Joseph Jefferson

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Joseph Jefferson

Joseph Jefferson, commonly known as Joe Jefferson (February 20, 1829 – April 23, 1905), was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous of all 19th century American comedians. Jefferson was particularly well known for his adaptation and portrayal of Rip Van Winkle on the stage, reprising the role in several silent film adaptations. Through his appearances in the latter, he is believed to be the earliest born actor to appear in a film.[citation needed]

Life and career[edit]

Jefferson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[1] His father was a scenic designer and actor and his mother an actress. He appeared onstage early in life, often being used when a play called for "a babe in arms". His first recorded appearance was at the Washington Theatre in Washington, D.C. where he appeared in a benefit performance for the minstrel Thomas D. Rice.[2] Jefferson was twice married: at the age of 21 in 1850, to actress Margaret Clements Lockyer (1832–1861), whose early death left him with four children; and in 1867 to Sarah Warren, niece of William Warren the actor.

Jefferson bought a place in 1869 called Orange Island in New Iberia, Louisiana, where he built a home after the Civil War.[3] The location is at a peninsular area on Lake Peigneur, and was subsequently renamed Jefferson Island.[4]

Early career[edit]

Jefferson as the young Rip Van Winkle

In 1833 at the age of four years, Jefferson was carried on stage at the Washington theatre in a bag by an actor named Thomas D. Rice. He put Jefferson alongside him in black face and dress with Rice performing his well-known character "Jim Crow" and little Joseph as Little Joe.[5] In 1837 now age eight, Joseph performed at the Franklin theatre in New York City with his parents as a pirate. After the end of the season of 1837–1838 Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson took Joseph, his brother Charles Burke and his sister Cornelia to Chicago[6] In Chicago, they performed in the young city's first resident company, the Chicago Theater at the rough-hewn Sauganash Hotel. Joseph sang comic songs, played bit parts, and performed the role of the Duke of York.[7]

His father died when he was 13, and young Jefferson continued acting and helping to support the family. From there both Jefferson and Burke performed continuously and the entire family would travel the then American West and South. Traveling theatre to theatre Mr. Jefferson performed and worked everywhere in between Boston to Charleston as far as Chicago. The family led the lives of "Strolling Players". This term is a term given to a troupe of itinerant actors.[8] At one point along with his acting family they followed the American army from 1846-1848 during the Mexican–American War.[2] As a strolling player, Joseph performed in many places some not even a theater space. Some performances were given in the dining rooms of country hotels, without any illusion of a stage or world he was to perform in. This also meant no scenery. All the materials he had to work with was a strip board nailed to the floor with a row of tallow candles[9] It wasn’t until 1849, when Jefferson returned to New York that he began to earn both critical and financial success though not nearly to the extent he would earn later in life[10]

After this experience, partly as actor, partly as manager, he won his first pronounced success in 1858 as Asa Trenchard in Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin at Laura Keene's theatre in New York. This play was the turning-point of his career, as it would be for the actor E. A. Sothern. The naturalness and spontaneity of humour with which he acted the love scenes revealed a spirit in comedy new to his contemporaries, long used to a more artificial convention; and the touch of pathos which the part required revealed no less to the actor an unexpected power in himself. When Sothern complained about the small size of his role, Jefferson supposedly replied with the famous line, "There are no small parts, only small actors."[citation needed]

Other early parts included Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby, Caleb Plummer in Dot (an adaption of The Cricket on the Hearth), Dr. Pangloss in George Colman the Younger's The Heir at Law, Salem Scudder in The Octoroon, and Bob Acres in The Rivals, the last being not so much an interpretation of the character as Sheridan sketched it as a creation of the actors.

Jefferson as the old Rip Van Winkle, 1896

In 1859, Jefferson made a dramatic version of Washington Irving's story of "Rip Van Winkle" on the basis of older plays, and acted it with success in Washington, D.C., with Sophie Gimber Kuhn playing the role of Lowenna.[11]

In 1861 due to his failing health and the death of his wife, he left to go to San Francisco and then on to Australia[12][13] He arrived at Sydney in the beginning of November 1861, and played a successful season introducing to Australia Rip Van Winkle, Our American Cousin, The Octoroon and other plays. He opened in Melbourne on March 31, 1862, and had a most successful season extending over about six months. Seasons followed in the country and in Tasmania. After spending four years in Australia, he left for London and met Dion Boucicault who would revise Rip Van Winkle, turning it from just a play in Jefferson's repertoire to being "a pronounced success and ran for one hundred and seventy nights."[14] Opening night on September 5, 1865 at the Adelphi Theatre in London sparked what would become one of the most celebrated characters of the stage in the 19th century.[15]

Later years[edit]

Jefferson would continue acting in this show for 40 years, playing little more than the single character of Rip Van Winkle. He then returned to America in August 1866.[16] Jefferson was able to take an American play and characters to places like Australia and England and create success out of them. As John Maguire would later write, "It was then that America greeted the return of the wanderer, proud of the victory of an American actor in an American play in foreign lands. This fame added to the glory of his country, both at home and abroad…"[17] Returning to America, Jefferson made it his stock play, making annual tours of the states with it, and occasionally reviving The Heir at Law in which he played Dr. Pangloss, The Cricket on the Hearth (Caleb Plummer) and The Rivals (Bob Acres). He was one of the first to establish the traveling combinations which superseded the old system of local stock companies.

Jefferson also starred in a number of films as the Van Winkle character starting in the 1896 Awakening of Rip, which is in the U.S. National Film Registry. Jefferson's son Thomas followed in his father's footsteps and played the character in a number of early 20th century films. Joseph Jefferson made several recordings, all of material from "Rip Van Winkle".

With the exception of minor parts, such as the First Gravedigger in Hamlet, which he played in an all-star combination headed by Edwin Booth, Jefferson created no new character after 1865, and the success of Rip Van Winkle was so pronounced that he has often been called a one-part actor. If this was a fault, it was the public's, who never wearied of his one masterpiece. Francis Wilson would later write, "He was Rip and Rip was he."[18]

No man in his profession was more honored for his achievements or his character[citation needed]. He was the friend of many of the leading men in American politics, art and literature, including President Grover Cleveland[citation needed]. He was an ardent fisherman and lover of nature, and devoted to painting[citation needed]. It is erroneously believed that he was distantly related to British comedian Stan Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson), but UK civil registration, census and church records suggest that Jefferson was not the real name of his father[citation needed]. Jefferson was a founding member and the second president of the Players' Club in Manhattan.[citation needed]

Jefferson died from pneumonia on April 23, 1905 at his home in Palm Beach, Florida.[19]


Joseph Jefferson as Dr. Peter Pangloss by John Singer Sargent

Jefferson's name continues to live on through the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee in Chicago which offers awards in recognition of excellence of Chicago's Equity and non-Equity theaters and their productions. Jefferson Island in Mashpee, Massachusetts, which was once known as Stayonit Island, is named for him.[20]

The Joe Jefferson Players, a theatre playhouse founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1947, took their name from Jefferson.[21]

His former home on Jefferson Island, the Victorian-era Joseph Jefferson Mansion (built 1870) is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is operated via private ownership but is open to the public. Surrounding the home is the Rip van Winkle Gardens, 20 acres of gardens which was rebuilt in the 1950s through the 1980s and contains a 550 year old oak tree that Grover Cleveland once slept under.[3][22][23]

Jefferson's son Thomas L. Jefferson(1856-1932) was a noted actor occasionally picking up the Rip Van Wrinkle character and playing it in silent feature films.[24]

Publications about Joseph Jefferson[edit]

  • William Winter, The Jeffersons (Boston, 1881)
  • Carroll, Twelve Americans: Their Lives and Times (New York, 1883)
  • Matthews and Hutton, Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States (New York, 1886)
  • N. H. Dole, Joseph Jefferson at Home (Boston, 1898)
  • Francis Wilson, Joseph Jefferson (New York, 1906)
  • M. J. Moses, Famous Actor-Families in America (New York, 1906)
  • Francis Wilson, Reminiscences of a Fellow Player (New York, 1906)
  • William Winter, Other Days (New York, 1908)
  • E. P. Jefferson, Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson, (New York, 1909)
  • Arthur Bloom, Joseph Jefferson: Dean of the American Theatre (Savannah, 2000)
  • Benjamin McArthur, "The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle: Joseph Jefferson and Nineteenth-Century American Theatre" (Yale University Press, 2007)


  1. ^ American Art Annual, Volume 5. MacMillan Company. 1905. p. 121.
  2. ^ a b Winter, William (1886). "Sketch of Joseph Jefferson". Harper's New Monthly Magazine (73): 394. Retrieved 24 January 2011.
  3. ^ a b "Rip Van Winkle Gardens of Jefferson Island : City of New Iberia, Louisiana". City of New Iberia. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  4. ^ "Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism".
  5. ^ Winter, William. Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood Press.
  6. ^ Winter, William. the life and art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood Press.
  7. ^ Adler, Tony (2005). "Theater". The Encyclopedia of Chicago (online ed.). Chicago: Chicago Historical Society and Newberry Library.
  8. ^ Winter, William. The life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood press.
  9. ^ Winter, William. THe life and Art of Joseph Jefferson. Norwood Press.
  10. ^ Wilson, Francis (1906). Joseph Jefferson; Reminiscences of a Fellow Player. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. pp. 29–30.
  11. ^ More Theatre M - Z, Alvin H. Maril and William T.Leonard, Scarecrow Press, 1993, p. 1021.
  12. ^ Winter, William. "Sketch of Joseph Jefferson." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 73 (1886): 395. Periodicals Archive Online. Web. 24 Jan. 2011.
  13. ^ Winter, William (1886). "Sketch of Joseph Jefferson". Harper's New Monthly Magazine (73): 395. Retrieved 26 January 2011.
  14. ^ Jefferson, Eugenie Paul (1909). Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd & Mead. p. 137.
  15. ^ Jefferson, Eugenie Paul (1909). Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd & Mead. p. 148.
  16. ^ Winter, Wilson (1894). Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson, Together with Some Account of His Ancestry and of the Jefferson Family of Actors. New York: Mcmillan. p. 183.
  17. ^ Jefferson, Eugenie Paul (1909). Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson. New York: Dodd & Mead. p. 134.
  18. ^ Wilson, Francis (1906). Joseph Jefferson; Reminiscences of a Fellow Player. New York: C. Scribner's Sons. p. 136.
  19. ^ (24 April 1905). Joseph Jefferson Dies At His Florida Home, The New York Times, p. 1, col. 1
  20. ^ Green, Eugene; Sachse, William; McCaulley, Brian (2006). The Names of Cape Cod. Arcadia Press. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-933212-84-5.
  21. ^ "About History". Joe Jefferson Players. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  22. ^ "Rip Van Winkle Gardens in New Iberia - Attraction". Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  23. ^ Fodor's (2014-12-02). "10 Behind-The-Scenes Tours Of Iconic Food Brands". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2017-03-29.
  24. ^ Thomas L. Jefferson; Retrieved February 26, 2018


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