Oscar Actors: Jaffe, Sam–Background, Career, Awards, Filmography

Shalom “Sam” Jaffe (March 10, 1891–March 24, 1984) was an American actor, teacher, musician, and engineer.

In 1951, he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and appeared in other classic films such as Ben-Hur (1959) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

He is also remembered for outstanding performances, as the title role in Gunga Din (1939) and the High Lama in Lost Horizon (1937).

Jaffe was born to Russian Jewish parents Heida (Ada) and Barnett Jaffe in New York City, New York, and grew up bilingual in Russian and English (as evidenced in his part in Stage Door Canteen (1943)).

His mother was a Yiddish actress in Odessa, Ukraine, prior to moving to the US; his father was a jeweller. He was the youngest of four children; his siblings were Abraham, Sophie, and Annie.

As a child, he appeared in Yiddish theatre productions with his mother, who became a prominent actress and vaudeville star. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School and studied engineering at City College of New York, graduating in 1912.

He later attended Columbia University for graduate studies.

He worked for several years as a teacher, and then dean of mathematics at the Bronx Cultural Institute, a college preparatory school, before returning to acting in 1915.

As a young man, he lived in Greenwich Village in the same apartment building as a young John Huston. The two men became good friends and remained so for life.

Jaffe was later to star in two of Huston’s films: The Asphalt Jungle and The Barbarian and the Geisha. Jaffe’s closest friends included Zero Mostel, Edward G. Robinson, Ray Bradbury, and Igor Stravinsky.

In 1923 he appeared in the Broadway premiere of God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) by Sholem Asch, as Reb Ali. The production became notorious after the cast, producer, and theatre owner were indicted and found guilty on charges of indecency in May 1923.

Jaffe began to work in film in 1934, rising to prominence with his first role as the mad Tsar Peter III in The Scarlet Empress.

In 1938, at 47, Jaffe played the title role of water “boy” Gunga Din.

Jaffe was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio bosses during the 1950s, accused  for being a communist sympathizer. Despite this, he was hired first by Robert Wise for The Day the Earth Stood Still and then by director William Wyler for his role in the 1959 Academy Award-winning version of Ben-Hur.

Jaffe co-starred in the ABC television series, Ben Casey as Dr. David Zorba from 1961 to 1965 alongside Vince Edwards. He also made guest-starring roles on other series, including Batman as Mr. Zoltan Zorba, and the Western Alias Smith and Jones.

In 1975, he co-starred as a retired doctor who is murdered by Janet Leigh in the Columbo episode “Forgotten Lady”. He also appeared with an all-star cast in the TV pilot film of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and as Emperor Norton in one episode of Bonanza.

Jaffe was married to American operatic soprano and musical comedy star Lillian Taiz from 1926 until her death from cancer in 1941. In 1956, he married actress Bettye Ackerman, 33 years his junior, with whom he later co-starred in Ben Casey. She died on November 20, 2006. He had no children from either marriage.

A Democrat, Jaffe supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson II during the 1952 presidential election.

Jaffe died of cancer in Beverly Hills, California two weeks after his 93rd birthday.


A Cheap Vacation (1916, short)
The Scarlet Empress (1934) – Grand Duke Peter
We Live Again (1934) – Gregory Simonson
Lost Horizon (1937) – High Lama
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – (uncredited) man who tells men to meet Robin at Gallows Oaks
Gunga Din (1939) – Gunga Din
Stage Door Canteen (1943) – Sam Jaffe
13 Rue Madeleine (1946) – Mayor Galimard
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) – Professor Fred Lieberman
The Accused (1949) – Dr. Romley
Rope of Sand (1949) – Dr. Francis Hunter
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – Doc Erwin Riedenschneider
I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951) – Sam Cooper
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – Professor Jacob Barnhardt
Main Street to Broadway (1953) – Himself – First Nighter (uncredited)
Les Espions (The Spies) (1957) – Sam Cooper
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) – Henry Heusken
Ben-Hur (1959) – Simonides
A Guide for the Married Man (1967) – Technical Adviser (Shrink)
Tarzan’s Jungle Rebellion (1967) – Dr. Singleton (archive footage)
La Bataille de San Sebastian (Guns for San Sebastian) (1968) – Father Joseph
The Great Bank Robbery (1969) – Brother Lilac Bailey (Art Forger)
The Dunwich Horror (1970) – Old Whateley
Quarantined (1970, TV movie) – Mr. Berryman
The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (1970, TV movie) – Abe Stillman
Who Killed the Mysterious Mr. Foster? (1971, TV Movie) – Toby
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) – Bookman
Enemies (1971, TV Movie) – Gittelman
The Tell-Tale Heart (1971, Short) – The Old Man
Saga of Sonora (1973, TV Movie) – Old Sam
The Sad and Lonely Sundays (1976, TV movie) – Dr. Sweeny
Gideon’s Trumpet (1980, TV movie) – 1st Supreme Court Justice
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) – Dr. Hephaestus
Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) – Father Knickerbocker
Rio Abajo (1984) – El Gabacho (final film role)