Frank Nelson (actor)
Frank Nelson in the The Jack Benny Program episode, "Jack Does his Christmas Shopping" (1954)
|Born||Frank Brandon Nelson
May 6, 1911
Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
|Died||September 12, 1986
Hollywood, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Mary Lansing (m. 1933–70)
Veola Vonn (m. 1970–86)
Frank Brandon Nelson (May 6, 1911 – September 12, 1986) was an American comedic actor best known for playing put-upon foils on radio and television and his "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss?" catchphrase. He made numerous guest appearances on television shows, including The Jack Benny Program, I Love Lucy, The Real McCoys, and Sanford and Son. Over the length of his career, he made more than 10,000 television appearances.
Life and career
Nelson began his entertainment career in radio and later moved into television and movies. In 1926, at age 15, Nelson played the role of a 30-year-old man in a radio series broadcast from the then-5,000-watt KOA (AM) radio station serving the Denver, Colorado market. In 1929, Nelson moved to Hollywood, California and worked in local radio dramatic shows, usually playing the leading man. The first sponsored radio show he appeared in to reach a national market was Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, a situation comedy radio show airing from November 28, 1932, and ending May 22, 1933, starring two of the Marx Brothers, Groucho and Chico, and written primarily by Nat Perrin and Arthur Sheekman.
Nelson first found fame as the put-upon foil to Jack Benny on Benny's radio show during the 1940s and 1950s. Nelson typically portrayed a sales clerk or customer service worker. For example, needing airline tickets, Benny would call the ticket agent, "Oh Mister? Mister?" Nelson's appearance would begin with his back to the camera, then he would turn and deliver his catchphrase, a bellowed "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss?". The two men would banter, with Nelson gleefully delivering one-liners such as "Is that a hairpiece or did someone plant moss on your head?" and sarcastic responses like "Do I work at this airport? No, I'm a DC-4 with a moustache."
Nelson performed on a number of Hollywood-based radio shows during this time, including Fibber McGee and Molly, and did radio work well into the late 1950s, on the few shows that remained on the air, including dramatic roles on such programs as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
Nelson continued to appear on Benny's television show in 1950, doing the same "rude clerk" shtick. His other catchphrase, that would be worked into every routine, would have Benny asking something mundane, such as, "Do these shirts come in a medium?" and Frank would bellow, "Oo-oo-oo-ooh, DO they!" He also appeared on several other radio programs. Nelson's sudden appearances usually led to spontaneous laughter or applause on the part of the audience.
After Jack Benny, Nelson continued to work in sitcoms in similar roles, most notably in The Hank McCune Show and I Love Lucy. In fact, Nelson appeared as various characters during all seasons of I Love Lucy (most notably game show host Freddie Fillmore) before beginning the recurring role as the character Ralph Ramsey after the Ricardos moved to Westport, Connecticut in 1957. He further appeared in The Addams Family in the 1960s; and Sanford and Son during the 1970s. In the 1960s, Nelson voiced Mr. Cow in the Tootsie Pop commercial once again using his "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss?" catchphrase.
Towards the end of his life, Nelson enjoyed some newfound stardom among a new generation of fans. In 1981, he did a string of commercials for McDonald's doing his trademark "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss?" catchphrase, as part of the fast-food chain's highly successful "You Deserve a Break Today" sweepstakes promotional campaign, where he played an over-the-top passport agent. He also did a cameo appearance on the December 5, 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live as a newsstand vendor when Tim Curry was the guest host. Garfield in Paradise in 1986 was the last recorded time he used his signature phrase.
In addition to his onscreen work, Nelson was an in-demand voiceover artist for animated cartoons, appearing on The Flintstones, The Jetsons and as Governor Wetworth on The Snorks among other programs. He also served as the head of AFTRA (a performers union) between 1954 and 1957.
Nelson was not as prolific in motion pictures, but he did appear occasionally in variations of his oily clerk characterization. One of his larger roles is in Down Memory Lane (1949), in which he plays the apoplectic manager of a TV station. He also appears memorably in So You Want to Know Your Relatives, a Joe McDoakes spoof of This Is Your Life; Nelson plays the master of ceremonies, happily ushering unsavory guests onstage.
After a years-long battle with cancer, Nelson died on September 12, 1986 in Hollywood and was entombed in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, where he shares a columbarium niche with his friend and fellow radio actor, Hanley Stafford, both men having been married to actress Veola Vonn.
His distinctive appearance and manner of saying "Y-e-e-e-s?" has been parodied frequently in film and television, most notably with the character on The Simpsons called the "Frank Nelson Type" (aka "Yes Guy"). Nelson's appearance and mannerisms were also parodied multiple times in the Disney Afternoon series TaleSpin, with Nelson represented by a large hippopotamus in a suit. The Daily Show often features a Nelson impression by host Jon Stewart after a setup clip, often "Yeeesss?" or "Go onnnnnnn..." followed by another clip which serves as the punchline.
Jack Benny co-star and cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc would sometimes pay homage to Nelson by working a "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss" into one of his voice portrayals. Other performers have done the same. For example, in an episode of the sitcom Three's Company ("Doctor In The House", Season 6), Ralph Furley (Don Knotts) consults with a doctor who is actually Jack Tripper (John Ritter) disguised in a surgeon's mask. When Furley calls out to the doctor in his office, Jack responds with Nelson's famous "Y-e-e-e-s?" catchphrase. Jack also responds with a "EEE-Yeeeeeeeeesssss" to a caller looking to make a reservation at Jack's new restaurant in the Season 7 episode "Opening Night".
- Metro. "Regular on Jack Benny Show, Radio and TV Actor Frank Nelson Dies". Los Angeles Times. September 15, 1986. p. 2. Retrieved November 28, 2010.
- Barson, Michael, ed. (1988). Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers' Lost Radio Show. Pantheon Books. p. viii, ix. ISBN 0-679-72036-7.
- Classic SNL Review: December 5, 1981: Tim Curry / Meat Loaf & The Neverland Express (S07E07)
- "Frank Nelson". New York Times. September 16, 1986. Retrieved 2009-02-10. "Frank Nelson, an actor on Jack Benny's radio and television shows for 38 years and a former national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, died Friday of cancer at his home in Hollywood. He was 75 years old."
- "Regular on Jack Benny Show Radio and TV Actor Frank Nelson Dies". Los Angeles Times. September 15, 1986. Retrieved 2009-02-10. "AFTRA national President Frank Maxwell said Friday that Nelson "fought fiercely for the things he believed in. ... His devotion to the welfare of his fellow members will leave its stamp on AFTRA for as long as the union lasts." Nelson is survived by his wife, actress Veola Vonn; son Doug Nelson, and daughter, Bonnie Esther."
- Groening, Matt and McCann, Jesse L.: The Simpsons—One Step Beyond Forever, page 54.
- 'The Bigger They Are the Louder They Oink' on YouTube
- 'A Star is Torn' on YouTube
- Chalk One Up to Experience
- Further reading
- Frank Nelson at the Internet Movie Database
- Frank Nelson memorial site, with sound clips
- POV Online column: a fond description and remembrance of Frank Nelson
- Find A Grave listing