Oscar Actors: Cobb, Lee J.–Background, Career, Awards (Cum Advantage, Second Oscar Nom; Tony Nom)

Updated June 27, 2020
Lee J. Cobb Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No; One of Cobb’s daughters actress

Social Class: Jewish immigrants, middle class

Family: Russian-Polish Jews

Education: NYU

Training: NYU, Group Theater 1935; age 24

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut: 1935; age 24

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: 1934; age 23

Oscar Nom: On the Waterfront, 1954; age 43

Other Noms: Brothers Karamazov, 1958; age 47

Other Awards: Death of Salesman, Emmy Nom

Screen Image: character actor

Last Film:

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Marriage: 2; first wife actress; second teacher

Politics: HUAC hearings, named Names

Death: 1976; age 64

Lee J. Cobb (born Leo Jacoby) December 8, 1911 – February 11, 1976) is best known for his performances in On the Waterfront (1954), 12 Angry Men (1957), and The Exorcist (1973).

He also 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 Kazan.

On TV, Cobb starred in the first four seasons of the Western series “The Virginian.” He typically played arrogant, intimidating and abrasive characters, but also had roles as respectable figures such as judges and police officers.

Oscar Nominations: 2

He was twice nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 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. 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 WWII, Cobb served in the First Motion Picture Unit of the U. S. Army Air Forces.

Cobb entered films in the 1930s, 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 as Lee Colt.

He was cast as the Kralahome in the 1946 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.”

Emmy Nomination

He reprised his role of Willy Loman in the 1966 CBS TV version of the 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, 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,” the courtroom drama, 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, years later it 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 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 TV role was as a stalwart overworked elderly physician making house calls in urban Baltimore, in “Doctor Max,” a TV pilot for potential series which never materialized.

He appeared alongside British actor Kenneth Griffith in an ABC TV docu 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, a former Communist Party member. Cobb was called to testify before HUAC, but refused to do so for two years. But when his career was threatened by the blacklist, he relented in 1953 and gave testimony in which he named 20 people as former members of the Communist Party.

Later, Cobb explained why he “named names”: When the facilities of the government of the US 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. (Navasky, Victor)

After the hearing, he resumed his career and worked with Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other HUAC “friendly witnesses,” on the 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” seen by some as 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, age

He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.