Family & Companions
One of the leading burlesque and vaudeville stars who went on to Broadway musical comedies, Bert Lahr had a film career highlighted by his delightful turn as the Cowardly Lion in the now-classic 1939 version of "The Wizard of Oz." Born to a German immigrant father in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, the precocious Lahr dropped out of school at age 15 and quickly found success with the Seven Frolics, a children's stage act. Altering his last name from Lahrheim to Lahr, he went on to a successful career as a burlesque comic (performing "Dutch" characters, replete with accent) and later in an act paired with his future wife Mercedes Delpino, eventually playing the Palace Theater in 1925. After debuting on Broadway in "Harry Delmar's Revels" in 1927, Lahr had his first major success in a stage musical playing the prize fighter hero of "Hold Everything" (1928-29). Several other musicals followed, notably "Flying High" (1930), Ziegfeld's "Hot-Cha!" (1932) and "The Show Is On" (1936), which teamed him with Beatrice Lillie in a show conceived and directed by Vincente Minnelli. Audiences loved Lahr's penchant for mugging. twisting his face into comic grotesques and ad-libbing hilarious quips. Often onstage, he would perform routines that became signature pieces, like his famous "Stop in the name of the fire house" routine.
Lahr made his film debut in 1931's "Flying High" playing an oddball inventor. Like several other stage stars (e.g., Ethel Merman), his personality was too larger-than-life to be captured on screen. In his early films, Lahr comes off as too broad and overbearing. Despite an on-again, off-again film career over the next thirty-odd years, he had only one role that perfectly suited his unique abilities. Some critics have made a case that Lahr's portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" is not only his best screen work, but also one of the greatest screen performances ever. Debate over that will undoubtedly rage into the next century, but there is not doubting that children of all ages respond to the character. Teamed with fellow vaudevillians Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, Lahr proves close to perfection whether warbling the number "If I Were King of the Forest" or cowering in fear of Margaret Hamilton's truly scary Wicked Witch of the West. None of his other film roles allowed him to tap into his personality in quite the same way.
Even though his film career proved minor, Lahr continued to triumph as a stage performer. The same year as "Oz," he and Ethel Merman scored a hit in the Cole Porter musical "Du Barry Was a Lady" as did his reteaming with Bea Lillie for Billy Rose's "Seven Lively Arts" (with another Porter score) in 1944, A rare dramatic role in "Burlesque" (1946) proved that there was more to his talent than just a funny man and it paved the way for future roles that would tap hitherto unknown sides of his persona. Notable stage successes in revues like "Two on the Aisle" (1951) and "The Girls Against the Boys" (1959) bookended triumphs like his starring role opposite E.G. Marshall in the 1956 landmark Broadway production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Beckett had conceived the piece as a vaudeville and Lahr was more than in his element. Turns in Shakespeare (particularly as Bottom, one of the Bard's best comic roles, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1960) and in such sophisticated comedies as "Hotel Paradiso" (1957) and "The Beauty Part" (1962) further testified to his versatility. Lahr's career culminated in a Tony-winning star performance in "Foxy" (1964), a musical adaptation of "Volpone." The actor collapsed on the set of his last film "The Night They Raided Minsky's" (1967), which ironically was set in the heyday of burlesque. A trouper to the end, Lahr succumbed to a hemorrhage that was a result of complications from cancer on December 4, 1967 as age 72. His son, author and critic John Lahr, wrote a biography "Notes on a Cowardly Lion," that proved (like many other comedians) he was a troubled and unhappy individual. Despite his private persona, the public Lahr was a consummate entertainer and forever holds a special place in the hearts of children everywhere who perennially watched "The Wizard of Oz."
Cast (Feature Film)
Spent three years touring with Seven Frolics, a children's vaudeville act; adopted stage surname of Lahr
At age 18, joined the Columbia burlesque circuit; perfected act playing burlesque "Dutch" characters
With Mercedes Delpino, formed act Lahr & Mercedes
First played NYC's Palace Theater
Broadway debut in "Harry Delmar's Revels"; show closed in 16 weeks
Appeared in the stage show "Flying High"
Feature film debut in "Flying High"
Starred in "Hot-Cha!", produced by Florenz Ziegfeld
Played opposite Beatrice Lillie in "The Show Is On", staged and conceived by Vincente Minnelli
Portrayed the Cowardly Lion/Zeke in "The Wizard of Oz"
Reunited onstage with Beatrice Lille to star in Billy Rose's "Seven Lively Arts", featuring songs by Cole Porter
Made rare dramatic appearance onstage in "Burlesque"
Toured in "Make Mine Manhattan" in the role originated by Sid Caesar; appeared in film version
Reprised stage role in the TV adaptation of "Burlesque" (NBC)
Starred in the revue "Two on the Aisle"
Had leading roles in two TV productions, "Androcles and the Lion" and "School for Wives"
Played opposite E G Marshall in the Broadway production of "Waiting for Godot"
Returned to the stage opposite Tom Ewell in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida
Starred in the unsold pilot "Mr. O'Malley" (CBS)
Appeared alongside Nancy Walker, Dick Van Dyke and Shelley Berman in the revue "The Girls Against the Boys"
Made first appearance in Shakespeare, cast as Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Autolycus in "The Winter's Tale"
Appeared in "The Beauty Part" by S J Perelman
Played the father in the TV production of "The Fantasticks" (NBC)
Won Tony Award for turn as Volpone in the musical "Foxy"
Collapsed during filming of last movie, "The Night They Raided Minsky's"