Lee J. Cobb (born Leo Jacoby; December 8, 1911 – February 11, 1976) was an American actor. He played the role of Willy Loman in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman under the direction of Elia Kazan. He also performed in On the Waterfront (1954), 12 Angry Men (1957), and The Exorcist (1973). On television, Cobb starred in the first four seasons of the Western series The Virginian. He often played arrogant, intimidating and abrasive characters, but he also acted as respectable figures such as judges. He was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and On the Waterfront (1954).
Cobb was born in New York City, to a Jewish family of Russian and Romanian origin. He grew up in the Bronx, New York, on Wilkins Avenue, near Crotona Park. His parents were Benjamin (Benzion) Jacob, a compositor for a foreign-language newspaper, and Kate (Neilecht). Cobb studied at New York University before making his film debut in The Vanishing Shadow (1934). He joined the Manhattan-based Group Theatre in 1935.
Cobb performed summer stock with the Group Theatre in 1936, when it summered at Pine Brook Country Club in Nichols, Connecticut. During World War II, Cobb served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces.Cobb entered films in the 1930s, successfully playing middle-aged and even older characters while he was still a youth. His first credited role was in the 1937 Hopalong Cassidy oater Rustlers' Valley, where he was billed using the stage name Lee Colt. In all subsequent films, he used Lee Cobb and later Lee J. Cobb. He was cast as the Kralahome in the 1946 non-musical film Anna and the King of Siam. He also played the sympathetic doctor in The Song of Bernadette and appeared as Derek Flint's (James Coburn) supervisor in the James Bond spy spoofs Our Man Flint and In Like Flint. He reprised his role of Willy Loman in the 1966 CBS television adaptation of the famous play Death of a Salesman, which included Gene Wilder, James Farentino, Bernie Kopell, and George Segal. Cobb was nominated for an Emmy Award for the performance. Mildred Dunnock, who had co-starred in both the original stage version and the 1951 film version, again repeated her role as Linda, Willy's devoted wife.
In August 1955, while filming The Houston Story, Cobb suffered a heart attack and was replaced by Gene Barry.In 1957, he appeared in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men as the abrasive Juror #3. In 1959, on CBS' DuPont Show of the Month, he starred in the dual roles of Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote in the play I, Don Quixote, which years later became the musical Man of La Mancha. Cobb also appeared as the Medicine Bow, Wyoming owner of the Shiloh Ranch, Judge Henry Garth in the first four seasons (1962–1966), of the long-running NBC Western television series The Virginian (1962–1971).
In 1968, his performance as King Lear with Stacy Keach as Edmund, René Auberjonois as the Fool, and Philip Bosco as Kent achieved the longest run (72 performances) for the play in Broadway history.One of his final film roles was that of Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police homicide detective Lt. Kinderman in the 1973 horror film The Exorcist, about a demonic possession of a teen-age girl (Linda Blair) in Georgetown, D. C.
His last television role was as a stalwart overworked elderly physician still making house calls in urban Baltimore, in Doctor Max, a TV pilot for a potential series that never materialized.
He appeared alongside British actor Kenneth Griffith in an ABC television documentary on the American Revolution called Suddenly an Eagle, which was broadcast six months after his death.
Cobb was accused of being a Communist in 1951 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the U.S. House of Representatives of the Congress, by Larry Parks, himself an admitted former Communist Party member. Cobb was called to testify before HUAC, but refused to do so for two years until, with his career threatened by the blacklist, he relented in 1953 and gave testimony in which he named 20 people as former members of the Communist Party USA.Later, Cobb explained why he "named names", saying:
When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That's minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn't borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it's worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn't worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I'd do it. I had to be employable again.
— Interview with Victor Navasky for the 1980 book Naming Names
Following the hearing, he resumed his career and worked with Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other HUAC "friendly witnesses", on the 1954 film On the Waterfront, which is widely seen as an allegory and apologia for testifying.
Cobb married Yiddish theatre and film actress Helen Beverley in 1940. They had two children, including actress Julie Cobb, before divorcing in 1952. Cobb's second marriage was to school teacher Mary Hirsch, with whom he also had two children.Cobb died of a heart attack in February 1976 in Woodland Hills, California, and was buried in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Cobb was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
Film and Television
Selected Broadway credits
Crime and Punishment (1935)
Waiting for Lefty (1935)
Johnny Johnson (1936)
Golden Boy (1937)
Death of a Salesman (1949)
King Lear (1968)Radio appearances
Awards and nominations
Second Red ScareReferences
Lee J. Cobb at the Internet Broadway Database
Lee J. Cobb at IMDb
Lee J. Cobb at Find a Grave