The Levels of Lee J. Cobb

The internet possesses no shortage of gushing, enthusiastic blogger valentines to the great actor Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) and that’s as it should be. So I’m not going to dwell on Cobb’s excellence as an actor here; let’s just acknowedge that as self-evident, a given, and well-covered by many another writer. As a show biz explorer though I find myself supremely interested in questions of image and identity and here Cobb provides much fodder too.

Lovers of theatre history may find themselves in knee-jerk disagreement, but nevertheless I’m confident the reality will bear me out: to the wider mainstream public, at least in his own time, Lee J. Cobb was and is probably best known as a WESTERN star, i.e. a star of westerns. In the spirit of Pauline Kael, who famously knew no one who voted for Nixon, many may writhe in horrified denial about such a reality, but I suspect numbers will bear me out. TV has the largest audiences and Cobb had a prominent role on the first four seasons of The Virginian (1962-65). His first two films were the 1937 Hopalong Cassidy pictures North of the Rio Grande and Rustlers Valley, and he was also in Buckskin Frontier (1943), The Fighter (1952), The Tall Texan (1953), The Road to Denver (1955), Man of the West (1958), How the West Was Won (1962), Mackenna’s Gold (1969), Lawman (1971), Bull of the West (1972), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), and Bad Men of the West (1974), as well as tv shows like Zane Grey Theatre and Gunsmoke. If you’re some snob who never deigns to watch westerns, it doesn’t alter the objective picture in any way.

Cobb’s gruff, rugged physique, and that wonderful rumbling voice, the grizzled puss, the scowl, all these made him a perfect fit for the western genre, as does his professional first name, the same as that of Lee Van Cleef and Lee Marvin. But his real name was Leo Jacoby. He was a Jew from the Bronx who got his start with the Group Theatre, and whose first wife was the Yiddish actress Helen Beverley. His early stage experience included the original Broadway productions of the Clifford Odets plays Waiting for Lefty (1935), Golden Boy (1937) and Clash by Night (1941), Bertolt Brecht’s Mother (1935), and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949, in which he originated the role of Willy Loman!) And in the movies, he reprised his role in Golden Boy (1939), was Johnny Friendly in Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), and was memorable as the angriest of all the angry men in 12 Angry Men (1957). Things like The Garment Jungle (1957), Exodus (1960), and Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn (1963) are also closer than oaters to his assumed “type” relative to his background. In the horror film The Exorcist (1973) there is a subtle touch which becomes more apparent after you’ve read William Peter Blatty’s novel — Cobb’s character is Jewish. He plays with the music of his speech patterns just a tad, but not enough to violate his Method Actor ethic. (I’d bet money Blatty was hoping for something much more Borscht Belt, but Cobb would never play it that way. Although it is noteworthy that early in his career his did play a stereotyped Arab in Ali Baba Goes to Town with Eddie Cantor. He played Arabs on several other occasions, and even Italians and Mexicans when the script called for it).

The cop character in The Exorcist builds on many similar ones Cobb had played over the years — a sort of third strand between the other two: detectives who were both urban and tough. You can see him as such in Johnny O’Clock (1947), Boomerang (1947), The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), the unintentionally hilarious Gorilla at Large (1954), Miami Expose (1956), and Coogan’s Bluff (1968). He’s a secret agent in the Our Man Flint films.

Other notable Cobb films included The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and William Wyler’s final film The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970). He had two notable brushes with Dostoyevsky. A 1935 stage adaptation of Crime and Punishment was his first Broadway performance. And he was nominated for an Oscar for his turn in the 1958 screen adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov. In 1968 he starred in the longest-running Broadway production of King Lear to date. He was only 57 at the time, but he was closer to the end of his life than he knew. A heart attack took him in early 1976; he was only 64 years old.