Inside this family tomb lies Edward G. Robinson.
Born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania in 1893, his family decided to move to the U.S. in 1904 to escape anti-Semitism. His family joined the hordes crowding into the Lower East Side. For many people this extremely crowded world was traumatic, but the young Goldenberg loved it. He later said “At Ellis Island, I was born again.” He was good at school and was going to go into criminal law but then became attracted to acting. He won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is when he changed his name to Edward G. Robinson; while the Robinson was fully made up, Edward wasn’t so different than Emanuel and the “G” stood for Goldenberg. The realities of anti-Semitism in the film industry did often require such name changes, though Robinson never denied his Judaism.
Robinson started appearing in plays in 1913 and first appeared on Broadway in 1915. His first film was the Arms and the Man, from 1916. That was only a bit part. He didn’t show up in the movies again until 1923’s The Bright Shawl. But he remained almost entirely a Broadway actor until the beginning of the sound era. Realizing that film was his future, he left the stage in 1930. He was already 37 years old and hardly a handsome Hollywood star. But Robinson was a great, great actor. Moreover, he was a great bad guy. This was somewhat ironic, as Robinson was a left-liberal with a large modern art collection. He was a sensitive guy who wasn’t totally happy that he was typecast as the gangster. But he was so damn good at it!
That became clear to everyone with the brilliant Little Caesar, from 1931. What an awesome film. He then spend the next decade as a hard-working actor, appearing in a couple dozen films. I was surprised to find out that I haven’t seen any of them, or at least not to my memory. I may have to fix that. In fact, the next film I’ve seen with Robinson was another utterly classic role, in 1944’s Double Indemnity. He played a role more to his true self the next year, in the classic late-era Fritz Lang film Scarlet Street. Then in 1946, he was in the highly underrated Orson Welles film, The Stranger, one of his best roles. I’ve never been of the opinion that Key Largo is as wonderful as a lot of people think, but Robinson returned to his gangster role type for that classic. He also worked a bunch of radio plays in these years, including an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon where he played Sam Spade. He helped organize the Screen Actors Guild in these years as well. Being poly-lingual, he did Spanish language broadcasts to play in South America. During World War II, he worked with the Office of War Information to send radio addresses to Europeans under Nazi control in six languages.
By the late 40s, Robinson had trouble finding roles. It wasn’t because he was getting old. It’s because he had been a leader in Hollywood in the 30s in opposing fascism, because he was active in promoting civil rights and called for laws to end workplace discrimination, and supported working with the Soviets to defeat the Nazis, all of which then made him a target for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was not blacklisted. He never became a communist. In fact, he was pretty angry by then that he was used by communist front organizations who channeled his vast charity donations. He did in fact name names, including that of Dalton Trumbo, not that he was the first one to do so. Despite all this, he was greylisted. In the early 50s, all Robinson could find was low-budget B movie work. Depressing stuff.
But Robinson was able to rehabilitate his career more quickly than others, largely because Cecil B. DeMille cast him in the role of Dathan in The Ten Commandments. DeMille was both a political conservative and a powerhouse in Hollywood. If he wanted someone who hated fascism in his film, he was going to get it. That reignited Robinson’s career, though he would never again be the star he was in the 30s. He worked steadily through the 60s and until the end of his life. One my favorite later Robinson films is The Cincinnati Kid, from 1965, also starring Joan Blondell, as well of course as Steve McQueen and Karl Malden. It wasn’t just nostalgia to see a couple of old classic actors. It’s that Robinson and Blondell were both absolutely fantastic masters who made every film they were in better, even the bad ones, of which they both had a lot. He was supposed to play Dr. Zaius in Planet of the Apes, but dropped out because he worried about his heart condition while working under the heavy ape makeup. Too bad, that would have been pretty cool. His last film was none other than Soylent Green, in 1973. He died twelve days after he filmed his last scene.
Somehow Robinson was never nominated for an Academy Award. In 1973, he was given an honorary Oscar, but died before the ceremony. Above all, Robinson is probably best remembered for his great voice. So let’s see some of his great work:
My favorite part about writing this post was watching those clips.
Edward G. Robinson is buried in Beth El Cemetery, Queens, New York.
If you would like this series to visit some of Robinson’s co-stars, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joan Blondell is in Glendale, California and Humphrey Bogart is in the same cemetery as she. Previous posts in this series are archived here.