Current “Who Am I?”

August 2017

I was born in the late 19th century in Galicia, then part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, near the border of Ukraine and Poland to a couple of Yiddish actors later known as Sallie & Phillip. My folks seemed like a pair of roving gypsies going from shtetl to shtetl putting on performances while I passed the hat or a tambourine to accept payment for our artistic presentations.

It seemed we, as actors, were always going somewhere new. First to London, then to the lower east side in NYC, on to Cleveland, then to Chicago, back to N.Y., always looking for our next jobs. All of this travel didn’t allow me much time for a formal education but I learned plenty of stagecraft during those years.

By my early 20’s I finally got my Hebrew Actor’s Union card. I developed a solid reputation for greatly preparing for my roles. I intensely worked on my accents, my costumes, my make-up, and the little tics and mannerisms of the characters I would inhabit for my roles. I could convincingly play an old man before my tenth birthday. Critics later said I was a pre-“Method,” “Method “actor.

When ‘talkies’ became the rage producers and directors from Hollywood descended on Broadway and other theater towns looking for stage actors who could speak and project their voices to audiences and cameras.

I did, in fact, enjoy some success in Hollywood; however, truth be told, I never felt comfortable there. My first love always remained the theatre, though I did enjoy doing radio plays and I did sign on for some TV work in “Playhouse 90” and “G.E. Theatre.” I performed in one of famous writer Ben Hecht’s plays, the one promoting the creation of a Jewish state in what was then British Mandatory Palestine.

My real breakthrough movie was playing a contemporary notorious mobster. The same title was later remade and updated in the 1980’s; but, to tell you the truth, my earlier iteration was grittier and more interesting. In that film I handled a “chopper” (that’s what we called those deadly .45 cal sub-machine guns invented by John T. Thompson that make a ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ sound) as well as any of my fellow thugs. I followed up that underworld-themed movie with another socially conscience movie when I played a real life north Jersey man born in Palisades who was tricked into participating in a stick-up at a grocery store in Georgia that netted a total of $5.81. That “heist” earned him 6 to 10 years of hard labor on a chain gang! The poor fellow broke out, fled, and then led an exemplary life as a publisher and editor of a magazine until his ex-wife exposed his real identity which resulted in his extradition to Georgia to complete his sentence. That poor slob escaped a second time and returned to NJ seeking shelter with his brother who was a Unitarian minister. This time he lived as a fugitive and worked under assumed names in Newark while he wrote his autobiography. I played the lead character in the film that depicted his harsh life on the chain gang and his subsequent time on the lam. It had a huge effect on the American public because it exposed them to the cruel reality associated with chain gangs.

Strangely enough, I received Oscar nominations for both my first and last films though I didn’t win either of those times. The local Hadassah chapter reserved the entire Fabian Movie Theater in Paterson for an exclusive screening of my last feature film and they conducted one of their many worthy programs after the film was shown. That’s me in the photos below. Of course I appear made-up in character because the cameras were rolling!

(1)Who Am I? What picture did I actually win an Oscar for? (2)What were my parents’ given names before they Anglicized them? (3a)What well-known movie did I make about an infamous mobster {later remade} that put me in the public eye? (3b)Who played “Little Boy,” my co-star, in that film? (3c)Who was that unfortunate NJ man who suffered so terribly on that chain gang as a result of a miscarriage of justice and what was the name of the movie based on his life? (4)What was the name of Ben Hecht’s play about the new Jewish state? Who directed it? A young actor who also performed in that play was soon catapulted into a giant star of stage and screen. Who was that budding actor? (5)What stage role earned me a Tony Award? (6) What film of mine was featured at that Hadassah program at the Fabian Theater?