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George Jessel (actor)

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George Jessel (3 April 1898 – 23 May 1981) was a Jewish American actor, singer, songwriter, and Academy Award-winning movie producer. He was famous in his lifetime as a multitalented comedic entertainer, achieving a level of recognition that transcended his limited roles in movies. He was widely known by his nickname, the "Toastmaster General of the United States" for his frequent role as the master of ceremonies at political and entertainment gatherings.


Early years

Jessel was born in the Bronx. New York City. By age 10, he was appearing in vaudeville and on Broadway to support his family after his father's death. His mother, who worked as a ticket seller at the Imperial Theater, helped him form The Imperial Trio, a harmony group of ushers to entertain patrons of the theater, with Walter Winchell and Jack Wiener, using the stage names Leonard, Lawrence and McKinley, in their early teens (such usher-singer groups were common). At age 11, he was a partner of Eddie Cantor in a kid sketch and performed with him on stage until he outgrew the role at age 16. He later partnered with Lou Edwards and then began a solo performer.[1]



His most famous comedy skit was called "Hello Mama" or "Phone Call from Mama", which portrayed a one-sided telephone conversation. In 1919 he produced his own solo show, "George Jessel's Troubles" and appeared in his first motion picture, the silent movie The Other Man's Wife. He co-wrote the lyrics for a hit tune, "Oh How I Laugh When I Think How I Cried About You", and performed in several successful comedy stage shows in the early 1920s. In 1921 he recorded a hit single, "The Toastmaster". He sometimes appeared in blackface in his vaudeville shows.

Movies and broadcasting

In 1925 he emerged as one of the most popular leading men on Broadway with the starring role in the stage production of The Jazz Singer. The success of the show prompted Warner Bros. to adapt the show as the first "talkie" and to cast Jessel in the lead role. When the studio refused his salary demands, however, he turned down the movie role, which was eventually played by Al Jolson. According to Jessel during an interview around 1980, Warners still owed Jessel money for earlier roles and lacked enough funds to produce this movie with a leading star. Jolson, the biographical inspiration for the movie, became the movie's main financial backer.[2]

His second movie role was in 1926 in Private Izzy Murphy. Whereas Jolson's career skyrocketed after the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, Jessel remained in smaller movie roles, often intended for Jewish audiences.

In the middle 1940s, he began producing musicals for 20th Century Fox, producing 24 films in all in a career that lasted through the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time he became known as a host on the banquet circuit, famous for his good-natured wit aimed at his fellow celebrities. In 1946 he was one of the founding members of the California branch of the Friars Club. (A recording exists of an example of his "blue" work in front of a stag audience, although it was actually recorded at a roast hosted by the Friars' rival, the Masquers Club.) He also traveled widely overseas with the USO entertaining troops. As he grew older, he wrote eulogies for many of his contemporaries in Hollywood. He wrote three volumes of memoirs, So Help Me in 1943, This Way, Miss (1955), and The World I Lived In (1975).

In the early 1950s he performed on the radio in The George Jessel Show, which became a television show of the same name from 1953 to 1954. In 1968 he starred in Here Come The Stars, a syndicated variety show. Jessel also appeared as himself in Valley of the Dolls in 1968. His attempt to extend his career was undermined, however, by a perception that his style of comedy was outdated, as well as by his outspoken support of the Vietnam War and of conservative political causes.[1]

On the other hand, he often crossed the era's stereotypical political lines with his support for the Civil Rights movement and criticism of racism and anti-Semitism. His outspokenness regarding his political opinions could sometimes get him into trouble. In 1971, while being interviewed by Edwin Newman on The Today Show on NBC, he repeatedly referred to The New York Times as "Pravda", the house organ of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and was ejected from the show.

Later years

Famous in his youth for his affairs with starlets, he also became known for keeping company with a wide assortment of younger show girls, even into his old age. By the late 1960s he had gained a reputation as being overly self-indulgent in reminiscing about former companions who were little known by younger audiences. Walter Winchell once said of him, "That son of a bitch started to reminisce when he was eight years old". In response, Jessel stated that "I have a funeral speech ready for Winchell. I hope it starts in fifteen minutes." He had achieved a somewhat iconic status, representing a Hollywood of yore, such that he extended his career by playing himself, rather than characters, as in the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls.

His last movie role was in Diary of a Young Comic in 1979. He also appeared as himself as an interviewed witness in the 1981 movie Reds. He entertained American military forces in Europe in 1972.

Personal life

In the 1930s, his personal life kept him in the public eye as much as his movies. He had notorious affairs with actresses Pola Negri, Helen Morgan and Lupe Vélez (all detailed in his 1975 autobiography The World I Lived In). It was around this time, while emceeing a vaudeville show in Chicago, he decided to introduce a sister act, The Gumm Sisters, to laughs from the audience. When he reintroduced the singing trio as The Garland Sisters (after Carole Lombard's character in the film Twentieth Century) the name stuck. Youngest sister Frances named herself Judy after a popular Rudy Vallee song and became a legendary star of the last century. In 1934 Jessel married silent movie star Norma Talmadge, causing a scandal because Talmadge was married at the time that they started their affair. After their divorce in 1939, he caused further scandal by breaking into her house with a pistol and firing shots at her current lover.

Jessel died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 83 in Los Angeles and was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Honors and awards

In 1969 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him for his charity work by awarding him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, a Special Academy Award. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, George Jessel has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1777 Vine Street, Los Angeles, California.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Cullen, Frank and Hackman, Florence (2006). Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, pp. 566-68. Routledge. ISBN 0415938538.
  2. .Watch Jessel interview

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at George Jessel (actor). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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