Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor
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For many of his theater contemporaries, Lee J. Cobb (1911–1976) was the greatest actor of his generation. In Hollywood he became the definitive embodiment of gangsters, psychiatrists, and roaring lunatics. From 1939 until his death, Cobb contributed riveting performances to a number of films, including Boomerang, On the Waterfront, The Brothers Karamazov, 12 Angry Men, and The Exorcist. But for all of his conspicuous achievements in motion pictures, Cobb’s name is most identified with the character Willy Loman in the original stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). Directed by Elia Kazan, Cobb’s Broadway performance proved to be a benchmark for American theater.
In Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor, Donald Dewey looks at the life and career of this versatile performer. From his Lower East Side roots in New York City—where he was born Leo Jacob—to multiple accolades on stage and the big and small screens, Cobb’s life proved to be a tumultuous rollercoaster of highs and lows. As a leading man of the theater, he gave a number of compelling performances in such plays as Golden Boy and King Lear. For the Hollywood studios, Cobb fit the description of the “character actor.” No one better epitomized the performer who suddenly appears on the screen and immediately grabs the audience’s attention. During his forty-five-year career, there wasn’t a significant star—from Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart to Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood—with whom he didn’t work.
Cobb was also followed by controversy: he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and was a witness to a movie-set murder case in the 1970s. Through it all, he never lost his taste for fast cars and gin rummy. A bear of a man with a voice that equally accommodated growls and sibilant sympathies, Cobb was undeniably an actor to be reckoned with. In this fascinating book, Dewey captures all of the drama that surrounded Cobb, both on screen and off.
1958 Zane Grey Theater: “Legacy of a Legend” (CBS) 1959 Desilu Playhouse: “Trial at Devil’s Canyon” (CBS); Playhouse 90: “Project Immortality” (CBS); DuPont Show of the Month: “I, Don Quixote” (CBS) 1960 G.E. Theater: “Lear vs. the Committeeman” (CBS); DuPont Show of the Month: “Men in White” (CBS) 1961 June Allyson Show: “School of
gossamer nature of that appeal—and its malleability for being rewritten into just the opposite—became increasingly obvious with developments on the war front and the approach of the United States’ entrance into the conflict. When the play reached England a short time later, the finale had become a stirring call for human hope and very concrete military action against the Nazis. It was considered such potent propaganda fare by the British that, by moving from one bombed out theater to another,
Burbank, making it as close as any group in Hollywood to the ILA profile being denounced by The Hook. And not only that: Brewer doubled as chairman of the Motion Picture Industry Council, a pressure group that had as its sole claimed purpose keeping Communist propaganda out of motion pictures. Somewhere in the discussions among Brewer, Kazan, and Miller, the idea of substituting Communist subversives for mob racketeers as the heavies in The Hook was floated, and everything went downhill from
there. Later on, there would be conflicting versions about who pulled out first, if the Communists as villains had been a serious proposal or just Brewer’s teasing of the leftist intellectuals, or if Kazan or Miller were repulsed by Brewer and his flaunted ties with HUAC and the FBI. The main thing was that The Hook was scuttled as another collaboration between the director and the playwright (it would come back to at least partial life in 1955 with Miller’s A View from the Bridge, but without
Steiger to certain death for betraying Friendly. I don’t know where Malden got that story. I was sitting around there all day on Fifty-eighth Street waiting for my shot. I was at the Actors Studio at the time and Kazan hired a lot of us for small roles, I think it was for seventy-five dollars. And I can say that Brando marched off because he’d made an appointment with his therapist and that seemed to have been part of the agreement he had with Kazan before shooting started. Did Steiger make