Rubber-faced Jack Gilford (b. New York City, July 25, 1908; d. New York City, June 4, 1990), fondly remembered for his delightful ads for Cracker Jack on television in the 1960s, was a remarkable hybrid of vaudevillian, nightclub host, and pantomime artist who made his indelible mark in films, on Broadway, and on television. Winner of a Daytime Emmy®, he was also nominated for an Academy Award® for his supporting role in Save the Tiger (1973) with Jack Lemmon, and nominated twice for Tony Awards® for his work on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1963) and Cabaret (1966).
Gilford was born Jacob Aaron Gellman, the second of three boys, on Manhattan’s lower East Side, and grew up in Brooklyn. His father was a furrier, and his Rumanian-born mother helped support the family as a restaurateur and bootlegger. While he developed his impressions of celebrities and imitations of odd physical phenomena like “pea soup coming to a furious boil” and “fluorescent light turning on in a dark room,” he kept body and soul together working in a pharmacy. His career took fire when he won an Amateur Night contest in 1934 and soon moved on to do satire and pantomime in nightclubs. In 1940 he debuted on Broadway in Meet the People, and four years later presented his specialty act on film in the revue Hey Rookie.
At the bohemian Café Society in Greenwich Village in the 1940s Gilford was a regular Master of Ceremonies, hosting comedian Zero Mostel (a fellow political activist and lifelong friend), jazz singer Billie Holiday, and pianist Hazel Scott. In 1947, Gilford met actress Madeline Lee, who came from a family of dyed-in-the-wool leftists, at a political meeting, and although both were already married, they knew almost immediately that they were destined to be together. They divorced their respective spouses and married in 1949.
Then Jack Gilford’s accelerating career hit a brick wall. Choreographer Jerome Robbins went before Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to testify against persons in the theatre whom he suspected of leftward leanings. Robbins named both Madeline Lee and Zero Mostel, among others, putting them all, including Gilford, on a black list. Madeline effectively disappeared from show business until the 1990s, whereas Gilford and Mostel were able slowly to repair their careers – in fact, Gilford, Mostel, and Robbins all managed to work together in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for which Mostel won the Tony®) in 1962. But for a decade, as Madeline later recalled, “We raised three children on unemployment insurance.”
Reestablished Off-Broadway in The World of Sholem Aleichem (1953) and on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank (1955) and Romanoff and Juliet (1957), Gilford was brilliantly cast with the young Carol Burnett in Once upon a Mattress (Off-Broadway, 1959) in the pantomime role of King Sextimus; his performance was repeated twice on television in separate versions in 1964 and 1972. In the ’60s he appeared regularly as comic characters on dozens of television series and movies, including Car 54, Where Are You? and Get Smart. He also returned to film, repeating his role as Hysterium in the 1966 version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and appearing in Enter Laughing (1967), Catch-22 (1970, as Captain “Doc” Daneeka), and They Might Be Giants (1971).
Other bright spots among Gilford’s thirty-odd film credits are Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976), Wholly Moses (1980), Cheaper to Keep Her (1980), and his role as the melancholy Bernie Lefkowitz in Cocoon (1985) and Cocoon: The Return (1988). In 1979, Gilford won the Daytime Emmy for his performance on the children’s series Big Blue Marble; additional television credits include The David Frost Revue (1971), Friends and Lovers (1974), All in the Family (1976), Rhoda (1976), Apple Pie (1978), Taxi (1979, 1981), Soap (1979), The Duck Factory (1984), thirtysomething (1988), and The Golden Girls (1988, 1990).
In 1978, Jack and Madeline Gilford joined with old friends Zero and Kate Mostel to publish a quadruple autobiography, One Hundred and Seventy Years in Show Business.
Jack Gilford fought stomach cancer for three years before succumbing to it at his home in Greenwich Village. Madeline Lee, his wife of forty years, survived him until 2008. They leave three children, Lisa (a producer), Joe (a screenwriter and director), and Sam (an artist and archivist).