Joseph Jefferson

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.

Further Reading on Joseph Jefferson

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.

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