Notes On An Actor: Lee J. Cobb/A Mighty Talent

Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in Death of a Salesman (1949).

Elia Kazan:  He was unafraid to be big, and his bigness came not from ego or a desire to be noticed, but because he understood the importance of plays and parts and the arts: He was not consumed solely by a career. Lee understood what could be accomplished in the theatre, and he wanted to be at the heart of any changes and effects that came about. A lot of people worked in the Group Theater solely to work with good people--any political or artistic beliefs or commitments were grafted upon them due to contact or expedience. What I'm saying is that a lot of people were in the Group to get work or to get laid or to get ahead, but Lee understood and supported the idea that the theatre could educate and alter people while it was also hoping to be a form of art. He was a fully committed man.

I still get chills when I think of his entrance in Death [of a Salesman]. You could sense his exhaustion; you could imagine that you felt the burning of the soles of his feet from the brutality of the pavement he had pounded and from which he had received not one sale or one cent. His entire body ached, and when there were attempts at bravado, or when he tried to be the head of a fractured household, your heart broke. He understood not only that man, but all men, all people.

He came on big, and he would look at me and ask if it was too much. I would rather have an actor who came in all burners on, spreading beautiful fabric a mile in front of you, than a mincing actor who is afraid to pull it all out. He was often too big, but he was never false. He gave more than almost any other actor I knew or worked with.

He was a mighty talent, a lion forever gnawing at the bars of his cage. There could never be enough time in any lifetime to see all that he was capable of doing.

From Interview Conducted in 1993

Mildred Dunnock, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, and Cameron Mitchell in Death of a Salesman (1949).

Arthur Miller: He allowed me to believe in Willy Loman when I sometimes wondered if I had given him enough. He took my creation farther out on the shore than I thought possible. He was unafraid to enter the darkest corners of Willy's heart, and I often was. He pulled me toward the play I wanted to write.

From Interview Conducted in 1998

Mildred Dunnock: I just hitched myself to Lee. Elia [Kazan] told me that I was tied, in every way, to this man. I did not move or breathe or live without him. I had submitted to him entirely, so I thought of myself in an almost Japanese manner: I was his  servant, but I loved him and I needed him. Things are coming to an end for Linda Loman, too, you know? The family is breaking apart from despair and neglect and time. People move on, move away, and people wither away. Lee was such a force--he pulled me along with him, gave me so much. When Willy died in the play, and I had to come out and make my speech at his grave, you could feel--I could feel--that the oxygen had left the theatre, the city, the world. A death had happened, and it was someone everyone recognized and feared who had died.

From Phone Interview Conducted in 1989

Lee J. Cobb as Juror No. 3 in the film version of Twelve Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet.

Sidney Lumet: So many actors tiptoe toward the unpleasant nature of their characters, but not Lee. When he took on Juror No. 3 [in Twelve Angry Men], he invested entirely in his prejudice, his anger, his pettiness. When all of this anger was combined with the energy and the focus of Lee's acting talent, it was frightening--and wonderful. So many actors today seem to be perpetually auditioning for a career we are to assume will happen at some point: There is so little risk and bigness in work today. What is everyone afraid of? I think sometimes that people lack confidence in themselves, so they don't announce that they are actors, artists, gamblers. They just show up and try; they seem to apologize with every effort. Not with Lee: He was there to blow some gaskets and shoot for the farthest location. It was great.

From Interview Conducted in 1991

Lee J. Cobb and Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve (1957).

Joanne Woodward: Lee J. Cobb epitomized everything I loved about the theatre, and everything I wanted to be. He had been associated with the Group Theater and mighty men like Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets; he had worked in so many films and had endowed his characters with so much: He was a rich actor. I felt utterly comfortable--at such an early stage in my career--to trust him, as both my character and as an actress. I grew up around him.

From Interview Conducted in 1990

Barbara Stanwyck, Lee. J. Cobb, and William Holden in the film version of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy (1939).

Marlon Brando: There was no bullshit with Lee. None. He was there to work and to work well, and he was fierce in his devotion to the work at hand. He couldn't make a false move because he was so firmly walking toward the truth. He could not be moved.

From Interview Conducted in 1990

Lee J. Cobb and Dustin Hoffman, in 1965, photographed by Inge Morath. Hoffman would take on the role of Willy Loman in 1984.
© 2013 James Grissom


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