Sydney Greenstreet is perhaps the greatest character actor in Hollywood history and, Frank argues in this blog, one of the Hollywood’s greatest actors, period. (How many of you out there agree?)
Greenstreet was born in England (Sandwich, Kent) in 1879, one of eight children of a leather merchant. At 18, he went abroad to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to try his hand at running a tea plantation. Back in England Greenstreet tried managing a brewery and other jobs before hitting on the idea of attending acting school. He made his London stage debut in 1902, assaying the role of a villain in Sherlock Homes.
By the time he showed up in 1941 (at the age of 61) on director John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon set at Warner Bros., Greenstreet had logged 40 years as a stage actor on both sides of the pond. In his 1980 memoir, An Open Book, Huston wrote: The English actor Sydney Greenstreet had worked on Broadway but this was, I believe, his first film.
There’s always talk about the difficulty of making the transition from stage to screen, but you wouldn’t know it to watch Greenstreet; he was perfect from the word go, the Fat Man, inside out. I had only to sit back and take delight in him and his performance.
Greenstreet was nominated for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category for his screen debut as “the fat man.” (Remember whom he lost to that year, in 1942? Hint: he was a fellow Brit.)
To its credit, Warner Brothers knew what it had in the 300-pound-plus Greenstreet and kept him busy over the next nine years – 25 features from 1941 through 1950, averaging more than two pictures per year.
Greenstreet’s girth became something of his signature. As the slender Sam Spade, Humphrey Bogart wore his own clothes in character. Greenstreet’s outfits, on the other hand, had to be specially tailored by the studio costume department. Nothing less would fit.
Greenstreet used size to great advantage, playing erudite spies, a sleazy tycoons, Nazi agents, a corrupt Southern sheriff, among other juicy roles. He always executed his parts with panache and a delicious appreciation of evil that often outshone the histrionics of the top-billed star.
In 1942’s Across the Pacific, starring Bogart and Mary Astor, Greenstreet found himself portraying a Japanese-speaking academic, a specialist in Philippine economics who holds “the chair of sociology at the university there” and who freely spouts politically incorrect observations about Asians.
In 1943’s Backround to Danger, director Raoul Walsh’s treatment of a spy thriller from the reliable Eric Ambler, the mustache-sporting Greenstreet has to cope with star George Raft and a daffy plot about Nazis supposedly enticing the then USSR to invade Turkey in order to destabilize the region. Greenstreet oozes evil in the role of “Colonel Robinson,” another Nazi mastermind in disguise. In this film he spoke German.
His voice was unique, and it was inevitable that he would also become a star on radio and perhaps inevitable that he would be cast as a portly detective. One of the most famous and successful characters in mystery novels is Nero Wolfe and for radio, Greenstreet and Wolfe were the perfect match.
Nero Wolfe had been on radio throughout the 1940s with various actors in the role, but in the early 1950s Greenstreet was cast in a new series based on the famed detective and Wolfe creator Rex Stout declared him a splendid choice.
You can hear Greenstreet as Wolfe by ordering the radio broadcasts: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF NERO WOLFE – Old Time Radio
Greenstreet died in 1954, at the age of 74, felled by kidney disease and diabetes among other ailments. His career was short and fruitful. As long as there are those of use who prize classic movies, he will never be forgotten.