Bert Lahr, c. 1940s
August 13, 1895
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||December 4, 1967
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Mercedes Delpino (1929–1939; 1 child)
Mildred Schroeder (1940–1967; 2 children)
Bert Lahr (born Irving Lahrheim; August 13, 1895 – December 4, 1967) was an American actor and comedian. Lahr is remembered largely for his role as Kansas farmworker Zeke and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was very well known for work in burlesque, vaudeville, and on Broadway.
Lahr was born in New York City, the son of Augusta and Jacob Lahrheim. His parents were German Jewish immigrants. Lahr grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Dropping out of school at 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. In 1927 he debuted on Broadway in Delmar's Revels. He played to packed houses, performing classic routines such as "The Song of the Woodman" (which he reprised in the film Merry-Go-Round of 1938). Lahr had his first major success in a stage musical playing the prize fighter hero of Hold Everything! (1928–29). Other musicals followed, notably Flying High (1930), Florenz Ziegfeld's Hot-Cha! (1932) and The Show is On (1936) in which he co-starred with Beatrice Lillie. In 1939, he co-starred as Louis Blore alongside Ethel Merman in the Broadway production of DuBarry Was a Lady.
Lahr made his feature film debut in 1931's Flying High, playing the oddball aviator he had played on stage. He signed with New York-based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. When that series ended, he went to Hollywood to work in feature films. Aside from The Wizard of Oz (1939), his movie career was limited. In the 1944 patriotic film Meet the People, Lahr uttered the phrase "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" later popularized by cartoon character Snagglepuss.
The Cowardly Lion: The Wizard of Oz
Lahr's most iconic role was that of the Cowardly Lion in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Lahr was signed to play the role on July 25, 1938. He starred opposite Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. Lahr's lion costume was composed of lion fur and, under the high-voltage lighting required for Oz's Technicolor scenes, the costume was unbearably hot. Lahr contributed ad-lib comedic lines for his character. The Cowardly Lion is the only character who sings two solo song numbers-"If I Only Had the Nerve," performed after the initial meeting with Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man in the forest, and "If I Were King of the Forest," performed while he and the others are awaiting their audience with the Wizard.
An original Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz resides in The Comisar Collection, the largest collection of television artifacts in the world.
Lahr also portrayed the Lion's Kansas counterpart, Zeke (one of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry's farmhands). He helps Hickory (Tin Man's alter ego) lower a bed into its place on a wagon at the farm. He then moves the hogs into the pig pen and pours feed into their trough and later rescues Dorothy when she falls off the railing that encircles the pen. Zeke wears his hat throughout the entire film because he does not struggle to pry open the cellar when the tornado approaches the farm. Hunk (Scarecrow's alter ego) closes and locks the cellar with him when Dorothy arrives at the farmhouse. Zeke and Professor Marvel (The Wizard's alter ego) are the only men wearing hats when Dorothy awakens from being unconscious.
Waiting for Godot
He made the transition to straight theater. He got a script of Waiting for Godot, and was greatly impressed but unsure of how the revolutionary play would be received in the United States. It was performed in Europe to great acclaim, but was somewhat obscure and intellectual. He co-starred in the premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, playing Estragon to Tom Ewell's Vladimir. The performance bombed, with audience members walking out in large numbers, and the critics did not treat it kindly. In his book Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John Lahr describes the problems as caused partly by the choices of the director, including the decision to limit Bert's movement on stage, filling the stage with platforms, a misguided description of the play as a light comedy, and other issues.
Lahr reprised his role in a short-lived Broadway run. This time, with a new director, Herbert Berghof, who had met with Beckett in Europe and discussed the play. The set was cleared and Bert was allowed more freedom in his performance. Advertisements were taken out urging intellectuals to support the play. It was a success and received enthusiastic ovations from the audience. Bert was praised and though he claimed he did not understand the play, others would disagree and say he understood it a great deal.
Lahr occasionally appeared on television, including NBC's live version of the Cole Porter musical Let's Face It (1954), the 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Fantasticks, and an appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line? on December 30, 1956. He performed in commercials, including a memorable series for Lay's potato chips during its long-running "Betcha can't eat just one" campaign with Lahr appearing in multiple costumes. He was not afraid to take on the classics in television performances of Androcles and the Lion and the School for Wives (1956). He performed as Moonface Martin in a television version of Anything Goes, with Ethel Merman reprising her role as Reno Sweeney and Frank Sinatra as Billy Crocker. In 1959, he played Mr. O'Malley in an adaptation of Barnaby for General Electric Theater. In 1963, he appeared as Go-Go Garrity in the episode "Is Mr. Martian Coming Back" on NBC's medical drama The Eleventh Hour.
Among his numerous Broadway roles, Lahr starred as Skid in the Broadway revival of Burlesque from 1946 to 1948 and played multiple roles, including Queen Victoria, in the original Broadway musical Two on the Aisle from 1951 to 1952. In the late 1950s, he supplied the voice of a bloodhound in "Old Whiff," a short cartoon produced by Mike Todd which featured the olfactory Smell-O-Vision process developed for Todd's feature film Scent of Mystery (1960). In 1964 he won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in the musical Foxy. At the American Shakespeare Festival he played Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), for which he received the Best Shakespearean Actor of the Year Award.
"Laughter is never too far away from tears," he reflected on his comedy. "You will cry at a pedlar much easier than you would cry at a woman dressed in ermine who had just lost her whole family."
Lahr's later life was troubled. His first wife, Mercedes Delpino, developed mental health problems that left her hospitalized. This complicated his relationship with his second wife, Mildred Schroeder, as he had legal problems with getting a divorce in New York State. Mildred grew tired of waiting and became involved with another man, marrying him. Bert was heartbroken but eventually won Mildred back. Through this period he continued to work and travel.
Lahr was filming The Night They Raided Minsky's when he died of cancer on December 4, 1967 at the age of 72. While the official cause of death was listed as pneumonia, it was later revealed that Lahr, unknown to all, had suffered from cancer for some time. His death forced the film's producers to use a double in some scenes. Lahr is buried at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.
His son, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, wrote a biography of his father's life titled Notes on a Cowardly Lion-The Biography of Bert Lahr (1969). His daughter Jane Lahr was in the documentary Memories of Oz on the television network Turner Classic Movies in 2001.
- Harry Delmar's Revels (1927)
- Hold Everything! (1928)
- Flying High (1930)
- George White's Music Hall Varieties (1932)
- Life Begins at 8:40 (1934)
- George White's Scandals of 1936 (1936)
- The Show is On (1936)
- DuBarry Was a Lady (1939)
- Seven Lively Arts (1944)
- Burlesque (1946)
- Two on the Aisle (1951)
- Waiting for Godot (1956)
- Hotel Paradiso (1957)
- The Girls Against the Boys (1959)
- The Beauty Part (1962)
- Foxy (1964)
- Never Too Late (1965)
- The Birds (1966)
- American National Biography: Kurtzman-Lovecraft - John Arthur Garraty, Mark Christopher Carnes, American Council of Learned Societies - Google Books. Books.google.ca. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
- Jacob Appel. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g1epc/is_bio/ai_2419200675/pg_1
- "The Today Show” Ann Curry Interview with James Comisar - http://www.tvtour.org/today.html
- Notes on a Cowardly Lion, by John Lahr
- Details of Bert's relationship with Mercedes and Mildred can be found in 'Notes on a Cowardly Lion', by John Lahr
- John Lahr; Notes on a Cowardly Lion
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bert Lahr.|
- Bert Lahr at the Internet Broadway Database
- Bert Lahr at the Internet Movie Database
- Bert Lahr at Find a Grave
- Bert Lahr at Virtual History