Hand color tinted photo of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz
Bert Lahr (born Irving Lahrheim; August 13, 1895 – December 4, 1967) was an American actor and comedian. Lahr is remembered today for his roles as the Cowardly Lion and Kansas farmworker Zeke in The Wizard of Oz, but was also well-known for work in burlesque, vaudeville, and on Broadway.
Lahr was born in New York City, of German-Jewish heritage. Lahr grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. Dropping out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked his way up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. In 1927 he debuted on Broadway in Delmar’s Revels. Lahr played to packed houses, performing classic routines such as “The Song of the Woodman” (which he later reprised in the film Merry-Go-Round of 1938). 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), Florenz Ziegfeld’s Hot-Cha! (1932) and The Show is On (1936) in which he co-starred with Beatrice Lillie. In 1939, he co-starred with Ethel Merman in DuBarry Was a Lady.
His later life was troubled. His first wife, Mercedes, developed a severe mental health problem that left her hospitalized. This complicated his relationship with his second wife, Mildred, as he had legal problems getting a divorce in New York State at the time. Mildred became tired of waiting and became involved with another man, marrying him. Bert was heartbroken but eventually won Mildred back. Through all of this time he had to continue to work and travel.
Lahr made his feature film debut in 1931’s Flying High, playing the part of the oddball aviator he had previously played on stage. He signed with New York-based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. When that series ended, he came back to Hollywood to work in feature films. Aside from The Wizard of Oz (1939), his movie career was limited. In the 1944 patriotic film Meet the People, Lahr uttered the phrase “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” which was later popularized by cartoon character Snagglepuss.
“The Cowardly Lion”: The Wizard of Oz
Lahr’s most iconic role was that of “Zeke (farmhand)/The Cowardly Lion” in M-G-M’s 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Lahr was signed to play the role on July 25, 1938. He starred opposite Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. Lahr’s lion costume was composed of real lion fur and, under the high-voltage lighting required for Oz’s Technicolor scenes, was unbearably hot. Lahr also contributed ad-lib comedic lines for his character. The Cowardly Lion is also the only character in the movie who has two solo song numbers-“If I Only Had the Nerve,” performed after his initial meeting with Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man in the forest, and “If I Were King of the Forest,” performed while he and the others are awaiting their audience with the Wizard.
An original Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz resides in The Comisar Collection, the largest collection of television artifacts in the world.
Waiting for Godot
He made the transition to straight theatre. He got a script of Waiting for Godot, and after reading he was greatly impressed but unsure of how the revolutionary play would be received in the United States. It had been performed in Europe to great acclaim, but was somewhat obscure and intellectual. He co-starred in the premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, playing Estragon to Tom Ewell’s Vladimir. The performance bombed, a large amount of the audience leaving before the show was over, and the critics did not treat it kindly. In his book Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John Lahr describes the problems as being caused partly by the choices of the director, including the decision to limit Bert’s movement on stage, filling the stage with platforms, a misguided advertisement of the play as a light comedy, and other issues.
Lahr reprised his role in the play’s short-lived Broadway run. This time, however, it was with a new director, who had met with Beckett in Europe and discussed the play. The set was cleared and Bert was given more control over his performance. Advertisements were taken out urging intellectuals to support the play. It was a success and received enthusiastic ovations from the audience. Bert was praised and though he claimed he did not understand the play, others would disagree and say he understood it a great deal.
Among other Broadway roles, Lahr played Queen Victoria in a sketch from the musical Two on the Aisle. He also performed as Moonface Martin in a television version of Anything Goes with Ethel Merman reprising her role as Reno Sweeney and Frank Sinatra as Billy Crocker. In the late 1950s, Lahr supplied the voice of an animated bloodhound in “Old Whiff,” a short cartoon produced by Mike Todd which featured the olfactory Smell-O-Vision process developed for Todd’s feature film Scent of Mystery (1960). In 1963, he appeared as Go-Go Garrity in the episode “Is Mr. Martian Coming Back” on NBC’s medical drama The Eleventh Hour. In 1964 he won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in the musical Foxy.
Lahr occasionally appeared on television, including NBC’s live version of the Cole Porter musical Let’s Face It (1954), the 1964 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of The Fantasticks, and an appearance as the mystery guest on What’s My Line? He also performed in commercials, including a memorable series for Lay’s potato chips during its long-running “Betcha can’t eat just one” campaign with Lahr as “Aunt Tillie.” He was not afraid to take on the classics in television performances of Androcles and the Lion and the School for Wives (1956). At the American Shakespeare Festival he played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), for which he received the Best Shakespearean Actor of the Year Award.
“Laughter is never too far away from tears,” he reflected on his comedy. “You will cry at a peddler much easier than you would cry at a woman dressed in ermine who had just lost her whole family.”
Lahr was filming The Night They Raided Minsky’s when he died of cancer on December 4, 1967. While the official cause of death was listed as pneumonia, it was later revealed that Lahr, unknown to all, had suffered from cancer for some time. His untimely passing forced the film’s producers to use a double in several scenes. Lahr is buried at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.
His son, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr, wrote a biography of his father’s life titled Notes on a Cowardly Lion-The Biography of Bert Lahr. His daughter Jane Lahr was in the documentary Memories of Oz on the television network Turner Classic Movies in 2001.