Jack Benny, an iconic entertainer of the 20th century, left an indelible mark on the sitcom genre with his radio and television shows. However, his impact extended beyond comedy. Benny’s relationship with fellow cast member Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was both legendary and revolutionary during the Jim Crow era. Let’s dive into the story of the man who played Rochester on The Jack Benny Show.
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A Vibrant Cast of Characters
On-air, Benny portrayed a miserly musician surrounded by a vibrant cast that included his real-life wife Mary Livingstone, the rotund announcer Don Wilson, the philandering bandleader Phil Harris, the naive tenor Dennis Day, and the ridiculously talented Mel Blanc. However, it was Rochester, Benny’s wisecracking chauffeur/valet/cleaning staff, who stole the show.
Benny’s Eye for Talent
In reality, Benny was a humble man with a love for both laughter and music. He was an accomplished violinist but cleverly withheld showcasing his musical prowess for the sake of comedy. This allowed him to collaborate with renowned musicians like Isaac Stern, Liberace, and Gisele MacKenzie while injecting comedic flair into his performances.
Breaking Racial Prejudice
One groundbreaking aspect of Benny’s show was his decision to hire an African American performer, Eddie Anderson, to play the role of Rochester. Unlike popular shows of the time, Benny avoided white performers impersonating African Americans. This choice shocked audiences, but what was even more surreal was that Rochester always had the last word, often poking fun at Benny’s shortcomings or miserly persona.
The Evolution of Rochester
Over time, Benny and Anderson deviated from racial stereotypes and crafted a character that challenged people’s perceptions. Rochester’s appearance on The Jack Benny Program was embraced by a majority of his own race, but it also drew resentment from Southerners who clung to the outdated ideas of the Jim Crow era.
The Talented Anderson
Born into a show business family, Anderson developed his distinctive “foghorn” voice while selling newspapers as a young boy. He entered show business at an early age, singing and dancing with his brother. His notable films included Three Men on a Horse (1935) and Show Boat (1936) before his first appearance as a Pullman car porter on The Jack Benny Show in 1937.
An Unexpected Bond
Originally intended as a one-time character, Anderson resonated with audiences, earning him a permanent role as Benny’s valet, Rochester Van Jones. What started as a caricature evolved into a crafty character who fearlessly mocked his boss, reflecting a dynamic where the other characters joined in ridiculing Benny. Stepping away from racial stereotypes allowed Rochester to become one of the show’s most beloved characters.
Benny’s Protective Stance
Benny was fiercely protective of Anderson, refusing to perform in theaters or stay in hotels that discriminated against his co-star. He actively challenged the racist attitudes of the time and used his platform to promote equality. Benny once confronted a white sergeant who expressed admiration for Rochester’s performance but displayed racist behavior by refusing to sit at the same table as Anderson. Benny’s response showcased his unwavering support for his friend and his disdain for ignorance.
A Progressive Relationship
While racial progress was still far from realized, Benny and Anderson demonstrated a progressive relationship on the show. They treated each other with dignity, love, and affection, breaking free from the negative portrayals of African Americans that were prevalent across other media. Their comedic dynamic challenged audience expectations and paved the way for future Black performers.
A Legacy of Equality
Through his portrayal of Rochester, Anderson became the first African American actor with a regular role on a radio show. His success shattered racial barriers and paved the way for future generations of performers. Benny’s commitment to portraying Rochester as an intelligent and independent character left a lasting impact on the entertainment industry.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Nostalgia Digest. To learn more about classic movies and television shows, visit 5 WS.