Animal Magnetism: Reflections on Robert Strauss

robert-strauss-stalag-17A popular character actor with a burly frame, a distinctive sandpaper-like voice and a gift for laughs and pathos, Robert Strauss is what you may have gotten if you crossed Everyone Loves Raymond’s Brad Garrett with Car 54, Where Are You’s Joe E. Ross

Strauss, whose 100th birthday is on November 8, 2013, is probably best known for playing Sgt. Stansilaus Kuzawa—aka “Stosh” or “Animal”– in Billy Wilder’s 1954 dramedy Stalag 17. The oafish, Betty Grable-obsessed POW at the Nazi prison camp was a crowd-pleaser, especially in scenes with Harvey Lembeck’s Harry Shapiro, and Strauss was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (He lost to Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity). In fact, Strauss and Lembeck were featured in the Broadway production, which was a hit, running from 1951 to 1952.   A classic scene that must have registered strongly with Academy voters offers the scruffy Animal imagining that dance partner Harry, in drag and in need of a shave, is Betty Grable. A slap brings Animal to his senses, but makes him break down crying. Wilder was so impressed, he used Strauss again, casting him as the janitor, Mr. Kruhuluk, in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch.

The Bronx native’s workload certainly picked up after the attention he received for Stalag 17. He had extensive stage experience, including impressive Broadway credits that included key roles in everything from Shakespeare (Macbeth) to musicals (Nellie Bly), from drama (The Detective Story) to screwball comedy (20th Century). After Stalag 17, however, he crammed lots of character bits into a busy schedule that regularly mixed TV with movies, comedy with drama.

On the small screen, Strauss—who had early jobs as a bartender and singing waiter—played in pretty much every live drama program out there, as well as variety and comedy shows. Later in his career, he was a regular presence in sagebrushers like Bonanza, Rawhide and Wagon Train, as well as such series as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Honey West, The Monkees, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched and The Green Hornet. He also had a key co-starring role in the 1965-1966 series Mona McClusky, which showcased ‘50s musical fixture Juliet Prowse as a Hollywood actress trying to live a common-as-possible life with new Air Force sergeant husband (and former screen Tarzan) Denny Miller. Strauss essayed the role of Sergeant Gruzewsky, one of Miller’s fellow officers.

robert-strauss-dondiOn the big screen, however, Strauss really mixed things up. His mug, voice and musculature were certainly cut out for gangster roles, and he got his share of mob-oriented movies like The George Raft Story, Inside the Mafia and I, Mobster. As Animal evidenced, his gruffness was also perfectly suited for military parts, and he impressed audiences in Robert Aldrich’s intense Attack!, playing a wise-cracking GI under duress from the enemies and the corruption of his officers around the time of the Battle of the Bulge; as “Beer Barrel,” the chief landing officer in the screen adaptation of James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri with William Holden, Grace Kelly and Frederic March; “Sammy Boy” in 1961’s ill-fated film adaptation of Dondi; opposite Ernie Kovacs in Wake Me When It’s Over,  and, again with Harvey Lembeck (as well as Don Knotts, Joe Flynn, Louis Nye, Jack Webb and Robert Mitchum) in The Last Time I Saw Archie.

Strauss, who married twice and had three children with each wife, also had an affinity for playing common folks, from cabbies and truck drivers to pool hall owners and bartenders. But because of That Strauss Touch, he made the most of what was sometimes limited screen time and stole many a scene.

He got to do a screen musical (as “Romeo Scragg” in Li’l Abner), co-starred with Doris Day and Elvis Presley, and Jerry with and without Dean a few times. He also received recognition for his turn in Otto Preminger’s controversial drug addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm, playing the sleazy card game entrepreneur (with mustache and fedora, no less) who wants to see ex-con and aspiring jazz drummer Frank Sinatra hooked on heroin so he can deal games for him.

Strauss, the son of a theatrical costume designer, made some unusual career choices at times, but such is the life of a character actor. One of his oddest credits is Movie Star, American Style; or LSD I Hate You (1966), in which he plays a movie producer who sends a Marilyn Monroe-like star to a rest home where a mad doctor makes his patients—which include Hollywood types, little people, an effeminate designer and real-life producer Albert Zugsmith—drop acid to reveal their innermost fantasies. 

Another odd decision was made when the actor agreed to partake in the 1971 Danish sexploitation Dagmar’s Hot Pants Inc., which stars Fanny Hill actress Dianna Kjar as a prostitute who decides to retire from practice when she’s raised enough scratch to send her boyfriend to medical school.  In the film, Strauss plays an American client of the happy hooker during her last day on the job. It was not the actor’s finest screen moment, as his face and distinctive voice were seen and heard in grindhouses and drive-ins throughout the country. Dagmar’s Hot Pants was usually screened in tandem with Swedish Fly Girls, another Euro sex farce. His most memorable line of dialogue: “Talking about your Scandinavian design, baby. You’re a sight worth flying 3000 miles just to look at.”

It was also in 1971 that the 57-year-old Strauss, a heavy smoker, suffered the first in a series of strokes.  Dagmar’s Hot Pants Inc. would have been the busy actor’s last credit, were it not for the 1975 release of The Noah, a film actually made in 1968, but held up from distribution.

Here, Strauss was offered his only leading role in a film (it was actually written for Toko-Ri co-star Mickey Rooney), and he delivers a tour-de-force performance. In this experimental, post-apocalyptic black-and-white drama, Strauss plays an unnamed ex-GI living on an island once populated by the Red Chinese. He communicates with the voice of Friday (an aggregate of Man Friday and God, with voice supplied by Geoffrey Holder) and with Friday Anne (the voice of Sally Kirkland), a female he has created. Later, he also creates an entire world within his mind in which he hears the voices of Gandhi, JFK, RFK, Bob Hope, Martin Luther King and Emperor Hirohito, as well as historic newscasts and music of the WWII era.  

We eventually discover that the man is, in fact, the last surviving person on Earth following World War III. His solitary existence finds him craving companionship, and eventually drifting into madness.  

Strauss passed away a few months after The Noah was finally released to the public, due to complications after a stroke. 

Today, many moviegoers may recognize him only as “that character actor guy with that voice,” but those who know Robert Strauss realize there was a lot more to the performer and the man. 

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