He started his film career late in life. He worked in movies for only a decade but his impact was enormous. His most famous movie line: Well, if you lose a son it is possible to get another. There is only one Maltese Falcon.
The actor who uttered them is Sydney Greenstreet, perhaps the greatest character actor in Hollywood history and perhaps one of the Hollywood’s greatest actors, period.
Born in England in 1879, Greenstreet made his London stage debut in 1902. By the time he showed up on director John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon set at Warner Bros. at the age of 61, he had logged 40 years as a stage actor on both sides of the pond. The 1941 classic was his first film. Director Huston declared him “perfect from the word go.” He was nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category for his role as “the Fat Man.”
To its credit, Warner’s knew what it had in the 300-pound-plus Greenstreet, and worked him hard over the next eight years — averaging more than two pictures per year. The actor used size to great advantage, playing erudite spies, a sleazy tycoon, Nazi agents, a corrupt Southern sheriff, among other juicy parts. In Casablanca, Greenstreet made an indelible cameo as Humphrey Bogart’s genial rival, a seen-it-all cabaret owner who languorously swats away pesky flies.
Greenstreet and Peter Lorre emerged together as an improbably reliable one-two duo in nine films notably 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by Jean Negulesco and also based on an Eric Ambler novel. The pair delivered entertaining performances in Negulesco’s 1946 mystery Three Strangers, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald.
As the corrupt sheriff and tyrannical town boss in his penultimate picture –1949’s Flamingo Road, the Joan Crawford melodrama directed by Michael Curtiz – Greenstreet consumes several servings of pie washed down with milk by the pitcher, gets slapped twice by Crawford and defuses adversaries with such lines as “you know how I’ve always been, just an easy-going, friendly fat old man.”
Greenstreet died in 1954, at the age of 74, felled by kidney disease and diabetes among other ailments. His career was short and vastly fruitful. As long as there are those of us who prize classic movies, he will never be forgotten.
Our photo, BTW, is from The Donald Gordon Collection.