On Feburary 28, 1977, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson died in Los Angeles from heart disease at the age of 71. I don’t know if I would call Anderson a comic genius, but he was part of the funniest ensemble that ever graced a TV screen.
The Jack Benny Show started on radio in 1932 and made the transition to television in 1950, where it ran until 1965. When watching the reruns as a kid, I thought the show was really funny. But when I watched the reruns as an adult, I gained so much more appreciation for the way the show was put together. Even though Benny was the star, it would be hard to say that he was the funniest one of the cast. In fact, Jack was usually the straight man, but one who had an incredible sense of timing. He was generally the butt of every joke on the show, whether it be about his age (a constant 39), his show (Benny: “My show is running in Toronto for two weeks, and you only booked my hotel for one night…haven’t you seen my itinerary?” Travel agent: “Yes, but I’ve also seen your show”) or him being a tightwad (Robber: “Your money or your life…well?” Benny: “I’m thinking it over!”)
A huge part of the credit has to go to the writers. They came up with dialogue that was so funny, even Benny would start cracking up during a skit:
Jack: What do you think of this card I wrote for Don? “To Don from Jacky, Oh golly, oh shucks. I hope that you like it, It cost forty bucks.
Rochester: It would’ve been hard to rhyme a dollar ninety-eight.
However, much of the credit has to go to his cast. The supporting actors with Jack Benny were stars in their own right. Don Wilson, the portly announcer whose weight was often the subject of Benny’s jokes. There was also Dennis Day, cast as the singer on the show who was sweet but not very bright. There was Mary Livingstone, Jack’s wife in real life, although on the show they were cast as “just friends”. Mel Blanc, already famous as the voice of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and other Looney Tunes characters, was the perfect choice as a character actor, whether he was a cab driver, delivering telegrams, or a Mexican performer named “Sy” in one of Benny’s all time classic sketches.
But it was Rochester, who was cast as Benny’s valet, that everyone loved. Anderson was second only to Jack in popularity, receiving thousands of fan letters per week. Rochester and Benny were good friends in real life, and Jack was one of the few performers of the 40’s and 50’s who would not accept racism in any form. In one reported incident, the cast was travelling through Missouri and when they checked into a hotel, they would not let Anderson have a room. When Benny stated that “If he’s not staying here, I’m not either,” the hotel relented.
Anderson and Benny remained close friends until Jack’s death in 1974. In fact, all of the cast members are gone now, but thanks to YouTube and TV shows on DVD, you can still enjoy one of the greatest casts that was ever assembled. And if you watch closely, you’ll find many similarities to what many consider another great TV ensemble, the cast from Seinfeld, another one of my all-time favorite shows.
I’m going to give you just a taste of Rochester buying a gift for Benny, so you can witness his own keen sense of comedic timing. But do yourself a favor…seek out more from the Jack Benny Show, and get ready to laugh.