Richard Erdman, Actor in 'Stalag 17' and TV's 'Community,' Dies at 93

Photofest
Richard Erdman

The supporting player also was memorable in 'The Men,' Brando's first movie, and in the film noir classic 'Cry Danger.'

Richard Erdman, the mirthful character actor who stood out on the big screen in The Men, Cry Danger and Stalag 17 and then on the sitcom Community, has died. He was 93.

Erdman, who as a teenager so impressed legendary director Michael Curtiz that he was quickly signed to a contract at Warner Bros., died Saturday at an assisted living facility in West Hills, California, film historian Alan K. Rode told The Hollywood Reporter. He said Erdman had age-related dementia exacerbated by a recent fall.

The Oklahoma native also is known for starring as the loutish McNulty, who's given a timepiece that can freeze time, in the memorable 1963 The Twilight Zone episode "A Kind of a Stopwatch."

Erdman excelled at playing soldiers, sailors, wisecracking sidekicks and pals.

In Fred Zinneman's The Men (1950), he portrayed the cigar-smoking, easygoing Leo, one of the patients in a veterans' paraplegic ward who helps an angry new arrival (Marlon Brando in his feature debut, coming off A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway) adjust to a new life in society.

In a 2010 interview, Erdman was proud to recall that New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, in his review of The Men, wrote that “Mr. Brando is impressive, however, he has a few things to learn from a Hollywood actor named Richard Erdman.”

Erdman was outstanding again in support of Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming, playing an alcoholic, ex-Marine full of gallows humor in the downtown Los Angeles film noir classic Cry Danger (1951), the directorial debut of Oscar-winning film editor Robert Parrish.

And in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953), Erdman portrayed barracks chief Sgt. "Hoffy" Hoffman.

During casting, Erdman told Rode in 2012: "Wilder took one look at me and said, 'No laughs from you. Not one little laugh, because you are the glue that holds this picture together. Everybody else is funny, but not you.'"

Erdman's agent at the time was Ingo Preminger, the brother of Otto Preminger, who played the camp's commandant in the POW classic.

Younger audiences know Erdman as the rowdy Leonard, one of the elderly Hipster students — so nicknamed because they have had their hips replaced — at Greendale Community College on Dan Harmon's Community, which ran on NBC and Yahoo for six seasons, from 2009-15.

For all of Erdman's success, he did lose out on at least one momentous role. Producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler wanted him to play Homer Parrish, the soldier back home from the war, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) — but Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner refused to loan him out.

Harold Russell, who had lost both hands in a wartime accident, got the part (he had never acted before) and went on to win two Oscars for his performance.

Born on June 1, 1925, in Enid, Oklahoma, Erdman was raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He and his single mother moved to Los Angeles in 1941 after his high school drama teacher thought he could make it in the movies.

Erdman enrolled in Hollywood High School and was offered a contract at Warner Bros. minutes after meeting Curtiz in his office. The Casablanca director liked him for the role of the bumbling boyfriend Scooper Nolan in Janie (1944), but first he was given the task of delivering a telegram to Claude Rains in his screen debut, Mr. Skeffington (1944).

A year later, Erdman portrayed a private opposite Errol Flynn in Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (1945), one of nearly 30 films he made at Warners through 1947. And he was a pinball wizard in The Time of Your Life (1948), when he worked alongside one of his favorites, James Cagney.

Erdman played an ensign in You're in the Navy Now (1951) with Gary Cooper, and in 1970, he graduated to colonel in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

Erdman's film résumé also included The Admiral Was a Lady (1950), the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy The Stooge (1951) and Saddle the Wind (1958), which was written by Rod Serling and directed by Parrish.

Erdman also had regular roles on the TV series Where's Raymond?, where he played the press agent and landlord to song and dance man Ray Bolger, and The Tab Hunter Show, where he was a wealthy playboy and best pal of the cartoonist played by Hunter.

On a 1986 episode of Cheers, he appeared as the wealthy widower who becomes engaged to Cliff Clavin's mother (Frances Sternhagen). He also showed up six times on Perry Mason and on other series including December Bride, Mister Ed, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan's Heroes, Police Story, Lou Grant, Wings and Felicity.

Erdman also directed back-to-back episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show — in the second, Morey Amsterdam's character had his bar mitzvah — and helmed the 1973 feature The Brothers O'Toole, starring John Astin in dual roles.

His wife, Sharon, and daughter, Erika, predeceased him.