Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973)
A unique blend of character actor and superstar, Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) may have lacked the physical stature and good looks of a leading man, but he more than compensated with the passion and authority of his acting. Forever identified with the snarling gangster of Little Caesar (1930), in real life he was a man of great kindness and courtesy whose generosity scarcely knew bounds, a cultured gentleman and a versatile performer whose 50-year film career encompassed a wide range of roles.
Edward G. Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania on December 12, 1893. He was the fifth of six sons and for the first 8 years of his life shared a small house with his parents, 5 brothers, and maternal grandmother. The Goldenbergs were fairly well off, but persecution of Jews throughout the country reaching horrendous levels. One of Robinson’ brothers was hit on the head with a rock during a schoolboy pogrom and years later, in America, died probably from the effects of the blow. It was decided the family should go to America but it took money to emigrate, more than they had to all go together, so the eldest brothers went first, then their father, and with the money they sent home once work was obtained in the U.S., eventually the rest of the family was able to make the crossing. They settled in New York’s Lower East End when Emanuel was 9 years old. They may still have had cramped living quarters and their new life was by no means luxurious, but they were in America, the land of promise and opportunity. "At Ellis Island I was born again," Robinson wrote later. "Life for me began when I was 10 years old."
Young Manny entered Public School 137 and learned English by imitating his American classmates. An outstanding student, he excelled in every subject but sports. He read voraciously and at Townsend Harris Hall High School discovered he had a flair for public speaking. His favorite was Theodore Roosevelt’s second inaugural address, which he had committed to memory. He hoped to become a criminal lawyer "to defend the human beings who were abused and exploited." With this purpose he entered Townsend Harris High School and after that City College. It was at City College that the youth decided to forego his law career to be an actor. He loved to perform before people. But Robinson’s study of the theater told him that there had been many little men in the theater. He won a scholarship at the American Academy of Dramatic Art with a sizzling and effective delivery of the Brutus and Cassius quarrel scene from Julius Caesar.
While at the AADA he was advised to change his name. "I kept the initials E.G., but I have no idea why I chose Robinson as a last name," he was to say years later. "If I had to do it again I’d take a shorter one – you have no idea how long it takes to write ‘Edward G. Robinson’ for a flock of autograph hunters… "
At nineteen he graduated from the AADA and was ready to take on the world. "What’s like to be ready for all the greatest roles ever written? It’s sheer frustration. You are ready for every challenge, and there are none." But he took any stage-related job he could get, from errand boy to curtain-ringer, and gradually went from bit parts to fairly steady employment with stock companies on the road. He was gaining invaluable experience; in one play alone he played four roles – a Belgian spy, a peasant, an army officer, and a Cockney soldier.
Although he considered himself strictly a pacifist, he was motivated to join the Navy at the outbreak of World War I. "I can best sum my hitch in the Navy by admitting I learned more about ships and navigation and the fleet from a picture I made years later – Destroyer (1943). I did learn to tie a knot..." Upon his discharge, at age 24, he joined up with Garrick Players in Washington DC and continued to appear in plays regularly. Soon he found himself back on Broadway, honing his craft and gaining a reputation of versatility. It was the height of the Roaring 20s, but, as Edward G. Robinson was to later recall: "A Golden Age is always the one that preceded you. You never seem to be living in it; you’ve always just missed it by a hair – and thus, the 1920s did not seem all that golden to me, but they were. Believe me, they were."
Edward G. Robinson had his first taste of filmmaking when he was offered a small part in a Samuel Goldfish (not yet Goldwyn) movie being shot in New Jersey. He accepted, but it was a short-lived and dismal experience: "There was no way to sustain a character – to begin slowly and build to a climax – the first scene shot was the last scene in the movie. And how can you communicate nonverbally?" (This was, of course, a silent film). When EGR saw himself in the rushes he was appalled by "the little gargoyle" on the screen, and asked to be released from the project. His request was granted, and he came away with an even stronger dislike of picture-making than he’d had before.
Robinson married for the first time in January, 1927, to stage actress Gladys Lloyd; born Gladys Lloyd Cassell, she was the former wife of Ralph L. Vestervelt and the daughter of Clement C. Cassell, an architect, sculptor, and artist. The couple had one son, Edward Goldenberg Robinson, Jr. (a.k.a Manny Robinson, 1933-1974), as well as a daughter from Gladys Robinson's first marriage.
In 1927 Edward G. Robinson opened in a play called The Racket and it was to change his professional life. In it he played a gangster, a role he didn’t liked at all. "I had a little understanding of larceny and murder and therefore had no yardstick by which to create my character," he said. But create he did, and the play was a smash hit. Movie moguls flocked to see it, and EGR was soon receiving invitations from many Hollywood studios.
He went so far as to go to the West Coast, and he loved California: "The scent of orange blossoms, the palm trees, the fabulous climate, the pace of life slowed down, a sense of country and city combined… a great place to visit, but who would want to live there?" He turned down the studios’ offers and returned to his beloved New York. But Hollywood was determined, and in 1929 it was producer Walter Wanger at Paramount Studios who dangled the bait that was to bring Edward G. Robinson to Hollywood to work. Talking pictures had arrived, and although EGR was not thrilled with the script of Hole in the Wall, he jumped at the chance to work with Claudette Colbert, as well as the 50,000$ Paramount would pay him.
Still determined to stay away from any permanent relationship with Hollywood, EGR was on the train back to the East Coast when he received a telegram asking him to take over a role in the film East Is West. "The offer was $25.000 in Albuquerque, $35.000 in Kansas City, fifty in Chicago, and a hundred thousand by the time I reached Grand Central Station in New York." He returned to Hollywood and made the movie.
In 1930, Edward G. Robinson appeared in the play Mr. Samuel which had a limited run in New York. He didn’t know it at the time, but when the play closed, he would not set foot on a stage again for twenty-eight years. Hal Wallis, a producer at Warner Brothers, came to New York with a contract offer and this time EGR accepted, albeit reluctlantly. He and his wife Gladys made the move to California – although they retained the lease on their New York apartment, just in case. EGR was unimpressed with his first film under his new Warner Bros. contract, a minor crime drama titled Widow from Chicago. However, the next script that came his way was to change everything. It was called Little Caesar.
By today’s standards, Little Caesar may seem fairly tame, but in 1930 it knocked worldwide audiences for a loop. It was brutal, stark and grim, and Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the ruthless crime boss was equally shocking. Of Little Caesar a critic for The New York Times wrote:
Little Caesar becomes at Robinson’s hands 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 a force that is greater than himself. The film contained a climatic line that itself became a classic, Little Caesars parting words as he lay slumped under a billboard after he had been shot by the police... "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
The likes of his intensity and power in the role had never been seen on the screen before; EGR suddenly found himself a bona fide movie star, recognized and mobbed by fans wherever he went. Although pleased at the film’s success, EGR found the public’s reaction somewhat puzzling. And, for a man of his reserved temperament, this sudden spotlight also had its downside: "Frequently I was approached by fellows, usually the worse for wear due to drink, who would accost me with, ‘Tough guy, huh? Little Caesar, huh? Well, let’s see how tough you are. I can knock you into Tuesday!’ The point was undebatable – they certainly could’ve knocked me into Tuesday, probably beyond."
The Robinsons gradually began to feel settled in California, although they still considered New York to be the home base. When Gladys became pregnant in 1933, she returned there until the child was born, in order to be close to her family (and her family physician). The prospective papa was filming The Little Giant at the time, but he was able to get to the East Coast in time for the birth of theis son, Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (known as Manny).
Back in Hollywood, Edward G. Robinson continued working steadily in films, and also bought a house in Beverly Hills; he and Gladys had finally succumbed to the inevitable and let go of their New York residence. EGR’s father was no longer living, but his mother and brothers occasionally paid visits to the Western branch of the family. (Mrs. Goldenberg, although very proud of EGR, remained somewhat cynical about all the luxury. And, if she was complemented on her famous son, she’d reply, "Yes, but I have another son who’s a dentist.") His success also allowed EGR to indulge in his passion for collecting fine paintings – he began to build what would become one of the finest private collections in the world.
Although Warner Bros. did put their star in no-gangster roles, it was the snarling tough guy the public flocked to see; Edward G. Robinson felt "the gangster was getting to be a bore." Therefore, it was a happy occasion for all concerned when, in 1935, Columbia Pictures borrowed him for the comedy The Whole Town's Talking, co-starring Jean Arthur. In this excellent film, EGR shone in a double role – one a mild-mannered office clerk, the other practically a parody of his sincerely nasty gangster characters. The end result was a superb feat of acting as well as being remarkably funny.
Being at his home studio, EGR went right into Bullets or Ballots where he was once again on the right side of the law (Humphrey Bogart, in his second film for Warner Bros., was the heavy – the first of several films the two would do together), and it too was a smash hit. Besides the movies, EGR was also kept busy with a weekly radio show, Big Town, where he played Steve Wilson, crusading editor of a big city newspaper.
As the 30s drew to a close, the shadow of war was looming. Europe was already embattled, and political feeling ran high in Hollywood. A confirmed liberal, Edward G. Robinson took an active interest in many coalitions formed "to fight against the black horror that was beginning to sweep Europe" – Bundles for Britain, the Anti Nazi League, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies – and he and his associates were promptly labeled 'Limousine Liberals' or 'Parlor Pinks' by Hollywood isolationists.
There was also friction in his home life – "Gladys was chafing... alternately happy then furious, as she struggled to achieve her own identity... something I simply could not understand back then. The upshot was we were almost constantly battling." In 1940 EGR gave the performance of which he was the most proud – that of German innovator and scientist Dr. Paul Ehrlich, in the Warner film Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. He was particularly gratified that the film appealed to Dr. Ehrlich’s widow and daughter, receiving congratulatory letters from each of them that he treasured. By 1942, Edward G. Robinson’s contract with Warner Bros. had come to an end, and he chose not to renew it, preferring to freelance instead (the norm now, but rather unusual in the days of the studio system).
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 1941 America entered World War II. Given that he was almost fifty years old at the time of the attack and thus well beyond the age when he could enlist with the U.S. forces, his opportunities to fight Nazism so were limited. Frank Capra's Signal Corps film group in Washington had nothing for him, nor did the OSS or the Navy. Despite the obstacles, he found ways to aid the war effort, as he describes in his 1973 autobiography, All My Yesterdays:
This is a point in time at which I went to no meetings but, on the set with a secretary, answered appeals for help from all over the country. I refused to crawl or slither out of anything; any committee with a title that seemed to me to suggest help for England and France against the Nazis and which contained on its letterhead the name of a recognized figure, I responded to - usually with a check. Later I responded by making speeches.
In 1942, at the request of the Office of War Information (OWI), he traveled to England and from there made "morale speeches to the British and broadcast in as many foreign languages as I could to the occupied areas of Europe." He entertained troops in the U.K. made patriotic and propaganda broadcasts via radio. Some of those broadcasts were in German and were addressed to the underground in Germany. (At the time he was making them, he wondered if they were getting through. After the war, he heard from a number of Germans who praised his wartime broadcasts, telling him he'd given them hope.)
Robinson did as much as a 50-year-old movie star could in contributing to the war effort during World War II, both at the behest of the U.S. government (making speeches to troops and broadcasting in foreign languages to occupied lands), and privately (funding numerous organizations). In addition to putting monies into the hands of such groups as the Anti-Nazi League, Bundles for Britain, Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, and Fight for Freedom, he donated all of his 1942 earnings to war funds, particularly the USO and war bonds. As well as covering dozens of USO-related expenses that year, he also made donations to China War Relief, War Service Inc., Hollywood Canteen, Medical Aid to Russia, and the American Flying Service Foundation.
If the few films Edward G. Robinson made during the war years were somewhat negligible, his work in the latter part of the 1940s was exceptional. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Double Indemnity, Woman in the Window, and The Stranger were all top-notch films, well-received by critics and audiences at the time, and equally impressive when viewed today.
However, as the decade waned disaster loomed in the form of the HUAC hearings (House Un-American Activities Committee). This government based plague, described by many as a modern-day Salem witch hunt, was to destroy many film industry careers and leave wounds still festering over 50 years later. Senator Joe McCarthy and his associates probed into the past lives of many movie makers in an effort to weed out and professionally annihilate any persons with purported Communists sympathies. The HUAC’s zeal knew no bounds, the lengths to which they went boggle the mind, as does the harm caused to many of the actors, writers, and directors unlucky enough to come under their microscope. Unbelievably, the many liberal causes to which EGR had leant support, money, and/or his name over the past decade now come back to haunt him. Robinson was named in Red Channels in connection with 11 Communist front organizations. His name began appearing on lists of those who were under suspicion, gossip columnists dropped snide hints, his agent went from making conciliatory noises, to eventually being increasingly unavailable. "I would have my coffee and toast in the mornings with nowhere to go, nothing to do, idleness hanging heavily upon me and no capacity to deal with it."
To make matters worse, Gladys’ behavior had become increasingly erratic; her doctors, fearing her to be possibly suicidal, suggested a sanatorium. "For years I lied about Gladys’ illness," Edward G. Robinson said later. "I thought psychiatry meant people were crazy, and craziness meant asylums and bedlam… I was deeply heartsick about it; I was also, in my heart, ashamed. But mental illness is a disease, a curable disease, especially depression. That was what Gladys had – she was, according to the minimum technical term, a manic-depressive. If I had known then what I know now, perhaps we might have saved the terrible consequences of this disease."
Edward G. Robinson’s efforts to counteract his blacklisting – writing letters, making radio speeches, attending an I Am An American day in Chicago, seemed to stem the tide. In 1948 he received two plum roles: a patriarch in All My Sons (with a young Burt Lancaster, "already showing that animal vitality that would make him a star"), and Johnny Rocco in Key Largo. His sure-fire performance as the vulgar, cruel and egotistical gangster Johnny Rocco earned him unqualified praise, even though he was now second-billed below Humphrey Bogart, Warners’ reigning star. "Let me tell you something about Bogie," EGR said. "On that set HE gave it all to me. Second billing or no, I got the star treatment because he insisted upon it – not in words, but in action. When asked to come on the set, he would ask: "Is Mr. Robinson ready?" He’d come to my dressing room to get me. We both gave Lionel Barrymore the deference he deserved, but I’ll tell you got the A-1 eighteen-carat bowing – Lauren Bacall; we were in the middle of a romance, and that gets highest priority always."
Unfortunately, a simple act of kindness was to plunge EGR back into the HUAC turmol all over again. He responded to a plea from Mrs. Dalton Trumbo (her husband was in jail thanks to the HUAC), giving her some financial assistance. How this act suddenly became widely known was unclear, but Edward G. Robinson was next approached by a newspaper columnist who offered to 'set things straight' by writing an editorial stating that EGR had only been a dpe of any number of sly Communist spies. "He prepared 26 pages of my dupedom. I only had to read one page to feel the urge to throw up." EGR’s refusal to accept this gesture was frowned upon, to say the least. Soon, he was again finding it difficult to obtain work in Hollywood, except for several rather undistinguished B films. He went to England and found a few roles there; he also returned to the New York stage, where paranoia on the West Coast had not penetrated.
Feeling there was no alternative, EGR requested a hearing before the HUAC and presented painstakingly prepared documentation that he had no evil designs upon the USA. Nothing happened. He requested a second conference, with the same results – no jobs were offered, no doors opened. In the spring of 1952, EGR appeared before the HUAC for the third and final time, and out of desperation told them what they wanted to hear – that he had been seduced into Communist-front organizations and was ashamed of it. The truth was that he was disgusted with himself and with all concerned, but there was no other way to get his life and career back on track.
EGR’s son Manny, now 20 years old, has spent his teen years in and out of trouble – drink, bad checks, arrest, probation – he also attended acting school in New York, married a young woman and had a child – Francesca. "I transferred all my own ambition and hopes for Utopia from Manny to her," EGR said. In 1955 EGR made a trip to Paris where his wife Gladys was on an extended stay. The attempt at reconciliation was not a success – Gladys informed him she was considering divorce.
Back in Hollywood, it was none other than Cecil B. DeMille who restored Edward G. Robinson to films. DeMille, producer of flamboyant epics since the 1920s, was also one of the film industry’s staunchest conservatives – not a likely candidate to consider hiring a blacklisted liberal. "No one was more opposed to Communism or any permutations thereof, but no fairer man existed; he felt I had been done an injustice and told his people to offer me the part. Cecil B. DeMille restored my self-respect." The part was that of Dathan, a treacherous overlord who betrays Moses (Charlton Heston), in The Ten Commandments.
"There is a delicate irony in the fact that my first wife introduced me to my second," EGR wrote. Gladys had a passion for clothes, and for private showings by designers. The director of one such show was a woman named Jane Adler. She and EGR met for the first time at the Robinson’s home and the two got along famously. In late 1956, Gladys had made her decision to divorce EGR, and she went about it with a vengeance. By California law half of EGR’s assets belonged to her, and that included the art collection that was so precious to him. After a long and drawn out series of litigations, EGR was forced to sell almost all of his paintings in order to buy his way out of Gladys’ financial demands. It broke his heart. Throughout this debacle, he was supported by Jane Adler, with whom his friendship had deepened into a romance. Not long after the divorce was finalized, Jane agreed to marry him. She gave him back his self-esteem and the kind of love he "had never known before."
Edward G. Robinson went back to work with boundless enthusiasm. Not only in films and on the stage, but for that new medium, television as well. On the big screen he appeared in, among others, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Prize, Cheyenne Autumn, and The Cincinnati Kid. His many TV appearances included Palayhouse 90, Ford Theater, General Electric Theater, and BC’s and CBS’s Movies of the Week.
Jane Robinson implemented her considerable design skills and transformed their Beverly Hills house "from a museum into a comfortable place to live." Over the ensuing decade they were also able to rebuild EGR’s collection of paintings – many were those from his original holdings, bought back at much higher prices. EGR also indulged in what he called only a hobby, but was actually quite a talent – portrait painting. His style echoed that of the impressionists he so loved to collect, and it brought him many hours of happiness.
It was in 1962, while on location in Africa filming Sammy Going South, that Edward G. Robinson suffered a heart attack. (he was not beyond commenting on the fact that the African jungle was possibly the worst place in the world to suddenly require immediate medical attention). His wife Jane however, was able to find transportation to Nairobi, where EGR was treated and eventually released; filming was halted until he was able to return. Four years later, in 1966, EGR had another brush with death – this time a serious car accident. His injuries kept him in Los Angeles Mount Sinai Hospital’s ICU for weeks, and for a while it was feared he might not make it – but make it he did, and went back to work once again. In 1970, during a routine checkup, it was discovered that EGR had cancer. It was to be a long battle; the next two years saw him in and out of hospitals and chemotherapy treatments.
Never one to be idle, EGR worked on his autobiography, All My Yesterdays (completed posthumously by writer and close friend Leonard Spigelgass). He was also intrigued by the script for the futuristic film Soylent Green and felt well enough to give what would be his final performance, as Sol, a sensitive old-timer who knows the world is doomed and chooses his own death in peaceful surroundings. Co-star Charlton Heston reportedly had a tremendously difficult time getting through the shooting of this final scene with his friend – so closely did it parallel EGR’s real-life position.
Late in 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would present Edward G. Robinson with an honorary Oscar in recognition that he had "achieved greatness as a player, a patron of the arts, and a dedicated citizen ... in sum, a Renaissance man." EGR declared he would attend the ceremony, in a wheelchair if need be and, from his hospital bed, he prepared his acceptance speech. It was not to be. On January 26, 1973, with his wife Jane and his friends by his side, Edward G. Robinson died. It was Jane Robinson who accepted the Oscar in his honor, and who read Edward G. Robinson’s words to a world-wide audience:
It couldn’t have come at a better time in a man’s life. Had it come earlier, it would have aroused deep feelings in me, but not so deep as now. I am so very grateful to my warm, creative, talented, intimate colleagues who have been my life’s associates. How much richer can you be?
- Soylent Green (1973)
- Lo B'Yom V'Lo B'Layla (1972)
- Song of Norway (1970)
- Mackenna's Gold (1969)
- Uno scacco tutto matto (1969)
- Never a Dull Moment (1968)
- The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968)
- Operazione San Pietro (1967)
- Ad ogni costo (1967)
- La blonde de Pékin (1967)
- All About People (1967) (narrator)
- The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
- The Outrage (1964)
- Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
- Good Neighbor Sam (1964)
- Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) (uncredited)
- The Prize (1963)
- Sammy Going South (1963)
- Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
- My Geisha (1962)
- Seven Thieves (1960)
- A Hole in the Head (1959)
- The Ten Commandments (1956)
- Nightmare (1956)
- Hell on Frisco Bay (1955)
- Illegal (1955)
- A Bullet for Joey (1955)
- Tight Spot (1955)
- The Violent Men (1955)
- Black Tuesday (1954)
- The Glass Web (1953)
- Big Leaguer (1953)
- Vice Squad (1953)
- Actor's and Sin (1952)
- My Daughter Joy (1950)
- House of Strangers (1949)
- Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)
- Key Largo (1948)
- All My Sons (1948)
- The Red House (1947)
- The Stranger (1946)
- American Creed (1946)
- Scarlet Street (1945)
- Journey Together (1945)
- Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
- The Woman in the Window (1944)
- Double Indemnity (1944)
- Mr. Winkle Goes to War (1944)
- Tampico (1944)
- Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
- Destroyer (1943)
- Tales of Manhattan (1942)
- Larceny, Inc. (1942)
- Unholy Partners (1941)
- Manpower (1941)
- The Sea Wolf (1941)
- A Dispatch from Reuter's (1940)
- Brother Orchid (1940)
- Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)
- Blackmail (1939)
- Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
- I Am the Law (1938)
- The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
- A Slight Case of Murder (1938)
- The Last Gangster (1937)
- Kid Galahad (1937)
- Thunder in the City (1937)
- Bullets or Ballots (1936)
- Barbary Coast (1935)
- The Whole Town's Talking (1935)
- The Man with Two Faces (1934)
- Dark Hazard (1934)
- I Loved a Woman (1933)
- The Little Giant (1933)
- Silver Dollar (1932)
- Tiger Shark (1932)
- Two Seconds (1932)
- The Hatchet Man (1932)
- Five Star Final (1931)
- Smart Money (1931)
- The Slippery Pearls (1931)
- Little Caesar (1931)
- The Widow from Chicago (1930)
- East Is West (1930)
- Outside the Law (1930)
- A Lady to Love (1930)
- Night Ride (1930)
- The Hole in the Wall (1929)
- The Bright Shawl (1923)
- Arms and the Woman (1916)