Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. (December 26, 1903 – May 18, 1995) was an American character actor who played cheerful, brainy collegiates until he was cast against type as a baby-faced killer in the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon. He went on to play deceptively mild-mannered villains. Cook’s acting career spanned more than 60 years, with roles in productions including The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, House on Haunted Hill, and Rosemary’s Baby.
Early life, stage, and military service
Cook was born in 1903 in San Francisco, California, the son of Elisha Vanslyck Cook Sr., a pharmacist, and grew up in Chicago. He first worked in theater lobbies selling programs, but by the age of 14 he was already performing in vaudeville and stock. As a young man, he traveled and honed his acting skills on stages along the East Coast and in the Midwest before arriving in New York City, where in 1926 he debuted on Broadway in Hello, Lola. Some other Broadway productions in which Cook performed were Henry-Behave (1926), Kingdom of God (1928), Her Unborn Child (1928), Many a Slip (1930), Privilege Car (1931), Lost Boy (1932), Merry-Go-Round (1932), and Chrysalis (1932). Then, in 1933, Eugene O’Neill cast him in the role of Richard Miller in his play Ah, Wilderness, which ran on Broadway for two years. Cook continued to appear on stage during the remainder the 1930s; and although his acting career after that focused increasingly on films and then on television roles, he periodically returned to Broadway, where as late as 1963 he performed as Giuseppe Givola in Bertolt Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
Cook enlisted in the United States Army in Los Angeles, California, on August 15, 1942. According to his enlistment record he stood 5-feet-5-inches tall and weighed 123 pounds. Cook’s military record also documents that his highest level of education by that time was his completion of “3 years of high school.” Many online references, however, state that he had attended “St. Albans College,” “The Chicago Academy of Dramatic Art,” and “The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts,” which had been renamed the Art Institute of Chicago in 1882. Those same references, though, do not provide any dates when Cook reportedly took classes at or graduated from those cited institutions.
Career in film
In 1930, Cook traveled to California, where he made his film debut in Hollywood’s version of the play Her Unborn Child, a motion picture directed by Albert Ray and produced by Windsor Picture Plays Inc.
At Twentieth Century-Fox, Cook made an impression as a bespectacled college freshman with radical ideas in the musical comedy Pigskin Parade (1936). He was also featured in the unofficial sequel, Life Begins in College (1937). Cook remained at Fox for two years, and then began freelancing at other studios. He did return to Fox occasionally in prominent roles: as a songwriter in the Alice Faye-Betty Grable musical Tin Pan Alley (1940), and as a mobster disguised as an old woman in the Laurel and Hardy feature A-Haunting We Will Go (1942). Typical of his early, bookish roles was his turn as a meek screenwriter in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy Hellzapoppin (1941).
After The Maltese Falcon Cook became typecast again, as weaklings or sadistic losers and hoodlums, who in the plots were usually murdered, either being strangled, poisoned or shot. In Universal’s Phantom Lady (1944), he portrays a slimy, intoxicated nightclub-orchestra drummer to memorable effect. He received excellent notices for his portrayal of a happy, breezy disc jockey who turns out to be a homicidal maniac in The Falcon’s Alibi (1946). He also had a substantial, though uncredited role as Bobo in the 1953 film noir production I, the Jury.
In addition to his performance as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon (1941), some of Cook’s other notable roles include the doomed informant Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946), the henchman (Marty Waterman) of the murderous title character in Born to Kill (1947), the pugnacious ex-Confederate soldier ‘Stonewall’ Torrey who is gunned down by Jack Palance in Shane (1953), and George Peatty, the shady, cuckolded husband in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Other films in which he appeared are William Castle’s horror film House on Haunted Hill (1959), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), Blood on the Arrow (1964), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Great Bank Robbery (1969), El Condor (1970), Blacula (1972), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Outfit (1973), Tom Horn (1980), and Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse (1984).
Cook appeared on a wide variety of American television series from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. He played a private detective, Homer Garrity, in an episode of Adventures of Superman television series titled “Semi-Private Eye,” airing for the first time on January 16, 1954. That same year, on April 12, he guest-starred on NBC’s The Dennis Day Show. In 1960, he was cast in the episode “The Hermit” of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys with Walter Brennan. He appeared too in 1960 as Jeremy Hake in the episode “The Bequest” of the ABC western series The Rebel, which starred Nick Adams. He also portrayed the character Gideon McCoy in the 1966 episode “The Night of the Bars of Hell” on The Wild Wild West. He performed as well in the second episode of ABC’s crime drama The Fugitive.
Cook made two guest appearances on the CBS courtroom drama series Perry Mason. In 1958, he played Art Crowley in “The Case of the Pint-Sized Client”, and in 1964 he played Reelin’ Peter Rockwell in “The Case of the Reckless Rockhound”. Cook portrayed lawyer Samuel T. Cogley in the Star Trek 1967 episode “Court Martial”, Isaac Isaacson on the Batman television series, Weasel Craig in Salem’s Lot, and later had a long-term recurring role as Honolulu crime lord “Ice Pick” on CBS’s Magnum, P.I. In 1974 he made a surprise guest appearance on The Odd Couple as government agent Eliot Ness. He appeared too in The Bionic Woman episode “Once a Thief” in 1977.
Toward the end of his life, Cook often played dimwitted or cranky elderly characters. He played a bum in an episode of The A-Team as well as an elderly uncle in an episode of Alf, which was one of his last roles prior to his retirement entirely from acting in 1988, followed by his death seven years later.
Cook was married to singer Mary Gertrude Dunckley (known professionally as Mary Lou Cook of the popular vocal quartet The Merry Macs) from 1928 until their divorce on November 4, 1941. He then married Illinois native Elvira Ann (Peggy) McKenna in 1943. The couple were married for 25 years until they formally divorced in Inyo County, California, in February 1968. They remarried on December 30, 1971. Their second marriage lasted another 19 years until Peggy’s death on December 23, 1990. Various references about Cook state that he had no children from his marriages; yet, his army enlistment record of 1942 documents his marital status as “Divorced, with dependents,” which suggests he may have had a child or children with his first wife, or been responsible for the well being of others.
Cook never became part of the Hollywood social scene, which he held in low regard. His slight build and calm demeanor belied his offscreen status as a rugged outdoorsman. He resided for many years in Bishop, California, but he typically spent his summers at Lake Sabrina in the Sierra Nevada. According to John Huston, who in 1941 directed him in The Maltese Falcon:
[Cook] lived alone up in the High Sierra, tied flies and caught golden trout between films. When he was wanted in Hollywood, they sent word up to his mountain cabin by courier. He would come down, do a picture, and then withdraw again to his retreat.
Elisha Cook, Jr. died of a stroke at age 91, on May 18, 1995, at a nursing home in Big Pine, California. He was the last surviving member of the main cast of The Maltese Falcon.