Jeff Corey, 88; Blacklist Led Actor to Teaching
His list of students is a who's who of the Hollywood elite since the
1950's. They include James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
"Acting is life study, and Corey's classes got me into looking at life as
an artist." -- Jack Nicholson
By JON THURBER, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Jeff Corey, a gifted actor who was blacklisted for refusing to name names
before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s but emerged as
one of the most sought-after teachers in Hollywood, has died. He was 88.
Perhaps best-known for his post-blacklist roles in "Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid," "In Cold Blood," "Little Big Man" and on the TV sitcoms "One Day
at a Time" and "Night Court," Corey died Friday morning at St. John's Medical
Center in Santa Monica of complications from a fall earlier in the week at his
home in Malibu.
(Webmaster Note: Jeff Corey played Caspay, one of the Mutants, in
Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)
To generations of actors, directors and writers, Corey's name on the
blacklist didn't mean a thing. They came to his informal classes for his
insightful ideas on the craft of acting and views on how to handle challenging
His list of students makes up a who's who of the Hollywood elite since the
1950s and includes James Dean, Anthony Perkins, Shirley Knight, Jane Fonda,
Peter Fonda, Robert Blake, Leonard Nimoy, Robin Williams, Rob Reiner, Robert
Towne, Roger Corman, Penny Marshall, Taylor Hackford and a young Jack Nicholson.
"Acting is life study, and Corey's classes got me into looking at life as an
artist," Nicholson said years later.
Those who knew Corey's teaching process said he was a Stanislavsky Method
teacher but with a small "m." His process was eclectic and involved one-on-one
work with an actor. He created improvisational exercises that allowed actors to
engage their imaginations and subconscious minds in pursuit of a theme that they
could apply to their roles.
Corey was always pursuing a current underlying emotional and psychological
theme in the actor's work. And in doing that, he was trying to help the actor
relate to the here and now rather than the arcane notion of the character's
"I tell my students, 'Respect the instrument. It is you doing the acting,' "
Corey told The Times some years ago. "By all means, you must be responsive to
the meaning of the play, to what the author meant and to what the audience will
ultimately see. Engage your own intuition, use your own frames of reference and
give something which is uniquely yours; put something rich into your performance
rather than some external result that hasn't got your face. Simplicity is the
Corey didn't set out to be a teacher. An indifferent student in high school
in New York City, he took a drama class and became intrigued with acting. He
earned a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, then a leading
theater school in New York City, which he later said kept him from a career
selling sewing machines. From there, he did work in Shakespearean repertory and
then worked with a traveling children's theater troupe. His first meaty stage
role was in Leslie Howard's touring production of "Hamlet," in which he played
Corey and his wife moved to Los Angeles, and he found work, appearing in 23
films from 1940 to 1943, including "The Devil and Daniel Webster," "My Friend
Flicka," and "Joan of Arc." He joined the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the
ship Yorktown as a combat photographer. He earned citations for some footage he
shot during a kamikaze attack on the ship.
After the war, Corey returned to Hollywood and resumed his busy career
playing heavies in such films as "The Killers" and "Brute Force." He also played
the role of a psychiatrist in "Home of the Brave," one of his best performances.
Corey seemed ready for even better film parts as the second lead or top
character actor, when he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on
Un-American Activities, which had been investigating Communist influence in
Hollywood since 1947.
The actor was scheduled to appear at the hearing in downtown Los Angeles in
September 1951. He was 37 and had a wife and three daughters to support. But he
took the 5th Amendment and didn't work again as an actor in Hollywood for more
than a decade, missing out on countless movie opportunities and what would later
be considered the golden age of television.
"Most of us were retired reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before,"
Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of "Tender Comrades: A Backstory of
the Hollywood Blacklist" who also teaches film at Marquette University. "The
only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could
continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of
view that no longer interested me particularly .... They just wanted two new
names so they could hand out more subpoenas."
He found work as a laborer earning $14 a day and enrolled as a freshman at
UCLA on the GI Bill. He eventually earned a degree in speech therapy. Corey
would later say that he fell into teaching somewhat by accident. He said a
student who was failing miserably in another program organized the first class
and talked him into teaching it, which he did in the garage of his Hollywood
Hills home. Carol Burnett, then a freshman at UCLA, was among the students. Word
of mouth kept the classes going as Corey, a self-effacing man, didn't promote
himself or advertise and did little to encourage enrollment. By the mid-1950s,
he was the most sought-after acting coach in Hollywood. Studios that would not
hire Corey as an actor because of the blacklist actively sent their young talent
to study with him.
Corey himself wouldn't start working again in films until 1962, when he was
offered parts in the films "The Balcony" and "The Yellow Canary." One of his
students, Pat Boone, helped him get the part in "The Yellow Canary" by talking
the legal department at Fox into taking him on.Over the next 35 years, Corey
appeared in more than 70 films or television series. He also got chances to
direct. According to McGilligan, Corey was "an actor's actor, someone that
actors loved to watch because he was always doing something interesting in his
"Jeff was articulate about ideas, provocative and inspirational," McGilligan
told The Times on Saturday. "He was a wonderful actor who we never fully got to
see because of the blacklist."
Corey is survived by Hope, his wife of 64 years; three daughters, Eve Corey
Poling of Atlanta; Jane Corey of Elk, Calif., and Emily Corey of Los Angeles;
and six grandchildren.