Today, I'm looking at the life and career of character actor Sydney Greenstreet.
This article is part of the Fifth Annual What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken and Freckled.
The wonderful character actor Sydney Greenstreet didn't make his film debut until age 61, but he made up for lost time with memorable supporting parts in two of the best movies ever made, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943). While Greenstreet most often played villains in films noir, his appearances in 24 pictures include costume dramas, comedies, and one of the most beloved Christmas movies ever made. Today, I'll recommend five great Greenstreet movies, but first here's a little background.
Sydney Hughes Greenstreet was born Dec. 27, 1879, in Sandwich, England, as one of eight children born to tanner John Jarvis Greenstreet and his wife, Ann. Like many young Englishmen of his generation, Greenstreet set off to to the Far East to make his fortune, but after a tea plantation venture in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) went bust, he returned to England to operate a brewery.
Greenstreet decided to take acting lessons, at first out of sheer boredom with a brewer's life, but his talent combined with his imposing girth and gravelly voice soon led to parts on the British stage. Greenstreet made his theatrical debut in 1902 as murderer in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and he continued to find steady work in the British theater, appearing in everything from knockabout music hall routines to the works of William Shakespeare.
Greenstreet immigrated to the US in the 1920s, where he quickly found work on Broadway. He was wooed by several Hollywood studios after the arrival of sound, but he turned down all those offers to perform with theatrical legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the prestigious Theater Guild. Greenstreet finally succumbed to the lure of Hollywood in 1940 after a chance meeting with director John Huston, who was making preparations to shoot The Maltese Falcon. Greenstreet perfectly fit writer Dashiell Hammett's description of the villainous Kasper Gutman, aka "The Fat Man" and Greenstreet's memorable performance earned him his only Academy Award nomination.
The Maltese Falcon set the template for Greenstreet's career. Although he appeared in a variety of roles throughout the forties -- he played real characters in the costume drama They Died with Their Boots On (1941) and Devotion (1946) and he showed a flair for comedy in Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and Pillow to Post (1945) -- he was most often cast as villains and heavies in Warner Bros. dramas like Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) in which he received top billing along with his frequent co-star Peter Lorre (they appeared in nine films together).
Failing health caused Greenstreet to retire from the movies in 1949 after his last film, the World War II drama Malaya, in which he plays a crime boss who helps James Stewart and Spencer Tracy smuggle rubber out of Japanese territory. Greenstreet continued to act on the radio, where he played corpulent detective Nero Wolfe in the NBC radio show (you can listen to an episode here). Greenstreet died from complications of diabetes and Bright's disease on Jan. 18, 1954. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.
Here's five of Greenstreet's best roles and where you can watch them.
Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1941), dir. John Huston
|The cast of The Maltese Falcon (1941). From left, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Sydney Greenstreet.|
Mr. Peters in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), dir Jean Negulesco
|Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in a lobby card for The Mask of Dimitrios (1944).|
Alexander Yardley in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), dir. Peter Godfrey
Thanks to frequent showings on TCM, this delightful comedy has become a holiday favorite for classic movie fans. Greenstreet is joined by beloved character actors S.Z. Sakall and Una O'Connor for a door-slamming farce about a homemaking columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) who is forced to spend the holidays with her imposing publisher (Greenstreet). TCM at 8 p.m. Dec. 24. Streaming for DirecTV subscribers. DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.
Count Fosco in The Woman in White (1948), dir. Peter Godfrey
|Sydney Greenstreet, Eleanor Parker, and director Peter Godfrey on the set of The Woman in White (1948).|
I'll leave you with a fun scene in Hollywood Canteen (1944) featuring the dynamic duo of Lorre and Greenstreet.