Sam Jaffe

Active - 1934 - 1984  |   Born - Mar 10, 1891   |   Died - Mar 24, 1984   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Crime, Comedy, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Nature obviously intended for Sam Jaffe to spend much of his screen career playing eccentric scientists and peppery little old men. As a child, Jaffe appeared in Yiddish stage productions with his mother, a prominent actress. He gave up the theater to study engineering at Columbia University, then served for several years as a mathematics teacher in the Bronx. He returned to acting in 1915 and never left, despite efforts by the more rabid communist-hunters of the 1950s to prevent the gently liberal-minded Jaffe from earning a living. Jaffe's now-familiar shock of wild, white hair was first put on view before the cameras in 1934's The Scarlet Empress, in which he played the insane Grand Duke Peter (several critics compared Jaffe's erratic behavior and bizarre appearance to Harpo Marx). Still only in his mid-40s, Jaffe went on to play the centuries-old High Lama in Capra's Lost Horizon (1937). In 1939, he essayed the title character in Gunga Din, though Hollywood protocol dictated that top billing go to Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Jaffe was Oscar-nominated for his performance as Doc, the "brains" in the 1950 crime film The Asphalt Jungle. His resemblance to Albert Einstein (minus the bushy moustache, of course) led to Jaffe being cast in Einsteinlike roles in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Jaffe was the lifelong best friend of Edward G. Robinson, with whom he appeared in the made-for-TV film The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (1971). TV viewers with long memories will recall Sam Jaffe as snowy-haired father-figure Dr. Zorba on the 1960s TV series Ben Casey, in which Jaffe was co-starred with his second wife, Bettye Ackerman.

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