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neville_brand.jpg (6921 bytes)NEVILLE BRAND
Setting the Record Straight

by Robert E. Witter

How many of you remember the tough, but compassionate prison guard Bull Ransom in the 1962 classic "The Birdman of Alcatraz?"  What about Duke, the barely restrained prisoner of war in "Stalag 17" ?  Well, Ransom, Duke, and dozens of other characters, shared the same craggy face and gravelly voice of one man — Mr. Neville Brand — an "actor's actor"1 and real life World War II hero.   If you do a little searching, you'll find references to his acting career, but nearly every biographical account of his military service is just, plain wrong. As his brother, Bryce Brand, once put it, "There was a lot they printed about Nev that wasn't true."(2)  To illustrate his point, one example is a published account of how Neville Brand participated in (and barely survived) the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on the coast of Western Europe -- two years before he ever left the States!

One of seven children, Neville Brand was born to Leo and Helen Brand on August 135h, 1920, in Griswold, Iowa. At the age of seven, he and his family moved to Kewanee, Illinois, where he grew up, graduated from high school, and entered the Illinois National Guard on October 23rd, 1939, as a private with Company F, 129th Infantry. A year-and-a-half later, Corporal Brand was inducted into Federal service with the 129th, and assigned Army Serial Number 20602562.(3)

After five weeks of infantry training, and an unsuccessful attempt at Officers Candidate School, the twenty-four-year-old former shoe salesman departed for the European Theater of Operations on December 9th, 1944, and arrived there on December 16th. Relatively little is known of his nine months and nineteen days overseas, but his official military records reflect that Neville Brand participated in the Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central European campaigns, and received the Silver star while convalescing at the 21st General Hospital for gallantry in combat. His other awards and decorations are the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, the American Defense Service Ribbon, the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with three Battle Stars, one Overseas Service Bar, one Service Stripe, and the Combat Infantryman's Badge.(4) In a rare 1966 interview in which he consented to speak of his wartime service, Brand recalled how he earned his Silver Star when his unit came under intense fire from German machine guns located within a hunting lodge. "I must have flipped my lid," he said, for "I decided to go into that lodge."  Disregarding his own safety, he worked his way around to the rear of the lodge/command post, burst in through the back and single-handedly dispatched the enemy within.(5)

Later, on April 7th, 1945, exactly one month and a day before the official German surrender, Sergeant Brand was wounded in action by the Weser River.(6) Felled by a gunshot to his upper right arm, and pinned down by withering enemy ground fire, Brand lay there slowly bleeding to death. "I knew I was dying," he said, "It was a lovely feeling, like being half-loaded."(7)  Rescued and treated, Brand was evacuated to a military hospital and, on September 17th, 1945, he departed for the United States. Less than a month later, Staff Sergeant Brand was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.(8)

After his discharge, Neville Brand studied acting under the G.I. Bill, and appeared in his first film as a sadistic hoodlum opposite Edmond O'Brien in the 1950 production of "D.O.A."(9) Over the next thirty-five years, Neville Brand consistently delivered outstanding performances on the stage, television and film, winning the prestigious Sylvania Award in 1958 for his performance in "All the King's Men."(10) Having performed with Mr. Brand in a 1964 episode of the television show Combat!, Mr. Richard Peabody (who played the part of "Littlejohn") recalled that, "He was sort of an actor's actor...his peers respected his work a great deal." Moreover, "He was one of the nicer guests we had on the show; extremely friendly, and very well liked by both the cast and the crew."(11)

One of Neville Brand's passions was reading. Having once visited Mr. Brand's home in Malibu, co-star Richard Peabody remembers, "I saw all these book cases — I couldn't believe it, I've never seen such an array of books in anybody's private home in my life -- it looked like a library ... I was amazed about what an avid reader he was.  You look at the titles, and his tastes were really eclectic — he was interested in everything."(12)

Neville Brand's home was destroyed by fire, and most of his personal mementoes (and cherished books) were lost. Some years later, reclusive and enduring a protracted struggle with emphysema, Neville Brand passed away on April 16th, 1992, at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, California.  His ashes are interred at East Lawn Memorial Park, Sacramento, California, in a vessel shaped like a book, with his name engraved on the spine.


Article Copyright Robert E. Witter

Robert E. Witter, who wrote the above article, is also author of several well-researched WWII histories:

He has recently completed a book about the amphibious assault on Tarawa and is seeking a publisher.


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Notes:

(1) Interview with actor Richard Peabody, September 13th, 1998.
(2) Dave Clarke, Kewanee Star-Courier, dated 4/92.
(3) War Records Department Letter, Illinois National Guard, Dated November 28th, 1944.
(4) United States Army Enlisted Record and Report of Separation -- Neville L. Brand.
(5) Arnold Hano, TV Guide, June 25th, 1966. pp. 20-24.
(6) United States Army Enlisted Record and Report Of Separation -- Neville L. Brand.
(7) Arnold Hano, TV Guide, June 25th, 1966. pp. 20-24.
(8) United States Army Enlisted Record And Report Of Separation -- Neville L. Brand.
(9) New York Times Obituary, dated 4/19/92; Kewanee Star-Courier, dated 4/92; Ephraim Katz' The Film Encyclopedia agrees that this was his film debut, but states the "D.O.A" was made in 1949. p. 164
(10) Sacramento Bee Obituary, 4/18/92; Kewanee Star-Courier, dated 4/92; New York Times Obituary, dated 4/19/92.
(11) Interview with actor Richard Peabody, September 13th, 1998.
(12) Ibid.

 

 

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