Bert Lahr was born Irving Lahrheim on August 13, 1895, in New York City. A hugely successful performer in burlesque, vaudeville, and on Broadway, he is best remembered today for his roles as the Cowardly Lion and Kansas farmworker Zeke in The Wizard of Oz.
Like other star-struck youth of his generation, Bert dropped out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, working his way up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit, which was one of the shows that traveled the “circuit” to a host of cities and towns in the region of the country it served. Bert’s success in show business continued, when in 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Delmar’s Revels, a musical review, which played to packed houses.
Bert made the transition to movies, appearing in the 1931 feature film Flying High. However, his movie career was limited as he only acted in 23 films. Of course, one of them was The Wizard of Oz, in which Bert played to perfection the Cowardly Lion. Interestingly, his character is the only one in the movie who sings two solo songs: If I Only Had the Nerve, performed after his initial meeting with Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, and If I Were King of the Forest, performed while he and the others are waiting to meet with the Wizard.
Later in life, Bert returned to the stage, only this time it was doing straight or non-musical theatre. Perhaps the most unlikely part he played during that time was that of Estragon in Samuel Becket’s revolutionary play, Waiting for Godot. In 1964, he won the Tony Award® for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role in Foxy.
Bert appeared on many television shows. He also performed in commercials, including a memorable series for Lay’s potato chips during its long-running “Betcha can’t eat just one” campaign with Lahr as “Aunt Tillie.”
Bert died of cancer on December 4, 1967, while he was filming The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a fictional account of the invention of striptease at New York City’s Minsky’s Burlesque Theatre in 1925.