Leo Jacoby in New York City, 8 December 1911 (some sources list 9
Attended accounting classes at City College of New York (CCNY).
Married 1) Helen Beverly, 1940 (divorced 1952), children: Vincent and
Julie; 2) Mary Hirsch, 1957, sons: Tony and Jerry.
1920s—trained as a violinist, but broken wrist ended musical
career; 1928—ran away from home to Hollywood, but failed to secure
work in film industry as actor; 1928–31—returned to New York
City and acted in radio dramas to pay for classes at CCNY;
1931—stage debut at Pasadena Playhouse, California;
1934—film debut in serial
; 1935—joined Group Theater in New York; 1949—role as Willie
Loman in Arthur Miller's
Death of a Salesman
on Broadway; early 1950s—forced to testify before the House
Un-American Activities Committee; 1962–66—starred as Judge
Henry Garth in TV series
; 1970–71—in TV series
The Young Lawyers
In Woodland Hills, California, 11 February 1976.
Vanishing Shadow (serial)
North of the Rio Grande (Watt) (as Goodwin); Rustler's Valley (Watt) (as Cal Howard); Ali Baba Goes to Town (David Butler)
Danger on the Air (Garrett) (as Tony)
Golden Boy (Mamoulian) (as Mr. Bonaparte); The Phantom Creeps (serial)
This Thing Called Love ( Married but Single ) (Hall) (as Julio Diestro); Men of Boys Town (Taurog) (as Dave Morris); Paris Calling (Marin) (as Schwabe)
The Moon Is Down (Pichel) (as Dr. Winter); Tonight We Raid Calais (Brahm) (as Bonnard); The Song of Bernadette (Henry King) (as Dr. Dozous); Buckskin Frontier ( The Iron Road ) (Selander) (as Jeptha Marr)
Winged Victory (Cukor) (as doctor)
Anna and the King of Siam (Cromwell) (as Kralahome)
Boomerang (Kazan) (as Chief Robinson); Captain from Castile (Henry King) (as Juan Garcia); Johnny O'Clock (Rossen) (as Inspector Koch); Carnival in Costa Rica (Ratoff)
The Miracle of the Bells (Pichel) (as Marcus Harris); Call Northside 777 (Hathaway) (as Brian Kelly); The Luck of the Irish (Koster) (as D. C. Augur)
The Dark Past (Maté) (as Dr. Andrew Collins); Thieves' Highway (Dassin) (as Mike Figlia)
The Man Who Cheated Himself (Feist) (as Ed Cullen)
Sirocco (Bernhardt) (as Col. Feroud); The Family Secret (Levin) (as Howard Clark)
The Fighter (Kline) (as Durango)
The Tall Texan (Williams) (as Capt. Theodore Bess)
Yankee Pasha (Pevney) (as Sultan); Gorilla at Large (Harmon Jones) (as Det. Sgt. Garrison); On the Waterfront (Kazan) (as Johnny Friendly); Day of Triumph (Pichel and Coyle) (as Zadok)
The Racers ( Such Men Are Dangerous ) (Hathaway) (as Maglio); The Road to Denver (Kane) (as Jim Donovan); The Left Hand of God (Dmytryk) (as Mieh Yang)
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Johnson) (as Judge Bernstein); Miami Exposé (Sears) (as Bart Scott)
Twelve Angry Men (Lumet) (as Juror no. 3); The Three Faces of Eve (Johnson) (as Dr. Luther); The Garment Jungle (Aldrich and Vincent Sherman) (as Walter Mitchell)
The Brothers Karamazov (Richard Brooks) (as Fyodor Karamazov); Man of the West (Anthony Mann) (as Dock Tobin); Party Girl (Nicholas Ray) (as Rico Angelo)
But Not for Me (Walter Lang) (as Jeremiah MacDonald); The Trap ( The Baited Trap ) (Panama) (as Victor Massonetti); Green Mansions (Mel Ferrer) (as Nuflo)
Exodus (Preminger) (as Barak Ben Canaan)
The Brazen Bell (Sheldon—for TV); The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Minnelli) (as Julio Madariaga)
"The Outlaws" ep. of How the West Was Won (Hathaway) (as Lou Ramsey); Come Blow Your Horn (Yorkin) (as Mr. Baker)
Our Man Flint (Daniel Mann) (as Cramden)
In Like Flint (Gordon Douglas) (as Cramden)
Las Vegas 500 milliones ( They Came to Rob Las Vegas ; Les Hommes de Las Vegas ) (Isasi) (as Skorsky); Il giorno della civetta ( The Day of the Owl ; La Maffia fait la loi ; Mafia ) (Damiani) (as Don Mariano Arena); MacKenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson) (as the editor); Coogan's Bluff (Siegel) (as Sheriff McElroy)
The Liberation of L. B. Jones (Wyler) (as Oman Hedgepath); Macho Callahan (Kowalski) (as Duffy)
Heat of Anger (Taylor—for TV); Lawman (Winner) (as Vincent Bronson)
Double Indemnity (Smight—for TV); The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (Sarafian) (as Lapchance); La polizia sta a guardare (Infascelli); The Exorcist (Friedkin) (as Lt. Kinderman)
Dr. Max (Goldstone—for TV) (title role); The Great Ice Ripoff (Curtis—for TV); Trapped beneath the Sea (Graham—for TV) (as Victor Bateman); Venditore di palloncini ( The Last Circus Show ; The Balloon Vendor ; Last Moments ) (Gariazzo)
Mark il poliziotta ( Blood, Sweat and Fear ) (Massi); Ultimatum alla città ( Ultimatum ); That Lucky Touch (Miles) (as Lt. Gen. Henry Steedman)
I Amici di Nick Nezard ( Nick the Sting ) (Di Leo); Cross Shot ( La legge violenta della squadra anticrimine ) (Massi)
Arthur Miller on Home Ground (Rasky)
Current Biography 1960 , New York, 1960.
Obituary in New York Times , 12 February 1976.
Pickard, Roy, "Lee J. Cobb," in Films in Review (New York), November 1977.
Cobb, Julie, "Lee J. Cobb: My Father," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Ecran (Paris), April 1978.
* * *
Lee J. Cobb died while preparing to repeat in Exorcist II: The Heretic the role of investigating detective he played in the original film. It was an ironic end for an actor whose impeccable credentials would, on any European stage, have earned him fame and honor. Unfortunately, this fine character actor, who appeared in the early plays of Odets for the Group Theatre and created Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman , spent most of a long screen career in distinctive but undemanding work.
On occasion, Cobb would play thoughtful, supportive characters, such as the psychiatrist who attempts to cure Joanne Woodward of her psychological disorder in The Three Faces of Eve . But in his best screen roles, he was effectively cast as an urban predator paradoxically tormented by twentieth-century anxieties: a wolf with an ulcer. Cobb redeemed a score of routine roles as gang boss, cop, or rancher with his capacity for conveying disquiet or a residual sensitivity. Behind his snarl lurked a weakness that already had betrayed him or would do so in the last reel. Gang-boss Rico Angelo in Party Girl is softened by a fugitive sentimentality toward Robert Taylor's tame cultivated attorney, while loneliness for the son he terrorized away from him racks the bigot in Twelve Angry Men .
In comedy Cobb seldom convinced. His Jewish father in Come Blow Your Horn is a performance anyone might have given. But in Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff he played a weary and impatient New York detective to some effect against Eastwood's Arizona cowboy cop.
Sensitive or not, Cobb had the crooked mouth that allowed him to play pure evil. Pouring acid over a paper party decoration in Party Girl to demonstrate what might happen to Cyd Charisse's face, blustering himself into exhausted acquiescence to Henry Fonda's intelligence and logic in Twelve Angry Men or, most memorably, as union racketeer Johnny Friendly, ranting at the longshoremen whom Marlon Brando leads back to work in On the Waterfront , he defined for all time a sector in the outer limits of urban desperation.
From an acting standpoint, On the Waterfront is most fondly recalled for the legendary "I coulda been a contender" taxicab scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. But Cobb's electrifying performance as Friendly—a bully destined to crumble and fall when one man becomes determined to defy him—remains every bit as impressive as those of Brando and Steiger.
—John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman