During the 1930s and 1940s, he was an outspoken public critic of fascism and Nazism, which were first growing in strength in Europe and led up to World War II. His activism included contributing over $250,000 to more than 850 organizations involved in war relief, along with cultural, educational and religious groups. During the 1950s, he was called to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare, but was cleared of any Communist involvement.
Robinson's character portrayals have covered a wide range, with such roles as an insurance investigator in the film noir Double Indemnity, Dathan (adversary of Moses) in The Ten Commandments, and his final performance in the science-fiction story Soylent Green. Robinson received an Honorary Academy Award for his work in the film industry, which was awarded two months after his death in 1973. He is ranked number 24 in the American Film Institute's list of the 25 greatest male stars of Classic American cinema.
Robinson was born as Emanuel Goldenberg to a Yiddish-speaking Romanian Jewish family in Bucharest, the son of Sarah (née Guttman) and Morris Goldenberg, a builder.
After one of his brothers was attacked by an antisemitic mob, the family decided to emigrate to the United States. Robinson arrived in New York City on February 14, 1903. "At Ellis Island I was born again", he wrote. "Life for me began when I was 10 years old." He grew up on the Lower East Side, had his Bar Mitzvah at First Roumanian-American Congregation, and attended Townsend Harris High School and then the City College of New York, planning to become a criminal attorney. An interest in acting and performing in front of people led to him winning an American Academy of Dramatic Arts scholarship, after which he changed his name to Edward G. Robinson (the G. standing for his original surname).
He served in the US Navy during World War I, but was never sent overseas.
He began his acting career in the Yiddish Theater District in 1913 and made his Broadway debut in 1915. In 1923 made his named debut as E. G. Robinson in the silent film, The Bright Shawl. He played a snarling gangster in the 1927 Broadway police/crime drama The Racket, which led to his being cast in similar film roles. One of many actors who saw his career flourish in the new sound film era rather than falter, he made only three films prior to 1930, but left his stage career that year and made 14 films between 1930–1932.
Robinson went on to make a total of 101 films in his 50-year career. An acclaimed performance as the gangster Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello in Little Caesar (1931) led to being further typecast as a "tough guy" for much of his early career, in works such as Five Star Final (1931), Smart Money (1931; his only movie with James Cagney and Boris Karloff), Tiger Shark (1932), Kid Galahad (1937) with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, and, in a sendup of his gangster roles, A Slight Case of Murder.
In 1939, at the time World War II broke out in Europe, he played an FBI agent in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first American film which showed Nazism as a threat to the United States. He volunteered for military service in June 1942 but was disqualified due to his age at 48, although he became an active and vocal critic of fascism and Nazism during that period.
The following year he played Paul Ehrlich in Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and Paul Julius Reuter in A Dispatch from Reuter's (1940), both biographies of prominent Jewish public figures. Meanwhile, throughout the 1940s Robinson also demonstrated his knack for both film noir and comedic roles, including Raoul Walsh's Manpower (1941) with Marlene Dietrich and George Raft; Larceny, Inc. (1942) with Jane Wyman and Broderick Crawford; Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck; opposite Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945); and Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) with Welles and Loretta Young. Robinson appeared for director John Huston as gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948), the last of five films he made with Humphrey Bogart and the only one in which Bogart did not play a supporting role.
His career rehabilitation received a boost in 1954, when noted anti-communist director Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the traitorous Dathan in The Ten Commandments. The film was released in 1956, as was his psychological thriller Nightmare. After a subsequent short absence from the screen, Robinson's film career—augmented by an increasing number of television roles—restarted for good in 1958/59, when he was second-billed after Frank Sinatra in the 1959 release A Hole in the Head. The last scene Robinson filmed was a euthanasia sequence, with friend and co-star Charlton Heston, in the science fiction cult film Soylent Green (1973); he died only twelve days later.
Heston, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, presented Robinson with its annual award in 1969, "in recognition of his pioneering work in organizing the union, his service during World War II, and his 'outstanding achievement in fostering the finest ideals of the acting profession.'"
Robinson was never nominated for an Academy Award, but in 1973 he was awarded an honorary Oscar in recognition that he had "achieved greatness as a player, a patron of the arts and a dedicated citizen ... in sum, a Renaissance man". He had been notified of the honor, but died two months before the award ceremony, so the award was accepted by his widow, Jane Robinson.
From 1937 to 1942, Robinson starred as Steve Wilson, editor of the Illustrated Press, in the newspaper drama Big Town. He also portrayed hardboiled detective Sam Spade for a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.
Robinson married his first wife, stage actress Gladys Lloyd, born Gladys Lloyd Cassell, in 1927; she was the former wife of Ralph L. Vestervelt and the daughter of Clement C. Cassell, an architect, sculptor and artist. The couple had one son, Edward G. Robinson, Jr. (a.k.a. Manny Robinson, 1933–1974), as well as a daughter from Gladys Robinson's first marriage. In 1956 he was divorced from his wife. In 1958 he married Jane Bodenheimer, a dress designer professionally known as Jane Arden. Thereafter he also maintained a home in Palm Springs, California.
In noticeable contrast to many of his onscreen characters, Robinson was a sensitive, softly-spoken and cultured man, who spoke seven languages. Remaining a liberal Democrat despite his difficulties with HUAC, he attended the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, California. He was a passionate art collector, eventually building up a significant private collection. In 1956, however, he was forced to sell his collection to pay for his divorce settlement with Gladys Robinson; his finances had also suffered due to underemployment in the early 1950s.
Robinson died at Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles of bladder cancer on January 26, 1973. Services were held at Temple Israel in Los Angeles where Charlton Heston delivered the eulogy. Over 1,500 friends of Robinson attended, with another crowd of 500 people outside. His body was then flown to New York where it was entombed in a crypt in the family mausoleum at Beth-El Cemetery in Brooklyn.
In October 2000, Robinson's image was imprinted on a U.S. postage stamp, its sixth in its Legends of Hollywood series.
During the 1930s, Robinson was an outspoken public critic of fascism and Nazism, and donated more than $250,000 to 850 political and charitable groups between 1939 and 1949. He was host to the Committee of 56 who gathered at his home on December 9, 1938, signing a "Declaration of Democratic Independence" which called for a boycott of all German-made products.
Although he tried to do so, he was unable to enlist in the military at the outbreak of World War II because of his age; instead, the Office of War Information appointed him as a Special Representative based in London. From there, taking advantage of his multilingual skills, he delivered radio addresses in over six languages to countries in Europe which had fallen under Nazi domination. His talent as a radio speaker in the U.S. had previously been recognized by the American Legion, which had given him an award for his "outstanding contribution to Americanism through his stirring patriotic appeals." Robinson was also active with the Hollywood Democratic Committee, serving on its executive board in 1944, during which time he became an "enthusiastic" campaigner for Roosevelt's reelection that year.
In early July 1944, less than a month after the Invasion of Normandy by Allied forces, Robinson traveled to Normandy to entertain the troops, becoming the first movie star to go there for the USO. He personally donated $100,000 ($1,500,000 in 2015 dollars) to the USO. After returning to the U.S. he continued his active involvement with the war effort by going to shipyards and defense plants to inspire workers, in addition to appearing at rallies to help sell war bonds. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while not a supporter of Communism, he appeared at Soviet war relief rallies to give moral aid to America's new ally, which he said could join "together in their hatred of Hitlerism."
After the war ended, Robinson spoke publicly in support of democratic rights for all Americans, especially in demanding equality for Blacks in the workplace. He endorsed the Fair Employment Practices Commission's call to end workplace discrimination. Black leaders praised him as "one of the great friends of the Negro and a great advocator of Democracy."
During the years Robinson spoke against fascism and Nazism, although not a supporter of Communism, he failed to criticize the Soviet Union which he saw as an ally against Hitler. However, notes film historian Steven J. Ross, "activists who attacked Hitler without simultaneously attacking Stalin were vilified by conservative critics as either Communists, Communist dupes, or, at best, naive liberal dupes." In addition, Robinson learned that 11 of the more than the 850 charities and groups he had helped over the previous decade were listed by the FBI as Communist front organizations. As a result, he was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950 and 1952 and was threatened with blacklisting.
As appears in the full House of Un-American activities Committee transcript for April 30th 1952, Robinson "named names" of Communist sympathizers (Albert Maltz, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Frank Tuttle, and Sidney Buchman) and repudiated some of the organizations he had belonged to in the 1930s and 1940s. He came to realize, "I was duped and used." His own name was cleared, but in the aftermath his career noticeably suffered, as he was offered smaller roles and those less frequently. In October 1952 he wrote an article titled "How the Reds made a Sucker Out of Me", that was published in the American Legion Magazine. The chair of the Committee, Francis E. Walter, told Robinson at the end of his testimonies, that the Committee "never had any evidence presented to indicate that you were anything more than a very choice sucker."
Robinson has been the inspiration for a number of animated television characters, usually caricatures of his most distinctive 'snarling gangster' guise. An early version of the gangster character Rocky, featured in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Racketeer Rabbit, shared his likeness. This version of the character also appears briefly in Justice League, in the episode "Comfort and Joy", as an alien with Robinson's face and non-human body, who hovers past the screen as a background character.
Similar caricatures also appeared in The Coo-Coo Nut Grove, Thugs with Dirty Mugs and Hush My Mouse. Another character based on Robinson's tough-guy image was The Frog (Chauncey "Flat Face" Frog) from the cartoon series Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse. The voice of B.B. Eyes in The Dick Tracy Show was based on Robinson, with Mel Blanc and Jerry Hausner sharing voicing duties. The animated series Wacky Races' character 'Clyde' from the Ant Hill Mob was based on Robinson's Little Caesar persona.
In the 1989 animated series C.O.P.S. the mastermind villain Brandon "Big Boss" Babel's voice sounded just like Edward G. Robinson when he would talk to his gangsters. Then years later voice actor Hank Azaria has noted that the voice of Simpsons character police chief Clancy Wiggum is an impression of Robinson. This has been explicitly joked about in episodes of the show. In "The Day the Violence Died" (1996), a character states that Chief Wiggum is clearly based on Robinson. In 2008's "Treehouse of Horror XIX", Wiggum and Robinson's ghost each accuse the other of being rip-offs. Another caricature of Robinson appears in two episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars season two, in the person of Lt. Tan Divo.
Robinson was played by Michael Stuhlbarg in the 2015 film Trumbo.Excluding appearances as himself.