It never fails…every time I tune into an episode of The Jack Benny Program (be it on radio or TV) and Jack needs help from someone in customer service, the clerk is played by the same actor—who greets the comedian in the same sneering fashion: “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” It couldn’t be the same guy, could it? Of course it could! Actor Frank Nelson, born on this date in 1911, seemed to serve one purpose while here on Earth: to play the patronizing nemesis of America’s beloved everyman. The important thing to remember is: he was the one guy who couldn’t stand Jack Benny. Whenever Jack confronted him with “You really do hate me, don’t you?” Nelson’s enthusiastic response was always “Oooooooh, do I!”
Frank Nelson was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado…and at the tender age of 15, he beat out thirty other actors who were competing for a part (a character twice his age) for a KOA broadcast. Nelson was then hired by the radio station as an actor, and he later migrated to a smaller Denver station (KFEL) to tackle announcing chores. By the end of 1929, Frank was ready to take on Hollywood, and he lucked into a position at KNX where he played the leading man on many a local show while acting on syndicated series like The Count of Monte Cristo and Tarzan of the Apes.
By the mid-30s, Frank had moved up to the big time: he put together an impressive resume appearing on the likes of Shell Chateau (as an announcer) and The Lux Radio Theatre, and he was part of the old-time radio acting ensemble on the seasonal The Cinnamon Bear (Nelson was Captain Tip Top). Frank recalled in a 1975 interview with historian Chuck Schaden that his association with Jack Benny began in June of 1934, but his regular appearances on the program date right around 1937. He became a member-in-good-standing of the comedian’s valued stock company, rarely straying from his assigned role as the individual who took gleeful pleasure in disparaging Jack. Jack Benny was not the only “Jack” Frank would work with, by the way; the actor later shared a microphone with the likes of Jack Carson, Jack Haley, Jack Kirkwood and Jack Paar…an impressive poker hand in any language.
Nelson flourished in radio as a professional foil, and as he told Chuck Schaden: “[I]’d go in and the writer would say, ‘Now be as funny on this show as you are on The Jack Benny Show.’ And, I’d always say, ‘You write it as funny and I’ll be as funny, ‘cause I’m just as funny as the material. That’s how funny I am.’” Frank and the writing staffs must have come to a meeting of the minds, because the actor soon received appreciative audience response working alongside such greats as Bud Abbott & Lou Costello, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fanny Brice, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Cass Daley, Jimmy Durante, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Dorothy Lamour, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton and Alan Young. Nelson also paid the occasional visit to The Adventures of Maisie, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, A Date with Judy, Fibber McGee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, The Life of Riley, Life with Luigi, Meet Me at Parky’s, My Favorite Husband, My Little Margie and Our Miss Brooks. (And of course, it seems only right that he would emote on the two series “spun-off” from The Jack Benny Program: A Day in the Life of Dennis Day and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.)
While Frank Nelson stressed that “I wasn’t a regular on those shows, but I worked them all”—he occasionally landed a steady gig on such programs as Blondie (he played the role of the Bumsteads’ next-door neighbor, Herb Woodley) and a short-lived sitcom entitled Today with the Duncans, on which he starred with then-wife Mary Lansing. (Nelson and Lansing were married from 1933-70; he later walked down the aisle with another Jack Benny regular, Veola Vonn – his second wife until his passing sixteen years later.) Frank also took on an unusual role in the series Jeff Regan, Investigator, playing the titular gumshoe’s corpulent boss, Anthony J. Lyon. Though identified with lighter roles (Lyon was Regan’s comedy relief), Frank Nelson was more than capable of handling dramatic parts, appearing on such series as The Cavalcade of America, Defense Attorney, Hallmark Playhouse, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Suspense, The Whistler, You Were There and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
When Jack Benny transitioned his show to television in the fall of 1950, Frank Nelson soon joined the cast on a semi-regular basis…but the actor also performed on the small screen in other venues as well. Having worked with Lucille Ball on her radio sitcom My Favorite Husband, Frank turned up in a number of memorable episodes of I Love Lucy—including the uproarious outing (“The Great Train Robbery”) where the Ricardos and Mertzes are returning to New York by train, with Nelson as the beleaguered conductor. (Frank: “Madam, did you stop this train by pulling this handle?” Lucy: “Well, I didn’t do it by dragging my foot!”) Frank later played Ralph Ramsey, the husband of Lucy’s Connecticut neighbor Betty Ramsey (Mary Jane Croft) in the show’s final TV season. Other sitcoms that welcomed Frank Nelson’s presence include Our Miss Brooks, Private Secretary, The Real McCoys and Make Room for Daddy; the actor also fell back on his radio roots by voicing various characters on animated series like Mr. Magoo, The Flintstones, The Jetsons and The Oddball Couple—a cartoon version of The Odd Couple with a Felix cat (Frank) and Oscar dog (Paul Winchell).
Frank’s radio and television duties—he was president of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists from 1954 to 1957—didn’t leave him a lot of time for movies…so it’s always a treat to spot him in a small role in various films you might catch on TV. In a number of 1930s movies, you can hear Frank as a radio announcer—Humphrey Bogart’s Black Legion is a good example—and he provided narration for theatrical cartoons as well. Nelson turns up in several of the Joe McDoakes comedies starring George O’Hanlon, and among the actor’s movie credits are Down Memory Lane, Fourteen Hours, You Never Can Tell, Here Come the Nelsons, Bonzo Goes to College, The Clown, Remains to Be Seen, It Should Happen to You, It’s Always Fair Weather and Kiss Them for Me.
Frank Nelson became so identified as Jack Benny’s “Yeeeeeeeeesssss?” man that he was often called upon to reprise the part in other sitcoms; he appeared in several 1976 episodes of Sanford and Son doing his beloved shtick, and McDonald’s built a TV ad campaign around him in 1981 with Frank as an obnoxious passport agent, promoting their vacation sweepstakes. He continued to supply his memorable voice on a number of cartoon shows until 1986, when he left this world for a better one at the age of 75.
To celebrate Frank Nelson’s natal anniversary, Radio Spirits invites you to generously sample the actor’s exemplary work on The Jack Benny Program, with the following collections: Maestro, Neighbors, Wit Under the Weather, Drawing a Blanc, Oh, Rochester!, Be Our Guest, No Place Like Home, On the Town, Tall Tales and Jack Benny International. (Nelson can also be heard on our latest Jack Benny vs. Fred Allen compilation, Grudge Match.) Check out Frank’s contributions on some of our other comedy sets: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (The Funny Fifties), Burns and Allen (Treasury, Muddling Through), A Day in the Life of Dennis Day, Fibber McGee and Molly (Wistful Vista), Life with Luigi, Phil Harris and Alice Faye (Private Lives, Quite an Affair, Family Values, Smoother and Sweeter), Our Miss Brooks (Boynton Blues, Good English) and Red Skelton (Stick Around, Brother). We’ve also got Mr. Nelson’s dramatic side on hand, with his co-starring role on Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), and excursions before the mike on Defense Attorney, The Mutual Radio Theatre and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Murder Matters, Wayward Matters, Expense Account Submitted). Can we make this birthday a great one for one of radio’s finest character performers? Oooooooh will we!