Frankie Thomas

Star of 'Tom Corbett, Space Cadet'


Frank Thomas, actor and writer: born New York 9 April 1921; died Sherman Oaks, California 11 May 2006.

Alongside the child star Bonita Granville as the feisty teenaged detective, Frankie Thomas became a favourite with B-movie audiences of the 1930s in film adaptations of the popular Nancy Drew novels. He played the young heroine's boyfriend, Ted Nickerson (Ned in the books), who was persuaded by Nancy to miss his lectures at Emerson University to go along with her sleuthing exploits.

Thomas was just 17 when he appeared in Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), the first of Warner Brothers' films based on the character created by Edward Stratemeyer. After Stratemeyer's death in 1930, his daughters had hired ghost writers to produce dozens more of the children's mysteries under the name Carolyn Keene.

That first film was so well received that another three were made over the next year, although only half of them - with John Litel as Nancy's widowed lawyer father, Carson - were based directly on the novels. The films, finishing with Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (1939), were fast-moving and even slightly subversive, portraying the local police as inept, in the manner of the Keystone Kops.

While Bonita Granville went on to become a producer of the Lassie television series, Thomas found his greatest fame in the United States in the title role of another long-running children's favourite, the futuristic television serial Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1950-55), set in the 24th century.

Based on both Joseph Greene's unpublished newspaper comic strip Tom Ranger, Space Cadet and Robert A. Heinlein's novel Space Cadet, it followed Tom and his fellow Space Academy members, the wise-cracking Roger Manning (Jan Merlin) and the quieter Astro (Al Markim), aboard the rocket cruiser Polaris and in alien worlds as they trained to become members of the elite Solar Guard.

The programme had the distinction of airing on all four of the American television networks during its five-year run. The cast - who were in demand for personal appearances - also voiced a radio version in 1952 and the sci-fi serial's popularity spawned further comic strips and books. Thomas recalled:

The Tom Corbett role was certainly one of the highlights of my career. You don't often get a show that does that well commercially and lasts in people's minds . . . When I saw the astronauts take that giant step and walk out on the Moon [in 1969], their space regalia bore a remarkable resemblance to the outfits we wore on the show when operating in freefall and on strange planetary surfaces.

Born in New York in 1921, the son of an actor, Frank M. Thomas, and actress, Mona Bruns, Frankie Thomas became a child star, making his professional stage début at the age of 11 and, a year later, taking the lead role of Bobby Phillips in Leopold Atlas's Broadway comedy-drama Wednesday's Child (Longacre Theatre, 1934), which Thomas reprised in the film version (1934). This led to more pictures, including the title role in the 12-episode serial Tim Tyler's Luck (1937), then the Nancy Drew series.

Thomas also acted in two American daytime soap operas, playing Charley Anderson in A Woman To Remember (1949) and Cliff Barbour in One Man's Family (1949), before he was cast in Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

Retiring from acting in his mid-Thirties - "After Tom, where could I go?" he said - Thomas became an expert bridge player, instructor and commentator, and edited magazines about the game. He also wrote a dozen novels featuring Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Victorian sleuth in new settings, starting with Sherlock Holmes, Bridge Detective (1973).

In 1993, Thomas and his two co-stars from Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Merlin and Markim, were reunited in New Jersey to recreate one of the original radio broadcasts for a Friends of Old Time Radio convention.

Anthony Hayward

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