Lou Jacobi: Gem

A brief celebration today of character actor Lou Jacobi (Louis Jacobovitch, 1913-2009).

Jacobi grew up in Toronto’s Jewish community, getting his first performing experience as a tummler and stand-up comedian, playing social events, resorts, and working as a drama director at the Toronto Y.M.H.A. As a boy he played the violin, and later he recorded several comedy albums.

When Jacobi transitioned into acting, he never strayed from his well defined persona, a stout, middle-aged Jewish man, sometimes jolly, sometimes cranky. His mustache reinforced a middle-class identity: he often played storekeepers or self-made businessmen of one kind or another, and was often cast as stern fathers or uncles or the like. If he played a type, his portrayals were invariably affectionate; they were in everyone’s comfort zone.

Four years in London in the early ’50s gave Jacobi traction, when he appeared in the West End premieres of the Broadway musicals Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls, and acted in some films. He returned to the States in in 1955, and this was the real beginning of his professional stage and screen career in America. While normally thought of as a comic performer, some of his earlier work was dramatic, such as the original Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank (1955) and its Hollywood adaptation (1959), as well as the premiere of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1959).

Jacobi’s comic reputation was cemented by his popularity among the more distinguished alum of Sid Caesar’s legendary writing stable. He appeared in the premier of Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn (1961) and later went in as a replacement in The Sunshine Boys (1972). He was in the Broadway production of Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1966), and in his film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1973). In 1982, he had a hilarious turn in My Favorite Year (1982), a fictionalized peek behind the scenes at Your Show of Shows.

Alan Arkin was also a frequent collaborator. Jacobi worked with Arkin in the screen version of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders (1971), Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Green Village (1976), the 1979 adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin, and the wacky 1981 comedy Chu Chu and the Philly Flash. Other cinematic odds and ends include Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce (1963), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) with Godfrey Cambridge, Arthur (1980) with Dudley Moore, the B movie parody Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), and Barry Levinson’s Avalon (1990).

Jacobi was a regular on two short-lived sitcoms: Ivan the Terrible (1976), created by SNL’s Herb Sergeant, in which he played the title character, a mean Moscow waiter; and Melba (1986), a vehicle for singer Melba Moore. You can also see him in episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, Love American Style, Barney Miller, Sanford and Son, Tales of the Unexpected, and St. Elsewhere. His last part was as the mathematician/Philosopher Kurt Godel in the rom-com I.Q. (1994) with Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous