Lee J. Cobb Biography

Film Actor, Actor, Theater Actor (1911–1976)
Actor Lee J. Cobb had roles in some eighty movies. Despite his success in Hollywood, he was probably most proud of his stage work in Death of a Salesman.


Lee J. Cobb was born December 8, 1911 in New York City. His big career break came in 1935, when he was asked to join the Group Theatre. Golden Boy (1937) launched his film career; when the play was made into a movie and he was asked to join the cast. 1939–1943 he moved back and forth from the stage to the movies. He then returned to a film career that included roles in some 80 movies.

Early Career

Actor. Born Leo Jacob Cobb on December 8, 1911 in New York City to Benjamin Jacob Cobb, a compositor for a foreign-language newspaper, and Kate Neilecht. He was educated in the New York City public school system. As a youth Cobb studied the violin in hopes of becoming a symphony-quality musician; he showed promise but a broken wrist and consequent lack of muscular control in his hand ended this dream. By the time he graduated from high school in 1929, Cobb had a new dream of becoming an actor.

He went to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding work in the movies but made no progress. He soon returned to New York City, where he worked selling radio tubes during the day and took classes in accounting at City College of New York at night. In 1931 he set out again for Los Angeles and a second try at breaking into the movies. Although he did not have success in Hollywood, he did land a job with the Pasadena Playhouse, where he worked as an actor and director from 1931 to 1933. After this period of apprenticeship, he spent another two years acting with various touring companies and on the New York stage.

Breakthrough in Theater

His big career break came in 1935, when he was asked to join the Group Theatre, a company that had been founded in 1931 in New York City with the intention of presenting American plays with serious social content--in contrast to the mainstream "entertainments" produced on Broadway. The Group Theatre, with its leftist sympathies, emphasis on the Stanislavsky system of acting (so-called Method acting), and encouragement of such American playwrights as Clifford Odets and William Saroyan, had a profound effect on American theater and eventually American movies before its dissolution in 1941. Besides Odets and Saroyan, Cobb's associates in the Group included Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler. Cobb played a variety of parts in the Group productions of Waiting for Lefty (1935), Till the Day I Die (1935), Johnny Johnson (1936), and Thunder Rock (1939), Golden Boy (1937), one of the Group's greatest successes, launched Cobb's film career; when the play was made into a movie in 1939, Cobb was asked to join the Hollywood cast. He had earlier appeared on screen in 1937 in North of the Rio Grande.

Between 1939 and 1943, Cobb moved back and forth from the stage to the movies. He acted in such plays as The Fifth Column (1940), Clash by Night (1941), and Jason (1942) and had parts in the films This Thing Called Love (1941), Men of Boys Town (1941), Paris Calling (1941), The Moon Is Down (1943), Tonight We Raid Calais (1943), and Song of Bernadette (1943). In 1943, Cobb enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces as a private. Because of his theatrical talents he was assigned to a radio production unit in California. Cobb served until the end of the war and was discharged with the rank of corporal.

Hollywood Roles

Cobb then returned to Hollywood and a film career that eventually included roles in some eighty movies. His facial features--a large nose, heavy jowls, a prominent chin, and a lower lip that he could loosen to express contempt or debauched satisfaction--and his large physique caused him to be typecast as a powerful and often villainous character; he became one of the most reliable heavies in the business. His parts as Johnny Friendly, a corrupt union boss, in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), a Chinese warlord in Edward Dmytryk's The Left Hand of God (1955), a loudmouthed bully in Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men (1957), an outlaw leader in Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958), and a mobster in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl (1958) demonstrate some of his best work in this mode. He was not, however, always cast as the villain; over the course of his long career he also had the opportunity to play a prime minister, a newspaper editor, a scientist, a judge, a race car driver, a businessman, a cop (on numerous occasions), and even a playwright. As he aged Cobb was given the chance to play benign, patriarchal characters in Exodus (1960) and How the West Was Won (1962). Cobb occasionally appeared in television shows during the 1950's and had a featured role as Judge Garth in the television series "The Virginian" from 1962 to 1966.

Despite his success in Hollywood, Cobb was probably most proud of his stage work in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. He introduced the part of Willy Loman when the play premiered in New York City in 1949 and continued to play the part for two years. The role was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and Cobb knew it; he later said, "When I read the script, I knew there was no living unless I played Willy Loman." Critics raved about the play and had nothing but praise for Cobb's performance. Indeed, Cobb's Willy Loman has long been elevated to the status of Broadway legend. He reprised the role for the 1961 television adaptation. In 1969 Cobb returned to the stage for one last time, giving a remarkable series of performances as King Lear at New York City's Lincoln Center.

Cobb married actress Helen Beverley on February 6, 1940, and the couple had two children. This marriage ended in divorce in 1952. In July 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.

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