GETTING TO THE ROOTS OF
by Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1996
As fate would have it, the star of the '60s sitcom Green Acres, turns out to have quite a green thumb.
Eddie Albert, 88, resides in Pacific Palisades, an upscale community in West Los Angeles. But the actor rejects the traditional manicured lawn and palm trees popular in his neighborhood for a verdant vegetable and flower garden. Stalks of healthy corn flourish where a lawn once grew.
Albert jokes that his interest in organic gardening grew out of hunger. But his background held the roots of what has become a lifelong passion for saving wildlife and the environment. Raised in Minneapolis when many folks had vegetable gardens, Albert learned how to sow and reap early on. At the age of six, he bought his first Audubon pin for a nickel. And he remembers well his family's World War I liberty garden.
Recently, Albert has taken the time to remember a lot of things that will be the material of his autobiography. It may take another year or two to complete, but he is in no rush and is enjoying his discovery of new perspectives about his life along the way. The introspective actor relates a memory of selling newspapers for 10 years beginning when he was about six. His original impression was that he was very smart to make money, and turn it over to his parents, who needed it. But delving deeper, he now feels that he missed having contact with the people he served. "You throw a paper on the porch," explains Albert, "but you don't sit down and have a talk...and that's where the real education comes from. And so I missed those best years and I find it difficult for me, in groups, to be comfortable." A resigned laugh and he adds, "It's a little late to find that out."
Another story of Albert's reflections on the past points to his poor performance in school. The first day in class, Albert spent the time looking around at everybody, especially the girls. On the second day, ready to work, he wasn't understanding anything because he hadn't paid attention to the teacher on the first day. His grade slipped fast to a low D or F, and the obvious followed from there.
Gardeners like to dig deep and Albert does that continuously on two fronts. In an interview in Beverly Hills magazine, his son, Edward Jr., remarks: "With Papa, the thing that was most important was the quality of love and, almost equal to love, growth. Since I was little, he emphasized growth. That's something he passed on to me."
With others he also encourages growth, suggesting that they delve into the past and rethink things. "You can forgive yourself a great deal," he admits openly. "That's what I'm doing."
A widower since 1985, Albert had a 40-year marriage to actress, singer, and dancer Margo. Their son, Edward Jr., is also an actor with a career that began in his early twenties with Butterflies Are Free. Their daughter, Maria-who is married and has a daughter Mia-took a less theatrical path but has served as her father's business manager over the years. Both Eddie Sr. and Maria play a role in Plaza de la Raza, a nonprofit cultural center for the Arts and Education which Margo founded. It is the most renowned Hispanic cultural center in the United States, offering classes in theater, music, dance, visual arts, and holding exhibitions and festivals.
Giving to the community and to the environment has been fundamental in Albert's life. During the '70s, he helped establish City Children's Farms in low-income areas of major cities across the country. He has written and narrated numerous TV series and specials on ecology and nutrition and addressed audiences in countless universities and national organizations on the environment and world hunger. The list of board memberships and awards he's received is staggering and ranges from serving as a consultant to the Secretary-General of the United States Conference on the Environment to receiving The Brotherhood Award from B'nai B'rith.
It all started rather simply, this path of humanitarian goodness. In the 1970s Albert spent his mornings jogging and swimming at the beach in his community in Southern California. Already a great student of birds, he became quite familiar with the local species and watched their movements closely. One year the pelicans did not have babies and Albert took note. As it turns out, the presence of DDT created a chemical imbalance in the mother birds, who produced shells that weren't solid. Thousands of unborn chicks were killed by their mother's body weight. Soon thereafter, Albert saw a program on television promoting the value of DDT and immediately called NBC and asked for a few minutes to rebut. They agreed. Not a week later and Albert was invited to speak at three universities. Three years later, Albert had addressed audiences at 60 colleges and universities, and with much support from other organizations, DDT was banned.
Solving the DDT problem did not end Albert's environmental concern. He has also been active in educating others about topsoil depletion, and sites China as an example: It covers about 26 percent of the world's area but produces only seven percent of its agricultural output. And they cut trees, which are such a vital part of the world's eco systems. "It's like a three-legged stool," remarks Albert. "Take away one of the legs and the stool falls."
He adds to his dire predictions a staggering statistic: "Right now in California we gain 40,000 new acres of desert every year, with all the building and the people coming in...housing going up like crazy." Which also adds up to a big loss of trees, without which, Albert says "we're doomed." "It's really a nasty future," he adds, with a tone of concern.
Not even the glamorous Eva Gabor-Green Acres costar-was spared Albert's admonitions over environmental transgressions. During a break on the set of Green Acres, Eva Gabor said to Albert just back from one of his many university lectures, "Every time you hear of a sick fish you make a speech. And what do you talk about?" Albert mentioned the plight of the birds and their nemesis, DDT. "And if you wouldn't mind," he said to Gabor, "I'd appreciate your not wearing that thing you have on in front of the camera." Gabor, in an extravagant feather outfit with a $5,000 price tag, appeared surprised. "Oh, but it's so beautiful, so chic," she replied. Said Albert, "Yes, but it caused a lot of birds to die." And Gabor said, "How's that, what are you talking about?" And Albert said, "It's full of feathers, and the ladies that see you on screen are going to want to buy it." And Gabor responded, "Eddie, feathers don't come from birds." A surprised Albert then asked, "Well, where do feathers come from?" And in her rich Hungarian accent, Gabor stated unflinchingly, "Pillows, dahling, pillows!"
Says Albert of this exchange: "She swears that she was not teasing me!"
Despite Gabor's naiveté-or because of her good sense of humor-Albert has nothing but positive things to say about their time together on Green Acres. "She was absolutely fabulous to work with," he says, and describes her as "kind, considerate, hard working," and also a great friend of his wife.
It should be said that Albert had a prolific acting career in addition to the six years of Green Acres-a dozen Broadway shows and well over one hundred pictures. But when asked which acting accomplishment he is most proud of, he rolls the word "proud" around in his mouth like a foreign object and mumbles it several times before answering honestly, "I don't think I'm proud of anything in acting. I was not really as good as I should have been. And singing"-Albert laughs-"I always thought I was a singer, but I really am not." He decides his time in action during World War II would be his proudest undertaking.
In the years before America entered the war, Albert was in Mexico with the Escalante Brothers' Circus, playing the clown and doing a high wire act. While there, he photographed German U-boat activity as an "amateur spy" for Army intelligence. Once enlisted, he served as a lieutenant and was part of the first wave of Marines at Tarawa, witnessing unspeakable atrocities.
He's played many roles in a long and memorable career. What reverberates throughout his life, whether serving his country, tending his garden, improving the environment, or entertaining millions, is his altruistic stance. He sums up his philosophy with an analogy to gardening and the science behind a green thumb: "What's the most important thing in the world? It's love, and I look at that as an energy, not a sentiment. It's an energy that holds the whole universe together. And if we understand that and mention it once in a while to the plants, then everything will be fine."