Lumet, Sidney: Formative Years in New York–Part 1

Sidney Lumet was born on June 25, l924 in Philadelphia.  His father, Baruch Lumet, an actor-writer-director in the Yiddish theater, moved his family to the Lower East Side when Sidney was one year old.  At the time, and through the l940s, the Yiddish stage was flourishing in New York.

Lumet was educated at the Professional Children’s School. The son of a veteran Yiddish player, he made his professional debut on radio at the age four.  When he was seven, he played a part in a WEVD radio script, “The Rabbi from Brownsville,” which was written by his father.  It turned into a serial, with good parts for both Mr. and Mrs. Lumet.  At the age of eleven, Lumet appeared on Broadway in Sidney Kingsley’s noted drama Dead End.  The young Lumet also acted in Manhattan and the boroughs on six-week Yiddish-theater tours.  With his father, he appeared in The Eternal Road at the Manhattan Opera House in l937.

His subsequent Broadway plays included: Stanley in Sunup to Sundown (l938), Mickey in Schoolhouse on the Lot (1939), Johnny in My Heart’s in the Highland (1939), Leo in Christmas Eve and Hymie Tashman in Morning Star (1940).  In Maxwell Anderson’s Journey to Jerusalem (1940), he played the starring role of Jeshua (the young Jesus) with what one critic called “sensitivity and directness.”  In 1941-2, Lumet played with great success a young gangster in Brooklyn, U.S.A.  By the age of 17, he had appeared in many Broadway plays and achieved some reputation as an actor.   Lumet made his only film appearance in One Third of a Nation (1939); he was 15 years old.

During the Second World War, Lumet enlisted in the Signal Corps, becoming a radar instructor at Camp Murphy, Florida.  “I got everything I know about sound there,” he later recalled.  In 1943, Lumet volunteered for a ‘blind’ overseas assignment.  He and five other men were shipped to India, to be air-dropped into China to teach signal communications to the Chinese army. Japanese troops overran the proposed landing site and there was no place for them to move out to.  “I spent two years in the jungle in Northern India, where the mountains prevented the radar from working,” he recalled, “But at least I didn’t fight the war in the Russian Tea Room, which is the way most of my good left-wing friends did.”

Upon Returning from a four-year military service, Lumet organized an Off-Broadway group and became its director.  He also directed in summer stock and taught acting in the High School of Professional Arts.   He was then offered an assistant directing job on a Television show called “Danger.”  Lumet had only been working a short time when the director, Yul Brynner, got the lead in The King and I; he inherited Brynner’s job.