Family & Companions
A player of character parts from such an early age that he had to wear heavy makeup to be convincing as an older man, Lee J. Cobb gradually grew into his roles to become one of the great American actors. He specialized in outspoken, sometimes abrasive characters who often had a vulnerable underside. His performance on Broadway and television in Death of a Salesman is considered a landmark, and he was Oscar-nominated for outstanding supporting performances in On the Waterfront (1954) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958).
Cobb was born Leo Jacoby in The Bronx in 1911 to a Jewish family of Russian and Romanian descent. Early acting experience came in summer stock and radio, and he made a few minor movie appearances in the early 1930s. His career began in earnest in 1935 when he joined the Group Theatre. His role there in 1937 as the boxer-hero?s Italian father in Clifford Odets? Golden Boy led to his repeating this juicy role in the 1939 film version. Cobb was convincing as William Holden?s dad even though he was only six years older!
Cobb?s movie career was off and running, and he would appear regularly in films until his death in 1976. Other early roles included that of Spencer Tracy?s pawnbroker friend in Men of Boys Town (1941), Jennifer Jones? doctor in The Song of Bernadette (1943) and Rex Harrison?s Prime Minister in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). His powerful performance as ?Johnny Friendly,? the mob-connected union boss in Elia Kazan?s On the Waterfront, lifted Cobb?s career to a new level, and he began receiving prominent costar billing.
Some reviewers felt that, among the strong ensemble cast of 12 Angry Men (1957), Cobb delivered the most powerful performance as the aggressive, emotional Juror No. 3. Critic Bosley Crowther described Cobb?s scene-stealing characterization of the father in The Brothers Karamazov as ?a monster of drooling lecheries, crafty greeds and beady-eyed suspicions.? He gives another indelible performance in Otto Preminger?s Exodus (1960) as Zionist leader Barak ben Canaan, a character similar to David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minster of Israel.
In the episodic Cinerama Western How the West Was Won (1962), Cobb plays a stalwart marshal and gets equal billing with the likes of James Stewart, John Wayne and Gregory Peck. For his rare foray into comedy as the father in the film version of Neil Simon?s Come Blow Your Horn (1963), Cobb was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor. (Again, he was only a few years older than ?son? Frank Sinatra.) One of Cobb?s last great film roles was as the dogged investigator of the bizarre happenings in William Friedkin?s The Exorcist (1973).
In addition to Death of a Salesman, Cobb had a second Broadway triumph in the title role of a 1968 version of King Lear that scored the longest run (72 performances) of any production of the play in Broadway history. He also worked extensively in television and for four seasons played Judge Henry Garth, the Wyoming ranch owner in the NBC-TV Western The Virginian, starring James Drury.
Cobb was among Hollywood personalities threatened by blacklisting when he was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s. He finally agreed to give testimony in which he named members of the Communist Party. He died of a heart attack in 1976 and was survived by his second wife, Mary Hirsch. He was the father of actress Julie Cobb.