Albert Salmi was born on March 11, 1928. His parents, Svante and Ida Salmi, were natives of Finland. They lived in the Finnish section of Brooklyn, and Finnish was the everyday language they used. It wasn't until he was school age that Albert learned to speak English. The kids in the neighborhood were an adventurous, mischievous lot; and it's a wonder that he survived his childhood. Even though he preferred a quiet, peaceful existence, Albert never ran away from a fight, usually whopping the tar out of anyone who was foolish enough to challenge him.
After serving for three years in the U.S. Army, he received an honorable discharge and worked for a while as a uniformed guard. Albert quit, however, when the company asked him to carry a gun. He then used his G.I. Bill to study for the theatre. This, he discovered, was much more in line with his interests and talents. He studied at Irwin Piscator's Dramatic Workshop, the American Theatre Wing, and the prestigious Actors Studio, where his classmates were sure he would someday achieve major stardom. Before long, Albert was on Broadway in "End as a Man". It was the 1955 Broadway play "Bus Stop" that wowed the critics, though. This was a young actor who was really going someplace, they said; and the awards started coming in. It was natural that the Hollywood executives would start courting him, hoping he'd add some quality to their films. Nothing doing, he said - the live stage was where his heart was. Then came "The Brothers Karamazov". Well, okay, he thought. This is a classic, a film of distinction, something he could be proud of. He was cast as Smerdjakov; and his work made film critics sit up and take notice. MGM even wanted to nominate him for an Oscar for that stunning performance; but Albert's director, Richard Brooks, advised him to turn it down. To accept, he said, would be the "kiss of death" for his career. Assuming Brooks knew more about the film industry than he did, Albert heeded his advice and declined the nomination. He later regretted it, as did many of his fans who felt that, once an Oscar was declined, it would never be offered to him again. They seem to have been right.
Albert worked with many of the industry's superstars; and he saw what complicated, demanding lives they led. He didn't want to live like that and he refused to play "the Hollywood game" of stroking egos and stepping on others in order to get ahead. Being center stage wasn't important to Albert. He just wanted to tell a story as truthfully as he could to his audience, so he changed his focus and became a character actor. He made guest starring appearances on many of the most popular series of the day, and was a regular for one season of "Daniel Boone" and for the entire run of "Petrocelli". He also appeared in over fifty films, most often as the bad guy. Casting directors noted that the most obvious things about Albert were that he was big (6'2") and he was strong. At home, Albert was a quiet family man; but when the cameras were rolling, he could be the dirtiest, rottenest, most dastardly bad guy on the studio roster. By the same token, those very same qualities made him a very believable authority figure. (Who would be dumb enough to resist arrest by a guy who could cream you in two seconds?) But guess what. Albert was a method actor who could project a huge range of genuine emotions. He could do absolutely any kind of character convincingly. Therefore, they would sometimes cast him in more complex roles, such as a bad-guy-turned-good. That became his specialty, particularly in westerns, where he felt most at home. Hardly a week went by that we didn't see Albert on one TV show or another. The quality of the script might have been questionable, but he would always give an excellent performance. As if by magic, he could transform a mediocre show into a work of art, simply by giving us the best he had to give.
Albert was married twice. In 1955, he went on a national tour with "Bus Stop". His new leading lady was former child star Peggy Ann Garner. During the eleven months of this tour, Peggy fell in love with Albert and he enjoyed being with her, too. In 1956, they were married and, the following year, had a golden-haired, blue-eyed daughter who was the very image of her daddy. Albert and Peggy had each been an only child, so neither knew much about babies. Albert's friend, Pat Hingle, taught him how to care for a child; and Albert then took an active part in his little girl's life. This marriage was to last only seven years, however, before ending in divorce.
At a party given by the wife of his friend Darren McGavin, Albert met Roberta Taper. This spunky little gal stole his heart and they married in 1964. Specializing in daughters, Albert gave Roberta two of her own. Now there were three blond-haired little girls in his life, and he just loved being home with his family. He would often take them with him when he worked on location, and enjoyed taking them fishing and to Gilbert and Sullivan plays. His rough, bad-guy image was just that - nothing more than an image.
In 1984, his work was starting to wind down. He had had enough of the eccentric Hollywood life, anyway; and they moved to Spokane, Washington. Here, in the northwest, life was laid back and people were friendly. The climate reminded him of two places he loved - Finland and his native Brooklyn. He was happy here. A photo of Albert in his beautiful garden is a delight to see - he was beaming, looking quite proud of the bounty that he had produced. He took frequent walks and visited with his friends in the neighborhood. He still acted professionally now and then, and taught advanced drama classes at the Spokane Civic Theatre and Gonzaga University. To hear one of his most successful students describe it, it seems he was an excellent director, as well.
As you can see, Albert was not your average, ordinary movie star. Instead, he was a very real, very sincere human being. "Down to earth" is how his daughter describes him. "He was an incredibly sweet, loving man," she says. Not one to go from marriage to marriage, either, Albert remained wed to Roberta until the day they died in 1990.
What led up to this tragic event is very, very complicated. Here are the sad facts: On April 23, 1990, Albert and Roberta were both found dead of gunshot wounds to the heart. They had been shot with two different guns - Roberta with a .25 caliber and Albert with a .45 caliber one. The police assessed this as a murder-suicide with Albert behind the guns, and the story was dispatched to newspapers around the world. Friends and neighbors were completely stunned by the news. His close friend Barry Newman remains in shock about it to this day. Albert was simply not that kind of person, he says. Albert adored Roberta. Many heartbreaking things were happening in his life at the time, however, and it appears that his intention was to solve problems. A solution of this sort was not at all typical of Albert. Severe depression seems to have altered his thinking processes profoundly. We'll probably never completely understand what happened, but can just hope that this dear man and his wife are resting in peace now.
Albert's legacy lives on, however. Every now and then, when we're flipping through the channels, we'll catch a glimpse of Albert as yet another character, telling us another story. We put the remote control down and watch intently. What a brilliant actor he was! How genuine! If someone learned something from his portrayals and became a better person for it, that, to Albert, was better than any Oscar he could get. He was a teacher by nature. The way he taught was to act out the situation on the screen for us and show us in a very clear way what would happen if we took the wrong path in life.
Albert is no longer with us in person, but his work endures. He left us a rich legacy.