Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Eddie Albert

Part of my love of movies comes from television; as a kid, although I saw some things in theaters, I ran across far more movies on TV -- especially in the glory days of things like NBC's ''Saturday Night at the Movies.''
It was somewhere on TV that I encountered ''Captain Newman, M.D.,'' a feature about traumatized GI's getting treatment. Gregory Peck starred, and Bobby Darin was very good as one of the patients, but I also remember it for Eddie Albert as another patient, and one whose fate was powerfully sad.
Eddie Albert has died at the age of 99, and the descriptions of his career tend to showcase light comedy and ''Green Acres,'' the oddball sitcom he starred in.
Don't get me wrong. I like ''Green Acres.'' It was unapologetically absurd, taking place in a world as bizarre as anything David Lynch ever imagined.
Albert -- playing a city big-shot who decided that rural life was more appealing -- seemed to be the lone normal man in a community full of loons. In that respect, he superficially resembled ''The Beverly Hillbillies' '' Buddy Ebsen, a serene and calm figure surrounded by eccentrics (Jethro, Granny, Drysdale among them). But Albert was pointedly not serene; he was constantly blowing his top. And just a look at the horrors of the farm he bought demonstrated that his vision of a peaceful farm life was blurred to the point of delusion, that his idealism had made him the rube.
Still, in trying to sum up Albert with ''Green Acres,'' or in dismissing him as merely a comic actor, we risk overlooking that the guy had serious moves.
Shortly before he died, I watched the original version of ''The Longest Yard'' again in anticipation of seeing the update. Haven't gotten to the update yet, but oh, did I enjoy the original. It was funny, it was dramatic, it was loaded with good performances. But it doesn't work without Albert as the warden, the nemesis of the ex-football star played by Burt Reynolds, because Albert is both Reynolds's opposite and a reflection of Reynolds' worst instincts.
Both men, after all, are superficially charming but capable of a mean-as-a-snake twist. (Think of Reynolds before he goes to jail.) At the same time, though, Reynolds is all about daring, impulse, physicality, while Albert is about cunning, craft, caution. You could easily see Albert shaving points the way Reynolds did, if he could figure out a way not to get caught; but to shave points, he would have to get on the field, and Reynolds notes in the movie that Albert isn't made for that.
I could go on, but it would just be a longer argument that Albert is central to the appeal of the original ''Longest Yard,'' and that he is important because he brought a nice-guy surface to a style that suggested something much darker. ''Green Acres'' said the same thing in a much gentler way. And then there's ''Captain Newman.'' When I remember Eddie Albert, it won't be as a light comedian. He was more, and better, than that -- even when he was helping people to laugh.


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