Star of the Month: Edward G. Robinson
May 1, 2020 | by Shannon
Edward G. Robinson Epitomizes the American Dream, Loves Cigars and Art, Overcomes the Blacklist, and is Nothing Like His Gangster Screen Image.
Edward G. Robinson is unquestionably one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Best known for his numerous portrayals of gangsters onscreen, Robinson’s acting skill was such that he was just as convincing playing the moral good guy as he was playing the crime kingpin.
With his unconventional looks and small stature, Edward G. Robinson proved that you didn’t have to look like Clark Gable to be a leading man with an almost kinetic magnetism: despite his diminutive size, on screen Edward G. Robinson was a giant.
A Recent Appreciation
Considering I’ve been obsessed with Classic Hollywood since I was nine, I became a Robinson fan relatively recently. It took re-watching Key Largo (1948) and Double Indemnity (1944) as an adult for me to finally appreciate this dynamic actor. Now, if I watch a Robinson film, it doesn’t matter who’s in the scene with him: I watch Eddie.
Contrary to his more often than not tough guy image on screen, Robinson was a cultured, sensitive man off camera. Though he was not born in the United States, few stars were ever more patriotic to an adopted country. And despite his blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, Robinson never lost his firm belief in America, and the American Dream his life exemplified.
If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating Hollywood star, I highly recommend Robinson’s autobiography, All My Yesterdays [aff. link] , and Little Caesar: A Biography of Edward G. Robinson by Alan L. Gansberg [aff. link]
Here are a few things about Edward G. Robinson you didn’t know:
He Was Born in Romania
Robinson was born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Romania, December 12, 1893. One of five boys, some of Eddie’s fondest memories of youth include the early tastes of culture his father Morris gave him in Bucharest. Morris and Manny, as Edward’s family called him, would venture out of Bucharest’s Jewish section for a pastry at their favorite bakery, or to catch a silent film. Despite the safety risk of leaving the Jewish section, these outings with his father instilled in young Manny the adventuresome spirit and zest for life that friends of Edward G. Robinson, the movie star, would say were at the core of his being.
But Morris and Sarah Goldenberg knew that turn of the century Bucharest offered a limit future for their children: as Jews, their sons would not be permitted an education, and job opportunities would be severely limited. After Manny’s older brother Jack suffered brain damage at the hands of an anti-Semitic mob—injuries that would never completely heal, and eventually lead to his early death—the Goldenberg family made the transatlantic journey to America.
Manny was nine years old when the Goldenbergs arrived in New York City.
He Spoke 7 Languages (At Least)
Having been raised in a Romanian-Jewish home, Edward G. Robinson was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian and German. When he arrived in New York City in 1903, Robinson didn’t speak a word of English. But with his natural knack for languages, young Manny would soon speak English without a hint of an accent.
Robinson also spoke French, Russian, and Italian.
How amazing is that?!!!
Eddie’s talent for languages would eventually help him earn his big break on Broadway, and prove an invaluable skill for his contributions to World War II.
He Was A Lifelong Student
As you’d probably expect from a man who spoke over seven languages, young Manny Goldenberg was an exceptional student. Manny loved to read, and spent his time after school at New York City’s Astor Place Library. As a young man, he attended the City College of New York (CCNY), where he studied to be an attorney. Acting would prove the greater passion, and Manny would eventually leave CCNY for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Edward G. Robinson’s love of learning continued even after his formal education ended. As Bill Haber, Eddie’s friend and (later) agent said of Robinson,
“He had an overview and joy of life more than most people I remember. You’d sit with him and he’d do five things at once. I’ve known few people who were as interested in life…Eddie was someone you could care about very quickly.”
I’m sure Robinson’s love of learning is what kept him youthful, and undoubtedly contributed to the steady flow of prestigious film work Robinson enjoyed even in his later years.
He Started on Broadway
Though Robinson is best remembered for his film work, his acting career started on Broadway. He got his big break in 1915 with Under Fire, a play that made use of Eddie’s linguistic skills through the many characters of different cultures he played in the show.
Eddie enjoyed a successful stage career, and eventually Hollywood came calling in 1928, when he traveled to California to perform his Broadway show The Racket. It was Eddie’s first gangster role on stage, and the studio big wigs were impressed. Suddenly Eddie had contract offers from just about every studio in Hollywood.
He eventually signed with Warner Bros in 1930. Since Robinson was already a Broadway star, he never experienced the indentured servitude to his studio other stars would complain about. For the length of Robinson’s career at Warner Bros, he always had some degree of script approval, a privilege coveted by other stars.
Robinson’s star power was such that by the time he signed his 1939 contract with Warner Bros, he was guaranteed $85,000 per film, and the lead male role in each film he made. Robinson was nearly fifty years old by this stage of his career, far past the age of most actors playing lead roles. It really speaks to his value, and the prestige and box office he brought Warner Bros, that Robinson was able to negotiate such a desirable contract.
He Was Proud of His Roots
Even though Robinson would become a world-renown film star and live among the elite of Beverly Hills, he never forgot where he came from. When Emmanuel Goldenberg was told to change his name to something more “Anglican” at the start of his Broadway career, he retained the “G” for “Goldenberg” as his middle initial to signify his Jewish roots. Robinson remained a lifelong supporter of Israel, even when it was not politically popular.
He Was the Quintessential Gangster
Edward G. Robinson explored his passion for acting in depth as a young man studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It wasn’t long before he realized that his unconventional looks would keep him from the standard leading man roles on Broadway.
As Eddie made the rounds of casting offices, he would often tell agents:
“I’m not so much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.”
And deliver he did! Robinson proved his stage value on Broadway, but was sorely disappointed with his physical appearance on screen, so much so that when Eddie began work on what would have been his first substantial film role, in the silent Fields of Glory, he asked to be replaced after seeing the daily rushes. (There is no record of the film ever being completed after Robinson dropped out.)
When Robinson played his first gangster role in The Racket on Broadway, he finally found his niche. Despite the fact that Eddie was a gentle, cultured man in real life, he could play the perfect hood. As Robinson himself once said about his screen presence:
“Some people have youth, others beauty. I have menace.”
It was this “menacing” quality Robinson projected on screen that led to his breakthrough role in the classic gangster film, Little Caesar (1931). Following the success of Little Caesar, Edward G. Robinson would be a household name. The public’s awareness that Robinson was such a nice guy in real life undoubtedly contributed to his popularity: the juxtaposition of Eddie’s real life graciousness to his kingpin persona intrigued the public, and continues to fascinate fans like me today.
He Lived Beyond His Means
Ok, that sounds bad, but it’s actually a really interesting mentality! I’ll explain:
Eddie’s father Morris Goldenberg would admonish all of his sons to
“Always live beyond your means. It will make you work harder.”
Is it just me, or does that make some sense?
It was a mindset that Eddie took to heart: Robinson was a hard worker his whole life, and spent that hard-earned money on living the good life.
It may seem like an interesting code to live by, but it worked for Edward G. Robinson, who was always traveling the world, always well dressed, and always working hard to get the fulfilling movie roles that would keep him in the money.
He Was Patriotic
After becoming a film star, Edward G. Robinson would say that
“My mother may have given birth in Romania, but I was born the day I set foot on American soil.”
Robinson was proud to be an American, and his actions underscore the patriotism he felt for his adopted country.
His Jewish Romanian roots, coupled with his frequent travels to Europe as an adult, led Robinson to an early awareness of the brewing of World War II in Europe. He was also an early opponent of the Nazi Party, and admonished the US to enter WWII long before the rest of the country agreed.
At forty-eight years old, Robinson was too old to enlist by the time the US entered World War II, but there is no doubt that Eddie’s contributions to the war effort were great.
In 1942, Eddie donated his entire earnings for the year to the USO, retaining only what he needed to pay for taxes. Robinson also donated the $100,000 he made for his work on the 1948 film Larceny to the USO.
Robinson entertained the troops abroad, and was the film star to visit Normandy after D-Day. His gangster impersonations were some of the favorite and most requested among the troops.
Eddie would also contribute to the war effort with his linguistic skills when the Office of War Information asked him to go to England, and read encouraging messages over the radio to the people of occupied countries in Europe. Since he spoke so many languages, Robinson was able to reach thousands. After the war, Eddie would hear from many in the German underground about the hope his broadcasts in German gave them.
He Was Blacklisted
Well, technically Edward G. Robinson was graylisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations into suspected communist activity in Hollywood.
HUAC was actually founded as a “special investigating” committee in 1938 to investigate “subversive” behavior and activities among the general American public. By 1945, HUAC was a standing committee, and in 1947, early fears of a Cold War with the Soviet Union led HUAC to turn its attentions to Hollywood. The intent of the committee was to remove communists and communist sympathizers from positions of power in Hollywood so communist ideology would not influence Americans from the movie screens.
But what actually resulted from HUAC’s accusations, investigations, and hearings was the blacklisting of over 300 directors, actors and screenwriters, who, whether actual communists or merely individuals HUAC suspected to be communists, found themselves unable to find work in Hollywood after their names were smeared.
Edward G. Robinson was one of those names.
After two HUAC hearings—one in 1950 and another in 1952—Robinson finally convinced the committee that he was not, and never had been, a communist. It was Robinson’s innocent membership and donations to several anti-Nazi organizations that turned out to be communist fronts that put him on HUAC’s radar, although committee chairman Francis E. Walter (D-PA) would later admit that HUAC never had any evidence that Robinson was a communist.
Robinson’s career and health suffered greatly from the HUAC accusations, but he was lucky: once the committee cleared his name, Eddie began a very successful second phase of his career as a character actor, paving the way for mature actors and actresses to find choice roles in prestigious films despite the youth culture that is Hollywood.
Art Was His Passion
Robinson’s love of art is legendary. Over the course of his career, Eddie accrued one of the most impressive collections in the world. French Impressionism was his favorite, and he gained a reputation for his expertise on the subject.
Once Eddie was an established Hollywood star after the great success of Little Caesar (1931), he and his wife Gladys would frequently travel to Europe and add to their art collection.
“The art owns us.”
Robinson once joked. Among his collection, Eddie could boast several Pissaros, Monets, four works from Degas’ Dancers, Cezanne’s Black Clock—one of Eddie’s personal favorites, a few Renoirs, and Van Gogh’s Country Road at Seurat.
When he and Gladys divorced in 1956, Robinson had to sell the majority of his collection to pay the high demands of the divorce settlement. The part of his beloved collection that Eddie sold went for $3.25 million.
WOW. Adjusted for inflation, Robinson’s art collection would have been worth about $29 million today! That’s some art collection.
He Loved to Travel
After his success in 1931’s Little Caesar, Robinson and his wife Gladys traveled frequently. Europe was their favorite destination, and Eddie would add to his art collection with each European trip over the years.
For Robinson, one of the most difficult consequences of his wrongful blacklisting was that HUAC would not allow him to renew his passport when it expired, making travel outside of the US impossible.
One of the first things Eddie did when his name was cleared by HUAC in 1952 was to meet with the Director of the Passport Office, where, after swearing yet again that he was not, and never had been, a communist party member, Robinson was able to renew his passport and travel to his beloved Europe once more.
He Loved Cigars
Much like the classic gangster characters of his career, Edward G. Robinson loved cigars. In fact, at the start of his film career, when Eddie was convinced he didn’t have the looks to make it in the movies, the only reason Robinson agreed to make The Bright Shawl (1923) was because it would be filmed in Cuba, where the best cigars were made.
Robinson reportedly smoked 25 cigars a day! Though according to such co-stars as Gena Rowlands, he was always very considerate of when and where he smoked them!
“I never saw him light a cigar without saying, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ Some stars would not be that way.”
He Was Loyal
One of Edward G. Robinson’s most admirable qualities was his loyalty. This trait is evident in Robinson’s faithfulness to his wife Gladys during their marriage, and the support he gave his son Manny during his turbulent adulthood.
Once you were Eddie’s friend, you were his friend for life. His friendship with fellow actor Sam Jaffe is case in point. These two acting greats met as students at CCNY, and remained friends through the ups and downs of their respective careers. If Jaffe ever had a hard time finding work, Robinson always had a way to help. Jaffe once said about his good friend Eddie that
“Wanting to help people ran like a red thread through his life.
What attracted me to him as a friend? He was a wonderful actor. You just had to look at him on stage. And he was very moral.”
Eddie sure sounds like the type of friend anyone would be lucky to have.
Celebrate Edward G. Robinson This Month!
And that wraps up my introduction post to our May Star of the Month, Edward G. Robinson.
Be sure to catch Eddie’s films this month, playing Thursdays on TCM.
Next week we’ll delve into Robinson’s films, starting with the gangster classic that made him a star, 1931’s Little Caesar.
Are you an Edward G. Robinson fan?