Theatre yesterday and today



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It would have been virtually impossible for me to have ever seen the actor Edward G. Robinson on the Broadway stage, as his last appearance, in Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night, was in 1957—the year I was born. Renowned as a film actor, it's important to note, that like so many greats who first burst on the scene with the advent of talking pictures, Robinson was a major stage actor before he came to Hollywood in 1929. At that point, he had twenty-nine Broadway plays to his credit in the years between 1916 and 1930, nearly two per season. How's that for a statistic? Always one of my personal favorites, Eddie G was the first actor I ever took to impersonating—at the age of five.

Edward G. Robinson's commemorative 32 cent U.S. postage stamp, issued in 2000.

Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg on this date in 1893 in Bucharest, Romania. He was the fifth of six sons, and emigrated with his parents to the United States when he was nine. Raised on the Lower East Side of New York, it came in handy when his career turned to playing tough guys, since he grew up knowing those types well. A bright child, he would eventually boast the ability to speak seven languages fluently, among them Yiddish, Romanian and German. Although for a time he considered becoming a rabbi or a lawyer, he entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts while still a teenager by means of a scholarship. Advised there to take on a different stage name instead of the Jewish-sounding Emanuel Goldenberg, he chose Edward G. Robinson, later regretting it, as he often complained that it was too long to write out when giving autographs.

Manny Goldenberg during his brief service in the navy in World War I (age 23).

From his first shows on Broadway, Robinson was able to learn from some of the best actors in the early part of the century, cast as he was many times in shows under the producing entity that was the illustrious Theatre Guild. Among them were George Arliss, Pauline Lord, Alfred Lunt, Thomas Mitchell, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut and Sam Jaffe (who became his lifetime best friend). In 1923, Robinson had the significant supporting role of Shrdlu in Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, an expressionist drama that got him a lot of attention. Then, in 1927's The Racket, Robinson's performance as a sinister Italian thug led the way to films. Sent out to Hollywood, he was paid $50,000 to star opposite Claudette Colbert in The Hole in the Wall (1929) as a gangster known as "The Fox." After about a half-dozen pictures, it was with 1931's Little Caesar, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, that Robinson catapulted into a star of the first rank. As Rico, the compact Robinson crafted a larger than life character who terrorized all around him. That is, until the film's final frame, when after being gunned down behind a billboard, he rolls out from under it, revealing his bullet-ridden body. As if he cannot believe his fate, Robinson looks to the heavens and, in a stunned voice, declares (in one of the most famous last lines in the history of film), "Mother of Mercy ... is this the end of Rico?"

As the frightened little man, seconds before his death, at the finish of Little Caesar (1931).

From that time on, Robinson became one of the most in-demand actors in Hollywood. Forced time and again to return to gangster roles (he was, after all, under strict contract to Warner Bros. for many years), he was also lucky to have had strong directors who admired him (and hired him), many of them the best in the business, like Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Billy Wilder. It was for Wilder that Robinson gave what many consider his finest performance: Barton Keys in 1944's Double Indemnity. This is the role for which he should have won the Academy Award, but for some inexplicable reason, Robinson wasn't even nominated for it. In fact, in what was a major omission, this actor with well over a hundred films to his credit, was never nominated for the Oscar.

Fred McMurray and Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944).