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Elisha Cook Jr
[The Guardian, 1999]



HE WOULD slip nervously onto the screen as if unsure what business he had being there. Then he would peer out sidelong, presenting his audience with the image of a slightly irked rabbit. He looked hopelessly vulnerable. Round-eyed, permanently startled, with a brief pulse of nastiness flickering across his baby-bonnet features. From the instant you caught sight of him, you knew he was catfood. Somewhere in the third or fourth reel the hammer was cocked over a bullet with his name on it. Whether he was a blameless victim or an uppity little malefactor - the world's lightest heavy, as some droll scribbler labelled him - he was doomed from the moment that the camera spotted him and he tried to avoid its eye.
  He died in The Maltese Falcon, and again in The Big Sleep, and they even made a joke of it in Hellzapoppin'. Most famously, he died in Shane; playing a quick-tempered but ineffectual homesteader trapped into a gunfight by the terrifying Jack Palance, and shot down like a clay pigeon as he attempted to wrestle a pistol half his own size from his gunbelt. “You're a low-down lyin' Yankee,” he yelped, in answer to Palance's taunts. “Prove it,” hissed Palance. And, as always, he tried.
  In any cineaste's tome of reference worth its dust-jacket, his face would be printed beside the entry for “Character actor”. He was the best of them, a sidekick and bit player from almost 60 years of great, indifferent and downright rank popcorn-shifters. He was Elisha Cook Jr, and you've seen him a dozen times even if you never knew his name before now.
  In the race to make it into the movies, it was a close run thing between Cook and the human voice. Cook lost by a nose, but gained a niche inside the palaces and fleapits that he kept until robbed of his own voice by a stroke six decades later. His father was a theatre all-rounder, a writer, producer and actor, and Cook was born into stagecraft in San Francisco in 1903. Or 1902. Or maybe 1906, or even a year after that. Nobody knows for certain. He was in vaudeville by his teens, and made his first film appearance in 1930's Her Unborn Child. The title's breathless combination of melodrama and prurience snakes through his early filmography, which reads like a forerunner to daytime TV: Wife, Doctor and Nurse, The Devil is Driving, Grand Jury Secrets, I Wake Up Screaming, Danger - Love at Work and most puzzling of all, He Married His Wife. All of which are more intriguing than the varsity hooplas in which he invariably played the freshest of bug-eyed freshmen: Pigskin




Parade, Life Begins In College, Breezing Home.
  It was John Huston who spotted his talent for the sinister and cast him as Wilmer, Sidney Greenstreet's “gunsel”, in The Maltese Falcon. Wilmer was fey, vicious and soon, inevitably, dead. He was the original queer psycho henchman, nasty as a bucket of baby vipers but just as easily squashed. The new, moody B-movies were a jamboree for Cook. He specialised in a fine line of expendable hotheads, creepy accomplices and all round rat-like wrong'uns. He was poisoned in silhouette in The Big Sleep, performed cinema's sleaziest drum solo for the benefit of Ella Raines in Phantom Lady, fatally compromised a heist in Stanley Kubrick's superb and taut The Killing, and survived to the end of The Falcon's Alibi, only to be revealed as the murderer himself. The little feller never got clean away with anything
  The 50s brought Shane, then a series of less celebrated Westerns and gangster pics. TV came knocking, and it had to look hard. Cook had given up his reclusive existence in the California mountains, where he took his studio calls by courier, for an even more reclusive existence in the California desert. He had no agent, but cheerfully worked for anyone who took the trouble to find him. His ever-familiar face turned up in Rosemary's Baby, Electra Glide In Blue, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, Tom Horn, Carny and - they must have really wanted him for this one - Blacula. By the 80s, his kind of character parts had all but vanished from the big screen, and he was old as naugahyde, but he still allowed himself to be coaxed out of the wastelands of Bishop, CA and onto the goggle box. He took on roles with names like Mr Bibbs and Pappy Glue, while Magnum PI found a regular boo-hiss slot for him as the crime mastermind Ice Pick. He was, after all, a veteran of Batman, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Rawhide and The Bionic Woman, while Trekkies knew him on sight from his appearance at Captain Kirk's court martial.
  A second stroke finished him, for real, in 1995. Cook and his wife Mary Lou had divorced back in 1942, and the burst veins around his increasingly bulbous nose hinted at either lonely drinking habits or a happily bibulous hermitage. It seems that nobody thought to ask which. Not that he'd been forgotten. In his later years, film historians by the bushel-load would tread through the dust to his door. To them he was a living archive who had worked with everyone. The fools. They should have gone to find him because he was him.









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