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.
grew up around him.” Over his next three pictures it was Cobb who had the tour de force roles, and, clearly back in robust health, he didn’t stint on them any more than Woodward had with hers. The most lavish of the three was Richard Brooks’s adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was also the film that, even counting On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men, brought Cobb his most exhilarated notices. As the patriarch of a family of four jagged pieces, the actor was never so
production of the play with Cobb as Shylock. His conclusion was that Shakespeare had profited from the anti-Semitism of his time, basing the character of the usurer on a publicly vilified Portuguese Jew named Lopez: “True, Shakespeare, great genius that he was, didn’t simply draw two-dimensional characters. Even his villains had human sides to them, he gave even the Devil his due. . . . But what a negative, dubious triumph for an actor—for me—a Jewish actor—to bend over backwards—to distort and
hunger for an animated response to its perceived causes had stimulated many more ensembles in the interim, as often as not with a proletarian thrust. For audiences, simply attending a play could represent a political act, and theater companies aware of that charged minimally for tickets or even nothing at all in some cases. Unless he saw himself as fit only for characters wearing tuxedos and sipping champagne, the average actor was both excited and challenged by the militantly social emphasis on
soon became a very big plus for those seeking to join the “troubled” Group. Cobb’s bridge to the worker movements after returning from Pasadena was Victor Wolfson, as much of a theatrical Daedalus (actor, director, producer, playwright) as there was in the period. The son of radical Jews who had fled Russian pogroms, Wolfson was barely in his twenties when he was organizing acting classes for striking miners in West Virginia. His special flair was for adapting novels for the stage, and his
payment by the end of the day. Then there were Spiegel’s unannounced visits to the set. Totally oblivious to the damp, freezing weather endured by the crew every day of the six-week shoot, the producer would drive up in a limousine, advise his arm candy for the day to stay warm in the car, then call everyone together to complain that they were costing him a fortune by working so slowly. Kazan finally had enough and threatened to shut down everything for good if Spiegel didn’t stay over in