An Actor’s Life for Him

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.

Play of the Week: The Iceman Cometh

The TV series “Play of the Week” aired a two-part, three-and-a-half-hour-long presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh in November 1960. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this production was called “one of the most electrifying evenings in the history of television drama” by the New York Herald Tribune. Jason Robards recreated the starring role of Hickey, which had given him his first triumph off-Broadway in 1956. It’s amazing to me that any of this could actually be shown on TV when it was; series like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” – programs not likely to mention alcoholism, prostitution or murder as episode topics – were among the most popular shows on the air.

Myron McCormick and Robert Redford give the two standout supporting performances in this drama. McCormick is probably best remembered for the films No Time for Sergeants (1958) and The Hustler (1961), but his excellent performance here should not be forgotten. Robert Redford, a 24-year-old whippersnapper, plays a tormented young man who knew McCormick during his (Redford’s) childhood. Although I used to think that Redford wasn’t much of an actor and that he was usually pretty boring (though, it must be said, he was always pretty), in the past year I have definitely become more of a fan of his. I think he’s actually quite good in this particular play, emoting far more than I expected.

The last act of the play belongs almost entirely to Jason Robards. His monologue dominates Act IV and his performance is probably considered a master class for the stage. I must admit I don’t know too much about Eugene O’Neill’s works other than the adaptations I have seen on film, but I appreciate great acting when I see it and that’s certainly what you get here. Too often I have thought of Robards only as the supporting player from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in which he often did little more than steal a few scenes. I did not realize just what a vibrant theatrical career he had, particularly as an interpreter of O’Neill. He comes alive in The Iceman Cometh, like I have seen few others do. If you get the chance to see this slice of history, please give it a try.

Actor Appreciation: Fritz Weaver

Today is the 88th birthday of one of filmdom’s best character actors, Fritz Weaver. I have enjoyed countless hours of his film and television work, including Black Sunday (1977), The Big Fix (1978), multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Law & Order” and, most recently, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013). His resonant voice and imposing height have helped make him a memorable cinematic presence.

Some years ago my mother ran into Mr. Weaver on the street in Manhattan and told him what a fine actor he is, also mentioning that he had acted with my great-uncle, Jerome Raphel, in a short-lived Broadway play called Lorenzo (1963). Mr. Weaver remembered Jerry fondly and asked after him.

My mother may send Mr. Weaver a birthday letter, which I think would be quite sweet. He has been working steadily in roles large and small since the 1950s and although his name is not as well known as those of contemporaries like George C. Scott and Robert Duvall, he’s famous to my family. I hope he won’t mind a nice little note of appreciation.