He started his film career late in life. He only worked in movies for 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 (Sandwich, Kent) in 1879, Greenstreet was 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. Returning to England, Greenstreet took to acting, and made his London stage debut in 1902, assaying the role of a villain in “Sherlock Homes.”
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. Wrote Huston, 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?)
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 roles. He always executed his parts with panache along with a delicious appreciation of evil that often outshone the histrionics of the top-billed star.
In “Casablanca,” Greenstreet made an indelible cameo appearance as Humphrey Bogart’s genial rival, a seen-it-all cabaret owner who languorously swats flies for amusement. In 1942’s “Across the Pacific,” also from Warners and also starring Bogart, Greenstreet found himself portraying a Japanese-speaking academic, a specialist in Philippine economics who holds “the chair of sociology at the university there.”
The general plot line of “Across the Pacific” had the Japanese secretly planning to pull off a Pearl Harbor-style attack on the Panama Canal. Greenstreet’s character was no academic, of course, but a master spy bent on violently undermining Bogey. The picture was directed for the most part by Huston, who bowed out before the film was completed in order to begin military service. The studio commissioned Vincent Sherman to step in and shoot the ending.
As the cigar-puffing bon vivant, Greenstreet tosses off with great aplomb such politically incorrect lines as “Japanese make great servants… wonderful little people,” and “the Oriental life holds great appeal for me.”
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. It’s all great fun abetted by the appearance of Peter Lorre.
Greenstreet and Lorre appeared together in at least four other films, the best of which probably is 1944’s The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by Jean Negulesco and also based on an Ambler novel. The pair delivered entertaining performances in Negulesco’s 1946 mystery Three Strangers, also starring Geraldine Fitzgerald. As in The Maltese Falcon, Greenstreet’s character finds himself within inches of realizing a fortune that slips from his reach.
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.”
The fat man’s last screen performance as a character called simply “the Dutchman” was in MGM’s 1949 title “Malaya,” Richard Thorpe’s adventure outing about pirating rubber from the Japanese. Greenstreet was in good company. The stars were Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.
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 use who prize classic movies, he will never be forgotten.