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The Damaged Man Who Would Play the Damaged Cowardly Lion Is Born

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Bert Lahr, who bemoaned finding himself typecast as the Cowardly Lion.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

August 13, 1895, is the birthday of Bert Lahr, who achieved cinematic immortality with his depiction of the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

True, years after the movie’s release, he would complain that, as a result of it, “I was typecast as a lion, and there aren't all that many parts for lions,” but even if that had been his lone appearance on the screen, we would still remember him spitting out the words, “What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage!/ What makes the Hottentot so hot? Courage!/ What puts the ‘ape’ in apricot? Courage!/ What have they got that I ain't got?  Courage!”

Unusually deprived

Irving Lahrheim was the son of Jacob and Augusta Lahrheim, German-Jewish immigrants to New York, where Jacob ran an upholstery shop. In his 1969 memoir about his father, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion,” John Lahr conveyed a sense of the unusually deprived circumstances of Bert Lahr’s childhood. It wasn’t just that his family was poor; his parents didn’t make up with love for what they were unable to give him materially.

Irving, who changed his name after he entered show business, told his writer son about the time he needed to have his tonsils removed - and his father wouldn’t give him the money for the surgery. So, at age 11, he checked himself into the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and had the operation done for free, walking home alone the next day.

After he was told he’d have to repeat eighth grade, Bert left school and began to work: During the first six months, he had 14 jobs, before he realized that the only thing that gave him satisfaction, and that he excelled at, was making people laugh. He joined a group of friends in a burlesque troupe called the Seven Frolics, and they began touring with the Columbia Burlesque Circuit, a large regional provider of variety shows. 

Most of Lahr’s work was in the live theater. His Broadway premiere was in 1927, in a musical review called “Harry Delmar’s Revels,” and he starred in both the stage and screen versions of “Flying High” (1930 and 1931), and in Cole Porter’s “DuBarry Was a Lady” (1939).

As damaged as the Lion

During the filming of “The Wizard of Oz,” many shots had to be redone when Lahr, in a costume crafted out of real lion’s skin, cracked up his fellow actors with his performance (which included many ad libs), but they could just as easily have dissolved into tears, so emotionally fragile and needy is his character.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, with friends.Credit: Screen grab, Youtube

In his memoir, John Lahr describes a father who was no less damaged than the creature he portrayed: inscrutably distant, scarred by memories of the past that prevented him from communicating in the most basic way with his own children. The Cowardly Lion “had words for what was going on inside him; he asked for help and got it.” With Bert Lahr, there was only “the thick fog of some ontological anxiety, which seemed to have settled permanently around Dad and was palpable, impenetrable -- it lifted only occasionally, for a few brilliant moments.

“The clinical words wheeled out these days for his symptoms – ‘manic-depressive,’ ‘bipolar’ -- can’t convey the sensual, dramatic, almost reverent power of the moroseness that Dad could bring with him into a room, or the crazy joy he could manufacture out of it onstage.”

In the 45 years that followed “The Wizard of Oz,” Lahr appeared in only eight films, though he was busier on stage and also was a guest on numerous TV shows. And despite his comment about being typecast, he himself was open to a variety of roles, including that of Estragon in the edgy U.S. premiere of “Waiting for Godot,” in 1956. 

When Lahr died of cancer – undiagnosed -- on December 4, 1967, he was near the end of filming of “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” a Norman Lear-directed comedy about the burlesque era in the mid-1920s. Enough of his scenes were in the can that, with the help of a body double, the movie came out with his role intact.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen