Gangster, snarling villain, but also cultured art collector, polyglot and refined gentleman. Most film fans remember the great Edward G. Robinson as an iconic movie villain and tough guy famous for his menacing gangster roles in the 1930s and 40s. But there was much more to this iconic, tough guy actor.
Edward G. Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania on December 12, 1893. His family settled in the New York area when he was 10. Abandoning plans to become a Rabbi, he took up community theater while in college and was a staple performer on Broadway plays. His first substancial film appearance was in the 1923 at the age of 30 in the silent film The Bright Shawl, starring Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish. He appeared in several films through the silent film era, usually playing ethnic or villain roles.
His breakout performance came with the widespread adoption of sound films, in 1931 as Rico in the gangster epic, Little Caesar.
“Is this the end of Rico?”
The film chronicles the Al Capone like rise of a small time crook to big time crime boss. Starting with misdemeanors and gas station stickup jobs and working his way up to leading a criminal empire and eventual downfall, his menacing performance as Rico, made Edward G. Robinson an overnight icon. His signature snarl and grimace parodied and imitated by a wide range of comedians and performers. Even Bugs Bunny got in on the act in the 1946 short Racketeer Rabbit.
It’s Curtains for you Rocky!
By some accounts only 5’5″, his powerful stage presence and stocky build made him seem much larger on the screen and he often appeared to menace larger actors just by sheer force of personality.
Little Caesar was followed by a string of successful films through the 40s. Occasionally he would get a relished chance to play a hero, such as the dogged insurance investigator Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity.
“…Something just doesn’t sit right.”
He was also known for being able to parody his own performances, such as in 1938s A Slight Case of Murder, where he plays a former bootlegger trying his best to go straight despite the best efforts of his family and friends. This versatility is surprising for those who have only seen his more villainous roles.
Who knew obeying the law was so much work?
Another notable performance was a ferocious reprise of his famous gangster persona in 1948’s Key Largo. Playing crime boss Johnny Rocco opposite screen heavyweights Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore. This menacing performance is iconic Robinson and one of my favorite film performances.
A passionate anti-fascist, he was known for his outspoken criticism of Hitler and Nazism in the 1930s, long before many people recognized the threat Hitler’s Germany presented. Even calling for a boycott of all German products. Edward G. Robinson donated over $250,000, a fortune in those days, to charities and relief efforts. He was also a supporter of the growing civil rights movement and equality in the workplace.
These outspoken positions made him unpopular in some circles and in the 1950s he had a near miss with the ongoing red scare in Hollywood, called before the HUAC in 1950 and nearly blacklisted; his career was damaged by these events. He returned to the stage for a few years and his career rebounded when he was cast as the villainous Dathan in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1954 Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments. After this his career was bolstered by radio and television appearances and he worked steadily into the early 1970s.
Biblical villain Dathan. Next time you see this movie, imagine him with Rico’s voice. “I’m gonna getcha, see?”
In addition to his busy Hollywood life, Edward G. Robinson was a quiet and refined gentleman, a noted philanthropist and art collector. A far cry from the thundering menace he frequently displayed on the big screen. He was also known for being able to speak 7 languages fluently including Yiddish, Romanian and German.
Edward G. Robinson passed away in 1973 at the age of 79 from bladder cancer. Hard at work right up to the end, his last film, Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, was released the same year.
Incredibly, this iconic actor never won an academy award, despite appearing in many famous films and defining roles. Shortly after his death, the Academy awarded him a special lifetime achievement. A belated tribute at best for such an iconic and long lived performer.