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Jack Gilford

Jack Gilford in 1986
Born July 25, 1908(1908-07-25)
New York, New York
Died June 4, 1990 (aged 81)
New York, New York
Spouse(s) Madeline Lee Gilford[1]
(1949-1990; his death)

Jack Gilford (July 25, 1908 – June 4,[2] 1990) was an American actor on Broadway, films and television.


Early life

Gilford was born Jacob Aaron Gellman on the lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, and grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His parents were Romanian-born Jewish immigrants Sophie "Susksa" (née Jackness), who owned a restaurant and was also a bootlegger, and Aaron Gellman, a furrier.[3] Gilford was the second of three sons, with an older brother Murray ("Moisha") and a younger brother Nathaniel ("Natie").

Gilford was discovered working in a pharmacy by his mentor Milton Berle. While working in amateur theater, he competed with other talented youngsters, including a young Jackie Gleason. He started doing imitations and impersonations. His first appearance on film was a short entitled Midnight Melodies where he did his imitations of George Jessel, Rudy Vallee and Harry Langdon. He developed some unique impressions that became his trademarks — most notably, one of "split pea soup coming to a furious boil" using only his face. Other unusual impressions he created were a fluorescent light going on in a dark room, John D. Rockefeller Sr. imitating Jimmy Durante, and impressions of animals.


In 1938, Gilford worked as the master of ceremonies in the first downtown New York integrated nightclub, "Cafe Society". He was a unique blend of the earlier style of the Yiddish theater, Vaudeville and Burlesque and started the tradition of monology such as later comedians Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen used.

One of Gilford's specialties was pantomime, and this talent was put to good use by director George Abbott when he cast Gilford as the silent King Sextimus in Once upon a Mattress (Off-Broadway, 1959). Gilford shared the stage with a young Carol Burnett in this production, and reprised his performance with her in two separate televised versions of the show, in 1964 and in 1972.

Gilford won many industry awards. He was nominated for several Tony Awards for best supporting actor as Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963), and for his role as Herr Schultz in Cabaret (1966). He was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in (1973) for his role as Phil Green in Save the Tiger (his co-star Jack Lemmon won for Best Actor).

Gilford's career was derailed for a time during the 1950s and the McCarthy Era. He was an activist who campaigned for social change, integration and labor unions. He was quite active both socially and politically in left wing causes, as was his wife, actress Madeline Lee Gilford.[1] Gilford and his wife were implicated for their alleged sympathies by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy Era. Gilford and Madeline were specifically named by choreographer, Jerome Robbins, in his testimony to the HUAC.[1][4] Gilford and his wife were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.[4] The couple had difficulty finding work during much of the rest of the 1950s due to the Hollywood blacklist.[4] Jack and Madeline often had to borrow money from friends to make ends meet.[4]

Gilford once again found work towards the end of the 1950s and early 1960s with the end of the McCarthy Era. He made his comeback as Hysterium in the 1962 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.[4] He co-starred in the play with his close friend, Zero Mostel.[4] Ironically, this particular production was also choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who had previously testified against Jack Gilford before the HUAC in 1953.[4]

He managed to become successful mostly through roles on the Broadway stage, such as Drink To Me Only, Romanoff and Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. He later enjoyed success in film and television, as well as a series of nationwide television commercials for Cracker Jack.[4] The most memorable of these commercials featured Gilford walking through the sleeping car of a train when he discovers two passengers passing a box of Cracker Jack back and forth between their sleeping compartments and decides to surreptitiously intercept.

Some of Gilford's most memorable work was done for series television, where he made numerous guest appearances. Some notable examples:

  • Get Smart (1969), playing Simon the Likeable
  • Soap (1979), recurring role as Saul, a 4000-year-old man abducted by aliens
  • Taxi, (1979, 1981), two appearances as "Joe Reiger", the cold, uncaring father of Judd Hirsch's "Alex Reiger" character. In one of these episodes, Gilford reprised his old "pea soup coming to a furious boil" impression.

He also appeared in The Golden Girls, (1988, 1990), playing "Max Weinstock", The Defenders, All in the Family, The Duck Factory, Rhoda, Night Court, Car 54, Where Are You?.

In 1979, Gilford won a Daytime Emmy award for his guest appearance on the children’s series Big Blue Marble.

Gilford and his wife, Madeline Lee, created a Jack Gilford Special in 1981 for the Canadian television channel, CBC. At this time after forty years of night club performing, Gilford started to perform his one man shows in the 1980s. This included appearances at the Paramount Theater in Denver, as well as at the Town Hall NYC.

Gilford also was featured in a series of commercials for Bank of the Commonwealth in the Detroit area in the early-mid 1980's.

One of his last performances was on the American Broadcasting Company's thirtysomething as an enigmatic rabbi.

In July 2008, Josh Radnor and Jennifer Westfeldt[5] starred in the premiere of the play FINKS based on Gilford and Madeline Lee's experience with HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist [6] written by Gilford's son Joe Gilford and directed by Charlie Stratton for New York Stage and Film.

Personal life

Gilford met actress (and later producer) Madeline Lee at political meetings in 1947.[1] Although both were married to other people at the time, they divorced their spouses during the late 1940s[4] and were married in 1949,[1] remaining together for 40 years until his death in 1990. He and Lee raised three children: Lisa Gilford (from Madeline's previous marriage), now a producer; Joseph Edward Gilford, a screenwriter, playwright and director; and Sam Max Gilford, an artist and archivist.

Following a three-year battle with stomach cancer, he died in his Greenwich Village home in 1990, aged 81. His wife, Madeline Lee Gilford, died on April 14, 2008.[1]

Broadway stage appearances


Year Film Role Notes
1944 Hey, Rookie Specialty
1944 Reckless Age Joey Bagle
1959 TV: The World of Sholem Aliechem Bontshe Shveig
1963 TV: Cowboy and the Tiger Tiger
1964 TV: Once Upon a Mattress King Sextimus
1966 The Daydreamer Papa Andersen
1966 Mister Buddwing Mr. Schwartz
1966 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Hysterium
1967 Enter Laughing Mr. Foreman
1967 Who's Minding the Mint? Avery Dugan
1967 The Incident Sam Beckerman
1969 TV: Arsenic and Old Lace Dr. Jonas Salk
1970 Catch-22 "Doc" Daneeka
1971 They Might Be Giants Wilbur Peabody
1972 TV: Of Thee I Sing Vice President Throttlebottom
1972 TV: Once Upon a Mattress King Sextimus
1973 Save the Tiger Phil Greene
1976 Tubby the Tuba voice: The Herald
1976 Short: Max Max
1976 Harry and Walter Go to New York Mischa
1977 The Doonesbury Special voice
1980 Cheaper to Keep Her Stanley Bracken
1980 Wholly Moses Tailor
1981] TV: Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood Wally
1981 Caveman Gog
1983 Anna to the Infinite Power Dr. Henry Jelliff
1983 TV: Happy Bernie Nelson
1985 Cocoon Bernard "Bernie" Lefkowitz
1985 TV: Hostage Flight Mr. Singer
1986 TV: Young Again The Angel
1988 Arthur 2: On the Rocks Mr. Butterworth
1988 Cocoon: The Return Bernard "Bernie" Lefkowitz


External links

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