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Edward G. Robinson

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

Of all the actors from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” from the 1930s to the 1960s, Edward G. Robinson, a short, squat, Romanian-born fellow with the face of a pug, might have been the unlikeliest star. Robinson, born Emmanuel Goldenberg – the middle initial “G” in his stage name stands for his real surname – began his acting career in New York’s Yiddish theater in 1913, moved to Broadway and then became a near fixture as the go-to mob boss chomping on a big cigar.

A Big-Time Smoker

Robinson was more of a pipe smoker during his life. He even had a pipe tobacco blend named after him. Still, he did thoroughly enjoy cigars, according to his relatives. Robinson’s son, Manny, wrote in his autobiography, My Father, My Son, that his dad smoked anything he could get his hands on. Robinson favored Cuban H. Upmanns, but he didn’t turn his nose up if you gave him a Romeo y Julieta, Punch, or Montecristo, according to his granddaughter, Francesca.

Making It in the Movies

Robinson began his film career in 1916 with the role of “factory worker.” His first role as a criminal came in The Night Ride in 1930, playing “Tony Garrota,” who is implicated in a double murder when his cigarettes are found at the crime scene.

The Big Break

Robinson got his big break, and on the road to being somewhat typecast, when he won the role of a mobster who rose from the bottom to become the well-dressed boss in 1931’s Little Caesar. He apparently was chosen over Clark Gable. Robinson plays cigar-smoking “Caesar Enrico ‘Rico’ Bandello.” As a fine example of the era’s movie morality, things end badly for Robinson’s character. At the end, Bandello, gunned down behind a billboard, utters, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” It was, but it was not the end of Robinson.

Perfecting the Use of His Cigar

Being in a movie as the bad guy opposite Humphrey Bogart’s good guy might not sound like a good career move, but Robinson’s appearance as “Johnny Rocco” in Key Largo is one of my favorites of all time. Rocco had been exiled to Cuba some years earlier but escapes and hides out in a Key Largo hotel where he and his crew hold the other guests and workers (including a very young Lauren Bacall) hostage as a hurricane is approaching. Throughout the movie, we see Robinson using his cigar as a prop, something he did in many other pictures (check him out in The Cincinnati Kid, with Steve McQueen).

With Bogart as the hero, well, you can just imagine how the story ends for Robinson’s character.

Personal Troubles

To write about Edward G. Robinson without mentioning that he was implicated in the Hollywood Blacklisting scandals, 1947 to 1960, would be unfair. Washington, DC, went crazy in hunting out alleged Communists, and a large focus was placed on the movie business. Robinson was accused of being a Communist, but in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said he’d been duped. Still, he named names, including that of his friend, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Robinson was “greylisted,” meaning he could get work, but only with lower-quality studios and productions. Robinson’s story, though not in full, is presented in the 2015 movie, Trumbo.

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