By Fred Muenz
Every year we watch anxiously as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscars to actors and actresses, producers, directors, screen writers, musicians and technical people involved in every aspect of motion picture production. But, to my mind, one especially important category is left out. The Academy simply does not have an award for the best “heavy”, the meanest, nastiest bad guy in a film. Therefore, presented here are my nominees for all-time best Bad Guy in a Motion Picture:
For his outstanding performance as Wilmer “the gunsel” in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), the first nomination goes to Elisha Vanslyck Cook Jr. Often referred to as the screen’s lightest “heavy”, Cook was born in San Francisco in December, 1903, but raised in Chicago. As a young teenager he worked in theaters selling programs in the lobby. He soon caught the “acting bug” and by age 14, was appearing in vaudeville and with local stock companies. Making his way to New York, he finally made his Broadway debut in 1926. After years of small Broadway roles, he was finally noticed by playwright Eugene O’Neill, who cast him in a major role in his production of Ah Wilderness, which ran for two years. Between Broadway roles, Cook had taken small parts in several films, and in 1936 made the move to Hollywood, thus beginning a 50 year film career playing weaklings, sadistic losers and hoods, who were usually killed off by the end of the film. After the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted in the army, where his record listed him as being 5’5” tall and weighing 125 pounds. Although married twice, he had no children. A loner by nature, when not working he spent his time at his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Whenever he was needed for a film role, the studio would send a messenger to get him. In the 1950’s, he began appearing in various TV crime dramas, with his most famous recurring role as the crime boss “Ice Pick” on Magnum P.I. The last surviving member of the cast of THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook died of a stroke in May, 1995, at age 91.
Our second nomination goes to Raymond Hart Massey, for his chilling performance as sadistic killer Jonathan Brewster (a role created for Boris Karloff) in the comedy ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). Born into great wealth in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in August, 1896, he was the son of an American mother who could trace her lineage back to the Revolutionary War, and a Canadian father who owned the Massey-Ferguson Tractor Company. After leaving college, he joined the Canadian army field artillery during World War I, where he was severely wounded in Belgium in 1916. In August, 1918, he was called back to service and joined the 4,000-man Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force and was sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. While in Russia, he was ordered by his commanding officer to organize entertainment for the troops occupying Vladivostok. This was his first taste of performing. Upon his return to Canada, he joined the family company, but the call of the theater was too much. With the reluctant permission of his family, he set out to pursue a career on the stage. After several years of local productions, he made his London stage debut in 1922, and his first film appearance in 1928. After moving to Hollywood, he became famous playing several American historical figures, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late President, had seen Massey perform early in his career and remarked that he sounded very much like his father. Massey went on to receive an Oscar nomination for one of his four performances as Lincoln. At the outbreak of World War II, he travelled to Canada and rejoined the army. Receiving a commission as a Major, he was wounded again in 1943, and invalided out of the army. In 1944, he finally became an American citizen. Raymond Massey died of pneumonia in July, 1983. He was 86.
Our final nomination goes to Karl Gerhart (Gert) Frobe for his performance as the sinister Auric Goldfinger in GOLDFINGER (1964). For this nomination, we must also include British actor Michael Collins for part of the award, since he voiced the Goldfinger role, due to Frobe’s poor knowledge of English and his thick German accent. He was born in Oberplanitz, Saxony, Germany, in February, 1913 and, at the age of 16, joined the Nazi Party. Apparently becoming disillusioned with Nazi ideology, he finally left the party in 1937. A violinist, his early stage appearances were in cabarets and musical theater. In 1944, the Nazi’s closed down all German theaters, and Frobe was drafted into the army, where he served for the last few months of the war. After the war, he turned to films and gained fame playing a German character called the equivalent of “Average Joe”, while appearing in occasional American and British films which called for a German speaker. In the 1960’s, he appeared in THE LONGEST DAY (1962), before being cast in GOLDFINGER. Because of Frobe’s Nazi past, GOLDFINGER was originally banned in Israel, until a Jewish family came forward to reveal that they and others had been hidden by Frobe during the war, saving their lives. Gert Frobe died of a heart attack in September, 1988. He was 75.
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