George Jessel

George Jessel
Associated Press


George Jessel
Film: West side of the 1700 block of Vine Street
Actor | Comedian | Producer | Singer | Writer
Born April 3, 1898 in New York, NY
Died May 24, 1981 of heart attack in Los Angeles, CA

George Jessel was a onetime vaudeville and silent film star who became the nation's unofficial "toastmaster general."

Born April 3, 1898, in New York, Jessel was the son of a traveling salesman and auctioneer who was also an unsuccessful playwright.

"My father didn't want me in the theater. He hadn't done well there and grew to hate it," Jessel said in later years. "But he died when I was 10 years old, and I went to live with my mother's father.

"He was a tailor, and he liked to hear me singing around the shop. Before long I was singing at lodge meetings — and after that, things sort of happened ..."

His first real job was in a boy trio, and he soon came to the attention of entrepreneur-starmaker Gus Edwards, who hired him for his traveling vaudeville troupe.

He later toured in an act called Kid Cabaret with Eddie Cantor.

Jessel appeared in a silent film in 1911, and the same year took part in a "talking picture" experiment conducted by Thomas Edison, but left films to return to vaudeville, where he developed a comedy act in which he conducted an imaginary telephone conversation with his mother.

The phone calls remained "in the act" even after he left vaudeville for nightclub and film appearances and resulted in his first published book, "Talking to Mother."

He appeared in hit stage revues, then starred in a "serious" musical stage play called "The Jazz Singer."

He had a contract to re-create the leading role on screen for Warner Bros., but a dispute with the film company over production problems caused him to withdraw and the movie part went to Al Jolson, who gained the distinction of appearing in the first "talking" picture.

The loss — and Jessel never denied his regret — seemed to be an omen of worse things to come.

The stock market crash of 1929 wiped Jessel out, and his next three stage plays were flops.

But a trip to Europe seemed to change his luck.

On his return, he costarred with Fanny Brice in "Sweet and Low," a hit, and a proposed two-week appearance with old friend Cantor at New York's famed Palace vaudeville theater turned into a three-month holdover run.

In succeeding years, he divided his time between Broadway, the musical stage, radio and nightclubs. During the 1939 New York World's Fair, he ran a huge entertainment village called "Little Old New York."

In 1944, he became a film producer at 20th Century Fox, taking full charge of such films as "The Dolly Sisters," "Do You Love Me," "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," "Nightmare Alley" and "When My Baby Smiles at Me."

During the last three decades of his life, however, Jessel was best known as a toastmaster and after-dinner speaker at events, including small stage parties and gatherings of thousands.

At his peak, Jessel once estimated that he traveled about 8,500 miles a week, 40 weeks a year, addressing 200 various gatherings. In addition to these engagements, he devoted much of his time during the U.S.'s involvement in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, to entertaining troops. He also devoted himself to raising funds for the state of Israel.

There were troubles, however.

In 1942, he caused a public stir when, at 44, he married Lois Andrews, then only 16. (It was his third marriage.) And in 1961, when he was 63, he was the object of a highly publicized paternity suit brought by actress Joan Taylor.

At first, Jessel denied responsibility, saying the charge was "a compliment — at my time of life." But later he settled out of court.

And in 1971, during a guest appearance on a nationally televised talk show, he was silenced — and barred from the air — by a host-moderator after he associated major American newspapers with the Soviet publication Pravda.

Despite his advanced age, Jessel continued his steady stream of speaking engagements. His final engagement was just two weeks before his death.

"Why not?" he replied to a question about his reasons for continuing to work. "What else should I do with my time — collect stamps?"

Jessel died at UCLA Medical Center on May 24, 1981, of a heart attack at age 83.

Among the mourners at his funeral were James Stewart, Danny Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr., Morey Amsterdam and Milton Berle, who gave a eulogy and read from a telegram sent by another of Jessel's friends, then-President Ronald Reagan, who was unable to attend.

Related stars

Points of interest

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    Academy Awards

    Year Category Work
    1969 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Win

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