Elisha Cook, Jr.: Hollywood’s Lightest Heavy

Elisha Cook, Jr.: Character Movie Actor“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists. I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.'” Such was the lot of bantam-sized character actor Elisha Cook, Jr., who parlayed his 5’5″ frame, bug-eyed stare, and raspy voice that went from a whisper to a scream with little middle ground into a 60-year-plus career of stage, screen and television roles…mostly on the wrong side of the law and often on the wrong end of a gun, knife, or bottle of poison.

Born in San Francisco on December 26, 1903 to a ex-vaudeville performer-turned-pharmacist and a former stage actress, Cook and his parents moved to Chicago three years later (“We left two weeks before the earthquake, and our house was totally destroyed,” he recalled years later. “I figure I’ve been living on borrowed time ever since.”). Attracted to the stage as a teenager, Elisha was selling programs in a Chicago theatre when he encountered veteran star/playwright Frank Bacon, whose comedy Lightnin’ was once the longest-running show in Broadway history. “I went down to meet him and he said, ‘Would you like to go on the stage?’ I said, ‘Sure, I guess so.’ I did a walk-on in the courtroom scene. I did pretty good, so later he says to me, ‘Want to go to New York?’”

Elisha took Bacon up on his offer, and the 1920s would see Cook hone his thespian skills in various touring companies and on Broadway, often as juvenile and collegiate leads. One such part, in the risqué 1928 social drama Her Unborn Child, lead to the actor making his big screen debut in a 1930 film version of the play. His nascent movie career would be put on hold, though, following a 1933 audition for Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness!, starring the legendary George M. Cohan. “The role of the son was the last to be cast,” Cook said, “and I read two pages with the rest of the actors. Mr. O’Neill came to the footlights and said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, our cast is complete.'” 

Ah, Wilderness! was a smash hit and it, along with other plays, kept Cook on the Great White Way throughout the early 1930s, but by 1936 he was ready to join the westward migration to Hollywood. His first role was as a jockey who helps would-be couple Joel McCrea and Joan Bennett decide what to do when each finds half of a stolen $1,000 bill in the Universal romcom Two in a Crowd (1936). That same year he played Herbert Terwilliger Van Dyke, a campus radical and Socialist agitator (!) who tries to get his classmates to join the revolution (but instead joined his frat brothers for a song entitled “Down with Everything”), in Pigskin Parade. This 20th Century-Fox musical/comedy starred Stuart Erwin and Pasty Kelly and marked the feature film debut of a 14-year-old Judy Garland. 

The next few years would find Elisha popping up as students, clerks and other supporting roles alongside Tyrone Power in Love Is News, Claude Rains and Lana Turner in They Won’t Forget, and The Ritz Brothers in So This Is College (all 1937); ice-skating musical queen Sonja Henie in My Lucky Star (1938); and Alice Faye and Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley (1940). Another key 1940 role was as a cab driver wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to Death Row in RKO’s Stranger on the Third Floor. The moody thriller–which also starred John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, and Peter Lorre–is considered by many movie buffs to be one of the first examples of “film noir,” a genre that was about to play an important part in Cook’s screen career.

ELISHA COOK11941 would prove to be a watershed year for Cook, thanks to his unforgettable performance role as Wilmer, the tightly-wound bodyguard and “gunsel” (which doesn’t necessarily mean gunman…look it up) for “Fat Man” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) in John Huston’s classic thriller The Maltese Falcon. Pushed around, slugged, and dubbed a cheap crook and a pocket-edition desperado by detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), Cook’s Wilmer seethes with a near-psychotic rage when the private eye humiliates him in front of his employer (“If you look at the scene closely,” Elisha once said in an interview, “the tears are streaming down my face I’m so angry.”). One of my favorite moments in the picture comes when Gutman agrees to turn over Wilmer, of whom he “couldn’t be fonder of…if [he] were [his] own son,” as a fall guy for the police in exchange for the “black bird.” An unconscious Elisha (Bogie knocked him out a few minutes earlier) wakes up, looks around the room at the faces of Greenstreet, Lorre, Bogart, and Mary Astor, and realizes his goose is cooked. It was a fate that the actor would come to be all too familiar with over the next few decades.

The same year of Falcon’s release, Cook got another chance to display the dark side that lurked beneath his seemingly mild-mannered characters when he played Harry, a hotel switchboard operator with an unhealthy fixation on murdered waitress-turned-model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), in the noir-flavored Fox whodunit I Wake Up Screaming, starring Victor Mature, Betty Grable and Laird Cregar. And just so ’41 wasn’t all doom and gloom, he was also seen as an elevator operator in the William Powell/Myrna Loy comedy Love Crazy; as the nightclub waiter who tries to educate Gary Cooper’s Professor Potts about the word “boogie” and about the wonders of Barbara Stanwyck as singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (“She jives by night!”) in Howard Hawks’ screwball gem Ball of Fire; and as a movie screenwriter trying to bring sanity to the zany antics of Olsen and Johnson in the film version of their Broadway revue Hellzapoppin’. In 1942 Cook was back to being a touch guy as a gangster menacing Laurel and Hardy in A-Haunting We Will Go, then was the pal of oil wildcatter Richard Arlen in the “B” actioner Wildcat.  The actor enlisted in the army in August of ’42 and worked on several film projects for the military, including an appearance in the Academy Award-nominated documentary short Baptism of Fire (1943).

PHANTOM LADY2Back in Hollywood in 1944, Cook borrowed heavily from Ball of Fire co-star Gene Krupa for his turn as a hopped-up (you get the feeling it’s not just tobacco he’s smoking) nightclub drummer, plied by secretary-turned-temptress Ella Raines for information that could save her boss from being executed for his wife’s murder, in Universal’s Phantom Lady. One of the highlights in director Robert Siodmak’s noir thriller comes when Cook brings Raines to a tiny room where a jazz band is jamming and launches into a frenetic drum solo (performed by Krupa himself) that’s as overtly sexual a scene as any from the Production Code era. And, wouldn’t you know, Elisha’s hot-to-trot skins player gets himself strangled by the real killer before he can “seal the deal” with Raines. He was memorably creepy as a Louisiana plantation boss in André de Toth’s “Gaslight on the bayou” suspenser Dark Waters (1944), with Merle Oberon and Phantom Lady co-star Franchot Tone; was grape-loving gangster Kirk Otto in the 1945 Monogram crime drama Dillinger, loosely based on the 1930s bank robber’s exploits and featuring Lawrence Tierney in the title role; and was would-be informant Harry Jones, the “funny little guy” who is forced to drink poison for his troubles, in the Bogie/Bacall film version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946). 

1947 found Cook reuniting with Tierney in RKO’s Born to Kill. As Marty, the easy-going best friend to Tierney’s aptly-named Sam Wild, Cook tries to talk sense to his hot-tempered pal after he murders a girlfriend and the guy Tierney thought was “cuttin’ in on him” and helps him leave town. Later, Marty ignores the sage advice he once gave Sam (“You can’t just go around killin’ people whenever the notion strikes you; it’s not feasible.”) and tries to bump off an old lady on the beach to help his buddy, only to be head-butted and jabbed with a hatpin by his intended target and then knifed by the ever-jealous and ever-psychotic Sam. As with the Wilmer-Gutman dynamic of The Maltese Falcon, it’s tempting to see a gay subtext in Cook’s misplaced dedication to Tierney in this Robert Wise-directed noir tale. Later that year, Elisha was merely an eyewitness–of sorts–to murder, playing a blind man who stumbles upon a body in his apartment building in the Fox thriller The Long Night, with Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes. In a change of pace Cook was cast as Ewing Klipspringer, the freeloading guest of Jay Gatsby (Alan Ladd), in 1949’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and he played a bumbling gangster after a missing dog in the 1951 comedy Behave Yourself!, starring Farley Granger and Shelley Winters. It was back to being an elevator operator when he was seen as the hotel worker trying to look after his mentally unstable niece (Marilyn Monroe, out to prove her dramatic acting chops) in Don’t Bother to Knock, and 1953 gave the performer two of his more memorable cinematic deaths: getting shot to pieces in a Santa Claus suit, in an uncredited turn in the first film version of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, and flopping in a frontier town’s muddy street after failing to outdraw “low-down lyin’ Yankee” Jack Palance, in the western classic Shane.       

KILLING, THE2By the mid 1950s Cook, like many others in Hollywood, was dividing his work time between film and television. Alongside guest spots on programs as diverse as The Jackie Gleason Show, The Adventures of Superman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bat Masterson, and Peter Gunn, the actor also appeared on the big screen as racetrack window teller George Peatty, who is drawn into an elaborate robbery scheme by ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and whose bragging to wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) puts the heist in jeopardy, in The KillingStanley Kubrick’s 1956 thriller offered Elisha yet another of his by-now familiar sad sack roles: talking about the caper in an attempt to impress the unfaithful Windsor, he fails to realize she’ll tell boyfriend Vince Edwards (as one of the crooks says to Cook upon learning of his loose lips, “Come on, clown, sing us a chorus of Pagliacci!”). Yet it’s the mousey teller who, ever so briefly, comes out on top in a brutal shootout with Edwards at the gang’s hideout. He took part in another well-orchestrated but doomed robbery in the “B” actioner Plunder Road (1957), and that same year played real-life bank robber (and John Dillinger ally) Homer Van Meter opposite Mickey Rooney’s title portrayal of Baby Face Nelson. He also had a small role in Marlon Brando’s self-directed 1961 frontier drama One-Eyed Jacks.

Starting in the late ’50s Cook dabbled in the horror vein, co-starring with Vincent Price as the owner of the supposedly haunted title mansion in gimmick king William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959), and later playing a townsman who runs afoul of Price–the descendant of a warlock put to death by Cook’s ancestor years before–in Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963). He was an abusive zookeeper who becomes lion food thanks to animal lover Michael Gough in 1963’s Black Zoo; Mr. Nicklas, the manager of the quaint New York apartment building that spouses Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes learn is home to a devil-worshipping cult, in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968); and the hook-handed morgue worker who learns that one of his “customers” isn’t quite dead in the blaxploitation shocker Blacula (1972). Meanwhile, the actor was seen on TVs across America with turns on Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Batman, Star Trek, Baretta and more, including the vampiric telemovies The Night Stalker (1971) and Salem’s Lot (1979).

ELISHA COOK3By the time he reached 70, Cook’s big-screen roles were fewer and farther between, but just as idiosyncratic. He was cast as one of the rail-ridin’ hoboes in the 1973 actioner Emperor of the North, and that same year played a grizzled cowhand (in a scene missing in some prints) in Sam Peckinpah’s last western, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and a desert-dwelling lunatic looking for help from motorcycle cop Robert Blake in Electra Glide in Blue. He even got a chance to reprise his most famous role when he appeared as a still-twitchy Wilmer, along with fellow Maltese Falcon cast member Lee Patrick, opposite George Segal’s Sam Spade, Jr. in the comedic 1975 “sequel” The Black Bird. Elisha was in boxer Jon Voight’s corner in the 1979 remake of The Champ, and returned to the Old West in Steve McQueen’s 1980 fact-based frontier tale Tom Horn. His big-screen swan song came as an anarchist cab driver in Wim Wenders’ Hammett, a 1982 drama based on a novel about the life of Maltese Falcon author Dashiell Hammett. Television work kept him busy through the ’80s, with an acclaimed turn as an elderly man looked after by his granddaughter (Meg Tilly) in the short drama The Trouble with Grandpa (1981) and a recurring role as ex-mobster Francis “Ice Pick” Hofstetler on the Tom Selleck series Magnum, P.I.    

After suffering a stroke in 1990, Elisha moved into a nursing home in Big Pine, California, near the Sierra Nevada Mountains where he lived a rather isolated, if not quite reclusive (he was marrried twice, with no children), existence throughout his performing days. The actor, director John Huston once recalled, “lived alone up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films. When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent word up to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture, and then withdraw again to his retreat.” Cook eventually passed away at age 91 in May of 1995. As the last surviving cast member of The Maltese Falcon and a living link to the early days of film noir, it was strangely ironic that this fondly-remembered actor, famous for playing unbalanced losers and “little men with big dreams” who rarely made it to the final reel of the picture, outlived so many of the bigger, tougher foes he had battled on both sides of the law.