From a newspaper seller to highest-paid black actor in Hollywood, the story of Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson

Michael Eli Dokosi Mar 26, 2020 at 10:00am

March 26, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

March 26, 2020 at 10:00 am | History

Eddie (Rochester) Anderson via flickr.com

Eddie (Rochester) Anderson started out selling newspapers on a street corner as a boy. The yelling to attract attention would later damage his vocal cords leading to his trademark “raspy” voice so loved on the The Jack Benny Program where he came to national attention.

Anderson debuted as the voice of a Pullman porter on Jack Benny’s popular radio show in 1937, but when audiences loved his humor, Benny made Rochester a regular member of the cast and the first black performer to acquire a regular part on radio. The show easily made the transition to early television and as “Rochester van Jones” known simply as “Rochester,” Anderson constantly deflated Benny’s pomposity with a high-pitched, incredulous, “What’s that, boss?”

In 1930s America, where whites had their face painted black to take on black roles barring black people from getting jobs in film and TV, Anderson’s entry was significant albeit if the legacy of blackface minstrelsy meant he was paired with Benny as a White master and his slave Uncle Tom. As Anderson became more important to the show, however, his role became less stereotypical. “Rochester” turned out to be Anderson’s most popular role and he continued with it until 1965 when The Jack Benny Program was taken off the air. 

Anderson was well paid for his work. By 1942, he was earning $100,000 per year and was the highest-paid black actor in Hollywood at that time. Anderson meanwhile invested his money wisely and became extremely wealthy.

He believed strongly that African-Americans should be given the opportunity to fly for the military. He visited the Tuskegee Airfield and met with pilots there. He owned the Pacific Parachute Company, which made parachutes for the Army and Navy during World War II.

Among his investments and hobbies was horse racing, helping him become the first African-American owner of a horse in the Kentucky Derby when his best-known horse, Burnt Cork ran in the 1943 Kentucky Derby.

He was known for his philanthropy and generosity and opened his Los Angeles home and its large pool to neighborhood children free of charge.

In addition to his partnership with Benny, Anderson appeared in over sixty motion pictures, including Uncle Peter in Gone with the Wind, Cabin in the Sky, and as one of the taxi drivers in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The two actors held each other in high esteem and upon Benny’s death in 1974, Anderson was inconsolable.

The men’s relationship was solid on-air and off. Jack Benny refused to tolerate poor treatment of Anderson. In 1943 the company arrived in St. Joseph, Mo., where they planned to do one of their radio shows. Anderson and his wife were denied a hotel room, and only at Benny’s urging did the hotel management find the Andersons a room.

In one last act of charity, Anderson made certain that in death, his sizable home would be put to good use. The home was transformed into a transitional facility for men struggling with drug abuse.

Anderson was born September 18, 1905 in Oakland, California. He died on February 28, 1977 due to heart disease at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles, California. Eddie Anderson was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2001.

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