Joseph Jefferson


Joseph Jefferson (February 20, 1829April 23, 1905) was an American actor. He was the third actor of this name in a family of actors and managers, and one of the most famous of all American comedians.

Life and career

Jefferson was born in Philadelphia. His father was a scenic designer and actor and his mother an actress. He appeared onstage early in life, often being used when a play called for "a babe in arms". His first recorded appearance was at the Washington Theatre in Washington, D.C. where he appeared in a benefit performance for the minstrel Thomas D. Rice. It was there that the four-year-old Jefferson sang alternating stanzas in the song "Jump Jim Crow". His father died when he was 13, and young Jefferson continued acting and helping to support the family. Jefferson was twice married: at the age of 21 in 1850, to actress Margaret Clements Lockyer (1832–1861), whose early death left him with four children; and in 1867 to Sarah Warren, niece of William Warren the actor.

Early career

He saved money, visited Europe in 1856, and in November of that year joined Laura Keene's Company in New York and established a reputation as a first-rate actor. Throughout his youth he experienced many of the hardships connected with theatrical touring in those early days.

After this experience, partly as actor, partly as manager, he won his first pronounced success in 1858 as Asa Trenchard in Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin at Laura Keene's theatre in New York. This play was the turning-point of his career, as it would be for the actor E. A. Sothern. The naturalness and spontaneity of humour with which he acted the love scenes revealed a spirit in comedy new to his contemporaries, long used to a more artificial convention; and the touch of pathos which the part required revealed no less to the actor an unexpected power in himself. Famously, when Sothern complained about the small size of his role, Jefferson replied, "There are no small parts, only small actors."

Other early parts included Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby, Caleb Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Dr. Pangloss in The Heir at Law, Salem Scudder in The Octoroon, and Bob Acres in The Rivals, the last being not so much an interpretation of the character as Sheridan sketched it as a creation of the actors.

In 1859, Jefferson made a dramatic version of the story of Rip Van Winkle on the basis of older plays, and acted it with success in Washington. He arrived at Sydney in the beginning of November 1861, and played a successful season introducing to Australia Rip Van Winkle, Our American Cousin, The Octoroon and other plays. He opened in Melbourne on March 31, 1862, and had a most successful season extending over about six months. Seasons followed in the country and in Tasmania. In 1865 Jefferson with health recovered went to London and arranged with Dion Boucicault for a revised version of Rip Van Winkle. It ran 170 nights, with Jefferson in the leading part.

Later years

Jefferson would continue acting in this show for 40 years. Returning to America, Jefferson made it his stock play, making annual tours of the states with it, and occasionally reviving The Heir-at-Law in which he played Dr. Pangloss, The Cricket on the Hearth (Caleb Plummer) and The Rivals (Bob Acres). He was one of the first to establish the travelling combinations which superseded the old system of local stock companies. Jefferson also starred in a number of films as the character starting in the 1896, Awakening of Rip, which is in the U.S. National Film Registry. Jefferson’s son Thomas followed in his father’s footsteps and also played the character in a number of early 20th century films.

With the exception of minor parts, such as the First Gravedigger in Hamlet, which he played in an all-star combination headed by Edwin Booth, Jefferson created no new character after 1865; and the success of Rip Van Winkle was so pronounced that he has often been called a one-part actor. If this was a fault, it was the public's, who never wearied of his one masterpiece.

No man in his profession was more honored for his achievements or his character. He was the friend of many of the leading men in American politics, art and literature. He was an ardent fisherman and lover of nature, and devoted to painting. It is erroneously believed that he was distantly related to British comedian Stan Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson), but UK civil registration, census and church records suggest that Jefferson was not the real name of his father. Jefferson was a founding member and the second president of the Players' Club in Manhattan.

Jefferson died from pneumonia on April 23, 1905 in Palm Beach, Florida.


Jefferson's name continues to live on through the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee in Chicago which offers awards in recognition of excellence of Chicago's Equity and non-Equity theaters and their productions.


  • William Winter, The Jeffersons (Boston, 1881)
  • Carroll, Twelve Americans: Their Lives and Times (New York, 1883)
  • Matthews and Hutton, Actors and Actresses of Great Britain and the United States (New York, 1886)
  • N. H. Dole, Joseph Jefferson at Home (Boston, 1898)
  • Francis Wilson, Joseph Jefferson (New York, 1906)
  • M. J. Moses, Famous Actor-Families in America (New York, 1906)
  • Francis Wilson, Reminiscences of a Fellow Player (New York, 1906)
  • William Winter, Other Days (New York, 1908)
  • E. P. Jefferson, Intimate Recollections of Joseph Jefferson, (New York, 1909)
  • Arthur Bloom, Joseph Jefferson: Dean of the American Theatre (Savannah, 2000)


External links

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