Fredd Wayne’s most famous role was nothing short of revolutionary.
The Akron actor had more than 200 credits in film, television and theater but he is best known for portraying American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in a one-man show and a series of memorable TV episodes.
Decades before a musical about Alexander Hamilton stormed Broadway, Wayne toured the nation in a waistcoat, knee breeches, long wig and spectacles to dispense the wisdom of another Founding Father.
“Well done is better than well said.”
“A penny saved is twopence clear.”
“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”
Wayne was born in Akron in 1924 as Fred Wiener, the first son of Celia and Charles Wiener. His father was a salesman for a wholesale produce company, and his mother was a homemaker. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
“When I was 6, I did something — I don’t remember what — that got a big laugh at Sunday school at Temple Israel,” he once told a reporter. “Ever since then, I wanted to be an actor.”
He and his younger siblings, Fran and Arthur, grew up on Woodland Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue. They attended Portage Path Elementary and Buchtel High School, where young Fred performed in class plays.
He left Ohio for California upon graduation in 1942, hoping to find fame.
“After I got out of Buchtel High, I went to Hollywood to crash the movies,” he once told columnist Earl Wilson. “I did it, too … as a mail boy at Warner Bros.”
The wide-eyed Akron youth ran studio errands and got to watch stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Ginger Rogers make movies. But he soured on L.A. when a thief broke into his boarding house and stole all his cash and most of his clothing.
Wiener joined the Army and served in the 63rd Infantry Division in Europe during World War II. After the war, he was assigned to Special Services, where he produced, directed and acted in a burlesque comedy, “GI Carmen,” loosely based on Georges Bizet’s opera.
The 6-foot, 170-pound entertainer wore a dress, makeup and bare legs in the title role of a gypsy. The show, which featured 50 soldiers, toured for nearly nine months in Europe.
Maybe Broadway was the way. The Army veteran moved to New York and became an usher at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where Jose Ferrer was starring in “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Fred Wiener soon changed his name to Fredd Wayne.
“Mother stuttered when I was born,” he joked. “That’s how I got the two d’s in my first name.”
In 1949, he landed a role in “Texas, Li’l Darlin’, ” a musical that ran for nearly 300 performances on Broadway. In 1952, he joined the London production of “South Pacific,” taking over the Luther Billis role from Ray Walston.
Finally in 1954, he landed his first movie, “Crest of the Wave,” a Navy drama starring Gene Kelly, which was filming in England.
“It took England to recognize the talent, but I’ve finally made it,” he said.
Acting roles came easily after that. He moved to California and appeared in such TV shows as “Gunsmoke,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Millionaire,” “Maverick,” “The Untouchables,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Perry Mason,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “My Three Sons.”
Wayne acted in the movies “Torpedo Run” (1958) with Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine; “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964) with Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis; and “Seven Days in May” (1964) with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster.
But then a Founding Father walked into his life.
Inspired by Cleveland native Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Mark Twain, Wayne decided to play a historical figure, too.
“I considered George Bernard Shaw, but thought I’d be better off doing an American,” he explained in 1966. “Then I was on an airplane headed for New York in March 1964 when it hit me like a bolt of lightning … Ben Franklin.”
He traveled to Yale and sifted through 30,000 of Franklin's letters. Wayne took notes and came up with an outline for “Benjamin Franklin, Citizen,” a one-man show that he announced as a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
“I’ve felt for a long while that people are ready for something better on TV than most of the situation comedies and others we see now, and Ben Franklin is the man who could prove it. I don’t think many people realize the depth of this man’s intelligence, but he was witty, too, and a wonderful human being,” Wayne explained.
He wore a rubber cap, long wig and a latex chin appliance to portray Franklin. In character, he gave talks at clubs and colleges, and that led to more TV.
Fans of the 1960s sitcom “Bewitched!” starring Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York and Agnes Moorehead will remember Wayne’s portrayal of Franklin in the two-part episode “My Friend Ben” and “Samantha for the Defense,” the first color episodes in the series.
Wayne later appeared as Franklin in the TV series “Daniel Boone” (1969), “Voyagers!” (1992) and “Simon & Simon” (1986), and the 1989 movie “A More Perfect Union.”
In 1971, he taped his one-man show for an NBC special to be titled “Benjamin Franklin, American,” but Quaker Oats pulled its sponsorship, fearing the content was too adult. Apparently, network TV wasn’t ready to learn that Franklin had a common-law wife.
The U.S. bicentennial was a busy year as Wayne crisscrossed the nation as Franklin. “I’m praying for 1976 to end as quickly as possible — dear God, yes!” he told the Beacon Journal.
He acted for another 20 years, appearing on “The Rockford Files,” “Cagney & Lacey,” “Cheers” and other shows. You’ve seen him, but may not know it. In his final credit, he played a doctor in “Man on the Moon” (1999), the Jim Carrey movie about comic Andy Kaufman.
Fredd Wayne was 93 when he died Aug. 27, 2018, in Santa Monica, Calif.
Video clips of his Ben Franklin act have found a new audience online. To see a clip of Fredd Wayne as Ben Franklin, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXy4kkpgv1w
As Franklin might remind:
“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”
“You may delay but time will not.”
“Fear not death for the sooner we die, the longer we shall be immortal.”
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3850.