Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Bert Lahr


Bert Lahr, born Irving Lahrheim (August 13, 1895 – December 4, 1967), was an American iconic actor, particularly of stage and film and comedian. Lahr is principally known for his role as the Cowardly Lion, as well as his counterpart Kansas farmworker Zeke, in The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was well known for his explosive humor, but also adapted well to dramatic roles and his work in burlesque, vaudeville, and on Broadway.

 

                                                            Bert Lahr in the 1940s 

Dropping out of school at 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. In 1927 he debuted on Broadway in Delmar's Revels. He played to packed houses, performing classic routines such as "The Song of the Woodman" (which he reprised in the film Merry-Go-Round of 1938). Lahr had his first major success in a stage musical playing the prize fighter hero of Hold Everything! (1928–29). Other musicals followed, notably Flying High (1930), Florenz Ziegfeld's Hot-Cha! (1932) and The Show is On (1936) in which he co-starred with Beatrice Lillie. In 1939, he co-starred as Louis Blore alongside Ethel Merman in the Broadway production of DuBarry Was a Lady.

The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz

Lahr's most iconic role was that of the Cowardly Lion in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Lahr was signed to play the role on July 25, 1938. He starred opposite Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. Lahr's lion costume was composed of lion fur and, under the high-intensity lighting required for Oz's Technicolor scenes, the costume was unbearably hot. Lahr contributed ad-lib comedic lines for his character. Many of Lahr's scenes took several takes because other cast members, especially Garland, couldn't complete the scenes without laughing. The Cowardly Lion is the only character who sings two solo song numbers-"If I Only Had the Nerve", performed after the initial meeting with Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man in the forest, and "If I Were King of the Forest", performed while he and the others are awaiting their audience with the Wizard.

                                                       As the Cowardly Lion in 1939

"The Wizard of Oz" was Lahr's 17th movie but his first success. When warned that Hollywood had a habit of typecasting actors, Lahr replied, "Yeah, but how many parts are there for lions?"

An original Cowardly Lion costume worn by Lahr in The Wizard of Oz is in the holdings of The Comisar Collection, which is also the largest collection of television artifacts and memorabilia in the world.

Death

Lahr was filming The Night They Raided Minsky's when he died of cancer on December 4, 1967 at the age of 72. He was hospitalized on November 21 for what was reported as a back ailment. In Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, John Lahr wrote: "Bert Lahr died in the early morning of December 4, 1967. Two weeks before, he had returned home at 2 a.m., chilled and feverish, from the damp studio where The Night They Raided Minsky's was being filmed. Ordinarily, a man of his age and reputation would not have had to perform that late into the night, but he had waived that proviso in his contract because of his trust in the producer and his need to work. The newspapers reported the cause of death as pneumonia; but he succumbed to cancer, a disease he feared but never knew he had." While the official cause of death was listed as pneumonia, it was later revealed that Lahr, unknown to all, had had cancer for some time. Most of Lahr's scenes had already been shot. Norman Lear told the New York Times that "through judicious editing we will be able to shoot the rest of the film so that his wonderful performance will remain intact." The producers used test footage of Lahr, plus an uncredited voice double and a body double, burlesque actor Joey Faye, to complete Lahr's role.

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