Friday, January 29, 2016
Who was Jeff Corey?
Jeff Corey, a character actor who was barred from his field in the 1950's because of past association with the Communist Party and then became a prominent Hollywood acting instructor, died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 88 and lived in Malibu.
Among his acting students were a college freshman named Carol Burnett and an 18-year-old smart aleck named Jack Nicholson. Shortly before his death in 1955, James Dean studied with him.
Mr. Corey himself appeared in around 100 feature films, notably "Little Big Man" (1970), in which he played the part of Wild Bill Hickock opposite Dustin Hoffman. He was on many television shows.
With his bushy brows, craggy nose and instantly recognizable voice, he played characters ranging from heavies in postwar thrillers like "The Killers" in 1946 (an uncredited role as Blinky Franklin) to the sheriff in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969.
He was born in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on Aug. 10, 1914. After graduating from public high school, he attended the Feagin School of Drama and participated in the Depression-era Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration.
During this period, he associated with left-leaning members of the theatrical community like John Randolph, Elia Kazan and Jules Dassin. He attended some Communist Party meetings, but never joined.
He was supporting himself as a sewing-machine salesman when he got a part as a spear carrier in Leslie Howard's critically acclaimed production of "Hamlet" on Broadway and was promoted to the part of Rosencrantz.
After several minor Broadway roles he drove a Model A Ford to Hollywood. He had begun to get movie roles when World War II started, and he joined the Navy.
After the war, he was working steadily, with seven movies in 1950 alone, when he was summoned to a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He not only refused to name names but also offered an acting critique of the previous witness. He was promptly blacklisted and did not work in films or television for 12 years.
Friends advised him to start an acting class, so he converted his garage into a small stage. About 30 people showed up for the first session, each agreeing to pay $10 a month for two classes a week.
He appeared in some California theatrical productions but also worked as a laborer and used the G.I. bill to earn a degree in speech therapy from the University of California at Los Angeles.
In addition, he took his family all over the United States on camping trips.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Hope; his daughters, Jane, of Elk, Calif., Eve Corey Polling of Atlanta and Emily, of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.
Though he never advertised, his school acquired cachet in Hollywood. Participants included Barbra Streisand, Anthony Perkins, Shirley Knight, Rita Moreno, Richard Chamberlain and Robin Williams.
Mr. Corey combined many approaches to acting. He did not urge students to delve deeply into their subconscious but rather to create a deeply imagined subtext for each character. He said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1986 that too much concentration on inner feelings could lead to "emotional hernia."
When Kirk Douglas consulted him about playing Spartacus, Mr. Corey recalled the conversation in an interview with The Financial Times in 1995:
"He 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.' "
Mr. Nicholson said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1986 that Mr. Corey's greatest help was stimulating his mind.
"You can't change the world, but you can make the world think," Mr. Nicholson said.
The blacklist ban had eased by 1960, when he got a small role in an episode of "The Untouchables" on television. He returned to movies in 1962, getting a role in the 1963 film "The Yellow Canary" with the help of Pat Boone, one of his students.
Over the next three decades he performed in many major films, including "In Cold Blood" and "True Grit." As late as 1997 he appeared on television.
Griffin Fariello in his book "Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition" (Norton, 1995), recalled one of Mr. Corey's frustrations while blacklisted: his students kept telling him studios were "looking for a Jeff Corey type."
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