Jessel, George Albert

views updated


JESSEL, GEORGE ALBERT (1898–1981), U.S. entertainer. Born in New York, Jessel began his career as a boy singer in vaudeville, and at the age of ten was teamed with Eddie *Cantor. He went to London as a comedian in 1914, appeared at the Victoria Palace theater and, returning to New York in 1919, acted in revue. He developed a one-man act, and then turned to more serious work. He had his greatest success in 1925 on Broadway in The Jazz Singer, a play by Samson Raphaelson based on a short story "The Day of Atonement." Jessel played the role more than a thousand times. He participated in the writing of several plays in which he appeared, such as The War Song (1928) and High Kickers (1942). Some of his other Broadway performances included Helen of Troy, New York (1923); Joseph (1930); Sweet and Low (1930); and Show Time (1942).

Jessel was New York's official toastmaster from 1925 and appeared at banquets, army entertainments, and was particularly active at fundraising events for Jewish charities and on behalf of Israel. Because of his frequent role as master of ceremonies at so many entertainment and political gatherings, he was nicknamed "Toastmaster General of the United States."

Having starred in several silent films for Warner Brothers during the 1920s, Jessel was offered the lead in their history-making first talkie, The Jazz Singer. Jessel and the studio could not agree on Jessel's salary, and the role ultimately went to Al Jolson. Jessel often lamented that it was the biggest professional mistake he ever made. In addition to producing more than a dozen movies (When My Baby Smiles at Me, Dancing in the Dark, Bloodhounds of Broadway, Tonight We Sing) between 1945 and 1953, Jessel appeared in such films as Private Izzy Murphy (1926), Ginsberg the Great (1927), Sailor Izzy Murphy (1927), George Washington Cohen (1928), Lucky Boy (1929), Love, Live, and Laugh (1929), It Might Be Worse (1931), and had small roles in The Busy Body (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Reds (1981).

In 1970 Jessel received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy Awards.

No stranger to television audiences, Jessel appeared on many variety shows, as well as hosting a few of his own, namely Four-Star Revue (1952–53), The Comeback Show (1953), and The George Jessel Show (1953–54).

Jessel wrote several books, including an autobiography So Help Me (1944); a sequel, This Way, Miss; (1955); an instructive You Too Can Make a Speech (1956); a toastmaster's handbook, Jessel, Anyone? (1960); a book of poems, Elegy in Manhattan (1961); a whimsical Halo over Hollywood (1963); another autobiographical work, The World I Lived In (with J. Austin, 1975); and The Toastmaster General's Favorite Jokes: Openings and Closings for Speechmakers (1978).


B. Treadwell, Fifty Years of American Comedy (1951), 109–12; L. Wilde, Great Comedians Talk About Comedy (1968), 281–303.

[Barth Healey /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]