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Elisha Cook Jr., 91; Classic Movie Villain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elisha Cook Jr., the shifty-eyed movie gangster who often fell victim to his own violence and will forever be remembered as Wilmer in “The Maltese Falcon,” has died.

A spokesman for the Screen Actors Guild said the veteran of more than 100 films, ranging from “Her Unborn Child” in 1930 to television’s “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” in 1984 was 91 when he died Thursday in Big Pine, Calif.

He had been in failing health for several months.

Cook was the quintessential villain of the silver screen. Slightly built (he was known as “the screen’s lightest heavy”), he portrayed hired guns, vengeful ex-convicts and quietly psychotic killers in a character-actor career equaled only by such legends as Walter Brennan, Beulah Bondi, John Carradine, Sam Jaffe and a handful of others.

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“Falcon” was Cook’s--and many others'--favorite movie.

“There wasn’t one decent person in the whole film,” he said of the Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor detective thriller in which he was a sycophantic, frustrated killer.

The rest of his legacy also involves some of the best films Hollywood ever produced: “Tin Pan Alley,” “Sergeant York,” “Ball of Fire,” “I Wake Up Screaming,” “In This Our Life,” “Dillinger,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Shane,” “Welcome to Hard Times,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Champ” and “Hammett,” his last feature picture in 1982.

Although Cook made his living portraying cowards and victims, he was an affable man off-screen, with a sense of humor about himself and the world.

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He told author Jordan Young that when playwright Owen Davis Sr. heard he was going from the Broadway stage to Hollywood he told Cook: “Junior, you’re going to go out there and make a lot of real bad pictures. . . . If you want to be intelligent, play small parts, because then they can never blame you.”

Cook said he never forgot that advice.

He was born to a theatrical family in San Francisco and first worked in the theater selling programs in the lobby. He said the job he liked best as a young man was being stage manager for a tour of the play “Thank You.”

“I got $25 for setting up the show and $70 loading the baggage,” he said.

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Cook appeared onstage with Edward G. Robinson, Ethel Barrymore, Ruth Gordon and Bogart.

In 1933 he auditioned for playwright Eugene O’Neill, who cast him in “Ah, Wilderness” in a role that made Cook a minor star.

The first film that brought him similar notice was John Ford’s “Submarine Patrol” in 1938, and its success assured his own.

He was the stoolie killed trying to leak a tip to Bogart in “The Big Sleep,” the henpecked husband of Marie Windsor in “The Killing” and the slimy agent renting an apartment to Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.”

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But it was his performance as Wilmer, Sydney Greenstreet’s twisted but not trusted henchman in “Falcon,” that will endear him to film fanatics forever.

He, Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet shot 950 feet--10 minutes--of film in a single take in the scene in which Cook is begging to kill Bogart. Cook as Wilmer became so animated about not being able to shoot Sam Spade (Bogart) that he cried.

Later in his career, Cook was seen often on TV, in “The Honeymooners,” “Star Trek,” “The A-Team” and other popular series.

In one of the few chances he had to play a good guy, he was given the role of the defiant homesteader killed by Jack Palance in “Shane.”

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He recalled lying in the dirt, feigning death, when director George Stevens approached.

“You dumb son of a bitch!” Stevens hollered. “See what happens when you stand up for a principle?”

Cook has no known survivors.


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