Summer with Fredric the Great

Published 9:44 pm Wednesday, November 4, 2015

By Frank Roberts

Fredric the Great (no, the other one) ruled Broadway and Hollywood from 1920 to 1976 and was the only actor to win two Academy awards and two Tony awards for roles in movies and on Broadway.

Back in the summer of 1943, he was my guardian and friend.

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During the war years many farms needed help with their crops. Their sons and many of their workers were in uniforms supplied by Uncle Sam, so younger kids were needed to work in the summertime and help with the plantin’ and plowin’.

We volunteered in groups of four. Many of us were city kids and didn’t know a watermelon from a grape, but there were tough times down on the farm, and we were recruited. Each of us would spend a month on one farm and the next month on another. I thought I had an advantage, since my mom had planted a backyard Victory Garden the size of a large fingernail. I think we grew — proudly — a tomato.

We were taken by the busload to a variety of East Coast locales. We thought it would be fun-fun-fun. For four of us, part one was anything but fun-fun-fun. We worked for an executive with Johnson & Johnson. Later, I felt I would rather have a rash than use his baby powder.

That joker worked us like Russian farmhands. We knew this voluntary farm thing was a fat mistake.

But the second farm was fantastic. It was a summer home, somewhere in Connecticut, owned by Fredric March, and his lovely actress wife, Florence Eldridge. We quietly wondered what working there had to do with the war effort. They grew cigar tobacco.

Both of them were there during our entire stay. We would till the soil for about 20 minutes and then take a break for about 20 minutes. They told us to relax on their porch and constantly kept bringing us lemonade and cookies.

Of course, we talked showbiz. What a pleasure. He was one of the most respected names in the business and seemed to have no ego problems, nothing at all like the Mr. Hyde role in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that netted him one of his Oscars.

Those happy 30 or so days more than made up for our time at farm number one. We enjoyed them and their cocker spaniel.

The actor’s real name was too long for a marquee — Frederick Ernest McIntyre Bickel. He was a romantic lead, and a character actor. A University of Wisconsin grad, he began as a banker, but doing small roles in a number of plays whetted his appetite, and acting became a full-time job.

The Hollywood roles were small at first, but producers and the public recognized his talent and it paid off for him — and for us.

One of his earliest “talked-about” efforts was parodying John Barrymore in a touring production of that royal acting family.

On screen he worked mostly for Paramount Studios. Then, he alternated — Hollywood, Broadway and back. One of his best film roles had to do with returning World War II veterans, “The Best Years Of Our Lives.”

He made the cover of Life Magazine in his role in, “A Bell For Adano.” And, there was a visit to the Kennedy White House. In Oshkosh, b’gosh, there is a theater named for him at the University of Wisconsin.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at