Tuesday, February 23

Character Actors: Cobb & Coburn

Here's another look at two character actors whose careers lasted for decades.  Without men like Lee J. Cobb and Charles Coburn, movies would be a helluva lot less interesting.  I regard the gruff Cobb as one of the finest character actors there ever was.  Gentlemanly Coburn with his monocle and fussy manners graced dramas and comedies alike but it was in the latter that he is most remembered.  Let's take a look at two fine actors.

Lee J. Cobb made 70 movies... some uncredited, some not so good, a few great.  He also appeared frequently on television, particularly with his starring role from 1962-66 in The Virginian. But far and away he will always be remembered for his legendary performance in Arthur Miller's Broadway play, Death of a Salesman.  That performance is also the one he was the most proud of and he also considered himself, first and foremost, a stage actor.  Nonetheless, the movies were lucky to have him.

Born in 1911 New York to a newspaper editor and a housewife who knew early on he was talented musically.  He became proficient at both the violin and harmonica.  Hopes vanished that he would become a violinist when he broke his wrist.  At 17 he dashed off to Los Angeles to pursue his newfound interest, acting.  People had been telling him he had what it took to be an actor, particularly noting his powerful speaking voice and a flair for drama.  Despite his best efforts, nothing materialized in California and he returned to New York.  While studying accounting at City College, he began working on radio.  He wanted to give Los Angeles another shot and this time he got on at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse.  He also had some small parts in a few forgettable movies.  Ultimately he returned to New York again and finally found some work on the stage.

Cobb's acting life took off when he was invited to join the liberal-bent Group Theater.  He appeared in plays written by Clifford Odets, most notably in 1937s Golden Boy.  He was signed for the movie version in 1939 in a richer role as the hero's father.  Ten or so years later he would come under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities due to his association with the Group Theater.

Most of his films of the 40s were minor efforts although Cobb never gave less than his best.  He did manage small roles in The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Anna and the King of Siam (1946).  He frequently played cops, often highly suspicious and ornery, which began nicely in two 1947 film noirs, Johnny O'Clock and Boomerang, the latter directed by his Group Theater buddy, Elia Kazan. 

He sparkled in another noir, the relatively forgotten The Dark Past (1948), in which William Holden (who played his son in Golden Boy) played a psychotic who kept Cobb and his family prisoner in their home.  After playing a mean-spirited San Francisco produce vendor in 1949s excellent Thieves' Highway, he returned to The Great White Way and Death of a Salesman.  His role of Willy Loman was especially written for him by Arthur Miller.  The plaudits for this performance were telegraphed all around the world.  Here was one character actor who became world famous.

While he began working on television in the 50s and in a number of B movies, he managed to land six good roles.  First up, again with his pal, Kazan, Cobb portrayed the corrupt union boss, Johnny Friendly, in 1954s On the Waterfront.  There was never any doubt that Cobb was a loudmouth but he sure had competition in this film from Karl Malden and Rod Steiger.  His best movie role of them all just may have been as the yelling bully juror #3 in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (1957). Anyone who has seen this film would have to agree he was unforgettable.  That same year he had a rare starring role in The Garment Jungle, a noir about union organizers in the New York rag business.

Oh so fierce in 12 Angry Men

Also in '57 he gained some attention as Joanne Woodward's doctor in The Three Faces of Eve.  His family patriarch in 1958s The Brothers Karamazov had him vying with his own son, Yul Brynner, for the attentions of Maria Schell.  I found the performance engrossing.  The same year he was the vicious leader of a gang that made life difficult for Gary Cooper in Man of the West.

The 60s began with the troubled production of Exodus, where he was rather subdued as Paul Newman's father and ended with his final stage appearance as King Lear, a triumph for the aging actor.  He enjoyed another starring role as an attorney in the racially-charged drama, The Liberation of L. B. Jones, director William Wyler's last film, but for some reason it didn't do very well.  The 1971 western, Lawman, is a damned good oater with Cobb as the head of a murderous bunch Burt Lancaster is out to nab.  His last theatrical film was 1973s The Exorcist, as the snoopy detective.  He certainly went out with a bang.

For your trivia files:  he was offered the role of TVs Columbo but had to turn it down due to other commitments which made Peter Falk pretty happy.

He was an absolutely mesmerizing actor, a bright spot in all of his films.  It's amazing he never won an Oscar, although he was nominated for his performances in Waterfront and Karamazov.

Cobb died of a heart attack at age 64 in Woodland Hills, California, in 1976.

Two things pop up for me when I think of Charles Coburn.  One was that until a month or so ago, when I first thought of doing a piece on him, I always thought he was born in England.  Now I'm wondering... maybe it's the monocle.  But I was surprised to learn he was born in Macon, Georgia, and grew up in my favorite of all American cities, Savannah, Georgia.  Well, I do declare... a suthin gentleman.  Secondly, since he did not start movie acting until he was in his 60s, we've never known CC as a young man. 

Born in 1877 (he may be the oldest person I will ever write about), he said that he got his love for the theater from his parents who were devotees and added that he could never remember ever wanting to be anything other than an actor.  He worked in a hometown theater doing anything he could.  He became its manager and then acted on its stage for the first time.  He was hooked.  At a young age he headed for New York City.

After a few parts in Broadway plays, he started his own acting company and later married one of the actresses he worked with.  They toured all over the country.  When she died unexpectedly in 1937, he was devastated and decided he needed some new scenery.  He had been receiving some offers to join the Hollywood brigade and now decided it was time to take them up on it.

In the 30s he appeared in such good films as Of Human Hearts, Made for Each Other and In Name Only.  Each was fortunate to have him as part of the cast and he was equally privileged to have been part of such good films.

I can't begin to comment on all of his movies nor have I seen them all but I will comment on the ones I saw in which I thought he was absolutely memorable as all successful character actors need to be.  Let's start with The Lady Eve (1941), an absolutely delicious Preston Sturges screwball comedy about a young woman (Barbara Stanwyck) and her larcenous father (yes, CC) who attempt to fleece a rich guy (Henry Fonda) out of his fortune. One is hard-pressed to imagine anyone else in his role.

He received his first of three Oscar nominations for The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).  Opposite deft comedienne Jean Arthur, he played a fuss-budgety department store owner who goes undercover to discover who among his employees is trying to start a union.

He played a rare bad guy in a drama, King's Row (1942), as a vengeful surgeon who removes Ronald Reagan's leg because he doesn't like him.  He received a best supporting Oscar for his work in The More the Merrier (1943) playing a most engaging matchmaker out to join Arthur (again) with Joel McCrea.  He received another Oscar nod for The Green Years (1946) portraying a grandfather who aids in his grandson's coming of age in Scotland.  A little-seen, enchanting comedy-drama it is.

Another rare dramatic role, this time in a film noir, Lured, came about in 1947.  He is a wily Scotland Yard inspector who asks Lucille Ball to be a decoy in finding a serial killer.  Yummy stuff.  I consider The Paradine Case (1947), a Hitchcock mystery, to be far above the maligning it took.  CC was the judge in a case involving a woman accused of murdering her husband while her attorney is falling in love with her.

With the 1950s came two of his best comedies, both costarring Marilyn Monroe.  The first, Monkey Business (1952), was a silly thing that had me cracking up more than I usually do in films.  Cary Grant is a research scientist who discovers a youth serum, meant to be tried on monkeys, but which he accidentally ingests.  Top-dog CC lusting after secretary Monroe was a hoot. 

Monocling MM in Blondes

He learned so well that he was assigned the same task in the following year's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, clearly the role for which CC is most famous.  He was the very rich Piggy who gives his wife's diamond tiara to a girl who believes diamonds are a girl's best friend.  The actor, not necessarily the character, had a reputation for pinching the derrieres of young actresses he worked with.  He must have had the time of his life working with Monroe and Jane Russell.

The remainder of his career was spent doing a lot of television and some so-so films.  A 1959 romance drama, A Stranger In My Arms, with June Allyson, Jeff Chandler and Sandra Dee, was one of my favorites of his later work.  He had minor throat surgery in 1961 and died shortly thereafter of a heart attack.  The beloved old actor was 84 years old.

Next posting:
Putting a Ford in your garage

No comments:

Post a Comment