The Outlook Interview: Elisha Cook Jr. Talks to Grover Lewis; Elisha Cook Jr., 82, one of the more enduring screen character actors, has played fall guys, small-time losers, stool pigeons, and assorted unclassifiable underworld weasels and neurotics for close to 50 years. He first left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of filmgoers in John Huston's classic, "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). In that oft-revived film, he played "Wilmer the Gunsel," the baby-faced hoodlum who snarls at Humphrey Bogart: "Keep on riding me, they're going to be picking iron out of your liver." Born in San Francisco in 1903, then raised and educated in Chicago, Cook became a "strolling player" in his teens, touring with various troupes through the East and Midwest. In 1933, he was picked by Eugene O'Neill to play the juvenile lead in "Ah, Wilderness!" The play ran for two years, and afterward Cook began to accept roles in Hollywood. Soon after the success of "The Maltese Falcon," Cook signed with Republic, a shoestring studio, where he appeared in "Sleepytime Gal"(1942), a rusticated farce starring Judy Canova. Better and more prestigious roles followed at other studios, although often at long intervals. No exact accounting of Cook's movie credits exists -- he claims to have made more "B-for-bomb turkeys" than any other actor and to have forgotten most of them at once. But he recalls with particular pride his performance as a "hophead jazz drummer" in Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"(1944) and as Jonesy, the love- struck patsy forced to drink poison in Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" (1946). Others among Cook's favorite roles include the feisty homesteader shot down by gunfighter Jack Palance in "Shane"(1953); the wife-bedeviled racetrack teller in Stanley Kubrick's first commercial feature "The Killing" (1956), and the satanic apartment manager in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). At 82, Cook still plays parts in features and television, making him perhaps the oldest screen actor in steady demand. He appears as "Icepick," an occasionally recurring character in "Magnum, P.I." He and his wife of 40 years, Peggy, live in Bishop, Calif., a five-hour drive into the High Sierras from Los Angeles; Grover Lewis is a veteran newspaper and magazine reporter and the author of "Academy All the Way."
Q: Let's talk about "The Maltese Falcon." Did you have any notion of how good that picture was while you were making it?
A: You can just tell by the crew, by everybody when they're watching. Like on the stage you can tell if the audience is interested or coughing like mad.
Q: How did you get along with Bogart?
A: Oh fine, no problem. I didn't know him socially at all. I know very few actors socially. You work with people, you go home.
Q: Was there the usual cutting up around the set?
A: Everybody was having a good time. I'll never forget when I got so mad I wanted to kill Bogart and Mary (Astor) leaned over to me and said, "He wants you so mad that you can't even talk." If you look at that scene I want to kill him so badly 'cause he made a monkey out of me and took me and put my hands behind (my back) and takes the guns away from me. I'm not saying a word. If you look at the scene closely the tears are streaming down my face I'm so angry. Remember, I wanna kick him in the head when he's on the floor just to show what a louse I was. This guy (Wilmer) was a deadly guy. He was a hothead.
Q: Moviegoers have always remembered and liked Wilmer and he's really a punk, isn't he?
A: He's a nothin'! But he's a deadly nothin'! As a matter of fact, John Huston was thinking of putting women's eyelashes on mine. They would today. (Wilmer) was Sydney's boy!
Q: Why do you suppose moviegoers like him despite what he is?
A: Well, because actuall everybody in the picture was a bum. Bogie was a bum. Mary Astor was a bum. Oh, was she ever a bum! Sydney was a bum and Peter Lorre was a bum.
Q: What sort of person was Sydney Greenstreet?
A: Ah, he was marvelous. I'll tell you one thing that did happen. We had an assistant yelling at the people on the set and I don't like that. Sydney saw it was annoying me and he said, "Cookie old boy," he had a wonderful English voice, "Why don't you and I go off today and have lunch together?" So we went off and he said, "You don't like that yelling and everything on that set do you old boy?" I said no and he said, "Let me tell you something Cookie and try to remember it the rest of your life, will you? The higher a monkey climbs the more he shows his ass." I have never forgotten this guy, and I never had a trouble on a set (in) my life. Any time there was any trouble on the set after that I just think of Sydney and what he said to me.
Q: Had you known any gangsters?
A: I was raised in Chicago. Al Capone liked show people. He had all those huge beer breweries in Cicero. We're playing in Chicago. Al Capone invited us out to Cicero for a party. I can remember to this day walking by those vast beer things there. The catwalks along the side of them. They were 10 times big as this room, each one. Holy God, they were enormous! We had the party. I thought nothing of it.
Q: Have you seen all of your pictures?
A: I never went to see them. I only went to one opening in my life and that was because Mr. (George) Stevens asked me to "Shane." I made over 100 feature films. You see, I was never under contract with the studio, I didn't want to live down here (Hollywood) I freelanced, I worked everywhere.
Q: So by the time a picture might be released you wouldn't even know about it necessarily?
A: Hell, no. Nobody would care. They only cared about the people under contract.
Q: I want to ask you about the late '30s in Hollywood. Where did you set up shop? Did you live in hotels?
A: Well, I had my mother here and we had a house out in north Hollywood to start. (Later on) we rented a house at Malibu. I had the Estelle Taylor house there, lost it when I went broke, best thing that ever happened to me. I had to go back to New York to do this play. I'm not even in the house, and Art Jones who owned the Inn and everything there, called me up in New York and said, "How're you doing back there, Cookie?" I says, "Fine." He said, "You'd better be doing all right, you've got a $1,500 liquor bill here." I wasn't even in California! All these moochers, coming in and charging to me.
Q: But you really went broke?
A: I went through bankruptcy. The guy gave me my dogs, and my tent and my gun. I made 800 bucks in one year. Then the "Falcon" came around. I worked as a laborer in Bishop for a year before "Shane," because I wouldn't work for scale, refused to. Scale was 200 bucks a week or so. I said forget it. You only work so many years and they gotta pay you. Peggy and I were picking up Coca Cola bottles on the highway in Bishop, five cents apiece to eat. We made "Shane" in '51, and I hadn't worked in about a year and a half.
Q: What kind of a town was Hollywood then?
A: I'll tell you exactly. Now, don't forget, Hollywood had a real bad image at that time. You know, they were a bunch of bums and all. Now, I'm a guy from New York. I don't know nothing about Hollywood. I can picture my first picture with Joel McCrea. He had a cabana. He was a big star at Universal. One day, I'll never forget, I saw parked in front of his cabana a car and a trailer. And I say, "You going somewhere Joel?" He says, "No. My stand-in is." I said, "What's the matter with him." He says, "Dying of tuberculosis. I'm sending him down to Arizona. He and his wife." This man sent them to Arizona and bought everything for them. He died and his wife died 24 hours later. I sent (the story) to Walter Winchell. "Now, is Hollywood a bunch of s--ts?" And Winchell ran the whole thing. You see what I mean?
Q: Let's move on up to "Shane." There you were working for George Stevens, who was a big pooh-bah of the movie business at that time. Was he a fairly self-important man?
A: I was scared to death of him. He was just scary. Remember that scene where I got shot with Jack Palance, where he was shooting the homesteader and I get shot? We're getting ready to shoot the scene and he calls me aside on horseback. I can't ride a horse from here to across the street. He wrote that scene, by the way. He stayed up all night, walked the streets of Jackson Hole and wrote that scene for the picture. So he showed me the scene. And he takes me aside (and) says, "Cook, you know, I'm eight weeks into the picture with you. You are the worst actor I've ever employed in my life." I said, "Oh?" He said, "Yeah." He says, "But that's it, I've gotta do it, now here's what I want here. I'm going to put a rig on you. (It was a Laurel and Hardy rig.) When Palance's gun goes off, you go six feet through the air and land in the mud. I'm shooting the mud, that's it." Okay, so we did it. His gun goes off, I was on a wire. I went six feet into the mud when the shot goes off. He had the rushes, the dailies we call them, in the Ward Hotel in Jackson Hole. Mr. Stevens would let anybody go to the rushes, he didn't care. I'd never go to them. He goes in and sees this scene of me getting shot. I'm sitting at the end of the Silver Dollar Bar and he comes out and he says, "Cook, that's the greatest piece of film I ever shot in my life." He wanted me scared.
We had nightclubs in those days here when I was young. Nobody went to bed in "Shane." We had two poker games, the small game and the big game. I played in the little one all night long, we'd go to work the next morning. It as no wonder we looked like hell, that was the way we should look.
Remember Kirk Douglas (in) "The Big Sky?" Remember the scene, I'm Tory. I go into town, I say, "have a drink to the greatest state" and so on and I buy the bottle of booze and I ride back on the horse to the independence party. We shoot the scene. So, he looks at the rush, I don't go to them. He says, "Cook, you know, I just saw the scene you ridin' back from town with the booze. I've decided to photograph 'The Big Sky' between your ass and the saddle." That's exactly the way I ride.
Q: That's a classic film. You've been in quite a number of recognized film classics, but you've never been nominated for an Academy Award.
A: No. No reason why I should be. I made Marilyn Monroe's first starring picture, "Don't Bother to Knock."
Q: What are your memories of Marilyn.
A: Wonderful. It was a crime she killed herself. She was great. Wonderful sense of humor. I played her uncle in the movie. She said to me, "Hey, no incest, Cookie, no incest." That's the way she was. Then she goes and kills herself. Now I don't know why, but I think I know why -- these goddamn dramatic coaches got her so screwed up she didn't know where the hell she was going.
Q: You made a picture in the '30s with John Ford called "Submarine Patrol." And I think you lost part of one of your fingers?
A: Yeah, I did, I got it cut off doing that. He never employed me again. I think he was superstitious. He passed out on the set when he realized I cut my finger off. He had never had anybody hurt on the film. He was wonderful to me when I first came out. He had a great yacht.
Q: Who did you like to drink with on location?
A: Anybody that'd drink with me. Nobody in particular, just the people who would drink, that's all.
Q: You've worked around a lot of really beautiful women. Were you ever a ladies' man?
A: No. I never fooled around with anybody in Hollywood. Never, cause I always said you fool around with the wrong person and (you'll) be out of the business. Anybody I knew were New York people. And oh we had balls and we never got mad at each other. Just say bye bye and that was it. But none of the Hollywood stuff.
My first wife, Mary, she was a toe dancer, we were married in New York. We were going to London. The whole gang drove down in the Model T to see me off. We get on aboard ship. There is all the gang is sitting in the Model T waving goodbye to us. We're going to England. I never saw it again. But that's the fun we used to have.
Q: I understood you've given up any drinking whatsoever.
A: I quit drinking a year ago July 30. Everybody said it was gonna be a helluva problem, it wasn't any at all. I'll tell you why I gave it up. I got a 300-mile round trip, 600 miles to go to work from here to Bishop and back. Suddenly I realized I had my nip in Mojave, it was 175 miles to Bishop and I'd stop in Lone Pine and have my nip, in my car. Then at 60 miles to Bishop I found that single line was getting doubled and I said uh oh, look out, and I quit -- boom.
I want to tell you something though, the purest drink that was ever made was bathtub gin. Let me tell you, you make bathtub gin with Belgian alcohol. Wood alcohol will kill you, of course, but you get Belgian bottled. We used to get it in five-gallon jugs, about five or six dollars, then we'd mix it with glycerine, whatdoyoucallit water, and juniper juice. That's gin, that's all it is. We'd shake it up, 180 proof, we'd just cut it with ginger ale. It used to cost us 50 cents about for a quart of gin. You cannot buy Belgian alcohol without a prescription today. If you drank 180 proof, you're out of your mind. That was the purest drink ever made. And delicious incidentally.
Q: Can you stand back a little and pin down your feelings about this whole experience of Hollywood you've had?
A: I love it, I love it. I'll tell you why I like to make pictures, 'cause it takes people out of their humdrum lives and most people have horrible humdrum lives.
Q: Do you go to the movies now?
A: I haven't seen a movie in 15 years. I never go to the movies. I never did. Oh, the old ones, Charlie Chaplin, I loved as a kid, but not now. I make 'em, the heck with it. Why the hell would you want to go to watch your own movie? Especially the bombs.