Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January of 2011.
Although it’s been nearly 40 years since his passing, the oft-caricatured sneering delivery and bulldog scowl of this dynamic performer are instantly recognizable to even the generations of film fans that have followed since. Even to this day, Hank Azaria uses Edward G. Robinson’s raspy trademark sound as his inspiration for the voice of Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons TV show.
Having emigrated at 10 with his family from Bucharest, Romania (where he was born in 1893) and settling in NYC’s Lower East Side, Emmanuel Goldenberg chose acting as his vocation while at City College, and he obtained a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for his efforts. In addition to English, he spoke seven other languages, including Romanian, German and Yiddish. When friends advised him to change his name, he chose Edward G. Robinson. Years later he explained that he kept his initials E and G from his original name but wasn’t quite sure why he chose Robinson. Luckily he did – with his new name, he made his Broadway debut in 1915 and found regular work there as a performer and writer for the ensuing 15 years. One of his plays, The Kibitzer,” was co-written with friend Jo Swerling, who would later become a legend in his own right by writing screenplays for some of Hollywood’s most enduring classics, including The Westerner, Lifeboat and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Having appeared in two silent films, the first being 1916’s Arms and the Woman, the advent of talkies opened up regular work for Robinson, and 1931 saw his breakout performance as ambitious ganglord Rico Bandarelli in Little Caesar. While the film ends with his dying words, “Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?,” it clearly wasn’t the end for the pugnacious actor. His next film, 1931’s Smart Money, co-starred him for the only time with Jimmy Cagney, Warner Bros.’ other “tough guy,” fresh off his turn as The Public Enemy. Theaters coupled Little Caesar and The Public Enemy as a double feature staple for decades to come after their initial releases, but it was Robinson’s lead as Rico that helped launch Hollywood’s hugely successful cycle of gangster films.
After pausing to star as a ruthless city editor in Five Star Final (1931), a Chinese Tong fighter in The Hatchet Man (1932) and a one-handed tuna fisherman in Tiger Shark (also ’32), Edward blew through the decade in genre classics like The Little Giant (1931), a gangster comedy where he is a beer baron trying to go straight; Bullets or Ballots in 1936; The Last Gangster (1937), in which he plays a ruthless mobster searching relentlessly for his lost family; also in ’37, Kid Galahad has honest Robinson getting fooled by crook Humphrey Bogart, which was remade in 1962 as a vehicle for Elvis Presley; A Slight Case of Murder, another marvelous 1938 crime comedy about the end of prohibition; The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, a slick dark comedy from 1938 concerning a brilliant doctor doing criminal research; and Brother Orchid, one of his most popular films, as a tough hood trying to go straight after finding peace in a monastery. Never touchy about his gangster roles or his diminutive height of 5′ 5″, Robinson quipped, “Some people have youth, some have beauty; I have menace.”
While active on the big screen, he still found time to do radio. It was his voice audiences heard from 1937 to 1943 on CBS Radio’s hit show Big Town as Steve Wilson, crusading editor of The Illustrated Press.
Robinson eventually received greater opportunity to show his versatility with more sympathetic characterizations in films with real drama like 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy as a G-Man rounding up Third Reich agents operating in the United States and, in 1940, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, as the real-life 19th-century doctor trying to discover a cure for social diseases. The ’40s were good to “Eddie” with roles in 1941’s Manpower with Marlene Dietrich and George Raft, and in a superb comedy, Larceny, Inc. (1942), running a luggage shop so he and his pals can break into a bank located next door.
During World War II, like many of his contemporaries, Robinson spent his off-screen time by pitching in at the Hollywood Canteen started by Warner Brothers friends Bette Davis and John Garfield, and with his ability to speak many languages, he worked for free doing broadcasts to countries under Nazi occupation. It was not well known but he was generous to the war effort as well, by donating $100,000 to the USO (United Service Organization) in an effort to keep performers entertaining the troops.
His next films started to give him the realization that he was getting older, as in when Billy Wilder offered him the role of an insurance investigator in Double Indemnity (1944).
Years later upon reflecting his decision to take the role, he said, “It was, in fact, the third lead. I debated accepting it. ‘Emanuel Goldenberg’ told me that at my age it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with the same grace as that marvelous actor Lewis Stone… The decision made itself… It remains one of my favorites.”
In 1945 he was manipulated by treacherous Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s noir classic Scarlet Street; at MGM his makeup made him appear much older in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) as an immigrant farmer with Margaret O’Brien. He was then pitted against Nazi war criminal Orson Welles in a deadly cat-and-mouse thriller, The Stranger, in 1946, and as a mysterious handicapped farmer in 1947’s The Red House. In John Huston’s classic 1948 drama Key Largo, Robinson played a sadistic mobster menacing Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor, and he capped the decade as a heartless banker at odds with his sons in House of Strangers in 1949.
A lifetime of political activism and concern engendered the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s, but Robinson weathered the storm, making his return to Broadway.
Following Robinson’s lead roles in 1953 as a baseball scout in Big Leaguer and a police captain in Vice Squad, the balance of his career was highlighted by memorable supporting turns, such as in The Violent Men (1955) with Glenn Ford and Barbara Stanwyck; 1956’s The Ten Commandments betraying Moses (Charlton Heston); and Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head as Frank Sinatra’s brother in 1959. He continued his strenuous output with four films in 1964: Good Neighbor Sam along with Jack Lemmon; Robin and the 7 Hoods with Sinatra and his rat pack; in director John Ford’s final Western, Cheyenne Autumn. Good natured about it all, he once said, “The sitting around on the set is awful. But I always figure that’s what they pay me for. The acting I do for free.”
In 1965, he was teaching Steve McQueen the ins and outs of poker in The Cincinnati Kid (1965). The following year, he intended to work with Heston again in the role of Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes — they did the original test film together in 1966, but when production got under way, he didn’t like wearing the ape makeup and had to drop out. In 1969, Robinson took a role in J. Lee Thompson’s sprawling frontier adventure with Gregory Peck, Mackenna’s Gold, and performed his farewell appearance with friend and co-star Heston in the 1973 sci-fi thriller Soylent Green. Although it seems incredible, he never won nor was nominated for the coveted Academy Award. Robinson died mere weeks before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement.
In 2000, he was honored by the United States Postal Service in their Legends of Hollywood series by being pictured on a postage stamp.
Always the philosopher, Robinson summed up his career when he said, “If I were just a bit taller and I was a little more handsome or something like that, I could have played all the roles that I have played, and played many more. There is such a thing as a handicap, but you’ve got to be that much better as an actor. It kept me from certain roles that I might have had, but then, it kept others from playing my roles, so I don’t know that it’s not altogether balanced.”
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