Pimps, Crooks and Cowards: All in a days work – Elisha Cook Jr (1903 – 1995)

Posted in Rewind by - April 25, 2014
Pimps, Crooks and Cowards: All in a days work – Elisha Cook Jr (1903 – 1995)

Familiar, pint-sized character actor Elisha Cook Jr. cropped up in many cult movies in his 60 year career. Adept at playing outwardly strong but inwardly weak characters, he was also often seen as a nervous or cowardly villain. But he was also much more than this, he was a gifted actor who could turn a small part into a memorable one, even if he was in the movie for just a brief moment.

Born Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr on Boxing Day 1903, Cook spent ten years in bit parts and uncredited roles before audiences really started taking note. One of his first memorable parts was as the baby-faced killer; Wilmer, in John Huston’s classic mystery ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (’41). That same year he was also great as a sinister switchboard operator and most likely suspect in ‘I Wake up Screaming’, before turning to comedy (albeit in a bit part) playing a trendy waiter in the classic farce ‘Ball of Fire’ (’41). Around this time Hitchcock had wanted Cook for a key role in his spy thriller ‘Saboteur’ (’42), but after seeing him in ‘The Maltese Falcon, he decided against it, as his villainous part would be too obvious to the audience.

One of Cook’s more striking roles at this time was as a murder victim in the excellent thriller ‘Phantom Lady’ (’44). His jazz drummer’s overtly sexual drum playing while gazing at leading lady Ella Raines, only heightened the movie’s already uneasy aura. After supporting Laurence Tierney in B-movie favourite ‘Dillinger’ (45), he was in another Bogart noir; ‘The Big Sleep’ (’46), this time as an informant forced to drink poison. Later, in a strange bit of casting, Cook was Alan Ladd’s right-hand man, seen playing piano in the 1949 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’. After playing a nervy elevator operator in the early Marilyn Monroe thriller ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ (’52), he was especially memorable in the classic western ‘Shane’ (’53), where his belligerent, ex-Confederate soldier is gunned down by Jack Palance’s psychopathic gunslinger. Throughout the 1950’s Elisha also worked largely in television, popping up all over the place, in all genres. Notable appearances included ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘The Adventures of Superman’.

Now dropping the ‘Jr’ from his name, Cook was very impressive as greedy Marie Windsor’s hen-pecked husband, in Stanley Kubrick’s first-rate thriller ‘The Killing’ (’56). Staying on the wrong side of the law, Elisha then played bank robber Homer Van Meter alongside Mickey Rooney, in Don Siegel’s gangster biopic ‘Baby Face Nelson’ (’57). Elisha made an entertaining alcoholic in William Castle’s gimmicky but fun horror ‘House on haunted Hill’ (’58), and was a bank teller killed by Ben Johnson in Marlon Brando’s ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ (’61). Around this time he appeared in a trio of popular television western series; ‘Wagon Train’ ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Gunsmoke’. A couple of horror features followed with brief bits in the rather gory ‘Black Zoo’, and Roger Corman’s Vincent Price starrer; ‘The Haunted Palace’ (both ’63). In Burt Kennedy’s cult 1967 western ‘Welcome to Hard Times’, his town undertaker was callously killed by Aldo Ray’s mysterious stranger. The following year Cook had another small but memorable role in Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, as the satanic apartment owner Mr Nicklas.

In 1973 Cook appeared in a clutch of movies which have all gone on to become cult favourites. A cameo as a bartender in John Flynn’s ‘The Outfit’, was followed by his homeless sop in the eerie ‘Messiah of Evil’. He was another hobo, this time in Robert Aldrich’s excellent ‘Emperor of the North’, and finally, he gave a memorable, sympathetic turn as a recluse in the offbeat cop thriller ‘Electra Glide in Blue’. 1975 would see Elisha liven up a couple of long forgotten movies. First was the Indian themed western ‘Winterhawk’, alongside such cult characters as Denver Pyle, Woody Strode and L.Q Jones. The other was the noir satire ‘The Black Bird’ (a pun on ‘The Maltese Falcon’), which had George Segal as Sam Spade Jr, and Cook reprising his role from the 1941 original. Further minor roles came in popular mainstream movies ‘The Champ’ and Spielberg’s Pearl Harbour parody ‘1941’ (both ’79). Another cult film came in 1980 when he played a carnival worker in the Jodie Foster drama ‘Carney’, before playing a taxi driver in Wim Wender’s excellent 1983 sleeper ‘Hammett’, an affectionate homage to the film noir.

Twice married, Elisha Cook died in his nursing home on May 18th, 1995, aged 91. He once said that he never had the privilege of reading scripts, and that he would simply be phoned up to say he would be needed the following day. A true cult star indeed, and a scene-stealer without even trying.

Favourite Movie: Phantom Lady
Favourite Performance: The Killing

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