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.

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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.

As part of my ongoing posts on Elisha Cook Jr., we’re next going to take a look at Cook’s noir films – the genre he is most often associated with. Cook was part of the noir movement from the very beginning, having been cast in Stranger on the Third Floor – the 1940 film most critics point to as the first true noir film and the beginning of the classic noir period. This classic noir period is subsequently said to wrap up with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil film in 1958. While Cook was not in Welles’s film, he was nonetheless a constant face in many noir films on through to the very end, making Baby Face Nelson in December of 1957. In many ways, Cook could be viewed to develop alongside the genre – just as the film noirs during those years were becoming more mature and sophisticated, Cook’s noir roles and what he brought to them likewise expanded.

As important as Stranger on the Third Floor is to film history, it is not available on DVD and I have never had a chance to see it. Regardless, it was not until the next year with the release of the classic The Maltese Falcon that things really began to click, both for Cook and the noir genre. The film was a lot of firsts – John Huston’s directorial debut, Bogie’s first unqualified hit as a leading man (though one might argue that High Sierra fits that bill) – but perhaps its most important was as the first true noir masterpiece. The film set up many of the standard conventions that would be recycled and played with over and over again during the following two decades.

After having seen Cook in so many film roles where he made the most of his flacid, bug-eyed expressions to skillfully portray various ill-fated and in-over-their-heads characters – it’s somewhat difficult trying to picture the man just kicking back and relaxing. cook-wilmer.jpgAnd yet, by the early 1940s, the Hollywood career of Cook, now in his mid-30s, had evolved to the point where the reclusive actor could simply retire to the High Sierra hills between films and fish for trout as he waited for the work to come to him via studio courier. It was in these hills that Huston sent word to Cook that he wanted him for what would become Cook’s best known role – the gun-toting Wilmer. Cook nailed the role. It’s one of those where it’s impossible imagining somebody doing it better. It’s interesting because Cook actually appears “tougher” as Wilmer than he does in most of his subsequent noir roles, despite the homosexual undertones of the role and that he was pushed around throughout the film by Bogie’s Sam Spade and eventually set up as “the fall guy.”

After Falcon, Cook made another noir classic, I Wake Up Screaming. He continued to make films in other genres, but for the most part, he was associated with noirs throughout the 40s. He took a hiatus from Hollywood in late 1942 (apparently for military service – though I’m having trouble locating what branch or any other details), and did not return to the big screen until 1944. His first film upon his return was Phantom Lady, a film that should be included in any discussion about Cook, as it is one of the most frequently cited roles in the literature about him. Unfortunately, this is another one not yet out on DVD and that I have not seen yet. (Seriously, somebody needs to start releasing these. Do I next need to blog about the need for an Elisha Cook Jr. box set? I’ve already devoted more time to him than most people do, so don’t think I won’t do it.) The late 40s brought more noir classics, including Dillinger, The Big Sleep, and Born to Kill. The advent of the 50s brought a shift in Cook’s career, as he started doing more western films and suddenly became active with television. He still did the occasional noir, however, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 film, The Killing – another of Cook’s best performances.

The fall guy, the scapegoat, the cuckold, the neurotic, the whipping boy, the pushed-around sidekick. cook-borntokill.jpgWithout fail, Cook appeared throughout these tough guy films in less than tough guy roles. He was too bad to be a good guy but not quite bad enough to play the bad guy (his best known nickname was “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”). And yet, he played these roles so well that they continued coming to him, and his portrayals would set up many of the lasting noir conventions. Cook played an integral part in the noir legacy. In many ways, he helped add humanity and believability to the films. Face it – we all want to identify with the Bogies or Mitchums or Stanwycks of the noirs, who always seem to have the answer or else know how to go about getting it, but finding ourselves in similar situations, we might very well find ourselves over our head and panicking just to stay afloat in treacherous waters. Cook’s roles often remind us of the danger inherent in these situations and the less-than-noble ways people often truly respond to such dangers.

As I announced in a post a few weeks ago, I am beginning a series of posts to explore the life and career of one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest character actors, Elisha Cook Jr. There is not an abundant amount of information out there on such character actors and finding information on their early life can prove particularly difficult, as I found as I started doing some research. Almost all the sources on Cook say essentially the same thing. Even going to some promising-looking print sources – such as The Illustrated Directory of Character Actors – was of limited use. And yet, with some persistance and creative researching, I eventually discovered some information on his early life and career. Thus, in this first post, I wanted to basically look at his life before he really got started as a noir actor, which he did around 1940.

Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was born into a theatrical family in San Francisco, California, on December 26, 1903 (occasionally, one finds a source saying 1906, but this appears to be incorrect). Not much is ever said about his parents. Although Wikipedia says Elisha Sr. was a pharmacist, most sources describe him more as one of those vaudevillian jack-of-all-trades – acting, directing, and producing. His mother, Helen Henry, was an actress and seemed to be a rather talented one at that, as she would eventually land the lead role in the acclaimed Broadway play Mother in 1935, around the time her son’s own stage career was peaking. Soon after Elisha Jr. was born, the family moved to Chicago, where he grew up in the stage environment, beginning at a young age to do odd jobs around the theatre. At the age of 14, he premiered in the vaudeville act Lightnin’.

Cook was not yet 23 when he made his Broadway debut in 1926. While many biographical sketches claim he made this debut in Henry-Behave, according to Cook’s IBDB page (Internet Broadway Database – who knew they had such a thing?), it appears it may have actually been several months earlier in Hello, Lola. Regardless, it appears that from this point forward, Cook had fairly steady work as a Broadway actor and began to appear rather regularly in the drama pages of the New York Times and other publications. I perused the reviews of Cook’s plays using the local university library’s online database. (If you haven’t done this before, it’s a pretty fun and interesting thing to do. The theatre back in the day was still big news and so the reviews have an All About Eve aura and seriousness about them. Plus, the stage was still prime source material for Hollywood, so many of the plays and actors and actresses found in the drama pages are recognizeable to classic film lovers.)

Cook seemed to have somewhat meatier roles towards the beginning of his Broadway career, actually playing the leads in a couple of plays. In fact, he recreated his male lead role from the play Her Unborn Child for a Hollywood adaptation in 1930. He allegedly did one other film that same year before returning to the stage. It’s possible, however, that the brevity of his first stint in Hollywood had more to do with the quality of the source material than it did with Cook’s acting. As a Time magazine reviewer of the play version of Her Unborn Child wrote: “Elisha Cooke [sic] Jr., in the comedy role, was better than his lines.”

Over the next few years, Cook continued to make a name for himself on the stage. He began to stand out in the increasingly frequent supporting roles, which would become more or less the norm for him from this point forward in his acting career. Though the roles were typically small, he made the most of them, and the reviews, though short, were positive.

His big break came in 1933, when he played the role of Richard Miller in Eugene O’Neill’s long-running and critically acclaimed comedy Ah, Wilderness! As was often the case due to Cook’s youthful appearance, the role was that of a young man. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, wrote “As Richard, Elisha Cook Jr. has strength as well as pathos. Mr. Cook can draw more out of mute adolescence than any other young actor on our stage.” Such reviews were not atypical, as they commonly noted Cook’s skillful use of facial expressions to convey emotion – it was an early indication of a strength that would stay with him throughout his career and would help him make his limited roles all the more powerful and memorable. Hollywood took notice of Cook’s performance in Ah, Wilderness!, and Paramount contracted him to work when the season was over. Interestingly, the drama pages initially report that he was contracted to appear in the 1934 film Ready for Love. However, even though the paper reports his leaving for Hollywood in June and his subsequent return in August, all his filmographies do not list Cook as appearing in the film. Thus, it’s unclear whether he just had a small overlooked role in a forgotten film or if the contract actually fell through for some reason. At any rate, upon his return to New York, Cook resumed his role in Ah, Wilderness! as the show went on the road. He went on to do at least two more Broadway plays over the next two years, before more or less settling permanently in Hollywood in mid to late 1936.

Cook’s talent as an actor combined with the incredible rate of production during the studio era meant that he was soon doing several films a year (8 films with him were released in 1937, his first full year in Hollywood). While he was in some crime dramas and mysteries at this point, he was not as frequently typecast in such genres as he would be in the noir explosion in the 40s. In fact, he did just as many romantic comedies as anything else, still often cast as a juvenile. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to find these films, particularly on DVD. Some of them appear to be rather forgettable, but in many others, Cook was working with big name stars and directors (to name just a couple of examples – he was in Submarine Patrol in 1938, directed by John Ford, and was in Love Crazy in early 1941, one of the William Powell/Myrna Loy collaborations). Many of these films from early in Cook’s career will likely be released in the coming years.

The only 1930s film I could find with Cook was the recently released Pigskin Parade, a musical comedy about a small college football team starring Jack Haley and Patsy Kelly. It didn’t at all sound like the typical film I enjoy watching, but in the name of research, I decided to Netflix it. It turned out to be a surprisingly passable film with some real funny parts. Cook was cast, predictably, as a college boy. He plays a revolutionary sort who ends up getting framed by some of his classmates in order that they may use his name and credentials for an academically ineligible football prospect (one is tempted to say this is an early indication of the tendency later in Cook’s career to cast him as the fall guy, but believe me, it’s entirely different). Cook’s role is limited, but he does a good job with it. He even sings (well, talks in rhythm) a little. He might not have the screen presence he’ll eventually have in some of his later roles, but one can definitely see his natural talent as an actor.

One final note on Pigskin Parade. Not only was it one of Cook’s first films, but it was also the first feature-length film of Judy Garland. I found this interesting because, later in Cook’s career, a legend grew up about him that his mere presence in a film would presage future stardom for some of his younger co-workers. Well, if there’s any truth to this myth, it looks like Dorothy herself owed a debt of gratitude to Mr. Cook, who certainly got her started on her way.

Elisha Cook Jr.

May 15, 2007

I think many old movie fans are probably similar to me and my wife. After watching enough of these old films, some of those faces that were formerly relegated to the background in significant yet limited supporting roles start to come forward as they become more and more familiar. Moving beyond each picture’s one or two big-name stars, one begins to pay increasing attention to these faces behind the faces – all those various character actors and bit players who really round out the cast and add so much to these films.

So many of these people are now largely forgotten by the public, although quite a few of them were well known at the time and their contributions were quite significant. cook2.jpgFor this reason, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of reviews based upon the careers of one of these supporting actors. This should offer a somewhat unique way of looking at a series of films – as opposed to the usual genre-, theme-, or superstar-based series. Besides highlighting the career of an unduly overlooked subject, it can also bring together an interesting cross-section of films that wouldn’t often be grouped together. This is certainly the case with the actor I’ve chosen to look at here – Elisha Cook Jr.

Elisha Cook has been in some great movies and is particularly well known to fans of film noirs due to his roles in films such as Maltese Falcon (probably his best known role – as Wilmer) and The Killing. It is probably his good work in such memorable films that has led Cook to being not quite as “forgotten” as most of old Hollywood’s character actors. And yet, as a simple Google search for Mr. Cook reveals, the majority of the websites and sources discussing the actor simply recycle the same information over and over again. You can look at his page on IMDB or Wikipedia or one of the many others, but they all say more or less the same thing – i.e., known as “Hollywood’s lightest heavy,” the diminutive cook.jpgElisha Cook made a lengthy Hollywood career out of playing fall guys and spineless villains, including his most memorable roles in such films as The Maltese Falcon and Shane. Such descriptions are great at boiling down a career to only the most essential details, but I have to think that there is something more to a man who had as long and successful a film and television career as Cook had (if you haven’t already looked at that Wikipedia page, do so now and check out the list of different directors Cook worked with throughout his career). It is all the information that is left unsaid that always makes me wonder about these lesser known actors and actresses. Surely there is more to a person who has had such a long and varied career that cannot be captured in just a brief paragraph or two. Off and on over the next several weeks, I’ll try to see if we can’t flesh out that description of Cook a little more by taking a more concentrated look at the actor’s films (and maybe even a bit of his extensive TV work) and maybe by seeing if we can’t find out a little more information from some print sources. As always, any suggestions or feedback is welcome.