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.

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Saturday Night Spotlight #6: Shirley Clarke

American director Shirley Clarke (1919-1997) worked at the same time as another groundbreaking independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes, and tackled similar issues: racial prejudice, drug addiction, the influence of jazz and generally living in New York City. Born in that metropolis to a Jewish family that included younger sister Elaine Dundy (novelist and wife of theater critic Kenneth Tynan), Clarke was a multitasker on her cinematic projects, editing all four of the films highlighted below and producing the first three. She also received some accolades from the Academy, being nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects for Skyscraper (1960) and winning an Oscar for Best Documentary, Features for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963). Clarke was close to many of the leading figures in New York’s independent film/avant-garde art scenes, like Hans Richter (her mentor at City College), Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Lionel Rogosin and Stan Brakhage. Later on, Clarke was a film and video professor at UCLA from 1975 to 1985 and she received the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award from the American Film Institute in 1989.

The Connection (1961) – I have a particular interest in this drama about heroin-addicted jazz musicians waiting for their dealer in a seedy Greenwich Village apartment since the second man from the right, with the mustache and balding head, was my great-uncle, Jerome Raphel. (He is featured prominently in the film’s trailer – seen here – and a couple of years later had a supporting role in Clarke’s 1963 film The Cool World.) The drama also features other notable actors from theater, film and TV, including Roscoe Lee Browne, Warren Finnerty,¬†William Redfield and Carl Lee as well as jazz musicians Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s subject matter and “vulgar” language led to a ban from New York screens until 1962. Arguing this issue of censorship, Shirley Clarke and co-producer Lewis M. Allen brought a lawsuit before the New York State Court of Appeals to fight the charge of the film being considered “obscene” (it was finally determined that it was not) so that the film could receive its license for a theatrical release.

The Cool World (1963) – Nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award in 1963 and added to the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994, Clarke’s drama of the black community living in Harlem, trying to survive in an atmosphere surrounded by violence, drugs and racism. Again utilizing jazz for the soundtrack, Dizzy Gillespie and his quintet are featured throughout, even showing up onscreen. Besides Carl Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke) and Jerome Raphel, who appeared in The Connection, The Cool World also stars Gloria Foster, who later acted in Nothing But a Man (1964) and as the Oracle in the first two Matrix films.

Portrait of Jason (1967) – Certainly unusual among documentaries of the 1960s, charismatic and flamboyant interview subject Jason Holliday speaks candidly of being a gay man, how that intersects with being black, and also discusses his history of work in cabarets and in prostitution. The film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this November, courtesy of Milestone Films.

Ornette: Made in America (1985) – Pioneering jazz musician Ornette Coleman is given the documentary film treatment here, studying his innovations in the field of “free jazz,” which encourages more improvisation than what is often already applied to the playing of jazz music. Some of the film’s talking heads include writer William S. Burroughs, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman, jazz bassist Charlie Haden and jazz guitarist Bern Nix. The film incorporates an element of dramatization as well, portraying earlier incarnations of Coleman with young actors.

Film Forum Series: “New Yawk New Wave”

Later this month, the Film Forum, one of New York City’s most famous art-house movie theaters, will be doing a festival called “New Yawk New Wave.” The series will highlight influential New York-based films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s by everyone from Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes to Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.

Three notable independent films being shown feature my great-uncle (my mother’s father’s younger brother), actor Jerome Raphael – also spelled “Raphel” – who passed away in November. (I’m trying to update his IMDb as we speak.) In the above trailer for The Connection, my great-uncle is the balding/mustachioed man who speaks to the camera. I saw The Connection years ago, but I think I was perhaps too young to appreciate it and my great-uncle’s contribution to cinema. Jerome’s career occupies a small but nonetheless interesting area of film history.

If you’re interested and live in the NYC area, here are the listed screenings:

  • The Connection (1962, dir. Shirley Clarke) – Fri. Jan. 11 at 2:20, 6:45, 10:10 pm and Sat. Jan. 12 at 2:20 pm
  • The Cool World (1964, dir. Shirley Clarke; added to the National Film Registry in 1964) – Sun. Jan. 13 at 1:00, 4:50, 8:40 pm and Mon. Jan. 14 at 1:00, 4:50 pm
  • Hallelujah the Hills (1963, dir. Adolfas Mekas) – Thurs. Jan. 24 at 1:00, 4:05, 7:20 pm