Elisha Cook Jr. – The Post-Noir Years

August 16, 2007

When last we left Elisha Cook Jr. in our journey through the great character actor’s life, he had just hit it big, becoming one of the most recognizable supporting actors in Hollywood due to his success in the noir boom of the 40s and 50s. killing.jpgThough he was doing noirs with regularity throughout the 40s, he never stopped doing other roles as well, and while he continued to the occasional noir in the 50s (including some of his best work in a role that was his personal favorite – George in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing), he distanced himself somewhat from the genre and began to focus more on other types of film.

While he ventured into other genres, it’s worth noting that his roles stayed more or less the same. Cook still played the small, nervous sort who was more likely than not to get beat up, taken advantage of, or killed. This was demonstrated in two of his better known roles from the early 50s – Don’t Bother to Knock and Shane.

Don’t Bother to Knock is another example of why the legend grew inside Hollywood that appearing early in your career in a film alongside Cook would ensure your future super-stardom (Judy Garland in Pigskin Parade being a case in point). In this film, none other than Marilyn Monroe makes her feature debut (she had previously done only numerous small roles). Cook plays the concerned but rather ineffectual uncle of Monroe, who plays a deeply disturbed teenaged babysitter. In 1987, Cook relayed the following anecdote describing his first meeting with Monroe:

“She came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to play my uncle, right?'” Cook recalled.

“‘That’s right, Miss Monroe.’

“Then she looked at me and said, ‘No incest.'”

(quoted from “The Face is Familar; The Name is Elusive” Dec. 24, 1987, Chicago Tribune)

This may have been just good-natured ribbing, but it didn’t seem Marilyn’s character was taking any chances, and during the course of the film, she ends up knocking her kind-hearted guardian unconscious while his back is turned.

The following year, in 1953, Cook starred in what is probably his best known role of the 50s – Frank “Stonewall” Torrey in Shane. This role and many of his other roles in westerns did not depart drastically from those he had in noirs. He still was typically the sacrificial lamb in the waiting, the would be tough who can’t back up his bravado, the neurotic gunfighter who never sees it coming. As David Thomas describes in his 1995 Film Comment article “Junior,” Cook is in Shane primarily as “a setup, the obvious victim to demonstrate Jack Palance’s lethal authority.” Something that is not frequently noted of Cook’s work here and in several of his other roles, however, is his willingness to fight. Particularly as Torrey, Cook shows a nobility just in the fact that he is brave enough to stand up to a man that everyone else is afraid of. Cook may have always been on the losing end of things, but more often than not, it was not an end that simply rolled over and died.

Shane marked Cook branching off into different territory, and he would begin to do westerns fairly regularly for the next 25 years or so. He also began doing some horror films, including two Vicent Price films – The House on Haunted Hill and The Haunted Palace – although he didn’t do the horror genre quite as much as you might think, considering how well suited his naturally bug-eyed, cowardly face custom-fitted him for such roles (particularly in the melodramatic, somewhat campy Price pictures).

The main change to Cook’s career in the 50s, however, was his move into television. The growth of television attracted many Hollywood veterans, so this certainly wasn’t an uncommon move. But the new medium seemed a good fit for Cook. For one thing, the end of the studio system in Hollywood had a profound effect on supporting actors like Cook. In an interesting LA Times article from December 22, 2000, Stephen Farber explains that the studios of the 30s and 40s had not only stars under contract, but numerous supporting actors as well, which is why there were such terrific ensemble pieces during those years. Unfortunately, the end of the studio system led to increased power to the stars unwilling to share the limelight, and as a result, “secondary roles were smashed to smithereens.” Honestly, such a shift probably had only a minimal effect on an actor like Cook, who even in this new Hollywood environment, was talented and recognizable enough to continue to still find good supporting roles. And yet, Cook’s workmanlike approach to acting (he was often quoted as saying he didnt’ have the “privilege” of reading scripts; rather, guys would just call him up and tell him “You’re working tomorrow”) seemed very well suited for the quicker, cheaper production values of television. Other than an appearance on a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, I have not seen any of Cook’s earliest TV roles. Yet, it’s clear from the shows he was doing that he was still working in very much the same vein as he had done before (he was primarily taking roles in westerns and noir/detective type shows) just in a different medium.

And with these changes, the stage was set, more or less, for the remainder of Cook’s career. cookstartrek.jpgHe continued to regularly do movies – including many quite good ones – but he would soon be doing much more work in television and would appear in many classic television shows, including Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Batman, etc., etc. When we return to Cook in the final post in our series, we’ll take one last look at this Hollywood legend, reviewing some of his later acting roles and his lasting legacy.


4 Responses to “Elisha Cook Jr. – The Post-Noir Years”

  1. Cliff Burns Says:

    You mention Cook’s appearance on “Star Trek”–it was for an episode called “Court Martial” and from the accounts I read, Cook’s faculties were failing him at that point. He found it difficult to remember lines and had to read them off cue cards.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for supporting actors–“character” actors who carry more of the world on their faces than all the “movie stars” put together. Cook was blessed with features that with one twitch could look cowardly and compromised, the last puss in the world you would want to turn your back on. Other names in that same vein: Burgess Meredith, John Fiedler, Victor McLaglen, L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Ed Lauter, Anthony Zerbe…faces you recognize but sometimes can’t put a name to, reliable performers who make it look so damn EASY…

  2. msteudel Says:

    Well said. I agree with you completely about the appeal of character actors; it’s the main reason I started posting on Cook. He was, indeed, “blessed with features” and could supposedly even fill his eyes with tears on demand. Not a bad talent, considering the roles he most frequently played.

    I never heard that about his faculties failing. I wonder if it was just the natural effects of aging – he would have been in his 60s by that point. At any rate, he would continue to do a stellar job of acting for over 20 more years after that episode. That’s amazing.

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