Juror #10: Ed Begley

What’re you so polite about?

Ed Begley plays the one truly unlikable character in 12 Angry Men as the bigoted “Juror #10.” The wonderful thing about Begley’s performance is that he gives us a guy who clearly thinks that he is perfectly reasonable, and that he’s just saying what the other guys are probably thinking. Juror #10 is brusk and irritable, nursing a very aggravating “Summer cold,” coughing, wheezing, sweating, and quickly losing his temper. Like many bullies of his type, when he meets his comeuppance (one of the signature moments of the film), he collapses in an uncomprehending heap, unable to reconcile the man he believes he is with the man he has shown himself to be. At that moment, I find myself musing that this guy is probably somebody’s favorite uncle. Hey, he does try to tell a joke at one point.

Ed Begley was born in 1901 in Hartford, Connecticut to Irish immigrant parents. He began his lifelong love affair with acting when he was 9 years old, performing in amateur productions locally. He ran away from home for the first time when he was 11, and finally left home for good at 13. The Internet Broadway Database lists Begley’s first Broadway appearance as happening in 1906, but unless, contrary to other biographical sources, he was performing professionally in New York at the age of five, it has to be assumed that this is a confusion with another actor. The large gap in his listed Broadway credits between 1921 and 1943 seems to support this theory. What is reported from several sources is that Begley drifted from job to job, working in bowling alleys, carnivals, circuses, and did a four-year stint in the US Navy. The idea that Begley literally ran away from home and joined the circus is just too delicious to not completely buy into it lock, stock, and barrel.

In 1931, Begley began to gain some incremental success, getting work as a radio announcer and spending time as a performer in vaudeville productions. His work in radio acting would continue long after Begley had achieved fame on Broadway and in film, with long-running jobs as Charlie Chan (yikes!) and as a police lieutenant in “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

His first taste of Broadway as an adult came in 1943 in the short run of “Land of Fame.” Four years later, Begley joined the original cast of an American theatre classic, when he was cast as Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.” The show tells the story of a family patriarch who has allowed faulty equipment to be shipped out from his factory to the U.S. military, resulting in the deaths of 21 airmen. The shame this brings on the family has far-reaching effects. “All My Sons” was directed by Group Theatre original Elia Kazan and also starred the great Karl Malden as one of Begley’s sons. It ran for almost an entire calendar year and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Tonys for Best Author and Best Direction.

That same year, Begley made his feature film debut in another Kazan project, the crime drama “Boomerang!” Begley plays a lower level city official who has his own reasons for prodding the D.A. (Dana Andrews) and lead detective (Lee J Cobb) on a sensational murder case to push through a conviction on the suspicious man they’ve got on trial. “Boomerang” opens with a shocking murder and the last half hour or so treats us to gripping courtroom drama and political corruption. In between is a pretty rote procedural flick, interesting mostly due to its cast. Begley sets an early pattern for playing the kind of smarmy and unsympathetic roles he became well-known for.

The following year would continue to keep Begley busy, as he would appear in four feature films, including “Sitting Pretty,” which would be remade in the 1980s into the silly TV sitcom “Mr Belvedere,” and the Burt Lancaster-Barbara Stanwyck thriller “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

1949 saw the birth of one of Ed Begley’s most enduring claims to fame.

Ed Begley is, in fact, the father of the Emmy-nominated actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. The junior Begley was born to a woman Begley senior was not married to at the time, a page at NBC who he had a long-standing relationship with. This fact was not revealed to Begley Jr. until he discovered it on his birth certificate while trying to apply for his driver’s license. Surprisingly, neither Ed made much fuss over the situation, and while Begley Jr admits to being angry over it, he still insists that he got the better of things by having his Father raise him.

A series of supporting roles rolled on for Begley. 1951’s “You’re in the Navy Now” had Begley in a small role, but also featured bit players Jack Webb, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and Jack Warden. The next year found him in “On Dangerous Ground” alongside Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino and with William Holden in “The Turning Point.”

This is when Begley began appearing in the television soap “Guiding Light,” playing the Reverend Dr. Paul Keeler.

You can see a clip of Begley in the role here:

During those years, the cast would do each show twice; once for the cameras in the morning and again in the afternoon for the radio microphones, and from 1952-56 most of Begley’s work was in television.

In 1956 Begley made his first big screen appearance in four years with Van Heflin and Beatrice Straight in the highly regarded big business drama “Patterns.”

’56 also brought a Tony Award for Begley’s work as populist firebrand Matthew Brady in another classic of the American theatre, “Inherit the Wind.” Begley appeared more than 900 times in the play between 1955 and 1957, even changing roles when his co-star Paul Muni left the production.

That Begley could keep up with the demands of a full 8 shows a week Broadway schedule and deliver award-winning performances was impressive enough, but he also found the time to film his roles in “Patterns” and another of his signature roles. Yep, he filmed his part as “Juror #10” in “12 Angry Men” during this same time period.

The movie flopped at the box office initially, but has since become a fan favorite (as can be guessed by the presence of this series) and despite all of his other successes remains Begley’s best-known role for many.

1959 brought another film with Robert Ryan, this time along with Harry Belafonte in the bank heist flick “Odds Against Tomorrow.” This is really a three-man film, despite the presence of Shelly Winters and Gloria Grahame. Begley is as much the lead as his matinee co-stars are, and he delivers one of his most consistently naturalistic and bracing performances. “Odds Against Tomorrow” is an involving crime film which compels despite some social commentary which ends up a little ham-fisted.

This was followed by an uncharacteristically light work schedule for a few years, mostly low profile television projects. But when Begley did hit, he hit it big.

Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” was a hot-button property that had been a Broadway success, and when the film version was planned, Begley landed the plum role of Boss Finley. Williams was still a big name in the late 50s, and Paul Newman was just beginning his run as the biggest film actor in the country, with big hits “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “The Hustler.” A Newman picture of any weight was bound to be a hit, and “Sweet Bird of Youth” was a decent-sized hit, reaching #1 at the box office in its second week in theatres and staying there for two weeks.

**Warning! Spoilers for “Sweet Bird of Youth”**

For anyone familiar with the original script, the film version of “Sweet Bird of Youth” has to be a bit of a disappointment, because it was significantly censored to a much less violent and seedy final product. Instead of having contracted a venereal disease which left her barren, Heavenly Finley was merely left pregnant and disgraced, and instead of Finley Jr castrating Chance, he merely smashes his face in. Then Heavenly and Chance drive away together. Huh? The film’s ending makes no sense, but the scenes that are left untouched are still very strong. Geraldine Page and Newman crackle and simmer in their scenes together and Begley exudes equal parts bile and charm in a uniquely nasty performance.

When Begley found out that he’d been nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Boss Finley, he was standing in an unemployment line. When they announced his name as the winner, it was as if all of the long years of worry and work had finally paid off. Begley rarely let go of the Oscar statuette in the coming months, carrying it with him wherever he went. Even his son, Ed Begley Jr, was not allowed to touch the statuette. When he finally left it in Jr’s care while he went to get a plane ticket, the young man was so nervous that he dropped it and broke the base. Thankfully, the Academy paid to have the statuette fixed.

Begley continued to take lots of work in television, including an episode in “12 Angry Men” cast mate E.G. Marshall’s series “The Defenders,” and others in “Route 66,” and “Rawhide.”

His next big film role was in the Meredith Wilson musical charmer “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” starring Debbie Reynolds (Singin’ in the Rain). The below picture of Begley from “Unsinkable” was just too good to pass on.

This time, despite “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” being only a mild hit, Begley appears to have maintained some career momentum. His television projects were higher profile (“The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” “The Dick VanDyke Show,” “Bonanza,” “The Lucy Show”), and when he stepped back into film he found roles alongside Michael Caine and Karl Malden in “Billion Dollar Brain,” (1967) and Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda in “Firecreek (1968).”

Begley also appeared in another one of his most seen roles in 1968, in the engrossing Clint Eastwood western epic “Hang ’em High.” Begley plays “Captain Wilson,” a landowner who mistakenly believes Eastwood’s character has murdered a man and stolen his cattle. He orders Eastwood strung up by his neck, but the ex-lawman survives miraculously and is set on a path of conflicting justice and revenge. “Hang ’em High” is a richly satisfying social western which takes “The Ox-Bow Incident” in an entirely different direction. Begley gives a fine performance as a man who gradually understands that he cannot undo a very big mistake. The stacked cast also features Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale Jr (yes, the skipper), and Dennis Hopper.

in 1969 Begley played a fictional U.S. President in the odd sic-fi comedy “The Monitors,” with Larry Storch, Keenan Wynn, and Peter Boyle, and the next year appeared in the bizarre H.P. Lovecraft adaptation “The Dunwich Horror” starring Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, and Talia Shire. Just take a look at the below poster and then take in the link to the trailer below it.

Begley passed away later that same year, suffering a heart attack while attending a birthday party at the house of a friend in April of 1970. Ed Begley Jr remembered him as a supportive father, one who worried about the difficult life his son would face as an aspiring actor, and sometimes the only one in the audience at his early comedy gigs.

Read about all 12 Angry Men here-
Martin Balsam
John Fiedler
Lee J Cobb
E G Marshall
Jack Klugman
Edward Binns
Jack Warden
Henry Fonda 1
Henry Fonda 2
Joseph Sweeney
George Voskovec
Robert Webber


Posted on August 28, 2012, in 12 Angry Men, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. You made my Wed. I wondered when we would get the next installment. I must confess to being ignorant of Begley Sr. Great, enlightening stuff as always.

    When you wrap this series up, do you have anything else in mind? I would love to see you continue writing about character actors in some capacity. You have a real passion for the subject that definitely comes through.


    • A person would have to be a real Oscars savant to be able to name the 3 of the 12 Angry Men who would later win Oscars. I’m betting Begley would get the fewest correct guesses. Just about everybody would get Fonda, but I’m betting most would guess Jack Warden had taken home a statuette and Lee J Cobb and EG Marshall would probably get a lot of guesses, too.

      I’m trying to think of a gracious way to wrap up this series once I’ve covered #s 11 & 12. I may do a ‘Daffy Recommends’ article focusing on which films to see from the stars of “12 Angry Men.”

      As far as sifting through the cast of another film, the first thing that comes to mind would maybe be updates on the careers of select Pulp Fiction folk (Stoltz, Roth, Rhames, etc). I’m not sure if I’d cover the whole career, or maybe just use Pulp Fiction as a jumping off spot. What do you think?


      • I am a Pulp Fiction junkie. So, yes! I especially like the idea of following the supporting cast like Stoltz, Roth and Rhames. Three great actors with interesting careers. I assume Honey Bunny, I mean Amanda Plumer, and Harvey Keitel would be in there as well? Because they are awesome.


  2. I think the Pulp Fiction idea is great. I’d like to see a post about Ving Rhames, he’s one of my favorite actors.


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