Edward G. Robinson: Empathy in Acting

Edward G Robinson Gangster 1930s Old Hollywood

Edward G. Robinson with a cigar in hand, circa 1920s/early 1930s. Photo edited by me, Source: Tumblr

Parodied as the cigar smoking racketeer saying from the side of his mouth, “See?”, Edward G. Robinson is remembered as the ideal gangster of classic film. His groundbreaking role in Little Caesar (1931), demonstrated his strong presence as a criminal rising to new heights. 23 years later, Robinson told World’s News on April 3, 1954, “I played a few gangsters, smoked a few evil-looking cigars and pulled a couple of triggers . . . and I’ve never been able to live it down. . . Why is it that people  [. . . forget my other roles in] Double Indemnity . . .  and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet . . ?” He played fewer gangsters than audiences think, but all his roles were powerful. This came from an understanding of people he credited to a special place.

Becoming Edward G. Robinson

Edward G Robinson Actor Portrait

Portrait circa 1920s or early 1930s. Source: Pinterest

Emanuel Goldenberg, his given name, intended to become a minister and then a lawyer while at City College of New York, revealed Voice on January 29, 1944. Performing in college plays and joining debates inspired a change of plans and the decision to leave City College to become an actor. Memories of working at a theatre as a kid made him start there, which turned into a struggle for a chance to act. Voice credited his mother to the idea that he write his own material. In result, the one act The Bells of Conscience marked his Broadway debut.

He learned his craft at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, reported The Sun on February 18, 1918. This training made him fully equipped for versatile roles. The paper noted his previous play Under Fire had him playing 3 roles: “a French spy, a Belgian peasant and an English Tommy.”  By this time, his stage name was fully developed from E.G. Robinson to Edward G. Robinson. Years later to the Desert Sun on May 30, 1963, he explained, “. . .[W]hen I attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts, I was told to get an Anglo-Saxon name. I kept the initials E.G. but I don’t know to this day why I chose Robinson as a last name.”

His Most Valuable Experience as an Actor

Edward G Robinson Little Caesar Filmset Candid

Discussing a scene with director Mervyn LeRoy on set of Little Caesar (1931). Source: Pinterest

In the early 1930s Robinson began to appear consistently in films, having been in a few silents prior. His early roles in talkies included a managing editor (Five Star Final 1931), gambling barber (Smart Money 1931), and biopic of businessman Horace Tabor (Silver Dollar 1932). There was a time in his life Edward G. Robinson felt was formative in helping him assess and portray a variety of people. “I might have been an actor if I hadn’t gone to college, but I think that I am a more understanding actor because of my college education,” he told The Cornell Daily Sun on November 14, 1932. “. . .College isn’t all fraternities and football games. Its main function is to broaden one culturally and humanly.”

Not only did Robinson attend City College of New York for a time, but the Voice article previously mentioned, noted that he studied for a Master of Arts at Columbia University as well before he went to The Academy of Dramatic Arts. Both City College of New York and The Academy of Dramatic Arts were bequeathed donations when he died at the age of 79 in 1973. The Cornell Daily Sun further explained how Robinson felt college gave “a cultural background and more tolerent [sic] outlook on life, . . . helpful in acting, . . . also very beneficial in almost any profession.”

An Understanding of Character

Edward G Robinson Characters 1944 Movie

A scene from Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1944) with Margaret O’Brien and Agnes Moorehead. Robinson played a Norwegian farmer in this film. Photo edited by me, Source: Tumblr

Robinson is one of the many who believed his profession was more than passing time for audiences at the movie theaters. He estimated on stage he played nearly every type of person and race, which may make people today uneasy. However he believed it was an actor’s responsibility to play different roles. Daily Standard quoted him on June 23, 1932, “I believe that an actor should be able to portray any type of character. . . .[It] is an actor’s work to represent someone other than himself. . . . I have no type. I play human beings. . . .  I wish to express myself through any medium that offers that is forceful enough to be a colorful representation. In other words, I want to express humanity, which is universal.”

Remembered for his generosity and dislike of attention, Robinson had high expectations to improve himself and several interests. On screen, he strived to deliver believability and empathy. Off screen he spoke 7 languages, collected Impressionistic paintings and was well read. He enjoyed baseball and football games, prizefights, horse races, and classical music concerts. Robinson was quoted to have believed in the idea to live outside one’s means, printed in World’s News, ” . . . that way you have to better yourself constantly . . . to live in your accustomed manner.” While he is far from being forgotten, Robinson was a reflective actor with more range than often credited for today.

His granddaughter’s website hasn’t been updated in awhile, but the Q&A is enlightening. My favorite movies of his include The Little Giant (1933), Bullets or Ballots (1936) and The Woman in the Window (1944). What’s your favorite Edward G. Robinson movie?


Cover Photo: Detail of The Little Giant (1933) poster, Source: Fine Art America

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