Jay Robinson: The Definitive Caligula


Today is the birthday of Jay Robinson (b. 1930).

I learned something about myself today, dear reader. I was about to attach the words “unspeakably awesome” before Robinson’s name…but then I realized that I was tempted to use no such hyperbole with reference to Sir John Gielgud in today’s earlier post. What does this say about the taste and judgment of your correspondent? As Charles Manson put it best, “Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged Yourselves.”

I’ve already written a little about Robinson a little in my post on Dr. Shrinker, in which he played the villain. ALL of his roles are like that, because Robinson is like that.

He made his first, best, indelible impression as Caligula in The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). Robinson’s is the DEFINITIVE insane, evil Roman emperor, excepting only perhaps Charles Laughton’s Nero in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). Robinson’s shrill, high-pitched voice coming out of that little boy body, with the meanness of expression coming from his eyes, and his affected diction (expecially an exquisite rolling of the Rs) create the perfect impression of the worst sort of tyrant. Dangerous because all-powerful and physically ineffectual. The effect is a lot like that Billy Mumy episode of The Twilight Zone where a spoiled child has the ability to make people disappear. You are straining every muscle not to laugh at this red-in-the-face pipsqeak as he screams at you — because if you do, he will have you tortured and then executed.

Robinson’s career momentum was interrupted in 1958 when he got busted on a narcotics charge, spent several months in jail, and then “went away for a while”. When he came back it was mostly to reprise the essence of his Caligula, on tv shows like Star Trek, Bewitched, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Planet of the Apes (the tv show).

In 1997 he hosted Beyond Bizarre on the Discovery Channel. Here’s a clip. Don’t let the limey accent fool you — he’s from New York!


  1. Jay, I have been a admire of your work as an actor since I first saw your performance in The Robe (1953). I was 11 years old. I know that this is late, but Happy Birthday! I wish for you good health and a long life.


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