Robert Weil: From Burlesque to Broadway Danny Rose

Man, do I find myself intrigued by the career of character actor Robert Weil (1914-2002). On account of the kinds of projects he did, I’m going to guess that his origins were in burlesque, or the post-variety burlesque and night club scene in New York in the ’30s and ’40s. Many of his stage and screen projects seem related to burlesque or avant-garde theatre, and he’s also in many gritty movies shot in NYC, including several classics of the ’70s and ’80s. In an early review I saw him described as a “barrel chested dwarf”, though from photos, and from the movies I’ve seen him in, I would describe more as a man of stall stature, rather than a full-bore, technical Little Person.

The first credit I have for him is a part in Leonard Sillman’s Broadway revue New Faces of 1943, with Professor Irwin Corey, Alice Pierce (Bewitched), Bernie West, John and Marie Lund and others. Many of the black out sketches (written by Lund) seem to have burlesque themes. He got great reviews for his appeared in Burlesque (1946-48) with Bert Lahr.

Then Weil drops off the radar for about a decade, re-emerging in a movie called Naughty New York (1957), which he both wrote and starred in. He plays a Toulouse-Lautrec style French artist who paints naked women, played by the likes of Zorita, Dixie Lee (not the same one as Bing Crosby’s wife), and several others. As coincidence would have it, this movie was directed by Jerald Intrator, whose next movie was Satan in High Heels, which we wrote about earlier this week. Then for the next several years, he worked steadily in Broadway, in the original productions of Once Upon a Matress (1959) with Carol Burnett, Beckett (1960) with Olivier and Anthony Quinn, Blood Sweat and Stanley Poole with Darren McGavin and early career Peter Fonda and James Caan, Sidney Kingsley’s Night Life (1962) with Bobby Short and others, and the Broadway premiere of Brecht’s Arturo Ui (1963). Later, he would return to Broadway in the American debut of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End (1977), and the original stage production of Julian Barry’s Lenny (1970), later made into a movie by Bob Fosse.

Starting in the new decade, Weil’s main focus was movies, and you surely have seen his performances in many of them. It’s funny, he’s only a bit player for the most part, but there’s such a “voice” to his body of work that it’s almost as though his career was tightly controlled and curated. His films include The French Connection (1971), The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971), The Hot Rock (1972), Badge 373 (1973), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1974, with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Saturday Night Fever (1977), Night of the Juggler (1980, with Lenny star Cliff Gorman), The First Deadly Sin (1980, one of Sinatra’s last), The Fan (1980, with Lauren Bacall, he’s typecast as Pop the stage door attendant), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Death Mask (1984, with Farley Granger!), Who’s That Girl? (1987, with Madonna), Moonstruck (1987), Brenda Starr (1989), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989). The Naked Gun 2 1/1/: The Smell of Fear (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Edward Burns’ She’s the One (1996), et al. This is a charmed career, right?

Weil’s last appearance was in a tv movie called Clubland (2001), set in — you guessed it, the world of New York nightclubs with Alan Alda, Steven Weber, Brad Garrett, Peter Reigert, and Louise Lasser.

For more on show biz history (including stage revues), please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,