It’s the 11th Annual What a Character! Blogathon. Not only is it my favorite gathering of bloggers paying tribute to actors who deserve our recognition, but it also gives me a reason to dive in and binge their films and television appearances. Thank you, Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club for hosting this year’s wonderful event!
Impish pint-sized, blue-eyed, and baby-faced with a raspy voice, American character actor Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. was born on December 26, either 1903 or 1906 (sources vary) in San Francisco, California.
Cook spent his childhood in Chicago, Illinois, and his first job was selling programs in the theatre lobby. He attended St. Albans College and the Chicago Academy of Dramatic Art, debuting on the stage at age 14, and was an assistant stage manager at age 17. He later traveled with a repertory company as a stage actor, appearing in vaudeville, debuting in the vaudeville act Lightnin.’ He worked in stock companies where he got his first big break after Eugene O’Neill cast him in the lead role of his production of Ah, Wilderness on Broadway.
At age 23 Cook debuted on the Broadway stage in 1926 as Joe Bullitt in the musical comedy Hello, Lola. He also appeared as Dick Wilton in Henry Behave 1926, Many a Slip, Hello, Gertie 1926-27, The Kingdom of God 1928-29 – (featuring Ethel Barrymore), and Her Unborn Child 1928 at the Empire Theatre. In 1963 he returned to the stage as “Giuseppe Givola” in “Arturo Ui” on Broadway, written by Bertolt Brecht from The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The show featured the music of Jule Styne.
Elisha Cook Jr. then moved to Hollywood where he settled in 1936. He made his film debut revising his stage role as the romantic young lead in the film version of Her Unborn Child 1930 alongside Francis Underwood. “A vividly dramatic all-talker of the Broadway stage hit which rocked the nation with its frankness.” After Hollywood spotted the young actor’s fun-sized flair, he would not return to the stage until 1963.
The diminutive actor co-starred in over 220 films and television shows from the 1930s to the 1980s. His film career, including his later television roles, lasted almost 60 years. Cook a flexible actor, played a wide range of characters. ‘Cookie’ as his friends referred to him, was cast in a wide variety of genres starting out in musical comedy, westerns, crime dramas, and most notably film noir and B horror movies.
“Few actors could claim to have played as many memorable roles in as many recognized classics or to have become the answer to so many Hollywood trivia questions,” – Robert Thomas, Jr., in a New York Times obituary.
The pint-sized 5′ 5″ actor started out in the Pre-Code age, romantic comedies, musicals, and crime dramas in the mid-30s alongside stars like Joel McCrea, Tyrone Power, Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Joan Leslie, Betty Grable, Loretta Young, and pre-Oz Judy Garland in Pigskin Parade 1936 where he plays a fresh-faced college kid. In the romantic comedy Two in a Crowd 1936 starring Joan Bennett and Joel McCrea, he plays a jockey named Skeeter.
Life Begins in College 1937.
As hood Frank Lucas in A-Haunting We Will Go 1942 starring Laurel and Hardy.
Herbert Terwilliger Van Dyke in Pigskin Parade 1936
He transitioned from clean-cut youth to darker characters that would eventually make him a fixture in the emerging world of film noir. At times in the 1940s he was also cast in supportive roles in lighter films like Sergeant York 1961 starring Gary Cooper, Ball of Fire 1941 with Barbara Stanwyck, the musical comedy with Martha Raye Hellzapoppin’ 1941, Sleepytime Gal 1942, Cinderella Jones 1946. In Two Smart People 1946 starring Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, Cook plays the tightly wired Fly Feletti, a former crime partner of fugitive Hodiak. Fly wants his share of the half-million dollars worth of stolen bonds. Hodiak bargained for a lesser sentence and is on his way to surrendering to Lloyd Nolan. Cook does a first-rate job as a threatening little hornet pestering both Hodiak and Lucille Ball, a con woman he thinks he’s making a deal with to find the bonds. Cook also has a small supporting role in The Great Gatsby 1947 with Alan Ladd and Betty Field.
In Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), he has a bit part as student Joe Turner who was all burned up thinking he had been stood up by Mary Clay (Lana Turner in her first featured role) not realizing she has been slain. Cook’s baby-faced performance is embued with youthful hostility that puts him on Claude Rain’s list of suspects for her murder. Hollywood casting agents and directors figured out he had a verve for rendering peculiar neurotics and wimpish villains. With his small stature, he has earned the nickname “Hollywood’s Lightest Heavy.”
He was often cast as a hapless hoodlum, loser, and shifty small-time gangster. His personality ranged from meek, submissive, and scared to cold-blooded and smoldering. Primarily playing villains, stool pigeons, pimps, junkies, gunslingers, and psychotics. He also played fluttery characters with a worried look, which granted his performances ideal hyperbole for b-horror movies. Elisha Cook Jr. was no stranger to being cast as the archetypal misfit during the 1940s and 1950s noir.
“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists,” he once said, recalling that as a character actor he was basically hired for lesser roles, “I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.”
In Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor 1940, a film that is often cited as the first “true” film noir of the classic period, he portrays a man, down on his luck, wrongly accused of the murder of a cafe owner, sentenced to death for a crime that insane Peter Lorre committed.
Elisha Cook Jr. was immortalized with his vivid presence as Wilmer Cook who gets slapped around in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Peter Lorre. He’s the peculiar little runt and Greenstreet’s elflike trenchcoat-wearing gun for hire and Kasper Gutman’s (Greenstreet) unspoken young queer sidekick. And Cook as Wilmer is practically invisible except for his full-length tweed coat and guns bigger than he is. The actor unmasks a cool air of self-restrained hostility while he is routinely humiliated by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Wilmer is anxious to pull the trigger on him for getting laughed at and slapped around. Wilmer: “Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.”
He’s the edgy gunsel Bogart tells, “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” Cook is also best known for playing Harry Jones the stool pigeon murdered by Tom Steele in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep 1946. He was cast as Harry Williams, Elisha Cook Jr. plays Harry Williams the desk clerk in Vicki’s apartment building who’s a real weirdo desk clerk obsessed with Carole Landis in H. Bruce Humberstone’s I Wake Up Screaming 1941 starring Victor Mature and Betty Grable. A model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) dies mysteriously and Inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is obsessed with Frankie Christopher’s (Victor Mature) part in the murder. In The Falcon’s Alibi 1946 Cook plays Nick the little toad disc jockey secretly married to Jane Greer.
In Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady 1944, Ella Raines as Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman goes undercover as a “hep kitten” to trap the lecherous actor who plays a hophead nightclub orchestra drummer, the super frenetic Cliff, a role he brings to sweaty frenzied orgasmic heights. Either high on jazz, drugs, or alcohol he becomes charmed by the mysterious Carol Richman (Raines) who, by flashing her long beautiful gams has set a trap for him during his gig at a musical revue. Intoxicated by her dark willowy magic, he takes her to a jam session and ignites into a drum solo with a crescendo that is purely suggestive of sexual rapture. Eventually, she gets him to admit that he has been paid off to “forget” the Phantom Lady. Cliff may have the missing piece of the puzzle that points to the woman who can clear Alan Curtis for the murder of his wife and help catch the real killer, disturbed sculptor Franchot Tone.
1946 The Big Sleep featured Cook as Harry Jones a small-time crook trying to sell information to Marlowe. Marlowe: You the guy that’s been tailing me? Harry Jones: Yeah, the name’s Jones. Harry Jones. I want to see you. Marlowe: Swell. Did you want to see those guys jump me? Harry Jones: I didn’t care one way or the other. Marlowe: You could’ve yelled for help. Harry Jones: If a guy’s playing a hand, I let him play it. I’m no kibitzer. Marlowe: You got brains.
Before he can get to Bogart, he is moved in on by Lash Canino (Bob Steele), one of Eddie Mars’ (John Ridgely) thugs looking for bad girl Agnes (an uncredited Sonia Darrin) who Jones is in love with and plans to marry. Jones tells him what he wants to know, “I guess I’m yellow all right.” Canino tells him “You just got good sense… You’re nervous. Maybe you need a drink.” He pours him a drink. But Jones knows that it’s poison, and laughs while he downs it. Canino asks “What’s so funny?” Jones barely gets the words out, “Nothing’s funny.” Canino leaves Jones with sarcastic goodbye, “So long, Jonesy.” The humorous irony in the scene is Jones knows he gave Canino the wrong address.
Cook appeared in more obscure noir/crime dramas, Dark Waters 1944, Dark Mountain 1944, Dillinger 1945, Blonde Alibi 1946, The Long Night 1947, The Gangster 1947, Flaxy Martin 1949, Accused of Murder 1956, and Baby Face Nelson 1957.
You can see Elisha Cook Jr.’s versatility as the melancholy criminal Skeets Jonas one of the five gang members in the heist film noir Plunder Road 1957. The wide-eyed character actor with his diminutive and perpetually apprehensive expressions is proficient in an edginess that planted him directly in the middle of playing, misfits, hoods, and offbeat little guys in forgotten films noirs like Phantom Lady 1944, Born To Kill 1947, The Killing 1956 and his chilling performance as Arlene Martel’s outré creepy evangelist father in the transgressive noir The Glass Cage 1964.
In Robert Wise’s Born to Kill 1947 starring Claire Trevor who plays a cunning divorcée who falls for the biggest bad boy of cinema, Lawrence Tierney who murders his promiscuous girlfriend and then takes up with Trevor’s sister for her fortune. Cook makes your blood run cold as the cutthroat pal who’ll stop at nothing to stand behind his friend, even murdering anyone who gets in Tierneys way.
Here’s some slick dialogue from Cook as the calmly sinister Marty Waterman in Born to Kill 1947 –
Mrs.Kraft (the marvelous Esther Howard): How come you got a hold of this information?
Marty Waterman: Through underworld connections, like it says in the newspaper. I’m a bad boy.Marty Waterman: And remember, glamour girl, I’ll do this on just one condition.
Mrs. Kraft: What’s that?
Marty Waterman: That you don’t make any passes at me when you get me out there. I’m a very shy kid.Marty Waterman: Don’t get madHelen Brent: I am getting mad. I resent people marching into something that doesn’t concern them.Marty Waterman: You think it doesnt. It concerns me alright. If it concerns Sam.Helen Brent: I must warn you, though, liquor makes me nosy. I’ve been known to ask all sorts of personal questions after four cocktails.Marty Waterman: ‘Salright. I’ve been known to tell people to. mind their own business. Cold sober, too.
Cook is persistently killed in his movies: he’s strangled in Phantom Lady, poisoned in The Big Sleep, shot down in the street by Jack Palance in Shane 1953, pistol-whipped in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid 1973, riddled with bullets in The Killing and attacked by Ketty Lester in Blacula. The actor stated in an interview that he might have died in “fifty, a hundred [movies]… at least that many.”
In 1953 he played Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a former Confederate soldier who is now a farmer a local cattle baron is trying to force off his land. Jack Palance is the hired gunman Jack Wilson who shoots Torrey and leaves him out in the street consigned to a grave of mud.
Perhaps his most powerful performance is as George Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing 1956 starring Sterling Hayden. His usual owl-eyed persona is in a constate state of humiliation provoked by his cunning wife Sherri (Windsor). George is painful to watch as he suffers under the weight of his masochistic marriage. As Sherri’s infidelity renders him impotent as he worships a woman who doesn’t conceal her hostility toward him.
As he continued to work in crime dramas and film noir, he’s perfectly somber and sinister, as a little menacing guy loyal to the ruthless hothead Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill 1947. In a different role than petty criminal, he plays Marilyn Monroe’s brother Eddie who gets his troubled sister a job as a babysitter (bad move) in the hotel where he works. In Roy Ward Baker’s psychological drama Don’t Bother to Knock 1952, Monroe gives a very intense portrayal of an emotionally disturbed young woman Nell Forbes. Nell Forbes: You look so different in those clothes. Eddie Forbes: “I’m different all the time.” Eddie Forbes: You smell like a cooch dancer! He was part of the five small-time criminals as Skeets in the heist film Plunder Road 1957, and appeared in other crime thrillers, Baby Face Nelson 1957 and Chicago Confidential 1957, and Albert Zugsmith’s cheap exploitation College Confidential 1960.
Elisha Cook as Gordon Weasel Phillips in Tobe Hooper’s television mini-series Salem’s Lot 1979.
He’s the fun-size paragon of high-strung energy or at times forlorn and weathered, with a career that veered nicely into cult films. He gave an amplified performance as the hysterical, superstitious alcoholic Watson Pritchard in William Castle’s campy The House on Haunted Hill 1959.
He gave several treasured performances in the horror genre Voodoo Island 1957 starring Boris Karloff, House on Haunted Hill 1959, The Haunted Palace 1963 both starring Vincent Price, Rosemary’s Baby 1968, Blacula 1972, Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1972, Dan Curtis’ 1972 tv movie Dead of Night, the esoteric Messiah of Evil 1973 and Salem’s Lot 1979.
Watson Pritchard: [about the guns they’re given] These are no good against the dead, only the living.
Watson Pritchard: Only the ghosts in this house are glad we’re here.
Watson Pritchard: You can hear them at night. They whisper to each other and then cry.
Cook co-stars as Blain Crackel in Delmer Dave’s Drumbeat 1954 starring Alan Ladd and Audrey Dalton.
He also settled nicely into westerns, Thunder Over the Plains 1953, The Outlaws Daughter 1954, Drum Beat 1954, and Timberjack 1955 starring Sterling Hayden whom he would work with a year later in The Killing. Cook carried over his affinity for Westerns into popular television series like The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok 1955, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp 1957, Tombstone Territory 1960, Laramie 1961, Death Valley Days 1963, Destry 1964, Wagon Train 1960-64, Rawhide 1959-64, Gunsmoke 1958-64, and The Wild Wild West 1964-65. He also appeared in The Lonely Man in 1957 and Day of the Outlaw in 1959, and in 1961 he co-starred alongside Marlon Brando in One-Eye-Jacks.
Here’s Cook as Professor Isaacson in the Batman episode ‘Ice Spy’ with Eli Wallach.
Elisha Cook Jr. and Gene Barry in Alfred Hitchcock Presents ‘Salvage’ season 1 episode 6.
Around the 1950s he made his segue into television, for which he was known for his extensive work in the medium, appearing in a number of popular TV shows and made for tv movies- including Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1955, Rawhide 1959-64, Gunsmoke 1958-65, Thriller 1960, Peter Gunn 1960, 77 Sunset Strip 1961, The Untouchables 1962, The Fugitive 1963, Perry Mason ’58-64, The Wild Wild West 1965, The Man from U.N.C.L.E 1966, Batman 1967, Star Trek 1967, McCloud 1971, The Odd Couple 1974, Police Story 1975, Starsky and Hutch 1975 and Quincy M.E. 1977, The Bionic Woman 1977. In the 80s he had a recurring role on “Magnum P.I.” from 1981 – 1988 as crime boss Francis ‘Ice Pick’ Hofstetler. It was his last television appearance.
Elisha Cook and William Shatner in the Star Trek episode The Court Martial.
Cook plays Bunker in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid 1972 stars Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall.
Cook had a small part in The Outfit 1973 and Emperor of the North 1973 starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Director Sam Peckinpah cast Elisha in his modern western, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid 1973, and another cameo as Eddie the sleepy desk clerk in J. Lee Thompson’s St. Ives 1976 starring Charles Bronson.
It’s a joy to see his brief appearance as the earnest little oddball manager of a Manhattan brownstone home to devil worshippers, in the watershed moment of the horror genre, Polanski’s, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Mr. Niklas quirkily inquisitive – “Why that’s odd.” In one fleeting scene, Cook’s manner like a sprite brings just enough whimsy to a film suffused with quirky characters.
He adds a little punch as the doomed morgue attendant in the superb blaxploitation horror gem, Blacula 1972, two non-mainstream films, playing Old Willy a role that knocks you sideways in just one heartbeat of Electra Glide in Blue (1973), and Carney (1980) where he played the midway character On-Your-Mark. He then moved on to various television roles and made for tv movies until the late 1980s. Elisha Cook’s last film role was in the Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982).
In his later years, you could see a glimmer of him as an old drunk and desk clerk. He spent his last few years living in the desert near Bishop, California, far removed from Hollywood, without an agent he took whatever parts would come his way.
In 1990 he suffered a stroke losing his speech. He died at a nursing home on May 18, 1995, in Woodland Hills, California at the age of 91. Despite his relatively low profile, he was highly respected by his peers in the industry and is remembered as a talented and versatile actor.
He died on the same day as his Johnny Cool (1963) co-star Elizabeth Montgomery.
At age 91, he was the last surviving member of the “Falcon” cast.
Enlisted in US Army on 8/15/1942. Height and weight at enlistment given as 5′ 5″ and 123 lb. Education given as three years of high school.
You can read his biography in “Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir” by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry.
After a very successful career of playing lightweight heavies and losers, he ended his career as a connected underworld boss who knew how to make things happen on Magnum, P.I. (1980) as “Ice Pick”.
Appears in three Oscar Best Picture nominees: Sergeant York (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Shane (1953).
He has appeared in seven films that have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: Sergeant York (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), Shane (1953), One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Cook was well-known for his 1941 role as Wilmer, the deranged killer-for-hire, in The Maltese Falcon, and has been credited with contributing to that film’s classic status.
Cook played a supporting role in films starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Palance; in fact, Cook’s successes created something of a legend among actors in Hollywood who noted that Cook’s presence in a film often presaged cinematic superstardom for the leading actors.
*They Won’t Forget 1937 – Joe Turner
*Stranger on the Third Floor 1940 – Joe Briggs
*The Maltese Falcon 1941 – Wilmer Cook
*I Wake Up Screaming 1941 – Harry Williams
*Phantom Lady 1944 – Cliff
*Dark Waters 1944 – Cleeve
*The Big Sleep 1946 – Harry Jones
*Two Smart People 1946 – Fly Feletti
*Born to Kill 1947 – Marty
*Don’t Bother to Knock 1952 – Eddie Forbes
*Shane 1953 – Stonewall Torrey
*The Killing 1956 – George Peatty
*Chicago Confidential 1957 – Candymouth Duggan
*Plunder Road 1957 – Skeets Jonas
*House on Haunted Hill 1959 – Watson Pritchard
*Boris Karloff’s Thriller S01E11 The Fatal Impulse – Harry Elser
*The Glass Cage 1964 – the father
*Rosemary’s Baby 1968 – Mr. Nicklas
*Blacula 1972 – Sam
*Messiah of Evil 1973 – Charlie
*Electra Glide in Blue 1973 – Old Willy
*Starsky and Hutch 1975 S1E10 Lady Blue – Polly the Snitch
*Carny 1980 – On-Your-Mark
This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying here’s to Elisha Cook who was so big while being so small.
13 thoughts on “What a Character! 11th Annual Blogathon 2023 Elisha Cook Jr. – Like it says in the newspaper I’m a bad boy”
What a fine tribute. I had some trouble with the video clips.
Hi! I’m sorry you had trouble with the clips. I checked on my end and everything seems ok. If it’s specific videos that won’t work let me know. I’m glad you liked the tribute! Cheers, Joey
What a career and what a post, Jo! I learned oodles about “Hollywood’s lightest heavy.” Although I am familiar with a few of the TV programs you mentioned with Elisha in them, I had no idea he had taken part in all genre of movies. Thank you for this fantastic tribute.
Hey Aurora! Thanks so much for hosting this Blogathon and for letting me contribute! You know it’s my favorite event. I loved your tribute to Edna May Oliver. I want to see everyting she was in now.
I love Elisha Cook, and not just because we were about the same size! While he played a lot of shady characters, he could also play other types as well. I just watched Don’t Bother to Knock last night and was happy to see him play a somewhat responsible character for once. At any rate, he always brought his all to his performances.
I first saw him in “The Maltese Falcon”, and thought he was riveting – and also thought he didn’t have enough screen time.
Interesting to read he would be called up and told he’s working the next day. It goes to show how talented he was.
He had a career that was nearly 60 years?! That is impressive!
Thanks for this look at his considerable filmography. Happy 2023 to you and yours!
Happy New Year to you! I’m so thrilled that you liked the tribute. He really did have a full career! I enjoyed reading your tribute to Eve Arden. She was truly spectacular and I would watch anything she appeared in! Cheers, Joey
What a wonderful tribute to one of the all time greats, Joey. I’ll watch anything he was in. Maddy
Hi Maddy! I’m glad you enjoyed the tribute. I feel the same way. If I saw his name in the credits, I felt like I wanted to see it, no matter whether it was a low rent film or a classic gem. Cheers, Joey
Fascinating! Cook’s acting career reminds me of that Johnny Cash song, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
I love that you invoked Johnny Cash! What a great way to put it. Cheers, Joey
Thanks, Joey! Cheers. :-)