2/23/21: The Best Actor You’ve Never Heard of

By Fred Muenz

Born in Brooklyn on August 10, 1914, Arthur Zwerling, (aka Jeff Corey) was the son of European-Jewish immigrants. In high school, he was a mediocre student, but fell in love with acting after taking a drama class. Years later, he would say that choosing acting as a career saved him from a life of selling sewing machines. The raw talent he displayed earned him a scholarship to the prestigious Feagin School of Dramatic Arts, the top acting school in New York at the time. After graduation from Feagin, he joined a Shakespearean repertory company, followed by a travelling troupe putting on children’s plays. In 1936, he joined Leslie Howard in a travelling production of Hamlet, before finally entering the government’s Federal Theater Project (FTP). His first film role came in the FTP’s only film project, ONE THIRD OF A NATION (1939). In 1940, after Congress terminated the FTC’s funding, Corey and his new wife moved to Hollywood, where he began appearing in studio productions, including THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). During this time, he was also one of the founders of the Actors Lab, where he appeared in and produced a number of plays. In 1943, during World War II, he joined the Navy and became a motion picture combat photographer assigned to the aircraft carrier, Yorktown. He received three combat citations during the war, in particular for his footage of a Kamikaze attack on the ship. The footage is still used in World War II documentaries and was used in a number of Hollywood films after the war. After returning to civilian life, Corey resumed his acting career, only to have it cut short in 1951, when he was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, after fellow actor Marc Lawrence named him as a communist. Instead of invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, Jeff Corey simply refused to testify. The movie industry, in a supreme act of cowardice, had announced that anyone who refused to testify, or invoked their constitutional rights, would be blackballed. Jeff Corey was doomed to miss out on an entire decade of acting work. Ironically, Marc Lawrence received few acting roles during that time, and finally had to move to Italy to get work. After being blackballed, Corey enrolled at UCLA under the GI Bill, studying speech therapy, while working as a laborer to support his family. At the request of one of his fellow students, he organized a class in speech, which he taught in his garage. Before long, he expanded his classes to acting, charging his students a “tuition” of $10 a month for weekly classes. Eventually, his classes became so popular that he expanded his garage to create a small theater where his students performed scenes. Within a few years, his reputation had grown to the point where he was now considered the premier acting coach in Hollywood. While the studios still refused to hire him as an actor, they sent their contract players to study with him in what was now called the Professional Actors Workshop. Screenwriters, directors, and established actors were seeking out Jeff Corey for coaching. His students included some of the biggest names in Hollywood. James Dean, Kirk Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Anthony Perkins, Jane and Peter Fonda, Rita Moreno, Barbra Streisand andeven Pat Boone, among others, sought his help.Finally, in 1962,his name came off the Blacklist, and he was again offered acting roles. By now, in addition to his acting, he was also Professor of Theater Arts at California State University, Artist in Residence at both Ball State University and Illinois State University and Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Creative Writing at NYU and the University of Texas. He remained a busy actor in films and television well into the 1990’s.

On August 16, 2002, six days after his 88th birthday, he died of complications of a fall he had suffered a few days earlier.

THIS WILL BE THE LAST OF MY SILVER SCREEN MEMORIES. IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS, COMMENTS OR WOULD LIKE A REPRINT OF ANY OF MY ARTICLES OF THE PAST YEAR, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME AT fmuenz@comcast.net.

THANKS.

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