Hume Blake Cronyn would never have to starve for his art. His mother was an heir to the fortune of the Labatt Brewing Company. His father was a highly regarded member of Parliament, as well as president of Canada Trust and the Mutual Life Assurance Company, a director of Labatt's, Bell Telephone and the National Research Council, and the governor of the University of Western Ontario. The young Cronyn wrote, in his self-mocking way, that he lived life "like any other over-privileged young man with roots in the Edwardian era" and would never be one to mope in a tenement room when times were bad.
At McGill, he anxiously awaited word from his fraternity of choice as to whether he would be accepted. To calm his nerves as he waited out the last day for invitations, he repaired to the bar at the Ritz Carlton on Sherbrooke Street. During a dry spell of unemployment in his twenties, there was no desperate search for menial jobs. He had the resources to weather the spell at operas and museums, in the gym and reading Strindberg and Eliot.
In any case, he wasn't supposed to be anywhere near a stage. He'd been dis-patched to McGill to become a corporate lawyer. He soon discovered he much preferred the productions of the English Department and the Red & White Revue to attending classes, even those given by the likes of one of his favorite authors, Stephen Leacock. Cronyn was terribly disappointed by the Great Man's political economy lectures.
His parents were slightly appalled when he made his true ambitions known, but eventually agreed to send him to his drama school of choice. He chose the prestigious Academy of Theater Arts in New York City. He fled his freshman year at McGill as soon as he could and ended up in Washington, where a friend of a friend hired him for his first professional role, as a paperboy in a play called Up Pops the Devil
. He was paid $15 dollars a week and had only one line. He rehearsed for days, then on opening night walked out to do his scene . . . and flubbed it.
In spite of the inauspicious debut, Cronyn soon got his wish fulfilled and submitted himself, at the Academy, to the tyrannical teachers who had terrified stars such as Rosalind Russell, Spencer Tracy
and Edward G Robinson
. He went on to more studies in Bath, England and Salzburg, Austria, where he was joined by his mother, who was devastated at the loss of her husband, Hume's father.
Hume returned to the US in 1934 to help found (and largely finance) the Barter Theater Company. Admission was 35 cents or its equivalent in food. It was nearing the depths of the Great Depression and cash was scarce. The actors literally ate the ticket price, and the Barter Theater Company didn't last long.
A 25-year-old man in the mid-1930s with no roles, no job and no prospects might have thought that things had gone wrong, that wrong paths had been chosen, that past indulgences must be atoned for. Not Cronyn. He enticed an old Academy friend to a dinner, somewhat lavish for an unemployed actor. Garson Kanin had been a couple of years ahead of Cronyn at school. He would later become a distinguished screenwriter, collaborating with George Cukor
in the great Spencer Tracy
romantic comedies Adam's Rib
and Pat and Mike
Kanin was then assistant stage manager in the wildly successful Broadway farce Three Men on a Horse
by legendary producer George Abbott. It was like the happy script of a play. Failing actor begs old friend for audition, gets audition, wins part, and lives happily ever after.
But Cronyn not only manufactured his own break through his old friends, he made the most of it under intense pressure. He was on his way, soon on stage with Burgess Meredith and Peggy (later Dame Peggy) Ashcroft in a Pulitzer Prize—winning play, High Tor
At this point Hollywood came calling in the form of the formidable Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. He summoned Cronyn, who immediately disliked him. Cohn reminded him of Mussolini in the recent newsreels he'd seen. The two stub-born men locked horns. Cohn was exasperated by the young actor's refusal to do a screen test, and the impudent young actor suggested instead that the all-powerful mogul come and watch his stage production.
He did a test for Paramount, but turned down a contract because they wouldn’t/t let him do theater work most of the year. The test film headed to the vaults. He returned to New York and between the spring of 1938 and the winter of 1940, he made seventeen plays in twenty-two months. More importantly he met and fell in love with an English actress named Jessica Tandy
. The two would have a fairy tale marriage and become one of the great acting duos of all time. At one disastrous dinner, he launched an ill-advised pontification on English manners. She replied with the brief but devastating putdown, "Well you are a fool." His great romance, like his film career, almost crashed on takeoff.
His family remained puzzled at his choice of career. He once asked one of his many uncles for an introduction. Uncle Edward replied "I knew an actor once . . . making it sound, Hume recalled, as if admitting "having been on good terms with a Ubangi tribesman."
But as often happened in his life, Hume got the girl and the prize role. Jessica agreed to go to Reno with him to get married. It was there that he got the call that would launch his film career. No less than Alfred Hitchcock
wanted to see him. After a brief interview with the great director, he had his first screen role in Shadow of a Doubt
, and a lifelong friend in "Hitch" to boot.
In the movie, the perfect American Newton family comes to learn that their visiting favorite Uncle Charlie is not such a nice guy. Cronyn plays Herbie Hawkins, the geekie neighbor and big-time crime buff The New York Times called it "a bumper crop of blue-ribbon chills and shivers" and Hume's performance "a minor comic master-piece." As soon as the filming was finished, he and Tandy finally married.
He made fifteen films between 1942 and 1948 of ever-increasing stature. He lamented that he hadn't yet become a star, "perhaps an asteroid," he wrote. But he was brilliant at the quirky art of character acting, the crucial supporting roles that movies can't succeed without. For him, a supporting role by no means meant a secondary presence.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice
(1946), he grabs the attention away from accomplished attention-grabbers Lana Turner and John Garfield. He was noticed for his turn as "slyly sharp and sleazy as an unscrupulous criminal lawyer."
Even in Spencer Tracy
's anti-Nazi tour de force, The Seventh Cross
, Cronyn is "splendid" as the genial but conflicted Paul Roeder, who must choose between his family's safety and helping his old friend, Tracy, escape from a concentration camp. It was also Jessica's first film. She was praised for her "emotionally devastating portrayal" of Cronyn's devoted wife. And it won Cronyn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1945. (He lost to Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way
He got to work with an old friend and Hollywood powerhouse Joseph L Mankiewicz on one of the greatest cinematic disasters of all time. Cleopatra
set the gold standard for being overblown, over budget and behind schedule. An epic flop, according to the All Movie Guide. The great scandal of the public affair between the stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, didn't help. Cronyn was cast as Cleopatra's adviser Sosigenes, or "Sausage Knees" as he came to be known. It was a good part, Cronyn wrote, "but as he wasn't present in any of the fighting or fornication scenes, he ended up mostly on the cutting room floor." Ten months work was reduced to about five minutes in the four-hour movie.
Despite the frustration, he was awed by Richard Burton, "one of the few actors touched by the finger of God." And though they finished Cleopatra
with undeleted expletives, they worked together the very next year in the celebrated stage and film version of Hamlet
. One of the most prestigious and unusual productions of the Shakespeare classic (the cast wears modern clothes, as if in rehearsal), it was directed by the great Sir John Gielgud. Cronyn's rendition of Polonius won him a Tony Award
He was firmly ensconced back in theatre, performing classics at the highly regarded Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the recently founded Stratford Theater in Ontario.
In 1965 he and Tandy were summoned to the White House to do a recital at a formal dinner for the upper echelons of President Lyndon Johnson's administration. He was flattered by the extended applause of such an august audience, but he worried about how one well-placed bomb that night could have blown away the entire government of the United States.
There were several more movies. Cocoon
in 1985 was a feel-good commercial success. Almost as impressive was seeing co-star Don Ameche and Cronyn, at 74, having suffered the loss of an eye, in enviable physical condition as they swim in their fountain of youth from outer space.
He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. After six Tony
nominations (for Big Fish, Little Fish
in 1961, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground
in 1964, A Delicate Balance
in 1965, The Gin Game
in 1978 [for both Best Actor and Best Play] and The Petition
in 1986) he and Tandy were awarded a special Tony-Award
for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. At an age when most would shut things down, Cronyn won three Emmys
(for Age-Old Friends
in 1990, Broadway Bound
in 1992 and To Dance with the White Dog
in 1994). Tandy died in 1994.
In 1996, Cronyn married Susan Cooper, the woman he'd worked so closely with on his later projects.
He was half of what was called "The First Couple of American Theater." The Law's loss was definitely Art's gain. Or maybe he would have been a heck of a corporate lawyer. As one fan said in a tribute posted on the web: “Versatility. Thy name is Cronyn”.