Oklahoma! (1955), he played a womanizing Persian peddler, and in Who's Got the Action? (1962), he portrayed a lawyer helping his partner (Dean Martin) cope with a gambling addiction. In Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) he played a psychiatrist with an enthusiasm for farming. He appeared in several military roles, including The Longest Day (1962), about the Normandy invasion. The film Attack (1956) provided Albert with a dark role as a cowardly, psychotic Army captain whose behavior threatens the safety of his company. In a similar vein, he played a psychotic United States Army Air Force colonel in Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), opposite Gregory Peck.
Albert's first television series was Leave It to Larry, a CBS sitcom that aired in the 1952-1953 season, with Albert as Larry Tucker, a shoe salesman who lives with his young family in the home of his father-in-law and employer, played by Ed Begley. He guest-starred on various series, including ABC's The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, as well as the Westinghouse Studio One series (CBS, 1953–54), playing Winston Smith in the first TV adaptation of 1984, by William Templeton.
Albert had his own daytime variety program, The Eddie Albert Show, on CBS television in 1953. Singer Ellen Hanley was a regular on the show. A review in Broadcasting magazine panned the program, saying, "Mr. Albert with the help of Miss Hanley, conducts an interview, talks a little, sings a little and looks all-thumbs a lot."
Beginning June 12, 1954, Albert was host of Saturday Night Revue, which replaced Your Show of Shows on NBC. The 9:00-10:30 pm (Eastern Time) program also featured Ben Blue and Alan Young and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra.
In 1964, Albert guest-starred in "Cry of Silence", an episode of the science fiction television series The Outer Limits. Albert played Andy Thorne, who along with his wife Karen (played by June Havoc), had decided to leave the city and buy a farm (a recurring theme in Albert's career). They find themselves lost and in the middle of a deserted valley where they come under attack by a series of tumbleweeds, frogs, and rocks. Also in 1964, he guest-starred as a government agent in the pilot episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea entitled "Eleven Days to Zero".
Albert was cast as Charlie O'Rourke in the 1964 episode "Visions of Sugar Plums" of the NBC education drama series, Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus. Bobby Diamond, formerly of the Fury series, also appeared in this episode.
In 1965, Albert was approached by producer Paul Henning to star in a new sitcom for CBS called Green Acres. His character, Oliver Wendell Douglas, was a lawyer who left the city to enjoy a simple life as a farmer. Co-starring on the show was Eva Gabor as his urbanite, spoiled wife. The show was an immediate hit, achieving fifth place in the ratings in its first season. The series lasted six seasons with 170 episodes.
After a four-year-absence from the small screen, and upon reaching age 69 in 1975, Albert signed a new contract with Universal Television, and starred in the popular 1970s adventure/crime drama Switch for CBS, as a retired police officer, Frank McBride, who goes to work as a private detective with a former criminal he had once jailed. In its first season, Switch was a hit. By late 1976, the show had become a more serious and traditional crime drama. At the end of its third season in 1978, ratings began to drop, and the show was canceled after 70 episodes.
Eddie Albert appears in a number of television specials. His first was the 1956 made-for-television NBC documentary Our Mr. Sun, a Bell Telephone-produced color special. Directed by Frank Capra, it blends live action and animation. Albert appears with Dr. Frank Baxter, who appears in several other Bell Telephone science specials.
In 1965, the year that Green Acres premiered, Albert served as host/narrator for the telecast of a German-American made-for-television film version of The Nutcracker, which was rerun several times and is now available as a Warners Archive DVD. The host sequences and the narration, all included on the DVD, were especially filmed for English-language telecasts of this short film (it was only an hour in length, and cut much from the Tchaikovsky ballet).
In 1968, he voiced Myles Standish in the Rankin/Bass Animated TV special The Mouse on the Mayflower.
In 1971, Albert guest-starred in a season-one Columbo episode called "Dead Weight", which also featured guest star Suzanne Pleshette, as a retired US Marine Corps major general from the Korean War who murders his adjutant to cover up a quid pro quo contracting scheme.
In 1972, Albert resumed his film career and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as an overprotective father in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), and delivered a memorable performance as an evil prison warden in 1974's The Longest Yard. In a lighter vein, Albert portrayed the gruff though soft-hearted Jason O'Day in the successful Disney film Escape to Witch Mountain in 1975.
Albert appeared in such 1980s films as How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980), Yesterday (1981), Take This Job and Shove It (1981), Rooster (1982 television film), and Yes, Giorgio (1982), and as the US President in Dreamscape (1984). His final feature film role was a cameo appearance in The Big Picture (1989). He also appeared in many all-star television miniseries, including Evening in Byzantium (1978), The Word (1978), Peter and Paul (1981), Goliath Awaits (1981) and War and Remembrance (1988).
In the mid-1980s, Albert was reunited with longtime friend and co-star of the Brother Rat and An Angel from Texas films, Jane Wyman, in a recurring role as the villainous Carlton Travis in the popular 1980s soap opera Falcon Crest. He also guest-starred on an episode of the '80s television series Highway to Heaven, as well as Murder, She Wrote, and in 1990, he reunited with Eva Gabor for a Return to Green Acres. In 1993, he guest-starred for several episodes on the ABC daytime soap opera General Hospital as Jack Boland, and also made a guest appearance on the Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace the same year.
Eddie Albert's wife, Mexican actress Margo, was well known in Hollywood for her left-wing political leanings. Though not herself a Communist, Margo was well-acquainted with several members of the American Communist Party. As a result, in 1950, Albert's name was published in "Red Channels", an anti-Communist pamphlet that sought to expose purported Communist influence within the entertainment industry.
By 1951, those identified in "Red Channels" were blacklisted across much or all of the movie and broadcast industries unless they cleared their names, the customary requirement being that they testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Additional hearings in 1951-52 generated the bulk of the blacklist, which was then used by the industry on both coasts to control who was hired. In addition, the 1950 publication "Red Channels" listed 151 suspects, and hearings on a smaller scale continued through the decade. Friendly witnesses included actors Lloyd Bridges, Lee J. Cobb, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Taylor; studio heads Walt Disney, Louis B. Mayer, and Jack L. Warner; and director Elia Kazan (whose compliance generated controversy over honoring him in the 1990s). Among the hundreds named were Eddie Albert, Richard Attenborough, Lucille Ball (who testified but satisfied the committee without naming others), Will Geer, Charlie Chaplin, Howard da Silva, Lee Grant, Lillian Hellman, Kim Hunter, Norman Lloyd, Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Dorothy Parker, Paul Robeson, and Lionel Stander.
The results were devastating for many on the list. Some changed careers, while others left the United States, or if screenwriters, worked under pseudonyms and used "fronts" to sell their scripts.
Albert later spoke of this period:
Everyone was so full of fear. Many people couldn't support their families, or worse, their lives were ruined and they had to go out and do menial jobs. Some even killed themselves. ~ Eddie Albert, quoted in Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography
Albert's son spoke of his parents' blacklisting in an interview published in December 1972, crediting Albert's service during World War II with ultimately saving his career:
My mom was blacklisted for appearing at an anti-Franco rally; she was branded a Communist, was spat upon in the streets, and had to have a bodyguard. And my dad found himself unemployable at several major studios, just when his career was gathering momentum. During the second World War, dad joined the Navy and saw action at Tarawa, and because he came back something of a hero, he was able to get work again. But he never got as far as he should have gotten.
While Albert's career survived the blacklist, his wife, Margo, had extreme difficulty finding work.
Albert was active in social and environmental causes, especially from the 1970s onward. He narrated and starred in a 1971 promotional film endorsing the clear-cutting of old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. The film, titled "To Touch The Sky," was sponsored and presented by Weyerhaeuser Company, a forestry products concern.
Albert founded the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation and was national chairman for the Boy Scouts of America's conservation program. He was a trustee of the National Recreation and Park Association and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy's advisory board. TV Guide called him "an ecological Paul Revere". He participated in the creation of Earth Day and spoke at one of its events in 1970.
Beginning in the 1940s, Eddie Albert Productions produced films for various US corporations, as well as documentaries such as Human Beginnings (a for-its-time controversial sex-education film) and Human Growth.
He was special envoy for Meals for Millions and consultant for the World Hunger Conference. He joined Albert Schweitzer in a documentary about African malnutrition and fought agricultural and industrial pollution, particularly DDT. Albert promoted organic gardening, and founded City Children's Farms for inner-city children, while supporting eco-farming and tree planting.
Albert was also a director of the U.S. Council on Refugees.
In the early 40's a rumor spread through Hollywood that Albert was having an affair with Ann Warner, wife of Warner Bros. honcho Jack Warner. According to actor Robert Wagner, a good friend of Albert's, Jack Warner walked in on his wife and Albert in bed and what upset Warner most was that Albert did not care. For a short time, Albert was blacklisted in Hollywood because he was still under WB contract and Jack Warner would not let him go nor would he cast Albert in any WB movies. It was around this time that Albert moved to Mexico for a short time.
Albert married Mexican actress Margo (née María Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell) in 1945. Albert and Margo had a son, Edward Jr., also an actor, and adopted a daughter, Maria, who became her father's business manager. Margo Albert died from brain cancer on July 17, 1985.
The Alberts lived in Pacific Palisades, California, in a Spanish-style house on an acre of land (0.4ha) with a cornfield in front. Albert grew organic vegetables in a greenhouse and recalled how his parents had a "liberty garden" at home during World War I. Eddie Albert was left-handed.
Albert was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1995.
His son put his acting career aside to care for his father. Despite his illness, Albert exercised regularly until shortly before his death. Eddie Albert died of pneumonia on May 26, 2005, at the age of 99 at his home in Pacific Palisades. He was interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, next to his late wife and close to his Green Acres co-star Eva Gabor.
Albert's son, Edward Jr. (1951–2006), was an actor, musician, singer, and linguist/dialectician. Edward Jr. died at age 55, one year after his father. He had been suffering from lung cancer for 18 months.
For contributions to the television industry, Eddie Albert was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6441 Hollywood Boulevard.