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Frank Alesia, Jr., Actor and Racehorse Owner

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

There are thespians who might sniff at the film roles of Frank Alesia, who appeared in some of the most beachin’ bikini movies ever made, including “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “Bikini Beach” and “Riot on Sunset Strip.”

But the good-looking Mr. Alesia, who was bitten by the acting bug at Maine East High School and Southern Illinois University, did more than decorate drive-in classics.

He either wrote, directed or appeared in some of TV’s most popular shows, including “Bewitched,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “That Girl,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Odd Couple.” He ran with Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. He befriended Henry Winkler and John Ritter. He married the ex-wife of trumpeter Herb Alpert. And he even directed Captain Kangaroo (and Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit) before trying his hand at racehorses and real estate.

Mr. Alesia, 67, died Feb. 27 of a heart attack at his home in Carlsbad, Calif. Over the years he’d fought back valiantly from health problems. Surgery on a tumor behind his ear left him partly paralyzed for a time. A serious fall put him in a wheelchair. He was the victim of a vicious beating during a Beverly Hills home invasion and burglary.

But he could still tell a joke so expertly, his listeners laughed until they cried.

In Sinatra-esque style, Mr. Alesia performed breathtaking acts of generosity. It wasn’t unusual for him to hand out $100 bills at the racetrack to those characters whom the late Sun-Times turf writer Dave Feldman dubbed Broken Down Horseplayers. He shipped his old Jaguar to his sister, Lucille Vece, when he bought a new one for himself.

Mr. Alesia’s Hollywood career could very well be traced to an ascot, his sister said.

When someone came to her home to work on her television, she noticed he was wearing an unusual accessory for a TV repairman.

“I said, ‘Why are you wearing an ascot?’ ” Vece remembered. “And he said, ‘I got it from my son. He’s an agent.’ ”

His son was Jack Gilardi, a longtime Hollywood player who would become the first husband of Annette Funicello, undisputed queen of the beach movies to Frankie Avalon’s king.

When Vece told the repairman her brother was an actor, he told her to have Frank Alesia talk with his son.

Jack Gilardi “talked him into going out there to be in the beach movies,” she said.

Mr. Alesia met Frank Sinatra through his wife, Sharon Alpert, who was friends with Nancy Sinatra, Lucille Vece said. He hung with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, and with Jerry Lewis, who put him in his film “The Disorderly Orderly.”

After the beach movies, Mr. Alesia had a lucky break at a Monday night L.A. comedy class he took with John Ritter, Penny Marshall and Henry Winkler, his sister said. Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, noticed Mr. Alesia’s comic timing and asked him to come to New York to work on his Baby-Boom era kiddie show.

Later, Mr. Alesia regaled his friend Howard Grossman with production stories as exaggerated as a fisherman’s one-that-got-away tales. “The Captain was being cranky,” he’d say. “Then I’d have to deal with Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose. You think they were easy?”

He returned to Los Angeles, where he worked on “Laverne & Shirley.”

After his health problems began, Mr. Alesia shifted his focus from show biz to racehorses. His father, Frank Alesia Sr., had horses that ran in Chicago.

He used the same racing colors for his jockey silks as his father — rose and blue. Among Mr. Alesia’s jockeys was the legendary Willie Shoemaker.

Last summer, he flew his sister out to visit him. On the last day of her trip, one of his horses won a big race at the track in Del Mar, Calif. Mr Alesia was pushed down to the winner’s circle in a wheelchair. He insisted no pictures be taken until his sister’s wheelchair caught up.

“He was yelling, ‘Don’t take the picture — don’t take it till she gets here.’ And then they presented him with a trophy, and they gave me a bouquet of roses, and they took the picture. And it’s the last picture I have of him. It was the most wonderful ending to a trip you could have.”

He loved nothing better than eating Italian food. And while he was eating, he’d plan his next meal, said his brother-in-law Don Vece. At Christmas, Mr. Alesia’s nieces, Angela Vece-Bewick, Donna Vece and Lisa Ladd, treated him to shipments of Portillo’s Italian beef and sausage.

In addition to his wife of 28 years, Mr. Alesia is survived by a son, Dore Alpert; a daughter, Eden Alpert, and his brother, Mickey. Arrangements were pending.

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