Cook, Elisha, Jr.


Cook, Elisha, Jr.
(1906–1995)
   The wellknown veteran character actor Elisha Cook Jr. appeared in more than 120 movies—including STANLEY KUBRICK’s taut FILM NOIR, THE KILLING (1956). As George Peatty, the humble racetrack window clerk and henpecked cuckold, Cook creates a marvelous example of the kind of character for which he was most famous and which he portrayed so brilliantly: a nervous, bug-eyed, cowardly, self-loathing, penny-ante loser. Cook himself once described the kinds of roles he portrayed: “I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads, and communists. ”
   In the elaborate caper that forms the centerpiece of The Killing, Peatty is the weak link that ultimately brings the whole scheme crashing down, as so often happens with the best-laid schemes of mousy men in film noir. Eager to please his indifferent wife, Sherry (MARIE WINDSOR), George spills the beans about the plan to rob the racetrack where he works. Sherry in turn informs her lover, Val Cannon (VINCENT EDWARDS), a small-time hood—not much smarter than George, but more virile and more ambitious-who decides to horn in on the deal and keep the take for himself. The ensuing bloodbath necessitates a change of plan by ringleader Johnny (STERLING HAYDEN), who ultimately loses the loot to cruel fate. Thus the whole affair ends up, as Sherry puts it, “a bad joke without a punch line,” arguably thanks to George Peatty. In 1980, Elisha Cook Jr. recalled his work on The Killing in an interview in New West: The Killing was one of the classiest suspense thrillers ever made, and it also had an exceptional cast. Marie Windsor and I played the husband and wife who get involved with the gangsters in the racetrack heist. We both had the feeling afterward that maybe we had reached a little beyond our normal range. . . . Mr. Stan Kubrick was 28 years old, just getting started as a writer-director, and his script was so original it startled people. Sterling Hayden read it and said,“We can’t do this. ” I said,“Cut the bull; it’ll be a masterpiece. ”Mr. Kubrick was brilliant and dedicated, and he brought the whole thing off on a budget of buttons and bones. Later, he asked me to do Lolita with him in London, but the Labor Ministry wouldn’t give me a permit to work in England, because I wasn’t a star.
   Cook did not always portray such characters as George Peatty. He was a traveling stage actor in the East and Midwest from his early teen years. He made his way to New York, where Eugene O’Neill handpicked him for the juvenile lead in Ah, Wilderness!, which ran on Broadway for two years. Cook also appeared in vaudeville acts, stock companies, and other Broadway productions such as Lightnin’, Kingdom of God, and Her Unborn Child. The 1929 film adaptation of the last marked Cook’s screen debut, but not until 1936 would he shift his attentions primarily to the cinema.
   In the first few years of his film career, Cook appeared in youthful romances and comedies as a gung-ho collegiate type, alongside such up-andcoming starlets as Gloria Stewart, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner. Then, with the advent of film noir in the early 1940s, Cook was redefined in such roles as the intense neurotic, the small-time thug, the spineless double-crosser, the fall guy, and the sexually ambiguous misfit, as exemplified by his signature character: the unforgettable, sycophantic hired gun, Wilmer, in The Maltese Falcon (1941), which starred Humphrey Bogart.
   Cook’s acting career continued well into the 1980s. He would make the occasional appearance on stage, as in the 1963 revival of Bertolt Brecht’s Arturo Ui, but his bread and butter were in motion pictures. A few highlights from his film appearances include: Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), with Peter Lorre; Phantom Lady (1944), as a manic, sexually charged jazz drummer; The Big Sleep (1946), again with Bogart; Born to Kill (1949); Shane (1953); ONE-EYED JACKS (1961), which was to be directed by Kubrick; Rosemary’s Baby (1968); Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973); the remake of The Champ (1979); STEVEN SPIELBERG’s 1941 (1979); and Hammett (1982), directed by Wim Wenders. Notable television series in which Cook appeared include: Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955), Gunsmoke (1955), Perry Mason (1957), Bonanza (1959), The Fugitive (1963), The Wild, Wild West (1965), Batman (1966), Star Trek (1966), The Bionic Woman (1976), Magnum, P. I. (1980), and Night Court (1984).
   Sadly, Cook lost his ability to speak as a result of a stroke in 1990. Five years later, another stroke ended his life. At the time, he was the last surviving member of the Maltese Falcon principal cast. His last screen appearance was in the made-for-TV movie The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987).
   References
   ■ Cawkwell,Tim, and John M. Smith, eds. , The World Encyclopedia of Film (London: Studio Vista, 1972);
   ■ Cook, Elisha, Jr. , interview, New West, June 2, 1980, pp. 58–59;
   ■ “Elisha Cook, Jr. ,” Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com;
   ■ Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998);
   ■ Quinlan, David, Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors (London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd. , 1985).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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