This Day in Jewish History

1973: The 'Bad Guy' Actor So Convincing That Crooks Emulated His Style Dies

Who knows, maybe mobsters wouldn't scowl and smoke cigars if not for Edward G. Robinson.

Publicity still of actor Edward G. Robinson. He is wearing a hat, suit and tie, and holding both his lapels and a lit cigar.
Wikimedia Commons

On January 26, 1973, actor Edward G. Robinson, who became iconic for playing the sneering bad guy, but who could just as convincingly play a mild-mannered intellectual and who in real life had a heart of gold – died, at age 79.

Emanuel Goldenberg was born in Bucharest, Romania, on December 12, 1893. He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking family, the fifth of the six sons of Morris Goldenberg, a house builder, and the former Sarah Guttman.

In 1902, after one of Manny’s brothers, Jack, was hit in the head with a brick during a pogrom, the parents left Romania. (He suffered from blackouts and other problems, before dying at age 28.) Morris led the way, and Sarah and the boys followed, arriving in New York on February 14, 1903.

Later in life, Robinson would write that, “At Ellis Island I was born again. Life for me began when I was 10 years old.”

'Not much face value'

The family lived on the Lower East Side, and Manny had his bar mitzvah at the First Romanian-American Congregation there, delivering his traditional speech in both English and Yiddish. In general, he was gifted in languages, eventually mastering at least six.

Little Caesar YouTube

Robinson (he changed his name shortly after he began acting professionally) attended City College of New York, where he began his studies in 1910 intending to become a criminal attorney, before being seriously bit by the acting bug. He left City College after being awarded a scholarship to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  

Robinson’s career began with appearances in New York’s Yiddish theater, and in 1915, he debuted on Broadway, playing four different roles in the play “Under Fire.” Self-conscious about his looks, Robinson adopted a line he used at auditions, saying about himself, “Not much face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver.”

A stage buff, Robinson was initially reluctant to switch over to motion pictures. He played in a few silents, and then in 1929, appeared in “The Hole in the Wall,” his first talkie. But when, later that year, Irving Thalberg at MGM offered him a three-year, six-film, one-million-dollar contract, he turned him down, left the producer’s office and threw up.

A flop on the New York stage, however, changed Robinson’s mind, and in 1930, he signed with Warner Bros. Over the next four decades, he appeared in more than 100 films.

Scowling ‘plaything of force’

It was his appearance in “Little Caesar,” in 1931, that made him a star overnight, and also led to his typecasting as a scowling, cigar-chomping crime boss. His Caesar Rocco Bandello was described by an admiring critic for the New York Times as “a figure out of a Greek tragedy, a cold, ignorant, merciless killer, driven on and on by an insatiable lust for power, the plaything of force that is greater than himself.”

Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse: Arch-villain Frog YouTube

So convincing and recognizable was the Robinson style of playing a crook that many real-life underworld figures took to adopting his mannerisms in their work. And for years, his style has been imitated, impersonated and sent up in comedy and animated films (see, for example, the arch-villain Frog in the 1960s cartoon series “Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse”).

But Robinson’s scope went way beyond criminals. He played scientists (“Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet,” 1940), a straight-shooting insurance-claim investigator (“Double Indemnity”), even an Israelite slave in Egypt (“The Ten Commandments,” 1956), and each performance was consummate and persuasive.

He also used his skills to speak out against Hitler -- and during World War II, to broadcast into occupied Europe for the Office of War Information; he raised money for Israel, and he was the first star to visit U.S. troops in Normandy after D-Day, in 1944. He also was a generous philanthropist, and an art connoisseur whose collection, when he was forced to sell it at the time of his divorce from his first wife, fetched $3.25 million in 1956.

Robinson worked until shortly before his death, playing his final role as an elderly man about to go euthanization in “Soylent Green,” with his friend Charlton Heston. Twelve days after shooting his scene, he was dead, a victim of bladder cancer.

Sol's Euthanasia [Soylent Green] YouTube