Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976)

Lee J. Cobb
Lee J. Cobb

Lee J. Cobb was an American character actor who established himself as one of the top performers in Hollywood for three decades from the 1940's. As well as memorable performances in classic movies such as 'On the Waterfront' in 1954, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and '12 Angry Men' in 1957, he also memorably played played the role of Willy Loman in the original Broadway cast of Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' in 1949.

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He was born Leo Jacoby on December 8, 1911, into Jewish family in New York City. His father was a typesetter for a newspaper. Growing up in the Bronx, young Leo became known for his brilliance at music. He was a child prodigy on two instruments, the harmonica and violin but a possible classical musical career ended when he broke his wrist.

He made an acting career his new priority and, when he left high school in 1929, he tried to make the break by running away from home to Hollywood but was not successful in finding work. He returned to New York and began nightschool studying as an accountant at City College whilst working as a salesman during the day.

In 1931, aged 20, he returned to California for a second try at breaking into the movies and this time managed to find work with the Pasadena Playhouse, where he stayed from 1931 to 1933, gaining invaluable experience as an actor and also director. He continued his apprenticeship with another two years touring with various stock companies and eventually made his debut on the New York stage in a dramatization of Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment'.

New York Group Theatre

In 1934 he appeared in a walk-on role in his first movie 'The Vanishing Shadow'. The following year he was invited to join the New York Group Theatre, a progressive theatrical company which had been formed in 1931 to produce serious dramatic works in order to counterbalance the spate of old fashioned light entertainment prevalent at the time. It was an important time in Cobb's life and he made many contacts who would be important in his future career including such associates as Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.

For several years he played summer stock at the Group's Pine Brook Country Club and developed his art in a variety of roles in Group productions such as 'Waiting for Lefty' and 'Till the Day I Die' in 1935, 'Johnny Johnson' the following year and 'Thunder Rock' in 1939.

Movie Actor

Cobb's film career began whilst he was still working with the Group Theatre. He was credited as Lee Colt in 'North of the Rio Grande' and 'Rustlers' Valley' in 1937 and then as Lee J. Cobb in his next movie, 'Danger on the Air' in 1938. One of Cobb's and the Group Theatre's biggest successes was 'Golden Boy' in 1937 and when it was made into a movie in 1938, Cobb was naturally invited to join it, and the movie confirmed his ability to perform on the big screen.

For the next four years Cobb alternated between theater and cinema. He appeared in stage plays such as 'The Fifth Column' in 1940 and 'Jason' in 1942 and also enhanced his reputation as a movie actor with well received performances in top movies such as 'Men of Boys Town' and 'Paris Calling' in 1941, and 'The Moon Is Down' and 'Song of Bernadette' in 1943.

In 1943, Cobb put his career on hold when he enlisted in the American Army Air Forces as a private. He served in the Photo and mapping Units of the USAAF until his discharge in 1945 with the rank of corporal.

Hollywood Star

On his return to Hollywood, Cobb resumed his film career and established himself as one of Hollywood's top actors. He combined an undeniable talent with distinctive facial features and a powerful physique which led to many roles playing intimidating, threatening characters.

After 'Anna and the King of Siam' in 1946 with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, and 'Johnny O'Clock' in 1947 with Dick Powell, he had a starring role in the film noir 'The Man Who Cheated Himself' in 1950 and in 'The Fighter' in 1951.

Death Of A Salesman 1949

Although now an established movie star, Cobb continued to make appearances on stage, and in 1949 he played the leading role of Willy Loman in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller's 'Death Of A Salesman', directed by one of his Group Theater associates, Elia Kazan. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre in February, 1949 and ran for 742 performances. It also featured Mildred Dunnock , Arthur Kennedy and Cameron Mitchell . The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. It also won the Tony Award for best play, supporting actor, author, producer and director. In short it was a phenomenon. Cobb played the part for two years and it cemented his position in the highest echelons of American acting talent.

HUAC 1951

In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry in an attempt to find evidence of communist infiltration. Cobb was called before the Committee in 1951 because of his membership in the Group Theater nearly twenty years earlier. He initially refused to give evidence but in 1953 he gave in to great pressure and gave names to the committee in order to save his career.

He was able to resume his Hollywood career and over the next decade gave some of his finest movie performances.

One of his most memorable roles was in 'On The Waterfront' in 1954, playing a corrupt union organiser, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Other performances of note at this time were as a Chinese warlord in 'The Left Hand of God' in 1955, a judge in 'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit' in 1956 and, in probably his best known movie, as a bullying juror with Henry Fonda in 'Twelve Angry Men' in 1957.

Cobb's movie career had now reached a high plateau and he continued to have major roles in a string of successful films such as 'The Brothers Karamazov' in 1958, 'Exodus' in 1960 and the Cinerama spectacular 'How the West Was Won' in 1962. He appeared in the spy spoofs 'Our Man Flint' in 1966 and 'In Like Flint' the following year and with Clint Eastwood in 'Coogan's Bluff' in 1968. His successes continued into the 1970's with 'The Liberation of L.B. Jones' in 1970 and as Lt. William Kinderman in 'The Exorcist' in 1973.

Television Career

Cobb began his television career in 1951 in 'Somerset Maugham TV Theatre' and 'Tales of Tomorrow' and continued to alternate the small screen and movies for the rest of his life. His television highlights included 'Studio One in Hollywood' in 1957, 'Playhouse 90' between 1957 and 1959, as Judge Henry Garth in 'The Virginian' series between 1962 and 1966 and as attorney David Barrett in 'The Young Lawyers' from 1970 to 1971. Cobb also appeared in made-for-TV movies such as 'Double Indemnity' in 1974 and made frequent guest appearances on other TV shows.


Cobb married twice, firstly toYiddish-theater and film actress Helen Beverley in 1940. The couple had two children and divorced in 1952. In 1957, Cobb married schoolteacher Mary Hirsch, and they also had two children. On February 11, 1976, Cobb died of a heart attack in Woodland Hills, California.

Lee J Cobb died on February 11, 1976 in Woodland Hills, California, from a heart attack. He was buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was aged 64.

Lee J. Cobb Academy Awards

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor ... On the Waterfront (1954)
Best Supporting Actor ... The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

Lee J. Cobb Filmography

The Vanishing Shadow(uncredited)
North of the Rio Grande
Rustlers' Valley
Ali Baba Goes to Town(uncredited)
Danger on the Air
Golden Boy
This Thing Called Love
Men of Boys Town
Paris Calling
The Moon Is Down
Tonight We Raid Calais
Buckskin Empire
The Song of Bernadette
Winged Victory
Anna and the King of Siam
Johnny O'Clock
Captain from Castile
Call Northside 777
The Miracle of the Bells
The Luck of the Irish
The Dark Past
Thieves' Highway
The Man Who Cheated Himself
The Family Secret
The Fighter
The Tall Texan
Yankee Pasha
Gorilla at Large
On the Waterfront
Day of Triumph
The Racers
The Road to Denver
The Left Hand of God
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Miami Exposé
12 Angry Men
The Garment Jungle
The Three Faces of Eve
The Brothers Karamazov
Man of the West
Party Girl
The Trap
Green Mansions
But Not for Me