Sydney Greenstreet (1879-1954)
Sydney Greenstreet ranked among Hollywood's consummate character actors, a classic rogue whose villainous turns in motion pictures like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon remain among the most memorable and enigmatic depictions of evil ever captured on film. It's a rare accomplishment for an actor or actress to receive an Academy Award nomination for their very first film appearance. It's even more rare for that first appearance to come at the rather advanced (for Hollywood) age of 61! But that's just what happened to Sydney Greenstreet whose imposing presence and air of sophisticated menace served him well in a relatively brief eight-year career packed with memorable characters. Although he appeared in only 22 movies over his film career, he is one of the best remembered and most recognizable of all film actors.
Greenstreet was born Sydney Hughes Greenstreet on December 27, 1879, in Sandwich, England, the son of Ann (née Baker) and John Jack Greenstreet, a leather merchant, and had seven siblings. Aged 18 and full of ambition, he left home and traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to become a tea planter but an awful drought forced the dispirited Greenstreet to retreat back to England five years later, where he a held down a variety of jobs including managing a brewery, while studying acting in the evening under Shakespearean actor, Ben Greet.
He made his stage debut playing a murderer in a 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes at the Marina Theatre, Ramsgate, Kent and then gained invaluable experience touring Britain for two years with Greet's Shakespearean company. In 1905 he traveled with them to the United States and made his Broadway debut that year. For the next thirty years he built up a formidable reputation as a strong and versatile stage actor, moving easily between musical comedy and Shakespeare. He traveled often between England and America, working through most of the 1930s with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne at New York's Theatre Guild. Greenstreet called US his home for the rest of his life.
Greenstreet was a traditional stage actor. He received many offers to make the transition to movies but for thirty years consistently refused them. It was during a performance of Robert E. Sherwood’s play There Shall Be No Night at the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles that Greenstreet caught the eye of John Huston. The neophyte director coaxed Greenstreet to make his screen debut at age sixty-one as Kasper Gutman, the sinister 'Fat Man', in his 1941 filming of Dashiell Hammett's thriller The Maltese Falcon. Greenstreet was very close to Hammett’s conception of Gutman, an ostensibly friendly fat man on the surface, but quite devious underneath.
Huston was fortunate to have as director of photography on his first film Arthur Edeson, who had photographed the original Frankenstein (1931) for James Whale, which showed that he was familiar with German expressionism; Edeson employed it skillfully in his use of chiaroscuro lighting throughout Maltese Falcon. Huston collaborated closely with Edeson during the shoot. He had Edeson photograph Greenstreet with low angle shots at times; shooting upward at Greenstreet made him look all the more massive and menacing.
Greenstreet's outwardly jovial demeanor and erudite manner ("By gad, sir, you are a character!") were a perfect counterpoint to the streetwise toughness of private eye Humphrey Bogart, and garnered the veteran thespian his sole Oscar nomination. Warner Brothers immediately signed Greenstreet to a long term contract and kept him busy for the rest of the decade.
Despite only eight years appearing on the big screen, Sydney Greenstreet managed to cram in a number of memorable parts that saw him holding his own with Hollywood legends such as Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy. Greenstreet's speciality was shady, malevolent characters, such as Ferrari, the proprietor of the Blue Parrot in Casablanca in 1942 and Count Alessandro Fosco in The Woman in White in 1948. But his skill and versatility enabled him also to slap on side-whiskers and play historical roles, such as Lieutenant General Winfield Scott in They Died with Their Boots On in 1941 and William Makepeace Thackeray in Devotionin 1946. He could also bluster as a bullying authority figure in screwball comedies, as in Christmas in Connecticut in 1945, or melodrama as in Flamingo Road, in 1949. In The Hucksters in 1947, an expose of the advertising business, he spits at a business meeting to demonstrate that crassness can be memorable.