Emmanuel Goldenberg spent years playing tough guys in most of his 101 films, but you won’t find that name in any cast list.
Born December 12, 1893, in Bucharest, Romania, to Sarah and Morris Goldenberg, he was the fifth of six children. In 1903, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York, after one of Goldenberg’s brothers was attacked by an anti-Semitic mob in Romania.
Growing up, he dreamed of becoming a rabbi, but caught the acting bug while attending the City College of New York and, in 1911, earned a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He then adopted the name his American fans recognize—Edward G. Robinson.
By 1932, Robinson had made 14 films, including Kid Galahad and A Slight Case of Murder, but it was his role of Rico in the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar that made him a household name.
Despite being typecast as a tough guy, the actor, who lacked the looks of most Hollywood superstars, had the acting chops to successfully take on comedic and dramatic roles. His 50-year film career concluded with Solyent Green, which was released just a few months after his death on January 26, 1973. His passing also preceded the awarding of an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizing his achievements “as a player, a patron of the arts and a dedicated citizen ... in sum, a Renaissance man.” He knew about the award before his death.
Robinson was more than just a Hollywood star, though. He served in the Navy during World War I, admitting in his autobiography that he learned to tie a knot during his enlistment, but that was about it.
“I can best sum up my hitch in the Navy by admitting I learned more about ships and navigation and the fleet from a picture I made later,” he wrote, referring to Destroyer, a 1943 film.
When America entered World War II, Robinson was 50 and didn’t qualify for military service, but he refused to sit idly by while others served. Among other things, the actor, fluent in seven languages, frequently made radio broadcasts in the languages of occupied countries. He once said he wondered if they’d been heard. His question was answered after the war when he heard from people in Germany who said his recordings had given them hope.
He also donated a considerable sum to political and charitable groups. In 1941, Robinson donated $100,000 to the USO saying he considered it “a small down payment on the privilege of being an American.”
The actor, who despite his fervent support of the war effort found himself under the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ microscope, didn’t stop with simple donations. He also spent his off-screen time helping out at the Hollywood Canteen.
In an April 27, 2002, letter to Dear Abby, a former GI wrote about attending a big party and dance at the Hollywood Canteen, but not having anywhere to stay when the party ended. He had dozed off in a chair only to be awakened by Cesar Romero’s mother, who told him she could get him a place to sleep that night if he hurried.
“An auto awaited and with two other service men, I was driven to Beverly Hills,” he wrote. “A secretary greeted us at the residence and directed us up the huge spiral staircase and into one of the five bedrooms available.
“We were in the home of the movie actor and art collector Edward G. Robinson! He had turned over his home to the USO while he was in New York!”
As it turns out, the tough guy wasn’t so tough after all.
Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of ON★PATROL.