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Sam Jaffe

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Sam Jaffe
Jaffe as David Zorba in Ben Casey, 1961
Shalom Jaffe

(1891-03-10)March 10, 1891
New York City, U.S.
DiedMarch 24, 1984(1984-03-24) (aged 93)
Resting placeWilliston Cemetery in Williston, South Carolina
Other namesSam C. Jaffe
EducationCity College of New York
(B.Sc. Engineering, 1912)
  • Actor
  • teacher
  • engineer
Years active1918–1984
Lillian Taiz
(m. 1926; died 1941)
(m. 1956)

Shalom "Sam" Jaffe (March 10, 1891 – March 24, 1984) was an American actor, teacher, musician, and engineer. In 1951, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). He also appeared in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959), and is additionally known for his roles as the titular character in Gunga Din (1939) and as the "High Lama" in Lost Horizon (1937).

Early life[edit]

Jaffe was born to Ukrainian Jewish parents Heida (Ada) and Barnett Jaffe[1] at 97 Orchard Street (current location of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum)[2][3] in New York City, New York. His mother was a Yiddish actress in Odesa, Ukraine, prior to moving to the United States; his father was a jeweller. He was the youngest of four children; his siblings were Abraham, Sophie, and Annie. As a child, he appeared in Yiddish theatre productions with his mother, who after moving to the United States became a prominent actress and vaudeville star. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School and studied engineering at City College of New York, graduating in 1912. He later attended Columbia University for graduate studies. He also worked for several years as a teacher, and then dean, of mathematics at the Bronx Cultural Institute, a college preparatory school, before returning to acting in 1915.[1]


Jaffe and Ruth Foster on set of Ben Casey

As a young man, he lived in Greenwich Village in the same apartment building as a young John Huston. The two men became good friends and remained so for life. Jaffe was later to star in two of Huston's films: The Asphalt Jungle and The Barbarian and the Geisha. Jaffe's closest friends included Zero Mostel, Edward G. Robinson, Ray Bradbury, and Igor Stravinsky. In 1923 he appeared in the Broadway premiere of God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome) by Sholem Asch, as Reb Ali. The production became notorious after the cast, producer, and theatre owner were indicted and found guilty on charges of indecency in May 1923.[4] Jaffe began to work in film in 1934, rising to prominence with his first role as the mad Tsar Peter III in The Scarlet Empress. In 1938, Jaffe was forty-seven years old when he played the title role of bhisti (waterbearer) Gunga Din.

Jaffe was blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio bosses during the 1950s, supposedly for being a communist sympathizer. Despite this, he was hired first by Robert Wise for The Day the Earth Stood Still and then by director William Wyler for his role in the 1959 Academy Award-winning version of Ben-Hur.

Jaffe co-starred in the ABC television series, Ben Casey as Dr. David Zorba from 1961 to 1965 alongside Vince Edwards. He also made many guest-starring roles on other series, including Batman as Mr. Zoltan Zorba, and the Western Alias Smith and Jones. In 1975, he co-starred as a retired doctor who is murdered by Janet Leigh in the Columbo episode "Forgotten Lady". He also appeared with an all-star cast in the TV pilot film of Rod Serling's Night Gallery and as Emperor Norton in one episode of Bonanza.[1]

Personal life and death[edit]

Jaffe was married to American operatic soprano and musical comedy star Lillian Taiz from 1926 until her death from cancer in 1941. In 1956, he married actress Bettye Ackerman, 33 years his junior, with whom he later co-starred in Ben Casey. She died on November 1, 2006. He had no children from either marriage.[citation needed]

A Democrat, Jaffe supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson II during the 1952 presidential election.[5]

Jaffe died of cancer in Beverly Hills, California, in 1984, two weeks after his 93rd birthday.[6] He was cremated at the Pasadena Crematory in Altadena, California, and his ashes were given to his surviving wife, Bettye, and, upon her death in 2006, buried with her at Williston Cemetery in Williston, South Carolina.[7]


Jaffe (left) and Jack Albertson in the 1976 TV special The Sad and Lonely Sundays.
Year Film Role Director Notes
1916 A Cheap Vacation
1934 The Scarlet Empress Grand Duke Peter Josef von Sternberg
1934 We Live Again Gregory Simonson Rouben Mamoulian
1937 Lost Horizon High Lama Frank Capra
1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood (uncredited) man who tells men to meet Robin at Gallows Oaks
1939 Gunga Din Gunga Din George Stevens
1943 Stage Door Canteen Sam Jaffe Frank Borzage
1946 13 Rue Madeleine Mayor Galimard Henry Hathaway
1947 Gentleman's Agreement Professor Fred Lieberman Elia Kazan
1949 The Accused Dr. Romley William Dieterle
1949 Rope of Sand Dr. Francis Hunter William Dieterle
1950 The Asphalt Jungle criminal mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider John Huston
1951 I Can Get It for You Wholesale Sam Cooper Michael Gordon
1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still Professor Jacob Barnhardt Robert Wise
1953 Main Street to Broadway First Nighter (uncredited) Tay Garnett
1957 Les Espions head of the American spy network Sam Cooper Henri-Georges Clouzot
1958 The Barbarian and the Geisha translator-secretary Henry Heusken John Huston
1959 Ben-Hur merchant and loyal slave Simonides William Wyler
1967 A Guide for the Married Man Technical Adviser (Shrink) Gene Kelly
1967 Tarzan's Jungle Rebellion Dr. Singleton (archive footage)
1968 La Bataille de San Sebastian Father Joseph Henri Verneuil
1969 The Great Bank Robbery Brother Lilac Bailey (Art Forger) Hy Averback
1970 The Dunwich Horror Old Whateley Daniel Haller
1970 Quarantined Mr. Berryman Leo Penn
1970 The Old Man Who Cried Wolf Abe Stillman Walter Grauman
1971 Who Killed the Mysterious Mr. Foster? Toby
1971 Bedknobs and Broomsticks Bookman Robert Stevenson
1971 Enemies Gittelman
1971 The Tell-Tale Heart The Old Man
1973 Saga of Sonora Old Sam
1976 The Sad and Lonely Sundays Dr. Sweeny
1980 Gideon's Trumpet 1st Supreme Court Justice
1980 Battle Beyond the Stars Dr. Hephaestus Jimmy T. Murakami
1984 Nothing Lasts Forever Father Knickerbocker Tom Schiller
1984 On the Line El Gabacho (final film role)

Television credits[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Flint, Peter B. (25 March 1984). "Sam Jaffe, A Character Actor On Stage and Film, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 14, 2015.
  2. ^ "Top 10 Secrets of the Tenement Museum". Untapped New York. February 5, 2021. Retrieved 2021-02-07.
  3. ^ "Gettin' Schooled: A History Lesson". Tenement Museum. 2016-08-30. Retrieved 2021-02-07.
  4. ^ ""The God of Vengeance": Is the Play Immoral?". Museum of the City of New York blog. 19 June 2012.
  5. ^ Motion Picture and Television Magazine. November 1952. page 33.
  6. ^ Pearson, Richard (March 26, 1984). "Character Actor Sam Jaffe, 93, Dies of Cancer". The Washington Post.
  7. ^ Wilson, Scott (19 August 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3d ed.). McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-2599-7 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ De Vito, John; Tropea, Frank (2009). Epic Television Miniseries: A Critical History. McFarland. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-7864-5733-5.

Further reading[edit]

  • Young, Jordan R. (1986) [First published 1975]. "Sam Jaffe". Reel Characters: Great Movie Character Actors (softcover) (Sixth ed.). Beverly Hills, Calif: Moonstone Press. pp. 43–56. ISBN 978-0-940410-79-4.

External links[edit]