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Cantor was born as Israel Iskowitz in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Meta and Mechel Iskowitz. His mother died of lung cancer two years after his birth , and was abandonded by his father, left to be raised by his grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz. A misunderstanding when signing her grandson up for school gave him her last name instead of Iskowitz. He would adopt the first name Eddie when he met his future wife, Ida Tobias, in 1903, because she liked the idea of having a boyfriend named Eddie. The two would marry in 1913, and remain together for Eddie's entire life.
By his early teens he began winning talent contests at local theaters, and started appearing on stage. One of his earliest paying jobs was doubling as a performer and waiter at Carey Walsh's Saloon on Coney Island, where a young Jimmy Durante accompanied him on piano. In 1907, Cantor became a billed name in Vaudeville.
In 1912 he was the only performer over the age of 20 to appear in Gus Edwards "Kid Kabaret", where he created his first blackface character, "Jefferson". Critical praise from that show moved him into the graces of Broadway's top producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, and a spot in his roof top post-show show, the Midnight Frolic in [1916. A year later, after paying his dues, he debuted in the Ziegfeld Follies, where he would appear for the next five consecutive years, which were considered the best years of the long-standing revue. For some time Cantor co-starred in an act with pioneer African-American comedian Bert Williams, both appearing in blackface; Cantor played Williams's son. Other great co-stars of Cantor during his time in the Follies included Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, and W.C. Fields.
Cantor started making phonograph records in 1917, recording both comedy songs and routines and popular songs of the day, first for Victor, then for Aeoleon-Vocalion, Pathé, and Emerson. From 1921 through 1925 he had an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, then returned to Victor for the remainder of the decade.
He moved on to stardom in book musicals, starting with Kid Boots in 1923, Whoopee! in 1928, and Banjo Eyes in 1940.
Cantor was one of the era's most successful entertainers, but the 1929 Stock market crash suddenly took him from multi-millionaire status to being broke and deeply in debt. However, Cantor's relentless attention to his own earnings in order to avoid the poverty he knew growing up caused him to search quickly for more work. Cantor soon bounced back thanks to Hollywood movies and the radio. Cantor had appeared in a number of short films in the 1920s, but became a feature star in 1930 with the film version of Whoopee!. He continued making feature films through 1948, the most notable including Roman Scandals (1933), Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), and If You Knew Susie (1948).
In the 1930s he also began hosting his own radio show, and by 1936 Cantor was the world's highest paid radio star. His radio shows began with a crowd chanting "We want Cantor - We want Cantor", said to have originated when a vaudeville audience used that chant to chase off an opening act who was on a bill before Cantor. Cantor's theme song was the 1903 pop tune "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider", dedicated to Eddie's wife Ida.
In addition to film and radio, Cantor recorded for Hit of the Week Records, then again for Columbia, for Banner and Decca and various small labels.
He was a founder of the March of Dimes, and did much to publicize the battle against polio. Cantor also served as first president of the Screen Actors Guild.His heavy political involvement began early in his career, including his quick rush to strike with Actors Equity in 1919, against the advisement of father figure and producer, Florenz Ziegfeld.
Cantor's career declined somewhat in the late 1930s due to his public denunciations of Adolf Hitler and Fascism. Wishing to distance themselves from any political controversy, many sponsors dropped Cantor's shows. However Cantor's career bounced back with the United States entry into World War II.
In the 1940s his NBC national radio show was Time To Smile.
In the 1950s he was one of the alternating hosts of the television show The Colgate Comedy Hour. However, the show landed him in an unlikely controversy -- when a young Sammy Davis Jr. appeared as a guest performer, Cantor embraced and mopped the brow of Davis with his handkerchief after his performance. Worried sponsors led NBC to threaten cancellation of the show, though Cantor's response to the controversy was to book Davis for the rest of the season. (Other sources claims that NBC threatened to cancel the show when Davis was booked for two weeks straight.) Cantor left the show in 1954, due to failing health (he had suffered a heart attack following an appearance on the show in 1952).
Cantor wrote eight books, including Caught Short (about the Crash of 1929) and his autobiography, My Life is in Your Hands.
He was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1964.
Eddie Cantor died of a heart attack in Beverly Hills, California, and was buried in Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery.