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faint heart

Bert Lahr

[lahr]
Bert Lahr (August 13, 1895December 4, 1967) was a German-Jewish American Tony Award-winning comic actor and vaudeville comedian.

Biography

Early life

Born Irving Lahrheim in New York City, Lahr is best remembered today for his role as the Cowardly Lion and the Kansas farmworker Zeke in the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, but known during his life for a career in burlesque, vaudeville and Broadway.

Dropping out of school at the age of fifteen to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked his way up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. In 1927 he debuted in on Broadway in Harry Delmar's Revels. Lahr played to packed houses, performing classic routines such as "The Song of the Woodman" (which he later 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). Several 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 with Ethel Merman in DuBarry Was a Lady.

Career

Lahr made his feature film debut in 1931's Flying High, playing the part of the oddball aviator he had previously played on stage. He signed with New York-based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. When that series ended, he came back to Hollywood to work in feature films. Aside from The Wizard of Oz (1939), his movie career was limited.

His later life was troubled, although he made the transition to straight theatre. He costarred in a much-praised version of Waiting for Godot in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida in which he played Estragon to Tom Ewell's Vladimir. Lahr thought of himself as the top banana in the production, telling Ewell "not to crowd him." When Beckett learned of this, he complained that the play was being taken away from his major character, Vladimir. Lahr later played Estragon in the play's short-lived Broadway run.

Among other Broadway roles, Lahr played Queen Victoria in a sketch from the musical Two on the Aisle. He also performed as Moonface Martin in a television version of Anything Goes with Ethel Merman reprising her role as Reno Sweeney and Frank Sinatra as Billy Crocker. In the late 1950s, Lahr supplied the voice of an animated bloodhound in Old Whiff, a short cartoon produced by Mike Todd which featured the olfactory Smell-O-Vision process developed for Todd's feature film Scent of Mystery (1960). In 1964 he won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in the musical Foxy.

Later life

Lahr occasionally appeared on television, including NBC's live version of the Cole Porter musical Let's Face It (1954) and an appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line? He also performed in commercials, including a memorable series for Lay's potato chips during its long-running "Betcha can't eat just one" campaign with Lahr as "Aunt Tillie".

In 1967, Lahr died of pneumonia in New York City in the middle of filming The Night They Raided Minsky's, forcing producers to use a double in several scenes. Fittingly, this last role was as a burlesque comic. Lahr is buried at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.

His son, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, wrote a biography of his father's life titled Notes on a Cowardly Lion. His daughter Jane Lahr was in the documentary Memories of Oz on the television network Turner Classic Movies in 2001.

Filmography

Stage productions

External links

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