American actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) is remembered chiefly for his characterization of Rip Van Winkle. He was one of America's best comic actors.
Joseph Jefferson was born on Feb. 20, 1829. His great-grandfather had been an actor in England; his grandfather, who went to America in 1795, became one of the country's leading actors; his father had been an itinerant actor. Young Joseph was destined to outshine them all.
Jefferson had his debut at the age of 4, when comedian Thomas Rice painted his face black and carried him on stage in a large bag, and the two then danced and sang "Jim Crow." As a youth, Jefferson barnstormed the West and South. His father died in 1842, but the family continued touring. Jefferson followed the armies in the Mexican War and did a stint acting and tending bar in Matamoros.
Then Jefferson returned to Philadelphia to join his half brother, Charles Burke, at the Arch Street Theater. From Burke, Jefferson learned the art of comedy. Jefferson first appeared in New York City in 1849; but it was not until 1857 that, as a member of Laura Keene's celebrated company, he gained a national reputation playing in Our American Cousin. He was also outstanding as Dr. Pangloss in The Heir at Law and as Caleb Plummer in Dion Boucicault's The Cricket on the Hearth. But it was as Rip Van Winkle that he became famous. He first played this role in 1859 in the version used previously by Burke.
When his wife, actress Margaret Lockyer, died in 1861, Jefferson took to the road again. After a while, he sailed to Australia and New Zealand, going to London in 1865. He commissioned Boucicault to prepare a new version of Rip Van Winkle, and it was an immediate success, playing 170 performances in London. The success was repeated in America, and Jefferson played this role for the rest of his life, continuing to change and re-create his characterization.
Jefferson married Sarah Warren, a distant cousin, in 1867. In addition to remaining popular and continuing to act until a year before his death, as the years passed he became more and more respected in and out of the profession. He was also a landscape painter of some merit and a gifted writer. His autobiography, though chronologically vague, is witty, contains many insights into the arts of acting and playwriting, and indicates his philosophy of life.
Jefferson asserted that in the role of Rip Van Winkle he hoped to create a character in whom laughter and tears were closely allied, also saying that he played best with a cool head and a warm heart. Though some critics have had reservations about Jefferson's scope, all would agree that he was a great comic actor. He died on Jan. 23, 1905.
Perhaps the best book on Jefferson is the unreliable Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (1890). More accurate is William Winter, The Life and Art of Joseph Jefferson (1894). Eugénie Paul Jefferson, Recollections of Joseph Jefferson (1909), is also helpful. □
Joseph Jefferson, 1829–1905, American actor. He was the foremost of an old and distinguished family of English and American actors. Jefferson began his stage career as a child actor, and when the family's fortunes declined, joined them as one of a group of strolling players traveling throughout the Midwest. His fame came with his creation of the role of Rip Van Winkle in a dramatization of Washington Irving's story, first in 1859 and later in 1865 as revised by Dion Boucicault. He performed the second version almost exclusively until 1880. He skillfully mixed humor with pathos, infusing the character with human tenderness and dignity, heightening the
elements of the play, and ultimately creating the 19th-century's most popular male character. Almost as famous was his interpretation of Bob Acres in The Rivals, a part he played hundreds of times. He was one of the first star actors in America to establish his own road company; the earlier practice was to depend for support on local stock companies. Jefferson was also a landscape painter and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1893 he succeeded Edwin Booth as president of the Players' Club, thus becoming the recognized dean of his profession. He retired in 1904.
See his autobiography, ed. by A. S. Downer (1964); biographies by G. Malvern (1945), A. W. Bloom (2000), and B. McArthur (2007); W. Winter, The Jeffersons (1881, repr. 1969).