Ninety years ago today, my great-uncle Jerome Raphel (sometimes spelled in his acting credits as “Jerome Raphael”) was born. Jerry, or “Unc” as he was known in our family, was a colorful character. He had a short but memorable career as an actor in stage productions, films and television shows in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He never became a household name, but he made an undeniable mark on the acting world because of the high caliber of his performances and the respect he earned from his colleagues.
Jerry was born as Joseph Raphel (later changed to “Jerome”) on November 1, 1925. He had two older siblings, Aaron (my mother’s father) and Rebecca (who died before Jerry was born). A New Yorker all his life, Jerry graduated from Boys High School in Brooklyn and attended Rutgers University, receiving his degree in psychology after World War II and holding a membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Prior to his completing his college education, Jerry served as a Marine in the South Pacific during WWII (he signed up when he was underage), surviving the Battle of Iwo Jima. When he became an actor he was part of the artistic, avant-garde milieu in NYC in the 1950s and 60s, including figures from the Beat Generation and theatrical personalities like Judith Malina and Julian Beck, the founders of the Living Theatre, a group to which Jerry belonged. He counted the poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, writer/filmmaker Susan Sontag, psychiatrist Fritz Perls and novelist/psychotherapist Paul Goodman among his friends too.
Jerry’s name appears with the following description in the index of the book Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album (2003): “…began his acting career with the Living Theatre, appearing in Many Loves, The Connection, The Cave at Machpelah, and Tonight We Improvise. He has been in several television dramas and the film version of The Connection. He also played in LeRoi Jones’s The Slave at the St. Mark’s Playhouse.”
Attentive film buffs and scholars might recognize Jerry from the feature films The Connection (1961) and The Cool World (1963), both directed by Shirley Clarke. (In the trailer for The Connection, posted above, Jerry has a speaking part starting at the 0:28-second mark. By the way, a fun fact: my father saw Jerry perform in the original stage version of The Connection, two decades before my parents actually met!) These films are classics of women’s cinema and New York independent cinema from the early 60s; The Cool World was nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, and the film was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994. Jerry also had roles in Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills (1963) and The Double-Barrelled Detective Story (1965), as well as Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), an A-list Western that stars Robert Redford, Katharine Ross and Robert Blake.
Jerry worked with Shirley Clarke because he was a member of the Living Theatre. He toured with the troupe all over the USA and in London. According to the Internet Broadway Database, his Broadway productions include Lorenzo (1963), staged by Arthur Penn and co-starring Alfred Drake, David Opatoshu, Fritz Weaver (a quick note: my mother ran into in Mr. Weaver in Manhattan many years ago – he fondly remembered Jerry and asked how he was), Carmen Mathews and Herb Edelman; The Seagull (1964), directed by Eva Le Gallienne and co-starring Farley Granger, Denholm Elliott and Thayer David; and The Crucible (1964), directed by Jack Sydow and co-starring the same cast from The Seagull. Jerry appeared in many other notable productions on Broadway and off, like the American Place Theatre presentation of Anne Sexton’s Mercy Street (1969), which co-starred one of the great ladies of the American stage, Marian Seldes, in addition to Shakespearean experience by appearing opposite James Keach in a 1972 production of The Tempest in New York and working with the Stanford Shakespeare Company in California.
Taking a look at his IMDb filmography, you can see that Jerry appeared on TV in the shows “Route 66,” “Naked City,” “For the People” (a short-lived crime drama that starred William Shatner, Howard Da Silva and Jessica Walter), “Get Smart” and “Sesame Street.” I think Jerry’s segments for “Sesame Street,” in which he always played a victim of Paul Benedict’s digit-crazy “Number Painter” character, are how he is best remembered by those who seek out classic TV on YouTube. (Certainly the fact that he has a profile on the Muppet Wiki site indicates that there are some fans who remember his contribution to television/pop culture.) Two other clips of Jerry working with the “Number Painter” can be seen here and here.
Jerry lived a long life in Brooklyn, passing away on November 8, 2012, one week after his 87th birthday. He had an impish sense of humor and an eccentric wit – sometimes, on choice occasions like Passover, even playing the role of prankster – besides being an extraordinarily generous man. Throughout his life Jerome Raphel was a great storyteller and also a wonderful listener, entertaining us with his endless supply of anecdotes and quips. He is remembered by several generations of loved ones, many of whom have followed his path into the world of the arts.