Edmund Lincoln Anderson was an American comedian and actor. Anderson got his start in show business as a teenager on the vaudeville circuit and moved into film and radio during the 1930s.
Anderson was born on September 18, 1905. His father, “Big Ed” Anderson, was a minstrel performer, while his mother, Ella Mae, worked as a tightrope walker until her career was ended by a fall. He described himself as being a descendant of slaves who were able to leave the South during the Civil War through the Underground Railroad.
Around the age of ten, his family moved from Oakland to San Francisco. He left school when he was 14 to work as an errand boy to help his family. His dream of becoming an actor someday had him hanging around stage doors in his free time. He tried to become a jockey but after putting on some weight, he gave up the idea.
Anderson started in show business as part of an all African-American revue at age 14; he had previously won an amateur contest at a vaudeville theater in San Francisco. He joined the cast of Struttin’ Along in 1923 and was part of Steppin’ High both as a dancer and as one of the “Three Black Aces” with his brother, Cornelius, in 1924.
He later worked in vaudeville with Cornelius. He began adding comedy to his song and dance act in 1926. During one of his vaudeville tours to the East Coast, Anderson first met Jack Benny; at this time the men only exchanged greetings and shook hands. He ruptured his vocal cords while selling newspapers in San Francisco because the young boys believed whoever could shout the loudest would sell the most papers. The damage to his vocal cords left him with the gravel voice that became well-known to radio and television listeners for twenty years.
Anderson’s made his debut on The Jack Benny Program March 28, 1937. He was originally hired to play the one-time role of a redcap on the Benny program for a storyline of the show traveling from Chicago to California by train, which coincided with the radio show’s actual return to NBC’s Radio City West in Hollywood after a brief stint in New York. The Benny show received a large amount of mail about Anderson’s appearances on the radio program. Benny decided to make him part of the cast as his butler and valet, Rochester van Jones. Weeks after Anderson’s first appearance on the Benny program, he was called for another radio role on the show, this time as a waiter in a restaurant serving the cast.
The Rochester character became immensely popular. In 1940, Anderson was invited to a Harvard University smoker but was detained by students from rival Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The comedian was met at the airport by MIT students who claimed they were on the Harvard committee. When it was discovered why Anderson was late to the Harvard gathering, a riot broke out as students from the two schools began fighting over the incident.
Anderson went on to appear on several television shows and in film. He appeared on episodes of The Dick Powell Show, It Takes a Thief, and Love, American Style. In the early 1970s, Anderson was the voice of cartoon character Bobby Joe Mason in Harlem Globe Trotters and The New Scooby-Doo Movies. Anderson died of heart disease on February 28, 1977.