Elisha Cook Jr

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A crazy-eyed neurotic. A nervous noir thug. A sell-out weasel. These are not exactly the most flattering depictions of a character. But these are just a few of the characters Elisha Cook Jr. was best known. “Cookie” was a true working actor with over 200 credits across stage, film, and television for a career that lasted nearly sixty years.

Starting as young as 14 years old, Elisha began in vaudeville and doing stage work. By the 1930s, Elisha kicked off his film career in Pre-Codes. Here’s a lip-sticked Elisha, along with Frances Underwood, from his first on-screen role in HER UNBORN CHILD (1930). The promotional marketing pitched, “A vividly dramatic all-talker of the Broadway stage hit which rocked the nation with its frankness.” I’m hooked.

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Soon, he transitioned from his squeaky clean, youthful roles into a much darker presence. With a petite stature of 5 foot 5″ he became known as Hollywood’s lightest heavy. He could gain the audience’s sympathy as the timid man with equal vigor as he portrayed the cowardly villains. It can be argued that he was the first emotionally-conflicted gangster heavy.

One of his most notable roles came in 1941 as “Wilmer the gunsel” in John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON. He is a vivid stand-out even though surrounded by a stellar cast. Even more impressibly, most of his scenes include very little dialogue. As Sydney Greenstreet’s gun for hire, he is frequently and frustratedly humiliated as sport by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Unforgettable use of restraint and characterization by Cook’s performance makes him an iconic figure.

A year prior to THE MALTESE FALCON, Cook appeared in STRANGERS ON THE THRD FLOOR, considered by many film scholars as the original Film Noir. Elisha thrived in this style of film, finding a steady stream of work for his ‘type.’ According to a New York Times piece (written upon the occasion of his death 1995), Cook described this era in career…

“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists,” he once said, recalling that as a character actor generally assigned to subsidiary roles, he had to take what was offered. “I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.”  (“Elisha Cook Jr., Villain in Many Films, Dies at 91” by Robert MCG Thomas Jr/ New York Times/ May 21, 1995)

And he kept working. One of the most memorable Elisha Cook Jr performances is his frenzied, drum solo from the noir classic PHANTOM LADY (1944). After exchanging flirtations with Ella Raines as Carol “Kansas” Richman on the hunt for evidence, Cook as drummer Cliff Milburn with the key to evidence, takes her to his jazz jamming session. There he works up a substance-infused, climatic drumming crescendo that can only be described as orgasmic. The censors must have sweat a few drumsticks of their own. Take a peek for yourself : http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1324863/Phantom-Lady-Movie-Clip-You-Sure-Know-How-To-Beat-It-Out.html  

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Beyond his work on film noirs and with legendary co-stars and filmmakers, Cook branched out into other genres. One of my favorite classic horrors is a William Castle classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) starring Vincent Price. But as in all of his work, Elisha Cook Jr.’s small role leaves a strong impression. Here’s our spooky introduction to his role as Watson Pritchard:

 

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“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people, including my brother, have been murdered in it. Since then, I’ve owned the house. I only spent one night then and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.” Memorable, eh?

As many actors did, Cook garnered more gigs by moving to television in the 1950s, starting with the popular westerns (“Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza”). One of his career highlights includes his bit role as Stonewall Torrey in SHANE (1953). Watch him being gunned down in the muddy streets by Jack Palance:

For the most part, TV is where Cook filled his resume for the decades that followed. From looking at his acting credits in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, I’m not sure if there was a TV show that didn’t include him somewhere. His last acting job was for 13 episodes of “Magnum PI” as ‘Ice Pick’ (1981 – 1988).

Because he worked nearly constantly, I cannot possibly list them all. But here are some fun favorites, in no particular order:

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“The Duo Defy” episode from BATMAN, aired March 30, 1967. Eli Wallach as Mr. Freeze, Leslie Parrish in fur, and Elisha Cook Jr. as Professor Isaacson.

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Ketty Lester sinks her teeth into Elisha Cook Jr. in BLACULA (1972).

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Cook as a hood Frank Lucas, opposite Laurel and Hardy, in A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942).

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Elisha Cook Jr with William Shatner in the “Court Martial” episode of “STAR TREK” (1967).

Born Elisha Van Slyck Cook Jr. in San Francisco on December 26th, 1903, his 115th birthday is approaching soon. The other personal detail that seems very interesting of this reliable, working actor is his love life. Married twice, he married his first wife Mary Lou at the age of 25 and they divorced 13 years later. Mary Lou Cook was an actress as well and died just 3 years after they divorced. Two years after his divorce from Mary Lou, he married his 2nd wife, Elvira Ann “Peggy” McKenna in 1943. Peggy was a huge fan of Carole Landis and her fandom led to a close friendship. Elisha and Peggy divorced in 1968 and divorced. Oddly, they remarried just two tears later and remained married until her death in 1990. It was during the same year of her death that Elisha suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Five years later, he died on May 18, 1995 in Big Pine, CA. Even in real life, he seemed to be pillar of hard work ethic, always sticking to it, no matter what.

Although thought of mostly as the bug-eyed psychotic or as the last surviving member of the MALTESE FALCON cast, Elisha Cook Jr. proved he may come in a small package and take on small roles, but he left a big impact in a variety of lasting work. I found this video tribute to Elisha Cook Jr. Hope you enjoy it, too..

My tribute piece to Elisha Cook Jr. is part of the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, December 14, 15, 16th, 2018, hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please enjoy all the fabulous entries from this fun weekend!

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Comments

  1. Thanks for these insights into the earlier times of careers…I only new him for his later roles and didn’t even recognize those early pictures…

    Thanks,

    Ken Butterworth

    >

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That first pic though…wow

    Liked by 1 person

  3. mercurie80 says:

    Elisha Cook, Jr. is one of my favourite character actors! While he was very good at playing psychotics and cowards, as someone who is the same height he was, I wish he had gotten to play the hero in a few films! I think he would have been really good at it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What an an incredible actor with such a prolific career. Now he would have some amazing stories to tell!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I admire those hard working fellows who seem to appear in almost everything, and certainly that applies to Mr. Cook. We’d see him on primetime in a favourite show and there he’d be after midnight in an old movie. He’s almost like that relative you never invite to parties, but always shows up.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. keenanpatrick424 says:

    You hit the mark with your observation of Cook Jr. as the first emotionally–conflicted gangster heavy. Especially in his noir roles the “little man” had an outsized impact on defining the evolving concept of masculinity in cinema. Although not standing tall, he was in many roles the epitome of a “stand-up” guy. Thanks for the incisive and heartfelt tribute.And kudos for the great clips.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mike Doran says:

    Sometime in the ’80s, Elisha Cook – “Cookie” as his friends all called him – gave a wonderful interview (regretfully, I can’t recall which magazine he gave it to).
    One of his recollections was how he and his wife Peggy had gotten divorced and remarried without his ever leaving the house.
    It seemed that they couldn’t decide how to divide custody of their dogs; ultimately, staying together was the best option.
    The whole article was full of wonderful stories like that; losing that magazine was (is) one of the great regrets of my life.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great profile of a terrific (and prolific) actor. As a Laurel & Hardy fan, imagine my surprise in seeing him do his film-noir bit in one of their movies!

    Like

  9. Kellee, what a wonderful read… Elisha Cook Jr. is one of the most interesting character actors, and his Orgasmic drum solo in Phantom Lady is perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in my favorite and highly underrated noir film! I enjoyed your piece for the Blogathon and thanks so much for allowing me to participate! Cheers, Joey

    Like

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  1. […] Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled catalogs the many characters of “Hollywood’s lightest heavy,” Elisha Cook, Jr. […]

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