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Jack Gilford

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Jack Gilford
Jack Gilford in 1986
Jacob Aaron Gellman

(1908-07-25)July 25, 1908
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
DiedJune 4, 1990(1990-06-04) (aged 81)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
  • Actor
  • comedian
  • activist
Years active1937–1989
SpouseMadeline Lee Gilford[1] (1949–1990; his death)

Jack Gilford (born Jacob Aaron Gellman; July 25, 1908 – June 4, 1990)[2] was an American Broadway, film, and television actor. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Save the Tiger (1973).

Early life[edit]

Gilford was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His parents were Romanian-born Jewish immigrants Sophie "Susksa" (née Jackness), who owned a restaurant, and Aaron Gellman, a furrier.[3] Gilford was the second of three sons, with an older brother Murray ("Moisha") and a younger brother Nathaniel ("Natie").

Gilford was discovered working in a pharmacy by Milton Berle, who became his mentor. While working in amateur theater, he competed with other talented youngsters, including a young Jackie Gleason. He started doing imitations and impersonations. His first appearance on film was a short entitled Midnight Melodies in which he did his imitations of George Jessel, Rudy Vallee and Harry Langdon. Gilford developed some unique impressions that became his trademarks — most notably, one of "split pea soup coming to a furious boil" using only his face. Other unusual impressions he created were a fluorescent light going on in a dark room, John D. Rockefeller Sr. imitating Jimmy Durante, and impressions of animals.[4][citation needed]


In 1938, Gilford worked as the master of ceremonies in the first downtown New York integrated nightclub, Café Society owned and operated by Barney Josephson. He was a unique blend of the earlier style of the Yiddish theater, vaudeville and burlesque, and started the tradition of monology such as later comedians Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen used. He won numerous industry awards.

Gilford was nominated for several Tony Awards for best supporting actor as Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963), and for his role as Herr Schultz in Cabaret (1966). He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in (1973) for his role as Phil Green in Save the Tiger (his co-star Jack Lemmon won for Best Actor). Sir Rudolf Bing engaged Gilford for the comic speaking role of the tippling jailer Frosch in the operetta Die Fledermaus.[5] Loved in the part, Gilford performed it 77 times between 1950 and 1964.[6]

One of Gilford's specialties was pantomime, and this talent was put to good use by director George Abbott when he cast Gilford as the silent King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress (Off-Broadway, 1959). Gilford shared the stage with a young Carol Burnett in this production, and reprised his performance with her in two separate televised versions of the show, in 1964 and in 1972.[7]

Gilford's career was derailed for a time during the 1950s and McCarthyism. He was an activist who campaigned for social change, integration, and labor unions. He was quite active both socially and politically in left-wing causes, as was his wife, Madeline Lee.[1] In 1953 Gilford and Lee were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) regarding their alleged Communist sympathies, after being specifically named by choreographer Jerome Robbins in his own testimony to the committee.[1][8] The couple had difficulty finding work during much of the rest of the 1950s due to the Hollywood blacklist, and often had to borrow money from friends to make ends meet.

Gilford found work towards the end of the 1950s and during the early 1960s with the end of the Joseph McCarthy era. He made his comeback as Hysterium in the 1962 Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He co-starred in the play with his close friend, Zero Mostel, who was also blacklisted during the McCarthy era. This production was also choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who had previously testified before House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953.[8]

Gilford became successful mostly through roles on the Broadway stage, such as Drink To Me Only, Romanoff and Juliet, and The Diary of Anne Frank. He later enjoyed success in film (one of his notable roles was in the 1985 film Cocoon) and television, as well as a series of nationwide television commercials for Cracker Jack.[8]

Personal life[edit]

Gilford met actress (and later producer) Madeline Lee at progressive political meetings and events during the late 1940s. Gilford entertained at many of these events, some of them produced by Lee.[1] She was married at the time and divorced her first husband soon after meeting Gilford.[8] The couple married in 1949,[1] remaining together for 40 years until his death in 1990. The couple raised three children: Lisa Gilford, a producer (from Lee's previous marriage); Joe Gilford, a screenwriter/playwright/stage director; and Sam Max Gilford, an artist/archivist.[2]


Following a year-long battle with stomach cancer, Gilford died in his Greenwich Village home in 1990, aged 81.[9] His wife, Madeline Lee Gilford, died on April 15, 2008 from undisclosed causes.[1] Gilford is buried in the Yiddish theater section of Flushing, New York's Mount Hebron Cemetery.[10]

Biographical play, Finks[edit]

In July 2008, Josh Radnor and Jennifer Westfeldt starred in the premiere of the play Finks, based on the Gilfords' experiences with HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist, written by Joe Gilford (their son), and directed by Charlie Stratton for stage and film.[11] The play was produced Off-Broadway at New York's Ensemble Studio Theatre in April 2013.

The New York Times called it a "bracing play" that "quickly leaves you not caring that you've visited the territory before."[12] Finks was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, with Miriam Silverman[13] nominated for Outstanding Actress in a Play.[14]

Broadway stage appearances[edit]


Year Title Role
1944 Hey, Rookie Specialty
1944 Reckless Age Joey Bagle
1959 TV: The World of Sholem Aleichem Bontshe Shveig
1963 TV: Cowboy and the Tiger Tiger
1963 TV: Car 54, Where Are You? Season #2 Episode #30 (series finale) "The Curse of the Snitkins" Officer Luther Snitkin
1964 TV: Once Upon a Mattress King Sextimus
1966 The Daydreamer Papa Andersen
1966 TV: T.H.E. Cat "Little Arnie From Long Ago" Drummer
1966 Mister Buddwing Mr. Schwartz
1966 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Hysterium
1967 Enter Laughing Mr. Foreman
1967 Who's Minding the Mint? Avery Dugan
1967 The Incident Sam Beckerman
1968 TV: The Ghost and Mrs Muir Uncle Arnold
1969 TV: Arsenic and Old Lace Dr. Herman Salk
1969 Here's Lucy Driving Examiner
1969 TV: Get Smart Simon the Likable
1970 Catch-22 "Doc" Daneeka
1971 They Might Be Giants Wilbur Peabody
1972 TV: Of Thee I Sing Vice President Throttlebottom
1972 TV: Once Upon a Mattress King Sextimus
1973 Save the Tiger Phil Greene
1975 Tubby the Tuba voice: The Herald
1976 Short: Max Max
1976 Harry and Walter Go to New York Mischa
1976 TV: All in the Family Bernard Bernstein
1977 TV: Seventh Avenue Finklestein
1977 A Doonesbury Special voice
1978 TV: Apple Pie Grandpa Hollyhock
1979 TV: Taxi Joe Rieger (Alex Rieger's father) in episode entitled "Honor Thy Father"; role reprised in 1981 episode "Like Father, Like Son"
1979 TV: Soap Saul
1980 Cheaper to Keep Her Stanley Bracken
1980 Wholly Moses! Tailor
1981 TV: Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood Wally
1981 Caveman Gog
1981 & 1982 TV: The Love Boat episodes: "That Old Gang of Mine" (1981); "A Honeymoon for Horace" (1982)
1983 Anna to the Infinite Power Dr. Henry Jelliff
1983 TV: Happy Bernie Nelson
1983 TV: Mama's Family Alvin Thompson
1984 The Duck Factory[16] Brooks Carmichael
1985 Cocoon Bernie Lefkowitz
1985 TV: Hostage Flight Mr. Singer
1985 TV: Night Court - An Old Flame Marty Ratner
1986 TV: Young Again The Angel
1988 Arthur 2: On the Rocks Mr. Butterworth
1988 Cocoon: The Return Bernie Lefkowitz
1988 TV: The Golden Girls Max Weinstock
1989 TV: Head of the Class Wesley Winthrop

Partial discography[edit]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Award Category Work Result
1963 Tony Award Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum Nominated
1967 Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical Cabaret Nominated
1974 Academy Awards Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Save the Tiger Nominated
Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Nominated
1979 Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming Big Blue Marble Won
1989 Primetime Emmy Award Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Thirtysomething Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series The Golden Girls Nominated
1990 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Best Supporting Actor Cocoon: The Return Nominated


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Actress Madeline Lee Gilford dies: Veteran thesp became a Broadway producer". Variety. April 15, 2008. Retrieved April 28, 2008.
  2. ^ a b Shepard, Richard. F. (June 22, 1990). "Jack Gilford Is Given a Memorial With 28 Acts and Fond Ribbing". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 27, 2015. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  3. ^ "Biography of Jack Gilford". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 17, 2012. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  4. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Actor Jack Guilford and his funny impressions!". YouTube.
  5. ^ Briggs, John (January 1, 1959). "Regina Resnik Sings Role of Orlofsky". The New York Times. Retrieved November 29, 2019.
  6. ^ "Jack Gilford". Metropolitan Opera Association. Archived from the original on 2018-08-12. Retrieved 2013-12-23.
  7. ^ Mandelbaum, Ken (January 6, 2006). "DVDs: Many Moons Ago". Broadway.com.
  8. ^ a b c d Miller, Stephen (2008-04-18). "Madeline Lee Gilford, 84, Actress and Activist". New York Sun. Archived from the original on 2008-10-12. Retrieved 2008-04-28.
  9. ^ Flint, Peter B. (June 5, 1990). "Jack Gilford, Actor, Dead at 81; Veteran of Stage, Screen and TV". The New York Times.
  10. ^ "Jack Gilford: Through the Years". Mount Hebron Cemetery. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  11. ^ "Finks, a sweeping tale of love and friendship, trials and tragedy (July 23-August 3) at Vassar College" (Press release). Vassar Collage. Archived from the original on September 27, 2013. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  12. ^ Genzlinger, Neil (8 April 2013). "A Choice to Name Names, or Else". The New York Times. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  13. ^ "Miriam Silverman". Brown/Trinity Rep. 8 June 2021.
  14. ^ "2013 Winners: Drama Desk Awards". Theatermania. Archived from the original on 26 August 2013. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s "Jack Gilford". Playbill Vault. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  16. ^ "The Duck Factory". IMDb. Retrieved 2023-05-25.

External links[edit]