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Subject: Archive: Elisha Cook Jr., May 18, 1995


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Character actor
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Date Posted: Thursday, May 18, 01:41:14pm

Elisha Cook Jr., whose intense, bug-eyed portrayal of Wilmer, the psychotic, baby-faced killer in "The Maltese Falcon," made him a cult figure to a generation of moviegoers, died on Thursday at a nursing home in Big Pine, Calif. He was 91.

He was the last surviving cast member of John Huston's 1941 film noir classic, whose company included Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor.
Mr. Cook had been disabled since suffering a stroke five years ago. He made an appearance just three weeks ago in San Francisco, where the movie and the Dashiell Hammett novel had been set.

Mr. Cook, who made more than 100 movies, once claimed that he had appeared in more "B-for-bomb turkeys" than any other actor. Maybe so, but few actors could claim to have played as many memorable roles in as many recognized classics or to have become the answer to so many Hollywood trivia questions.

He was the "hophead jazz drummer" in "Phantom Lady" (1944). He was Jonesy, the lovesick loser forced to drink poison in "The Big Sleep" (1946). He was the satanic apartment manager in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). He was the wife-bedeviled racetrack teller in Stanley Kubrick's first commercial feature, "The Killing" (1956). And he was the homesteader who took an unforgettable dying fall into the mud after being shot by Jack Palance in "Shane" (1953).

But to dedicated fans who never leave the theater until the last credit has rolled, none were as memorable as his role as "Wilmer the gunsel," Sydney Greenstreet's bodyguard in "The Maltese Falcon," in part, perhaps, because much of the dialogue was lifted directly from the Hammett novel.

"Keep on riding me," Mr. Cook tells Humphrey Bogart at one point. "They're gonna be pickin' iron out of your liver."

What imprinted Mr. Cook's image on the moviegoers' consciousness, however, was not his dialogue, but his haunting look of frustrated hate after being disarmed by Bogart and humiliated in front of his boss.

"If you look at the scene closely," Mr. Cook once said, "the tears are streaming down my face I'm so angry."
Mr. Cook, who portrayed so many lowlife characters with such conviction that "Elisha Cook-like" became a catch phrase among casting directors and movie reviewers, liked to point out that he got the part of Wilmer simply because he had the same agent as Huston and Bogart.

"I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists," he once said, recalling that as a character actor generally assigned to subsidiary roles, he had to take what was offered. "I didn't have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, 'You're going to work tomorrow.' "

Guys called a lot, perhaps because Mr. Cook had a reputation for being present at the creation of Hollywood legends.

The year before "The Maltese Falcon," for example, he had appeared in "Stranger on the Third Floor," generally regarded as the first American film noir. "The Maltese Falcon," which was dismissed as a Grade B picture when it was released, was Greenstreet's first movie.

Mr. Cook also appeared in Judy Garland's first movie, "Pigskin Parade," (1936) and in Marilyn Monroe's first starring film, "Don't Bother to Knock" (1952).
A native of San Francisco who grew up in Chicago, Mr. Cook was a traveling actor in the East and Midwest before going to New York, where Eugene O'Neill picked him to play the juvenile lead in "Ah Wilderness!," which ran on Broadway for two years.

He was married at least twice, but according to the nursing home where he died, Mr. Cook, a longtime resident of Bishop, Calif., left no immediate survivors.

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Elisha Cook, Jr. was in the film "Johnny Cool" (1963) with Elizabeth Montgomery (NT)They died the same dayThursday, May 18, 01:46:06pm


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