Anyone who stands up to Humphrey Bogart has to be pretty impressive, right? I mean, you hear that, you think, like, Sidney Greenstreet. Peter Lorre. And of course, in that same movie—Elisha Cook, Jr. Who according to his army induction paperwork was five foot five and 123 pounds. And, sure, he fails. Repeatedly. But he’s the scrappy little bantam who’ll keep trying anyway. It’s his most famous role, but it’s far from his only one. His movie and TV career lasted fifty-eight years, and his Broadway debut was four years even before that. But to most people, he’ll always just be the gunsel.
I mean, I’m not going to lie; to me, he’s mostly my “hot take” reaction image. To the extent that, when he was on an episode of Perry Mason, I noticed it was him when he made that face. On the other hand, I have seen probably a couple dozen of his roles over the years, though I may not remember all of them. (His episodes of Star Trek and Night Court, for starters.) And some of them are genuine classics—he was also in The Big Sleep, after all. Shane. Even Rosemary’s Baby.
And he did all of that while being just a little guy who was as pushy as he could manage. He was called Hollywood’s lightest heavy. He mostly played little weaselly guys. I mean, you do what you’re good at, right? And he was so good at being the little weaselly guy. Not always evil; sometimes, more just pathetic. Usually someone in the control of a stronger person even when he was evil. But still, you know, he sold the role.
Apparently, there’s quite a lot we don’t know about Elisha Cook the man. He’s listed by the army as having dependents, but we don’t know who they are or what happened to them. John Huston said that Cook lived in a cabin in the High Sierra, where they’d send him a messenger if they wanted him to do a movie. Which is certainly an image. He married and divorced one woman, the woman with whom he presumably had children, then later married another woman—who he divorced and then remarried in the ’60s and ’70s. And he lived to a very old age, most of it spent acting.
He was one of those performers whose career outlasted the Code—as in, his first movie was the pre-Code Her Unborn Child, and his last role was a recurring character on Magnum, PI. And, yes, Joe Breen assumed that his character was referred to as a “gunsel” because that was a term for a young gunman. I can’t help wondering if Elisha Cook, Jr., knew that it was actually naval slang for a young male prostitute. Bogey was in the navy, so he knew, but Cook was in the army, and I don’t know if the slang got to him there.