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Joseph Jefferson

Jefferson, Joseph, 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 "fairy-tale" 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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See more Encyclopedia articles on: Theater: Biographies


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