Elisha Cook Jr. – Later Years and Legacy

January 1, 2008

And so, after much delay, I’ve finally come back to wrap up my series of posts on Elisha Cook Jr., one of film’s all-time great character actors. I’m hoping to start contributing more posts (either on this or on a newly revamped blog) sometime in the near future, but time is obviously not as plentiful as it was when I started this blog, so I’m making no promises.

The last post on Elisha Cook looked at his post-noir years in the 50s and 60s, when he began moving into other film genres like westerns and, more importantly, began what would be a long and steady career in television. Cook had already come a long way since breaking into films in the ’30s, but he still had a long ways to go in what would be a long, active acting career. Cook’s most memorable film roles – in films such as Maltese Falcon, Shane, and The Killing – were all behind him, but he continued to appear regularly in films and to do a good job in them until the early ’80s. His final really well known film role came in 1968 as the apartment manager in Rosemary’s Baby. It was a small role, but Cook – still looking baby-faced at nearly 65 years of age – did his usual good work.

cook.jpgCook worked much more frequently in television in his later years and almost all his acting jobs in the 80s were for TV. To a new generation, in fact, Cook was best known for his final role – the recurring part of “Ice Pick” on Magnum P.I., which he portrayed in the series from 1983 to 1988.

His career was cut short around 1990, when the elderly Cook suffered a disabling stroke. He would live for another five years, but his acting career was over. He died in a nursing home in California on May 18, 1995, at the age of 91. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Cook had been married “at least twice” (it always was hard to pin down facts on the reclusive Cook’s personal life) but left no known survivors.

Survivors or no, Cook’s legacy in Hollywood had already been ensured for quite some time. Early in his career, he had been a key component to the success of the noir genre, adding as much to the films in his fall guy roles as the troubled private dicks and femme fatales who headlined them. He was the master of portraying the bullied scapegoat, and he had some of the most memorable death scenes in classic film history. Cook rarely had large roles, but he always seemed able to make a lot from a little. He eventually became one of the more recognizable faces in cinema and one of the greatest character actors of all time.

It’s somewhat interesting to think what Cook might have been able to achieve with all his talent if he had been alive in the current day and age. The post-modern age has certainly shifted the focus of film, and the big screen is no longer the exclusive realm of dashing leading men and ladies. Rather, non-conventional storylines now offer fantastic parts for actors following in Cook’s line, and actors like William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti have garnered tremendous accolades.

Would Cook have been able to achieve similar success? Who knows. . . he certainly seemed talented enough. In the end, however, debating such points is pointless. What we do have is a long film career stretching over 50 years – one marked from beginning to end by professionalism, skill, and class. While Cook may have always been content with his small roles and never seemed to strive for more, he certainly left a mark on cinema that was disprortionately large compared to these small roles.


One Response to “Elisha Cook Jr. – Later Years and Legacy”

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