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Subject: Eddie Bracken, Character Actor

New Jersey
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Date Posted: November 16, 2002 2:14:05 EDT

Eddie Bracken, a character actor whose portrayals of bewildered and long-suffering comic heroes crowned a stage, screen and television career of more than 70 years, died Thursday in Montclair, N.J. He was 87 and lived in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Mr. Bracken made his first major screen splash in 1940's comedies by Preston Sturges, and he remained active until recently. Besides appearances in various television series, he was most widely seen as Mr. Wally, the proprietor of the Disneyland-like Wally World in "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) and as E. F. Duncan, the proprietor of a large Manhattan toy store in "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (1992).

Mr. Bracken, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, began as a child actor in the 1920's, but he did not really come into his own until the early 1940's when he made several light comedies in Hollywood, including "Caught in the Draft" with Bob Hope in 1941 and "Sweater Girl" with June Preisser that same year. Years later, John Corry, writing in The New York Times, called him "the embodiment of the warm, vulnerable young American."

Perhaps his strongest roles in that era were in two stand-out Sturges films of 1944, "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" with Betty Hutton and "Hail the Conquering Hero." In "Hero," Sturges cast him as a young man rejected by the Marines because of his hay fever, but who, through confusion and misunderstanding, is welcomed back to his home town as a war hero. It was the kind of situation that had been exploited so effectively in the silent film era by Harold Lloyd, a comedian Mr. Bracken greatly admired.

In the decades ahead, Mr. Bracken continued acting onstage and in the movies and moved into television as well, appearing in several shows, most notably "Masquerade Party" on NBC in the 1950's. He also headed his own production company and invested in an electronics company in Chicago and in Downey's, long a popular steak house in Manhattan's theater district. Not all of his investments panned out. In the early 1970's he tried to create a circuit of winter and summer stock theaters, but the plan foundered.

Mr. Bracken was married for 63 years to Connie Nickerson, an actress he met when they were in the same road company. She died in August. He is survived by their children, Judy, Carolyn, Michael, Susan and David, and by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Edward Vincent Bracken was born Feb. 7, 1915, in New York City, one of three sons of Joseph L. and Catherine Bracken. What his parents did for a living is not entirely clear, but apparently they were in sales and worked hard for little return.

Although there was no money for the music lessons he wanted, Eddie continued to find ways to entertain. He sang a solo in a nursery school production and also performed at functions given by the Knights of Columbus around New York.

As a youngster, he won a contract to appear with the American Sound Studio's Kiddie Troupers by singing "I Wonder What's Become of Sally." The troupers were the New York counterpart of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" children in Hollywood. Mr. Bracken went to Hollywood while still young, hoping to do great things for Mr. Roach, but quickly returned to New York, where his parents decided to send him to the New York City Professional Children's School for Actors.

In 1933 he got a part in the New York stage production of the comedy "The Lady Refuses." The play closed after only seven performances, but based on his work he was picked for a part in H. S. Smith's 1843 morality play "The Drunkard or the Fallen Saved," which lasted for 10 months. His first big break came in 1936 when George Abbott, the director and producer, asked him to be in "Brother Rat," a comedy about life at Virginia Military Institute. The next year he won a subordinate role in Clifford Goldsmith's "What a Life," the play that introduced the hapless teenager Henry Aldrich to the world.

In 1939 Mr. Abbott picked him to be in "Too Many Girls," a Rodgers and Hart musical in which he introduced the ballad "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." A year later he was cast in the movie version.

Although he derived considerable fame and income from the movies, he loved repertory theater and spent years starring in revivals and in touring company offerings of productions that had been successful on Broadway.

In the 1950's he was Tom Ewell's replacement in the road show version of "The Seven Year Itch"; in the 1960's he took Art Carney's role in "The Odd Couple." In the 1970's he joined Carol Channing on tour in "Hello, Dolly!" and in the 1980's he played the devil (Mr. Applegate), the role Ray Walston had made famous in "Damn Yankees."

"I'm the theater's No. 1 takeover guy for everybody," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 1966. "It's a great compliment to be asked to replace such a variety of performers."

He said that he didn't mind long tours and claimed that to the best of his knowledge he had played the road more than any other American actor then living. "I'm only tired until the curtain goes up," he said.

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