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Obituaries

Jeff Corey, 88; Blacklist Led Actor to Teaching

August 19, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeff Corey, a gifted actor who was blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s but emerged as one of the most sought-after teachers in Hollywood, has died. He was 88.

Perhaps best-known for his post-blacklist roles in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "In Cold Blood," "Little Big Man" and on the TV sitcoms "One Day at a Time" and "Night Court," Corey died Friday morning at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica of complications from a fall earlier in the week at his home in Malibu.

To generations of actors, directors and writers, Corey's name on the blacklist didn't mean a thing. They came to his informal classes for his insightful ideas on the craft of acting and views on how to handle challenging roles.

His list of students makes up a who's who of the Hollywood elite since the 1950s and includes James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Shirley Knight, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Robert Blake, Leonard Nimoy, Robin Williams, Rob Reiner, Robert Towne, Roger Corman, Penny Marshall, Taylor Hackford and a young Jack Nicholson.

"Acting is life study, and Corey's classes got me into looking at life as an artist," Nicholson said years later.

Those who knew Corey's teaching process said he was a Stanislavsky Method teacher but with a small "m." His process was eclectic and involved one-on-one work with an actor. He created improvisational exercises that allowed actors to engage their imaginations and subconscious minds in pursuit of a theme that they could apply to their roles.

Corey was always pursuing a current underlying emotional and psychological theme in the actor's work. And in doing that, he was trying to help the actor relate to the here and now rather than the arcane notion of the character's circumstances.

"I tell my students, 'Respect the instrument. It is you doing the acting,' " Corey told The Times some years ago. "By all means, you must be responsive to the meaning of the play, to what the author meant and to what the audience will ultimately see. Engage your own intuition, use your own frames of reference and give something which is uniquely yours; put something rich into your performance rather than some external result that hasn't got your face. Simplicity is the cherished quality."

Corey didn't set out to be a teacher. An indifferent student in high school in New York City, he took a drama class and became intrigued with acting. He earned a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, then a leading theater school in New York City, which he later said kept him from a career selling sewing machines. From there, he did work in Shakespearean repertory and then worked with a traveling children's theater troupe. His first meaty stage role was in Leslie Howard's touring production of "Hamlet," in which he played Rosencrantz.

Corey and his wife moved to Los Angeles, and he found work, appearing in 23 films from 1940 to 1943, including "The Devil and Daniel Webster," "My Friend Flicka," and "Joan of Arc."

He joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the ship Yorktown as a combat photographer. He earned citations for some footage he shot during a kamikaze attack on the ship.

After the war, Corey returned to Hollywood and resumed his busy career playing heavies in such films as "The Killers" and "Brute Force." He also played the role of a psychiatrist in "Home of the Brave," one of his best performances.

Corey seemed ready for even better film parts as the second lead or top character actor, when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had been investigating Communist influence in Hollywood since 1947.

The actor was scheduled to appear at the hearing in downtown Los Angeles in September 1951. He was 37 and had a wife and three daughters to support. But he took the 5th Amendment and didn't work again as an actor in Hollywood for more than a decade, missing out on countless movie opportunities and what would later be considered the golden age of television.

"Most of us were retired reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before," Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of "Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist" who also teaches film at Marquette University. "The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly .... They just wanted two new names so they could hand out more subpoenas."

He found work as a laborer earning $14 a day and enrolled as a freshman at UCLA on the GI Bill. He eventually earned a degree in speech therapy.

Corey would later say that he fell into teaching somewhat by accident. He said a student who was failing miserably in another program organized the first class and talked him into teaching it, which he did in the garage of his Hollywood Hills home. Carol Burnett, then a freshman at UCLA, was among the students.

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