Elisha Cook Jr: The King of the Character Actors
Character acting is a subtle- some might say a lost- art. The most adept of them can make a film memorable, as well as provide style and cohesion. They can even help give the illusion that there’s some kind of alternate world in which movies take place. And, in so far as they represent ordinary people, the best character actors give films an added sense of reality. Film noir has had any number of memorable character actors. There’s Paul Stewart (Kiss Me Deadly, The Window), Sheldon Leonard (Decoy, Force of Evil), Thomas Gomez (Force of Evil, Key Largo, Phantom Lady), Albert Dekker (The Killers, Kiss Me Deadly), Timothy Carey (The Killing, Crimewave, The Outfit), Mark Lawrence (Asphalt Jungle, This Gun For Hire), Mike Mazurki (Dark City, Nightmare Alley, Murder, My Sweet), Henry Morgan (The Gangster, Big Clock, Scandal Sheet), John Ireland (Farewell, My Lovely, Party Girl, The Gangster), Ruth Gilette (In a Lonely Place), Carolyn Jones (The Big Heat, The Turning Point), Marie Windsor (Narrow Margin, The Killing), Jan Sterling (Ace in the Hole, Slaughter on 10th Avenue) Cloris Leachman (Kiss Me Deadly, Dillinger), Thelma Ritter (Pick Up on South Street, Call Northside 777). However, if one had to pick the most immediately recognisable, if not the best, character actor in film noir it would have to be Elisha Cook Jr.
Variously described as shifty-eyed, bug-eyed and baby-faced, Cook specialised in playing fall guys, psychotics, double-dealers, petty thieves, wimps, malcontents, losers and deviants. At 5’5”, the wiry Cook used to be called Hollywood’s lightest heavy. But without his presence, film noir would not only be the poorer, but might not exist as we know it. While the viewer’s attention is invariably drawn to noir protagonists like Mitchum, Garfield and Bogart, or femmes fatales like Jane Greer, Gloria Grahame and Barbara Stanwyck, it’s the ordinary and marginal figures like Cook that give such films a stamp of authenticity. After all, most viewers deep down know they are more like these weird yet plausible characters actors than they are like the lead actors. And when faced with danger they’re more likely to be as unnerved as Cook usually is, than cool under fire like Mitchum or Bogart. That’s why, when it comes to film noir, Cook is every bit as important as the big stuidio stars. Too bad to be a good guy but not quite bad or hard enough to play the bad guy, Cook handled his roles with such panache that he would remain in demand for more than fifty years. This even though Cook never achieved the level of stardom that allowed to take many lead roles, or afforded him the privilege of reading a script; rather, directors, he said, would simply phone and tell him to show up for work on the following day.
Character actor he may have been, but Cook’s career coincides exactly with the evolution of film noir. One can find him at the beginning of the genre, playing opposite Peter Lorre in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), then as the unforgettable homosexual gunsel in Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). Despite getting pushed around by Bogart, Wilmer-the-gunsel, shows Cook in more of a tough-guy mode than he would be in most subsequent roles. Huston’s film was followed by I Wake Up Screaming (1941). Three years later Cook would be playing the encrazed drummer in Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), and a year after that he appeared in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep. The next major film noir to feature Cook was Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), in which he played the psychotic closet gay who tries to pacify his pal Lawrence Tierney. Then there was Cook as the hen-pecked husband and petty thief in Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). And let’s not forget Dark Waters (1944), Dillinger (1945), Fall Guy (1947), The Gangster (1947) and Baby Face Nelson (1957). After the classic era of film noir, Cook would show up in neo-noir films like The Outfit (1974), Carny (1980) and Wenders’s homage to film noir, Hammett (1982). It seems that as soon as film noir began to decline in the late 1950s, Cook was showing up with increasing frequency on TV, and, of course, in non-noir fare like Ball of Fire (1941), Shane (1953), Day of the Outlaw (1959), One Eyed Jacks (1961), Johnny Cool (1963), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), The Electric Glide in Blue (1973), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Emperor of the North ((1973) 1941 (1979) and Tom Horn (1980).
Understandably, Cook, by the 70s, was often merely recycling past roles. That was the case in Flynn’s The Outfit, and, a few years later in Hammett where he plays an anarcho-syndicalist cab driver, which recalls his roles as a campus radical in Pigskin Parade (1936) and his performance as a cab driver in Stranger on the Third Floor. Yet he was as eye-catching and effective as always. Moreover, Cook, late in his career, turned in some memorable TV performances, chief of which were a 1986 episode of the revived Twilight Zone, entitled “Welcome to Winfield,” and two episodes of John Cassevetes’s underrated series Johnny Staccato, a 1959 episode entitled “Evil,” and a 1961 episode entitled “Solomon.”
Cook’s talent as an actor coupled with the studios’ high rate of production meant he often appeared in several films in any given year. Consequently, eight movies featuring Cook came out in 1937, his first full year in Hollywood, while he appeared in seven films in 1941 and six films in 1946. Moreover, his workmanlike approach to acting that made him equally suited for the quicker, cheaper values of TV. This resulted in at least a dozen TV appearances in 1955 and nine in 1960. His final small screen roles were in 1988, in Magnum PI. Not surprisingly, his appearances showed him playing the same character he had established for himself on the large screen: nervous types whose fate was to be beaten up, taken advantage of, or killed.
Despite his lengthy career, not much is known about Cook’s personal life. Born Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. into a theatrical family in San Francisco, California (though IMDB.com lists his place of birth as Pine Bluff, California), on Boxing Day, 1903, his family, shortly after his birth, moved to Chicago where Cook was brought up. He began doing odd jobs around the theatre when still quite young. His father, Elisha Sr. was a pharmacist and vaudevillian, his mother an actress who played the lead role in a 1935 Broadway production of Mother. This was around the same time her son’s career began to take off. Having made his stage debut at age 14, Cook, a high school drop out, got his break in 1933 when he appeared Eugene O’Neill’s long-running Broadway comedy Ah, Wilderness! Impressed by his stage presence, Paramount courted the young actor, prompting him to move to Hollywood three years later. Within a couple years he was appearing in the above comedies, melodramas, war movies and, of course, film noir. It’s even said he helped launch the careers of both Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, appearing alongside them in their first films, the former in Pigskin Parade and the latter in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). The story goes that when Monroe met Cook on the set, her first words to him were, “You’re going to play my uncle, right?” Cook said, “That’s right, Miss Monroe.” She looked at Cook and said, “No incest.”
Even in his eighties, Cook retained that same baby face, high-pitched whine and thyroidal eyes. Not blessed with a huge range, he invariably did all that was required of him, making any film he appeared in watchable for as long as he remained on the screen. By nature a recluse, Cook, as early as the 1940s, had retired to the High Sierras where, between films, he fished for trout while waiting for work to come his way. During his later years, Cook sought refuge in the California desert, near Bishop. For many years he didn’t even have an agent, figuring if anyone wanted him for a film, they would somehow find him.
After making those last appearances in Magnum PI, Cook suffered a stroke, and lived only another five years. He died in a California nursing home on May 18, 1995, at the age of 91, the same day that his Johnny Cool co-star Elizabeth Montgomery also passed away. Married at least twice, Cook left no known survivors. Nevertheless, his legacy in Hollywood as someone who got the most out of roles that were limited in nature, had long since been insured. In spite of rarely exceeding the status of a supporting actor, Cook was a major contributor to the success of film noir. Not bad for a guy who played bullied scapegoats and fall guys, and who may have been killed on-screen with greater frequency than any other Hollywood actor.
One could say that Cook was an actor of his time, yet also ahead of his time. As great as he was, had Cook been working today one could imagine him occupying a position similar to recent character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates, William Macy and Paul Giamatti, and gone on to take more substantial roles. Nevertheless, Cook, like others during the classic era of film noir, helped humanise the genre, while giving it a street-level reality that might otherwise have been lacking. Like other great character actors, Cook functioned as a conduit, keeping the film’s narrative alive. In doing so, he made any interaction between the dominant characters possible and plausible and gave the films a certain veracity, humour, personality, and class-based perspective. While viewers might fantasise about walking in the shoes of Mitchum and Bogart, they are more likely to see themselves in the eyes of character actors like Cook. No wonder Cook and others like him were able to ensure that film noir would continue long past its sell-by date.
Elisha Cook Jr and Film Noir: Ten of his Best:
1- The Maltese Falcon, John Huston. Bogart regarding Cook’s Wilmer: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter,”
2- The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks. Plays Agnes’s boyfriend, forced to drink poison by the bad guys, but, scout’s honour, refuses to betray his girlfriend.
3- Phantom Lady, Robert Siodmak. Seduced by Ella Raines. Cook is paid off to forget the phantom lady. The sexually enchanced mad drummer scene is Cook at his most memorable.
4- Born to Kill, Robert Wise. Plays a conniving closet gay, but distinctly more loquacious than usual, particularly when it comes protecting and placating Lawrence Tierney. Like a character from a Joe Orton play.
5- The Killing, Stanley Kubrick. Particularly sizzling are the scenes in which Cook as the hen-pecked thief riffs with the great Marie Windsor.
6- Stranger on the Third Floor, Boris Ingster. Plays a cab driver accused of a throat-slitting murder. But did he do it?
7- Dark Waters, Andre de Toth. Lusts after Merle Oberon. “I thought we could have some fun, laughs, together.” With a lascivious grin, he tells Merle, “Nights like this weren’t made for sleeping.”
8 The Gangster, Gordon Wiles. Interrupts Barry Sullivan and Nancy Starr’s Coney Island love scene. However, what’s most eye-catching is Cook’s incredible tie and double-breasted suit.
9- I Wake Up Screaming, H. Bruce Humberstone. Cook as the pimple-faced elevator operator whose room is decorated with photos of the murdered woman. Of course, he confesses but, once again, did he really do it?
10- Plunder Road, Hubert Cornfield. Plays a former stunt man involved in a gang seeking to rob gold from a train bound for the San Francisco mint. Made on the heels of The Killing, so naturally there’s a part for Elisha.
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