The Cheaper the Crook

The Crime Films of Elisha Cook, Jr.

“… noir’s most valuable supporting player.”
Jake Hinkson in Noir Goon Squad

“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists… I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.’ ”
Cook recalls the life of a character actor

Too many cooks? Never. From his first memorable appearance in John Huston’s classic The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer, the hapless diminutive gunsel in the over-sized overcoat who Bogey constantly thwarts, Elisha Cook, Jr. went on to star in a long line of distinguished hard-boiled, noir and detective films, even eventually, reprising the role of Wilmer in 1975’s The Black Bird.

He had over 200 film and television credits, but he usually played a loser of some sort, and at five-foot-two, with those big, buggy eyes and voice that sounded like he’d spent his entire childhood getting punched in the throat, life did not usually treat the characters he played kindly.

You saw Elisha in a film, you knew he probably wouldn’t be the one walking into the sunset with the girl as the closing credits roll… in fact there was always a pretty good chance the “funny little guy” wouldn’t be walking at all, having achieved permanent room temperature a reel or two earlier.

But he sure had a long run.

FILMS

  • Stranger on the Third Floor (1940, RKO)
    A thin nasty slice of German Expressionism, American-style, this 63-minute film is considered by many to be the “first true film noir.” Cook plays a sap falsely accused of murder, in a small but key role. But the one to watch is Cook’s fellow noir icon, Peter Lorre, as a creepy murder suspect. The two would team up again in the next year’s The Maltese Falcon.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941, Warner Brothers)
    Poor Wilmer. One of the all-time great supporting bits in one of the all-time great P.I. flicks, he plays the hapless gunsel. You almost feel sorry for the little weasel. So young, so doomed.
  • I Wake Up Screaming (1942, 20th Century-Fox)
  • Phantom Lady (1944, Universal)
  • Dillinger (1945)
  • The Big Sleep (1946, Warner Brothers)
    Cook plays Harry Jones, that “funny little guy” who is forced to drink poison and does so — in the name of love, no less. While a helpless Marlowe watches.
  • The Falcon’s Alibi (1946, RKO)
  • Born To Kill (1947, RKO)
    In this one, he played Lawrence Tierney’s “pug-ugly” roommate.
  • Fall Guy (1947, Monogram)
  • The Gangster (1947, King Brothers)
  • I, the Jury (1953, Parklane Productions)
  • Shane (1953)
    Okay, it’s a Western. But in oh so many ways, it’s a crime film. And yes, the poor little guy gets blown away again.
  • The Killing (1956, Harris-Kubrick)
    Another memorable performance (and, arguably, his finest), in Stanley Kubrick’s first film — a taut thriller about a racetrack heist. Ah, the things we do for love.
  • Baby Face Nelson (1957, Fryman-ZS)
  • Plunder Road (1957, Regal Films)
  • The Outfit (1973, MGM)
    Based on one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels.
  • The Black Bird (1975, Columbia)
  • St. Ives (1976, Warner Brothers)
  • Tom Horn (1980, Warner Bros.)
  • Hammett (1983, Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers)

TELEVISION

Through it all, Cook continued to work. When the noir cycle ended, and television became the new game in town, Cook began to appear on the small screen, in everything from Wagon Train and Gunsmoke to Batman and Star Trek. But he also popped in plenty of guest spots and cameos in such crime and detective shows as:

  • Perry Mason (1957-66)
  • The Untouchables (1959-63)
  • Peter Gunn (1958-61)
  • Staccato (1960, P.I. television series)
    • “Solomon (February 11, 1960)
  • Thriller (1960-62, CBS)
    Anthology series
    67 60-minute episodes
    Host: Boris Karloff

    • “The Fatal Impulse” (November 29, 1960)
      Based on a story by John D. MacDonald
      Cook has a small bit as a killer attempting to flee a botched assassination who slips a small bomb into the bag of a woman in an office building elevator. The police try to find her before the bomb goes off.
  • The Fugitive (1963-67)
  • The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68)
  • Mannix (1967-75, CBS)
  • “The Green Man” (October 20, 1974)
    Cook plays Herbie, a counterfeiter on the run from almopst everyone.
  • Magnum P.I. (1981-88, CBS)
    Guest-starred and later had recurring role as “Ice Pick.”
  • This Girl for Hire (1983, CBS)
    Cook plays “Eddie” in this made-for-TV flick/failed pilot that star Bess Armstrong as arguably the world’s cutest P.I.

RELATED LINKS

List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.

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