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Star of the Month: Sydney Greenstreet

Star of the Month: Sydney Greenstreet

Wednesdays in November / 22 Movies

Sydney Greenstreet, making his debut as TCM Star of the Month this November, belongs to that rare breed – the character actor who became a star. He joined such players as Claude Rains, Thelma Ritter, and Greenstreet cohort Peter Lorre in moving from background figures to box-office attractions in their own rights.

Oversized in both talent and physique (weighing in at his heaviest at over 350 pounds), Greenstreet enjoyed a singular career. Beginning as a stage actor, he did not make his film debut until age 61.

Not counting a couple of cameo appearances in which he played himself, he made 22 movies during the one decade he was active onscreen, the 1940s. In this tribute, TCM is showing all of them!

Film historian David Shipman described Greenstreet as “one of the great classic villains…an urbane fat man, a favorite client of the maître d’ in all the best restaurants in this world and the underworld. The devil alone knew what sinister schemes were being plotted within those mounds of flesh.”

Sydney Hughes Greenstreet was born December 27, 1879, in Sandwich, Kent, England, as one of eight children of leather merchant John Jarvis Greenstreet and his wife, Ann. As a young man, Sydney tried growing tea in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but was unsuccessful and returned to England to try a number of other jobs including managing a brewery.

Out of boredom with work, Greenstreet signed up for acting lessons and discovered that he had a talent for performing. He studied with Sir Philip Barling Greet, aka Ben Greet, a noted Shakespearean actor and theatrical impresario in London.

Greenstreet made his stage debut as the murderer in a 1902 production of a Sherlock Holmes story and in 1904 he traveled to the U.S. with Greet to appear on Broadway in Everyman.

Greenstreet never lived in England again (and would become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1925). Working in New York and on international tours, he performed in such plays as Lady Windemere’s Fan (1914), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1916), and The Rainbow Girl (1918).

His stage career included extensive work in Shakespeare. It was said that, when all was said and done, Greenstreet had acted in every major Shakespearean play. His many other notable stage appearances included those in The Student Prince (1925), and Roberta (1933).

He began working with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne at the Theater Guild in New York, first in Idiot’s Delight (1936) and then touring with the couple in such productions as Amphitryon 38 (1938) and There Shall Be No Night (1940).   

It was during a tour stop in Los Angeles of the last-named play that director John Huston saw Greenstreet perform and was inspired to cast him in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

In this classic movie inspired by the Dashiell Hammett novel, Greenstreet plays Kasper Gutman, the ruthless yet civilized “Fat Man” who is the chief nemesis of hero Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). The film would bring Greenstreet his only Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actor).

Peter Lorre also has a supporting role in the film. He and Greenstreet would form a veritable team, appearing together in a total of nine movies. Scott Proudfit, writing for Backstage magazine, described the pair as “the Laurel and Hardy of crime,” with Greenstreet as “an embodiment of the bloated establishment” and Lorre “The Foreigner: devious, slippery, bug-eyed.”

The Maltese Falcon, and Greenstreet, were a hit, and Warner Bros. signed him to a long-term contract. He was cast in They Died with Their Boots On as Lt. General Winfield Scott in this highly fictionalized account of the exploits of George Custer (Errol Flynn).

Greenstreet was again Humphrey Bogart’s refined yet utterly villainous nemesis in Across the Pacific (1942), playing a sinister fellow passenger on a Japanese ship headed for Yokohama in the days before the U.S. entered World War II.

Bogart and Greenstreet were reunited once again, playing competing nightspot owners in the classic wartime tale Casablanca (1942), a Best Picture Oscar winner. Lorre is on hand, too, as a petty crook who figures importantly in the fate of heroine Ingrid Bergman.

Other wartime melodramas in which the two character actors appeared include Background to Danger (1943), with Greenstreet as a Nazi agent and Lorre a Russian spy; and The Conspirators (1944), with Greenstreet as the leader of an anti-Nazi resistance group in Lisbon, Lorre as a traitor in their midst, and Paul Henreid and Hedy Lamarr as the romantic leads.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) has Greenstreet as a smuggler in Istanbul and Lorre as a mystery writer on the trail of arch-criminal Zachary Scott; and Passage to Marseille (1944), with Humphrey Bogart starring as the leader of a group of prisoners who escape from Devil’s Island, Lorre as a fellow prisoner, and Greenstreet as a fascist sympathizer who tries to take over the prisoners’ ship.     

Between Two Worlds (1944) is a fantasy-drama about passengers from war-torn London on a mysterious ship and Greenstreet as the “Ultimate Examiner” who determines their fates. John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, and Paul Henreid costar.  

Greenstreet wanted to play comedy, and Warners cast him in support of two leading ladies who also wanted a break from heavy drama: Ida Lupino in Pillow to Post and Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut (both 1945).

Now elevated to star billing, Greenstreet again supports Bogart in Conflict (1945). Bogart plays a man who murders his wife, and Greenstreet is a psychologist who unravels his motives. Devotion (1946) is a fictionalized bio of the Brontë sisters, with Ida Lupino as Emily, Olivia de Havilland as Charlotte, and Greenstreet as William Makepeace Thackeray.

Next came two reunions between Greenstreet and Lorre. Three Strangers (1946) has top-billed Greenstreet as a crooked lawyer and Lorre as a drunken small-time criminal. Geraldine Fitzgerald is the third stranger, who draws the other two into a scheme based on a Chinese proverb.

The Verdict (1946), which marked the directorial debut of Don Siegel, is a noir murder mystery starring Greenstreet as a Scotland Yard superintendent who loses his position after his role in the execution of an innocent man. He plots to destroy his successor, with the unwitting help of an artist friend (Lorre).      

Greenstreet worked on loan-out to MGM for The Hucksters (1947). Clark Gable stars as a WWII vet whose struggles to return to his old career in the advertising business are complicated by an obnoxious client – Greenstreet as the president of a soap factory. A heavyweight cast also includes Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, and Edward Arnold.

Back at his home studio, Greenstreet was in comedy mode for That Way with Women (1947), with Dane Clark. Then came The Woman in White (1948), Warners’ well-acted version of the much-filmed 1860 mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, with Eleanor Parker in a dual role and Greenstreet as that classic villain, the evil Count Fosco.

At RKO, in the melodramatic The Velvet Touch (1948), Rosalind Russell stars as a Broadway diva who accidentally kills her producer boyfriend, and Greenstreet as the police detective who investigates. Eagle-Lion Films released Ruthless (1948, TCM premiere), a noir-flavored melodrama with Zachary Scott as a social-climbing tycoon and Greenstreet as another “ruthless” businessman.

Flamingo Road (1949), Greenstreet’s last film at Warner Bros., pits him against Joan Crawford. She plays a carnival dancer in a Southern town controlled by Greenstreet as a corrupt sheriff with a vendetta against her.

Greenstreet made his final film appearance on loan-out to MGM for Malaya (1949). Spencer Tracy and James Stewart star as a pair of characters with shady pasts who are enlisted by the U.S. government to smuggle rubber out of Malaya. Greenstreet gets costar billing as a saloon owner called The Dutchman who comes to their aid.

Greenstreet played detective Nero Wolfe on radio from 1950-51, then announced his retirement in 1952. He died in Hollywood on January18, 1954, from complications caused by diabetes and kidney disease, and is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA.

He had married Dorothy Marie Ogden in 1918, and they remained wed until his death. The couple had one son, John Ogden Greenstreet (1920-2004).

Playwright Tennessee Williams said that Greenstreet inspired his 1946 one-act The Last of My Solid Gold Watches and dedicated the play to him. The actor also was said to have been an inspiration for the Star Wars character Jabba the Hut.

Greenstreet and Peter Lorre were known to be real-life friends as well as onscreen partners. According to Lorre biographer Stephen D. Youngkin, Lorre referred to Greenstreet as “the Old Man,” while Greenstreet called Lorre “Puck.”

Lorre was quoted saying of Greenstreet that “He was not only one of the nicest men and gentlemen I’ve ever known, I think he was one of the great, great actors of our time.”