Biography

"How many lion parts are there?" Thus did Bert Lahr, a major comedy star on Broadway, sum up his occasionally interesting but largely unfulfilling film career. Dropping out of school at 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked his way up from second comic to top banana on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. Along the way, he married his first wife Mercedes Delpino, who was also his onstage partner. Lahr gained popularity with lowbrows and the intelligentsia alike with his grotesque facial expressions, his apparently ad-libbed one-liners, and his plaintive expletive "gnaang, gnaang gnaang!" He graduated from vaudeville to Broadway in 1927, going on to star in such fondly remembered musicals as Hold Everything, Flying High, and Life Begins at 8:40, performing such classic routines as "Stop in the name of the station house!" and "Woodman, Spare That Tree!" Lahr made his starring film debut in the 1931 movie adaptation of Flying High, but never truly caught on as a screen personality, possibly because his gestures and reactions were too broad for the comparatively intimate medium of films. Lahr's greatest screen performance -- indeed, one of the greatest performances ever captured on celluloid -- was as the Cowardly Lion in the perennial favorite The Wizard of Oz (1939). In the mid-1950s, Lahr gained a latter-day reputation as a sensitive dramatic actor when he was co-starred with E.G. Marshall in the first New York staging of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. For all his onstage buffoonery, Lahr was an intensely troubled, unhappy man, a fact driven home in Notes on a Cowardly Lion, a biography written by Lahr's son, theatre critic John Lahr. After making more money than he'd ever seen in his life as star of a series of potato chip commercials, Bert Lahr was cast as Professor Spats in the nostalgic 1967 film The Night They Raided Minsky's; Lahr died of cancer during production, forcing the producers to use a double for the actor in several scenes. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi