Jeff Corey was born Arthur Zwerling in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Mary (née Peskin) and Nathan Zwerling. He attended the Feagin School of Dramatic Art and took part in the New York Federal Theatre Project. He worked with Jules Dassin, Elia Kazan, John Randolph and other politically liberal theatrical personalities. Although he attended some meetings of the Communist Party, Corey never joined. A World War II veteran, Corey served in the US Navy. Corey moved to Hollywood in 1940 and became a highly respected character actor. One of his film roles was in Superman and the Mole Men, (1951), which was later edited to a two-part episode of the television series The Adventures of Superman, retitled “The Unknown People”. His portrayal of a xenophobic vigilante coincidentally reflected what was about to happen to him. Corey’s career was halted in the early 1950s, when he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Corey refused to give names of alleged Communists and subversives in the entertainment industry and went so far as to ridicule the panel by offering critiques of the testimony of the previous witnesses. This behavior led to his being blacklisted for 12 years. “Most of us were retired Reds. We had left it, at least I had, years before,” Corey told Patrick McGilligan, the co-author of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, who also teaches film at Marquette University. “The only issue was, did you want to just give them their token names so you could continue your career, or not? I had no impulse to defend a political point of view that no longer interested me particularly … They just wanted two new names so they could hand out more subpoenas.”
During his blacklisting Corey drew upon his experience in various actors’ workshops (including the Actors’ Lab, which he helped establish) by seeking work as an acting teacher. He soon became one of the most influential teachers in Hollywood. His students, at various times, included Robert Blake, James Coburn, Richard Chamberlain, James Dean, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, Michael Forest, James Hong, Sally Kellerman, Shirley Knight, Penny Marshall, Jack Nicholson, Darrell M. Smith, Diane Varsi, Sharon Tate, Rita Moreno, Leonard Nimoy, Sally Forrest, Anthony Perkins, Rob Reiner, Robert Towne, Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams. In 1962 Corey began working in films again, and remained active into the 1990s. He played Hoban in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Tom Chaney the principal villain in True Grit (1969) and was sheriff Bledsoe in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969) who warned Butch and Sundance that no good would come of their breaking the law. In Seconds (1966), a science fiction drama film directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson, Corey with Will Geer and John Randolph played wealthy executives who opt to restart their lives with a new identity, an ironic parallel to the real life of Corey and the other principal actors (excepting Hudson) who had also been proscribed from Hollywood films during the “Blacklist” years of the 1950s. Corey played a police detective in the psychological thriller The Premonition (1976) and he reprised the role of sheriff Bledsoe in the prequel Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979). He also played Wild Bill Hickok in Little Big Man (1970).
Corey made guest appearances on many TV shows. Corey appeared as murder victim Carl Bascom in the Perry Mason episode, “The Case of the Reckless Rockhound” (1964). He featured in science fiction series too, including an episode of The Outer Limits (“O.B.I.T.”, 1963) in which he played Byron Lomax; Star Trek (“The Cloud Minders”, 1969) in which he played High Advisor Plasus; and Babylon 5 (“Z’ha’dum”, 1996) in which he played Justin, and as Caspay in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). He was also the voice of the villain Silvermane (in elderly form) in Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994). He also appeared in the short-lived Paper Moon (1974), a comedy about a father and his presumed daughter roaming through the American Midwest during the Great Depression based on the film. Corey had a memorable role in a third-season Night Court (1986) as a burned-out judge who’d lost his grip on reality. He played Dr. Miles Talmadge on Night Gallery season one episode one, “The Dead Man”, on December 16, 1970. In an interview in February 1973 aboard the SS Universe Campus of Chapman College, Corey detailed his TV work on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Up to this time he was proudest of this work, for which he received an Emmy nomination. Returning to one aspect of his acting roots, he can be seen directing some of the screen tests for Superman in the DVD extras. He also played Lex Luthor in several such screen tests. Corey died on August 16, 2002 from complications from a fall at the age of 88.
- August, 10, 1914
- Brooklyn, New York
- August, 16, 2002
- Santa Monica, California
Cause of Death
- complications from a fall