There he is (above) coping onscreen with one damned thing after another.
He was Hollywood’s most famous “fall guy” appearing and in and trying (often futilely) to survive dozens of classic films.
A “luminously wicked” Marie Windsor two-timed and belittled him in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 thriller, The Killing, in what has been perversely referred to as film noir’s “most perfectly married couple.” For any man who has ever been wed his performance is something out of a nightmare.
In RKO’s seminal 1940 thriller Stranger on the Third Floor, a violently crazed Peter Lorre was thrilled when he was framed for a brutal murder that you-know-who committed.
Writes Eddie Muller about our man in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (1998, St. Martin’s Press): he was savagely slapped, brutally beaten and mercilessly murdered dozens more times in a career that seemed like one long death scene.
Our star of the week is Elisha Cook Jr.
Born on the West Coast in 1903, he was making movies in earnest by the mid-Thirties, and was routinely cast as collegian rah-rah types — check out two Twentieth Century Fox films of the period: 1936’s Pigskin Parade costarring a pre-Wizard of Oz Judy Garland and a young Betty Grable; and a year later, Life Begins in College with the Ritz Brothers and Tony Martin.
Cook’s graceful entrance into the world of film noir came most famously four years later in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon remake costarring Humphrey Bogart, Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Gladys George.
He played “the fat man’s” gun-toting sidekick, Wilmer Cook, loathed by Sam Spade and set up to take the fall for at least one murder. (Conveniently, since they mix it up several times in the movie, the pint-sized Cook was three inches shorter than the relative diminutive Bogart, who stood all of 5-feet-8.)
Cook also turned up in RKO’s Born To Kill as out-of-control murderer Lawrence Tierney’s nebbishy buddy, who futilely lectures him about the merits of self restraint.
The actor led a long and fruitful life, dying in 1995 at age 91 after appearing in more than 200 film and tv titles. After the 1950’s Cook’s career shifted to television, and his Maltese Falcon fame endeared him to a later generation of filmmakers: Rosemary’s Baby’s Roman Polanski, Electra Glide In Blue’s James William Guercio and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid’s Sam Peckinpah.
On television, Cook appeared in dozens of major tv series from Rawhide in the late Fifties through Magnum, P.I. thirty years later. He was the very definition of what we call an honest working actor. No fuss, no muss, just do your job and go home.
As director Huston wrote: Elisha Cook Jr., lived … up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films. When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent up word to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture and then withdraw again to his retreat.