Jack Gilford

Jack Gilford (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).

Jack Gilford
Jack Gilford in 1986
Jacob Aaron Gellman

(1908-07-25)July 25, 1908
DiedJune 4, 1990(1990-06-04) (aged 81)
New York City, U.S.
ResidenceGreenwich Village, New York
OccupationActor, Comedian, Activist
Years active19371988
Spouse(s)Madeline Lee Gilford[1] (19491990; his death)

Early life

Gilford was born Jacob Aaron Gellman 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][4] 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 his mentor Milton Berle. 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.


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 and television, as well as a series of nationwide television commercials for Cracker Jack.[8]

Personal life

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 Jack Gilford's 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.


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.

Biographical play, Finks

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.[10] 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."[11] Finks was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, with Miriam Silverman[12] nominated for Best Actress.[13]

Broadway stage appearances


TV and filmography

Year Film Role
1944Hey, RookieSpecialty
1944Reckless AgeJoey Bagle
1959TV: The World of Sholem AleichemBontshe Shveig
1963TV: Cowboy and the TigerTiger
1963TV: Car 54, Where Are You? Season #2 Episode #30 (series finale) "The Curse of the Snitkins"Officer Luther Snitkin
1964TV: Once Upon a MattressKing Sextimus
1966The DaydreamerPapa Andersen
1966Mister BuddwingMr. Schwartz
1966A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumHysterium
1967Enter LaughingMr. Foreman
1967Who's Minding the Mint?Avery Dugan
1967The IncidentSam Beckerman
1969TV: Arsenic and Old LaceDr. Herman Salk
1969Here's LucyDriving Examiner
1969Get SmartSimon The Likeable
1970Catch-22"Doc" Daneeka
1971They Might Be GiantsWilbur Peabody
1972TV: Of Thee I SingVice President Throttlebottom
1972TV: Once Upon a MattressKing Sextimus
1973Save the TigerPhil Greene
1976Tubby the Tubavoice: The Herald
1976Short: MaxMax
1976Harry and Walter Go to New YorkMischa
1976TV: All in the FamilyBernard Bernstein
1977TV: Seventh AvenueFinklestein
1977The Doonesbury Specialvoice
1978TV: Apple PieGrandpa Hollyhock
1979TV: TaxiJoe Rieger (Alex Rieger's father) in episode entitled "Honor Thy Father"; role reprised in 1981 episode "Like Father, Like Son"
1979TV: SoapSaul
1980Cheaper to Keep HerStanley Bracken
1980Wholly Moses!Tailor
1981TV: Goldie and the Boxer Go to HollywoodWally
1981 & 1982TV: The Love Boatepisodes: "That Old Gang of Mine" (1981); "A Honeymoon for Horace" (1982)
1983Anna to the Infinite PowerDr. Henry Jelliff
1983TV: HappyBernie Nelson
1983TV: Mama's FamilyAlvin Thompson
1985CocoonBernie Lefkowitz
1985TV: Hostage FlightMr. Singer
1985TV: Night Court - An Old FlameMarty Ratner
1986TV: Young AgainThe Angel
1988Arthur 2: On the RocksMr. Butterworth
1988Cocoon: The ReturnBernie Lefkowitz
1988TV: The Golden GirlsMax Weinstock
1989TV: Head of the ClassWesley Winthrop

Partial discography

Awards and nominations

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. "Actress Madeline Lee Gilford dies: Veteran thesp became a Broadway producer". Variety Magazine. 2008-04-15. Retrieved 2008-04-28.
  2. Shepard, Richard. F. "Jack Gilford Is Given a Memorial With 28 Acts and Fond Ribbing", The New York Times, June 22, 1990
  3. "Biography of Jack Gilford", The New York Times
  4. Jack Gilford Biography (1907-1990)
  5. Briggs, John (January 1, 1959). "REGINA RESNIK SINGS ROLE OF ORLOFSKY". The New York Times. Retrieved November 29, 2019.
  6. Mandelbaum, Ken. "DVDs: Many Moons Ago" broadway.com, January 6, 2006
  7. 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.
  8. Jack Gilford, Actor, Dead at 81; Veteran of Stage, Screen and TV
  9. "Finks, a sweeping tale of love and friendship, trials and tragedy (July 23-August 3) at Vassar College". Archived from the original on September 27, 2013. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  10. Genzlinger, Neil. "A Choice to Name Names, or Else". The New York Times. April 8, 2013. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  11. Miriam Silverman browntrinity.com
  12. "2013 Winners - [Drama Desk Awards]". 2013 Drama Desk Nominees. 58th Annual Drama Desk Awards. Archived from the original on 26 August 2013. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  13. "Jack Gilford listing" playbillvault.com, accessed March 19, 2015
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