People you should know: Jeff Corey

Corey - Seconds

“At present, 20th Century Fox is sending me to drama school — the drama coach is Jeff Corey, the best here in Hollywood.”

Bruce Lee to Fred Sato, April 9, 1966

At some point in my work this week I chanced upon a picture of Jeff Corey. Even just seeing the late actor’s face, flat and immobile in a still or screencap, is like that first sip of beer at the end of a long, hot day — it brings relief, refreshment, renewal. The veteran Hollywood character actor and esteemed acting teacher (whose students included the wide-ranging likes of actors James Dean, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins, Jane and Peter Fonda, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Blake, Rita Moreno, Sharon Tate, Leonard Nimoy, Roy Thinnes, Matthew Modine, screenwriter Robert Towne, and directors Roger Corman and Steven Spielberg, who audited Corey’s classes in order to understand how actors think and how a good director motivates them) died over a decade ago but he lives on in his many films and TV shows. I think of him often because… well, because he’s so damned good. Always was. And his work holds up, over 70 years past his film debut in 1940. Do you know about Jeff Corey? Do you mind if I tell you about him?

Corey - Little Big Man

I’d be hard pressed to tell you where I first caught Corey’s act. It could have been in TRUE GRIT (1969, bottom), as “the murderer, Tom Chaney,” or the Sheriff who has to coach BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) on to how to fake a crime scene, or as the bespectacled post-Apocalypse mutant Caspay in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970), or quite possibly as wily Wild Bill Hickock in LITTLE BIG MAN (1970)… all of which played my New England mill town at one point or another. The four performances I’ve mentioned will give  you a pretty good introduction to Corey’s style, revealing him by turns as homicidal (but funny — there are fewer career criminals in the history of cinema funnier than Tom “Why does everything happen to me?”Chaney), avuncular, creepy, or crazy as a shit house rat. He wasn’t a showy, grandstanding actor and yet you couldn’t take your eyes of him. He wasn’t physically imposing and yet he often dominated any scene he was in. A lot of it was his eyebrows — thick, wiry things that looked as if they might, at any moment, take flight. More than a lot of it was his voice — one writer has described it as a tremolo and that seems right to me. Corey’s speaking voice carried authority and timber and yet it always had that note of fragility, as if it might shatter in the air. It seemed to me, even as a boy, ignorant as I was then of 99% of the processes of acting, that Corey was the complete package. He could play anybody, at any time. He had it all.

Corey - Brute Force

Jeff Corey was born Arthur Zwerling in Boro Park, Brooklyn, on August 10, 1914. Entering life less than two weeks after the start of World War I, Corey’s youth was likewise sculpted by the onset of the Great Depression — one of his most vivid memories was of beginning drama classes the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt closed the banks to institute the Emergency Banking Relief Act of 1933. Having developed a taste for performing at summer camp and while a student at New Utrecht Training School (the Brooklyn academy later changed its name to New Utrecht High School when the acronym N.U.T.S. prompted sniggers), Corey was able to continue his theatrical training by winning the coveted Milward Adams Memorial Scholarship, which gave him two years at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio in Manhattan. He honed his craft as well by performing summer stock in the Catskills, children’s theatre, and Shakespeare and Ibsen at Al Jolson’s former show place at 58th Street and 7th Avenue. With the establishment of the Public Works Administration, Corey toured with the Federal Theatre Project. He made his Broadway debut (as Arthur Zwerling) in an ensemble role in Emmet Lavery’s Jesuit drama THE FIRST LEGION in 1934. Two years later, he had another low-paying company part, playing a courtier in Leslie Howard’s acclaimed 1936 production of HAMLET. When Howard took the show on the road, Corey found himself promoted to the role of Rosencrantz.

Follow Me Quietly

Married in 1938, Corey was eager to begin the life of a family man but had to second guess his career choices when funding expired for the Federal Theatre Project. Though he briefly sold sewing machines and gave serious consideration to learning engineering, Corey was persuaded by his wife to give Hollywood a try, having played many small theatres in and around Los Angeles when he toured with Leslie Howard. In 1938, Corey and his wife Hope bought a $70 Model A Ford and drove to Hollywood, taking Route 66 the whole way and hanging a left on Sunset Boulevard. As fate would have it, while driving through Hollywood, Corey spotted actor Lee J. Cobb, a recent arrival himself, whom Corey had known in New York. Cobb put the Hollywood hopeful in touch with another East Coast apostate, Jules Dassin, then an apprentice to Garson Kanin and Alfred Hitchcock. Dassin put the Zwerlings (Jeff Corey would only later adopt that stage name, on the advice of his manager) up in his Hollywood Hills home and Jeff Corey’s first job was as a babysitter to Dassin’s son Joseph. Better-paying work soon followed.

Corey -Somewhere in the Night

He made his big screen debut as a hoodlum in the Columbia racket-busting romp I AM THE LAW (1938) starring Edward G. Robinson and he soon racked up a raft of credits (if not literally – he rarely received onscreen credit) in such films as YOU’LL FIND OUT (1940), THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941), ROXIE HART (1942), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), THE MOON IS DOWN (1944), SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946, above), and THE KILLERS (1946); Corey’s performance as doomed criminal Blinky Franklin in THE KILLERS (1946) makes you forget Burt Lancaster for a while. Corey did his time in prison — movie prison, that is — playing the turncoat convict Freshman in Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE (1947, third picture from top) and true crime footnote Werner Carl Schwartzmiller, the con who engineered a 1947 prison break from the state pen in Canon City, Colorado, in the big screen treatment of the casse CANON CITY (1948) — a performance singled out for excellence by fussbudget New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Though he could play country folk to a turn, Corey typified “the New York style” of acting that was being introduced to Hollywood via former members of New York’s Group Theatre (among them, director Elia Kazan) and he often was called upon to play metropolitan characters, and more than his fair share of cops, in such noirs and procedurals as FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949, fourth picture from top), CITY ACROSS THE RIVER (1949), and FOURTEEN HOURS (1951). And reporters (MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, 1949). Or doctors (HOME OF THE BRAVE, 1949, below). And then for his next picture he’d be in buckskins, or a cavalry uniform, or a fez.

Corey - Home of the Brave

Corey was so highly regarded by his colleagues that he was persuaded to teach acting, which he began doing in 1949. He had been a founding member of the Actor’s Laboratory (alongside Dassin, Cobb, Howard Da Silva, Lloyd Bridges, Sam Levene, and Daniel Mann), and incorporated the teachings of Constantin Stanislavsky into his scene study — albeit endeavoring to wean his students off of heavy psychological plumbing with a mind toward embracing more practical techniques, of making specific life-drawn choices, of living for the moment in a tangible physical space rather than lost up in their own heads. But it was his own association with left-leaning New York theatre that got him into trouble in September 1951, when the House on Un-American Activities Committee began its second round of investigations. Fingered by actor Marc Lawrence as a potential Red (Corey had attended Communist Party meetings in New York but never joined), Corey proved himself a hostile witness for HUAC, answering his subpoena in aviator shades and refusing to play ball. Blacklisted, Corey found himself, as had many others before him, persona non grata in Hollywood, or at least within the major studios. One of his last roles before the checks stopped coming in was as a small town sheriff in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE-MEN (1951)…

Corey - Superman vs the Mole Men

 Unemployed at age 37 and with three children to feed, Corey went to work as a carpenter and day laborer. He used his handyman skills to convert his garage into a proper studio and took on more acting students. A veteran of World War II (he had been a combat photographer stationed on the aircraft carrier Yorktown and put his life on the line to snap pictures of an attempted kamikaze attack in May 1945), Corey also used the GI Bill to go back to school, studying speech therapy at UCLA. Unlike a lot of blacklisted actors (among them, his accuser, Marc Lawrence) who left the States to find work overseas, Corey stayed put in America and became an avid amateur camper. In the 50s and 60s, his class register swelled and his work was cited by those in the industry as having made an invaluable contribution to American filmmaking. Despite being pilloried by HUAC, Corey remained good friends with a number of right-wing Hollywood actors, among them Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Marie Windsor, and Pat Boone. It was Boone who put Corey back to work, forcing 20th Century Fox to hire his former mentor for a role in THE YELLOW CANARY (1963).

Corey - True Grit

Once Corey put his foot back over the threshold he never stopped working. Some of my favorite of his performances from the next thirty years include his bit as killer Dick Hickock’s father in IN COLD BLOOD (1967), as the creepy Mr. Ruby in SECONDS (1965, top), as censorious college administrator Willhunt in GETTING STRAIGHT (1970), and all of the performances I mentioned coming in. And he did a lot of television, from THE WILD WILD WEST to THE BIONIC WOMAN and ROSEANNE. I don’t wish to sound disrespectful but Corey was one of those people I thought, for years, must have died… but then he’d just keep turning up in things as wide-flung as BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980), THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), and CREATOR (1985). I have heard, that when CREATOR star Peter O’Toole met Corey for the first time on the set of that film, he bowed at the waist as a gesture of respect. (Another favorite Corey story has Richard Burton reeling off a list of movies he had seen as a kid in which Corey had appeared… like a fanboy.) Supposedly, when Corey was hired to play the small role of a doctor in THE LAST TYCOON (1977), director Elia Kazan approached and attempted to embrace him. A friendly HUAC witness, whose testimony has tarnished his otherwise estimable reputation as a stage and film innovator, Kazan remarked to Corey “Oh Jeff, we’ve been a couple of survivors.” To which Corey replied (with, no doubt, one of those majestic eyebrows arched to high noon) “Well… not on the same boat.”

Corey - Color of Night

Jeff Corey died of complications suffered from a fall in his Malibu home on August 16, 2002, less than a week after turning 88. At the time of his death he still had 25 students registered in his acting class. I haven’t seen more than a third of Corey’s films and TV show appearances and I’m actually kind of glad. It gives me a lot of happy catching up to do. If you’re a Corey fan, share the love and watch a Jeff Corey tonight. If you’re new to his resume, then you have your work cut out for you.

13 Responses People you should know: Jeff Corey
Posted By AL : May 9, 2014 8:53 pm

Thank you for that wonderful shot of this marvelous actor as he appeared in SECONDS…

Posted By Qalice : May 9, 2014 8:54 pm

This is exactly what I read the Morlocks blog for. Jeff Corey’s one of those actors whose name immediately evokes memories of a whole slew of movies and TV shows. Thanks for giving him some space here — I didn’t know that he was a HUAC victim. It sounds like he handled it with as much grace as he could muster, but I’m glad he got to remind Kazan that the latter was a stool pigeon. And I’m glad he got to share his talent with so many younger actors who still carry on!

Posted By kingrat : May 9, 2014 11:41 pm

Thanks for this outstanding tribute. I love Jeff Corey in SECONDS. No one else could have played the part as well.

Posted By Richard Brandt : May 10, 2014 12:16 am

Jeff Corey is one of those actors I love to spot in a bit part, even a wordless one, in an old movie. His great roles are none the diminished for it.

Posted By James Nichols : May 12, 2014 12:42 am

A gentle reminder that a kamikaze attack on the Yorktown in October of 1945 was unlikely as the Japanese had already surrendered.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 12, 2014 7:20 am

That was bad editing on my part. He was commended in October 1945 for his bravery aboard the Yorktown.

Posted By swac44 : May 12, 2014 6:44 pm

For some reason, he reminds me a bit of John Turturro, and I too first thought of Seconds when I saw Corey’s name in the post title. Even though I’d just recently watched him in an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. Running through his IMDb listing, I’m most curious to see him in Impasse, as a character named “Wombat”, a 1969 Burt Reynolds vehicle I’d never heard of before, about a quest for gold in the Philippines, but which I see is available through MGM/UA’s MOD program. How could that not be a good time?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : May 12, 2014 7:20 pm

Impasse used to play on TV a lot back in the 70s.

Posted By swac44 : May 12, 2014 7:25 pm

I probably came across it on one of the local movie matinee TV shows, but don’t recall ever seeing it. The one that kept popping up was Skullduggery where Burt Reynolds and Susan Clark discover the missing link in the wilds of New Guinea.

Posted By robbushblog : May 12, 2014 8:05 pm

I always think of Jeff Corey as “The murderer Tom Chaney” in True Grit, which I have seen I don’t know how many times. He always seemed to be older in his movies than he was in real life.

Posted By Rich Procter : May 12, 2014 10:00 pm

Great interview with Corey in the (must have) book “Tender Comrades.” Corey comes off as funny, self-effacing and smart. At one point he mentions how much he likes seeing himself in old movies. One of them is “You’ll Find Out,” a Kay Kyser musical. (Sorry, it just makes me laugh to think of one of the great screen actor in movie history watching himself thesp with Kay Kyser (and Bela Lugosi!)

Posted By Griffith Wm. Kadnier : December 11, 2014 8:39 am

Thanks for the article!

I had the good fortune to be one of Jeff’s students in the mid-70′s when he ran the Prof Actors Workshop out of a storefront/studio in the valley. (I actually auditioned for him in his garage!)

I still have fond memories of his classes, and enjoy his performances more and more, with passing time.

He helped me greatly with character work (I’m principally a VO artist), and I am forever grateful to him for his knowledge & friendship.

Posted By tolly devlin : May 27, 2015 3:51 pm

Though I have admired his work in many films his role as Mr. Ruby in Seconds always brings a smile to my face. Great article.

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