Jeff Corey was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1914. He was developing a reputation as a first class character actor when his caree was curtailed by the witchhunt during the House of Un-American Activities Committee. During his blacklist he started an actors studio which was very successful. He then returned to movies in middle age. His films include “Home of the Brave”, “My Friend Flicka”, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “In Cold Blood”. He died in Santa Monica in 2002.
“The Guardian” obituary:
The reverberations that emanated from the House of Un-American Activities committee, which investigated so-called communist influence in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are still being felt. It affected the lives of many who worked in the film industry. Yet it could be argued that something positive emerged after Jeff Corey, who has died aged 88, was blacklisted in 1951.
Corey had appeared in more than 50 films in small, often uncredited, roles before he was forced to quit acting in films and television for 12 years. During that period, he became one of the most influential of acting teachers; his students included James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Jane Fonda, James Coburn, Leonard Nimoy, Barbra Streisand, Richard Chamberlain, Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson, who came to Corey as a rebellious 18-year-old, recalled that Corey’s greatest help was stimulating his mind. But there was one occasion when Corey, asking the young actor to “show me more poetry”, received the rebuff, “maybe, Jeff, you don’t see the poetry I’m showing you.” On the whole, Corey, unlike the Method School, did not urge students to delve too deeply into their subconscious. Nevertheless, he created improvisational exercises that allowed actors to engage with their imagination.
His intelligent approach is exemplified by the advice he gave to Kirk Douglas on Spartacus. “Kirk was playing the great leader with a lot of panache, and I said: ‘You’re a slave from generations of slaves. What do you know about leading? You should be struggling to find a leader’s voice and actions’. And he said, ‘by God, you’re right’.”
Corey was born into a working-class Brooklyn family. After high school, he participated in the leftist Federal Theater Project and attended some Communist party meetings, but never joined. It was this activity that was dredged up by the HUAAC two decades later. In the 1930s, Corey worked as a sewing-machine salesman before getting the part of a spear carrier in Leslie Howard’s Broadway production of Hamlet and was promoted to play Rosencrantz on tour. Corey continued to do stage work after arriving in Hollywood in 1940, helping to establish the Actors Lab. He made a less than prestigious debut in films as a game-show contestant, who has to sing a song while stuffing his mouth full of crackers in the creaky Kay Kyser film You’ll Find Out (1940). More walk-ons in B films followed, before he joined the Navy in 1943 as a combat photographer assigned to the USS Yorktown. In October 1945 he received the following citation from the Secretary of the Navy: “His sequence of a Kamikaze attempt on the Carrier Yorktown, done in the face of grave danger, is one of the great picture sequences of the war in the Pacific.”
Back in Hollywood in 1946, Corey picked up where he left off with uncredited bits and occasional speaking parts. Gradually, his rodent features, bushy eyebrows and longish nose, got him bigger parts as sinister or craven characters. In Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), he was a shady gangster, and in Jules Dassin’s prison drama Brute Force (1947), he was the informer who meets his end by being tied to the front of a truck and pushed into a hail of police bullets. In contrast, in Home of the Brave (1949), Corey played the sympathetic shrink who, while analysing a black soldier, uncovers a story of racial prejudice in the US army.
Although it is doubtful whether Corey would ever have had leading roles, the parts he was getting were becoming bigger and better when he was blacklisted at the age of 37 for refusing to name names in front of the committee. Because he had a wife and three daughters to support, he worked as a labourer for a while. The GI Bill then enabled him to take a degree in speech therapy at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Corey then converted his garage into a stage and started his acting classes. Word of mouth got him students and by the mid-1950s, he was the acting coach most in demand in Hollywood. Later, with the blacklist being eased, Corey returned to feature films and television, in both of which he was extremely active in supporting roles. Among his more memorable cinematic performances was the corrupt bishop acting out his sexual fantasies in The Balcony (1963), based on Jean Genet’s play; his wild-eyed wino menacing Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964); the counsellor who helps turn a middle-aged banker (John Randolph, another blacklisted actor) into Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966); the understanding sheriff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a role he reprised a decade later in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days; the nasty killer of Kim Darby’s father in True Grit (1969), and Wild Bill Hickock in Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).
Corey was even more active on television in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a household face by turning up as a guest on almost any TV series one could mention from Bonanza to Lou Grant, and played a lawyer in Hell Town, with his former student, Robert Blake.
Corey is survived by his wife of 64 years, and his three daughters.
Jeff Corey, actor and teacher; born August 10 1914; died August 16 2002
The above “Guardian ” obituary can be also be accessed online here.