Lee J. Cobb, one of the premier character actors in American film for three decades in the post-World War II period, was born Leo Jacoby in New York City's Lower East Side on December 8, 1911. The son of a Jewish newspaper editor, young Leo was a child prodigy in music, mastering the violin and the harmonica. Any hopes of a career as a violin virtuoso were dashed when he broke his wrist, but his talent on the harmonica may have brought him his first professional success. At the age of 16 or 17 he ran away from home to Hollywood to try to break into motion pictures as an actor. He reportedly made his film debut as a member of Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals (their first known movie appearance was in the 1929 two-reeler Boyhood Days), but that cannot be substantiated. However, it's known that after Leo was unable to find work he returned to New York City, where he attended City College of New York at night to study accounting while acting in radio dramas during the day.
An older Cobb tried his luck in California once more, making his debut as a professional stage actor at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1931. After again returning to his native New York, he made his Broadway debut as a saloonkeeper in a dramatization of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, but it closed after 15 performances (later in his career, Dostoevsky would prove more of a charm, with Cobb's role as Father Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov (1958) garnering him his second Oscar nomination),
Cobb joined the politically progressive Group Theater in 1935 and made a name for himself in Clifford Odets' politically liberal dramas Waiting for Lefty and Til the Day I Die, appearing in both plays that year in casts that included Elia Kazan, who later became famous as a film director. Cobb also appeared in the 1937 Group Theater production of Odets' Golden Boy, playing the role of Mr. Carp, in a cast that also included Kazan, Julius Garfinkle (later better known under his stage name of John Garfield), and Martin Ritt, all of whom later came under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the heyday of the McCarthy Red Scare hysteria more than a decade later. Cobb took over the role of Mr. Bonaparte, the protagonist's father, in the 1939 film version of the play, despite the fact that he was not yet 30 years old. The role of a patriarch suited him, and he'd play many more in his film career.
It was as a different kind of patriarch that he scored his greatest success. Cobb achieved immortality by giving life to the character of Willy Loman in the original 1949 Broadway production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. His performance was a towering achievement that ranks with such performances as Edwin Booth as Richard III and John Barrymore as Hamlet in the annals of the American theater. Cobb later won an Emmy nomination as Willy when he played the role in a made-for-TV movie of the play (_Death of a Salesman (1966/II) (TV)_ ). Miller said that he wrote the role with Cobb in mind.
Before triumphing as Miller's Salesman, Cobb had appeared on Broadway only a handful of times in the 1940s, including in Ernest Hemingway's The Fifth Column (1940), Odets' "Clash by Night" (1942) and the US Army Air Force's Winged Victory (1943-44). Later he reprised the role of Joe Bonaparte's father in the 1952 revival of Golden Boy opposite Garfield as his son, and appeared the following year in The Emperor's Clothes. His final Broadway appearance was as King Lear in the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center's 1968 production of Shakespeare's play.
Aside from his possible late 1920s movie debut and his 1934 appearance in the western The Vanishing Shadow (1934), Cobb's film career proper began in 1937 with the westerns North of the Rio Grande (1937) (in which he was billed as Lee Colt) and Rustlers' Valley (1937) and spanned nearly 40 years until his death. After a hiatus while serving in the Army Air Force during World War II, Cobb's movie career resumed in 1946. He continued to play major supporting roles in prestigious A-list pictures. His movie career reached its artistic peak in the 1950s, when he was twice nominated for Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards, for his role as Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront (1954) and as the father in The Brothers Karamazov (1958). Other memorable supporting roles in the 1950s included the sagacious Judge Bernstein in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), as the probing psychiatrist Dr. Luther in The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and as the volatile Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men (1957).
It was in the 1950s that Cobb achieved the sort of fame that most artists dreaded: he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges that he was or had been a Communist. The charges were rooted in Cobb's membership in the Group Theater in the 1930s. Other Group Theater members already investigated by HUAC included Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan, both of whom provided friendly testimony before the committee, and John Garfield, who did not.
Cobb's own persecution by HUAC had already caused a nervous breakdown in his wife, and he decided to appear as a friendly witness in order to preserve her sanity, and his career, by bringing the inquisition to a halt. Appearing before the committee in 1953, he named names and thus saved his career. Ironically, he would win his first Oscar nomination in On the Waterfront (1954) directed and written by fellow HUAC informers Kazan and Budd Schulberg. The film can be seen as a stalwart defense of informing, as epitomized by the character Terry Malloy's testimony before a Congressional committee investigating racketeering on the waterfront.
Major films in which Cobb appeared after reaching his career plateau include Otto Preminger's adaptation of Leon Uris' ode to the birth of Israel, Exodus (1960); the Cinerama spectacle How the West Was Won (1962); the James Coburn spy spoofs, Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967); Clint Eastwood's first detective film, Coogan's Bluff (1968); and legendary director William Wyler's last film, The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970).
In addition to his frequent supporting roles in film, Cobb often appeared on television. He played Judge Henry Garth on "The Virginian" (1962) from 1962-66 and also had a regular role as the attorney David Barrett on "The Young Lawyers" (1969) from 1970-71. Cobb also appeared in made-for-TV movies and made frequent guest appearances on other TV shows. His last major Hollywood movie role was that of police detective Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973).
Lee J. Cobb died of a heart attack in Woodland Hills, California, on February 11, 1976, at the age of 64. He is buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Though he will long be remembered for many of his successful supporting performances in the movies, it is as the stage's first Willy Loman in which he achieved immortality as an actor. Bearing in mind that the role was written for him, it is through Willy that he will continue to have an influence on American drama far into the future, for as long as Death of a Salesman is revived.
|Mary Brako Hirsch||(27 June 1957 - 11 February 1976) (his death) 2 children|
|Helen Beverly||(February 1940 - 28 July 1952) (divorced) 2 children|
Deep, husky voice
Known for his angry scowl
Bulky, broad-shouldered frame
He was also an accomplished harmonica artist. He was a member of the famed Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals, who appeared in the 1928 film, The Patriot (1928) starring Lewis Stone, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Was succeeded in two of his roles by the late George C. Scott. Cobb died shortly after playing Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973). Scott took over the part in the third film. Cobb played Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men (1957) and Scott played that part in the television remake. Scott also played Willy Loman in the Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman," a part Cobb originated. 12 Angry Men (1997) (TV).
The part of Willy Loman in the stage play "Death of a Salesman" was written specifically for him by Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller offered him the lead role of Eddie Carbone in his Broadway play "A View from the Bridge." While an outsider might think that the politically progressive Miller would be hostile to the actor due to Cobb's friendly testimony before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, during which he "named names," Miller thought Cobb would be ideal for the role. Himself a target of the witch hunt for alleged Communists undertaken by the government, Miller believed that Cobb would bring real intensity to Carbone, who informs on his relatives to the immigration service, as he himself had been an informer. Cobb turned down the role, as he believed that to accept it would open him up to retaliation from the reactionary right and jeopardize his career.
Former father-in-law of Christopher Morgan.
Grandfather of Rosemary Morgan.
His performance of 'King Lear' in 1968 is the longest-running production of the play in Broadway history.
In his autobiography "Timebends," Arthur Miller says that Lee J. Cobb was his favorite Willy Loman. He also says that Cobb was never really a leftist as he was apolitical, but that he had been attracted to left-wing and anti-Nazi causes during the Depression as had many people who were trying to do right. Thus, Miller never held the fact that he was a friendly witness before HUAAC against him. A decade after his testimony, Cobb's Willy Loman was captured for posterity, with the 1966 video version. By then, Miller had even worked again with Elia Kazan, the most famous and unrepentant of the people who knuckled under and "named names."
Was a good friend with screenwriter Alvah Bessie, a Communist Party member who was one of the Hollywood 10, until Cobb refused to lend him $500 in the late 1940s. Bessie had been ruined financially by legal fees connected to his appeals of his contempt citation issued by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). Bessie and other members of the Hollywood 10 braved the Committee's inquisition into communists and fellow-travelers in the film industry by refusing to cooperate. When Cobb told him that $500 wouldn't solve his problems, their friendship was over. Cobb later turned out with hundreds of sympathizers of the Hollywood 10 to show their support for the members who were flying to Washington, D.C. for their trials on charges of contempt of Congress levied by HUAC. Later, Cobb would be a friendly witness before HUAC, naming names of fellow former communists and leftists from his Group Theater days in New York in the 1930s.
Featured in "Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir" by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (McFarland, 2003).
We all want to play romantic figures. But because I lost my hair I was stuck playing butchers and crooks.
[interview with Victor Navasky for the book "Naming Names", about the McCarthy "Red Scare" witch-hunts of the 1950s] When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit - being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That's minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. In 1953 the HUCA did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn't borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it's worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn't worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I'd do it. I had to be employable again.
[testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, June 23, 1953] I would like to thank you for the privilege of setting the record straight, not only for whatever subjective relief it affords me, but if belatedly this information can be of any value in the further strengthening of our Government and its efforts at home as well as abroad, it will serve in some way to mitigate whatever feeling of guilt I might have for having waited this long.
The theater is the actor's medium. Movies are the director's medium. Television is nobody's medium.
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