S.Z. Sakall: Call Him “Cuddles”

Suppose for a moment you were an actor. What would you do if, in the opening credits of what’s arguably the biggest film you’ll ever be in, the studio misspelled your name? Would you get flustered and sputter to yourself in a moment of comical bluster? If so, then you’ve matched the typical on-screen reaction to such anxieties by the person that incident actually happened to. I’m speaking of Hungarian-born character actor and Casablanca waiter S.Z. Sakall, whose teddy bear physique, jowly face and “Mittle European” accent made him an audience favorite and earned him the nickname “Cuddles”…a name that he wasn’t thrilled with, but tolerated with his trademark exasperation.

Born Gerö Jenö in 1883, by his late teens he was a writer for vaudeville shows in Budapest and was going by the nom de plume Szöke Szakáll,which means “blonde beard” and referred to the facial hair he sported so as to look older. It was under this name that Sakall shifted from writing to performing, and by the early 1930s he was a stage and screen veteran in Vienna and Berlin as well as his native Hungary. Sakall’s specialty was musical/comedies, and one of his best-known roles–as the heroine’s father in the 1931 German film Her Majesty Love–would be played in a U.S. version that same year by W.C. Fields. At this time he also headed his own production company. The rise of the Nazis in the ’30s meant a move back to Hungary, where Sakall continued to act until the start of World War II, when he and his wife Anne were once again forced to flee, ultimately settling in America (all three of his sisters, and other family members, later perished in concentration camps).

Sakall made his Hollywood debut in 1940, as a stage producer ready to hire teenager Deanna Durbin for a new play instead of her mother, veteran actress Kay Francis, in It’s a Date. Later that year he re-teamed with Durbin, playing a baker in Spring Parade, and was Olivia De Havilland’s long-suffering music teacher in My Love Came Back. Two classic comedic roles came in 1941, as tycoon Charles Coburn’s butler in The Devil and Miss Jones and as one of the seven professors playing Cupid for lexicographer Gary Cooper and showgirl Barbara Stanwyck in the Howard Hawks comedy Ball of Fire. Signed by Warner Bros. in 1942, he was cast as a potential backer for showman George M. Cohan (James Cagney) with some very particular rules about how his money is to be spent (“Before I put $10,000 into a show, it must have songs, dances, and a lot of girls. Women, women!”) in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Sakall then followed that film’s director, fellow Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz, across the Warner lot for Casablanca. While he initially turned down the role–and despite being listed in that film’s credits as “S.K. Sakall”–the actor created a lasting impression on the Oscar-winning drama’s audience with his portrayal of Carl, a former math professor who was now the head waiter and bookkeeper for Humphrey Bogart’s Cafe Americain in the Moroccan title city. One of his more memorable lines–and one that cuts close to events in the actor’s real life–came when French police prefect Claude Rains instructs him to give visiting Nazi officer Conrad Veidt ” a good table, one close to the ladies,” and Sakall replies “I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.”

By the mid- ’40s Sakall, whose screen billings often called him “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall,” had become a familiar and welcome face to moviegoers, with his stock-in-trade performances as lovable relatives, put-upon shop owners, and other avuncular types livening up such pictures as Shine on Harvest Moon, Wonder Man with Danny Kaye, the Errol Flynn western San Antonio,  and Romance on the High Seas and My Dream Is Yours with Doris Day. He was reunited with Stanwyck in the 1945 holiday favorite Christmas in Connecticut. Playing her restaurateur pal Felix, who makes the dishes that “cooking whiz” Barbara passes off as her own, Sakall is a delight to watch and listen to, as he assures Barbara “everything hunky dunky” and instructs her on the fine art of making pancakes while saying,  “I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips.” Sakall also supplied laughs as the proprietor of the music shop where Judy Garland and Van Johnson–unaware they are each other’s romantic pen pals–work, in 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime. A rare leading role (he was third-billed behind June Haver and Mark Stevens) came later that year, when he portrayed operatic composer-turned-Tin Pan Alley songsmith Fred Fisher in the 1949 musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.

1950 saw Sakall playing an uncle once again, this time offering niece Day the $25,000 she needs to realize her Broadway dream–but only if she can go for 24 hours with answering “no” to every question she’s asked–in Tea for Two, a reworking of the stage play No, No Nanette. The following year he was a Hungarian immigrant who must overcome his Old World prejudices when his daughter (Janet Leigh) falls for a man (Gene Kelly) of Greek ancestry in the anthology film It’s a Big Country. His final film role would come as the innkeeper in the 1954 MGM musical The Student Prince, as a heart attack ended Sakall’s “hunky dunky” life in February of 1955, 10 days after his 71st birthday.

  • Noel Bjorndahl

    Thanks for this post. Casablanca was certainly the archetypal Cuddles role, but he was an indispensable part of the furniture in so many of those delightful Warner comedies, and especially Doris Day musicals, of the late 40s and early 50s. O golden years of Hollywood, I miss you.

  • mike jaral

    when I was a kid in the 50’s, he was one of my favorite actors, always a good movie when he was in it. but he was truly a hero in yankee doodle dandy.

  • JUanita Curtis

    A memorable character actor – always brought great warmth to his roles. Particularly enjoyed his performances in Ball of Fire and Christmas in Connecticut.

  • Ballet South

    I just love “Cuddles”….what a wonderful man. Everyone would love an uncle like that! Those days of Hollywood are greatly missed!

  • Gerry-G-Goldberg

    Several years ago at Film Forum in N.Y.C., I saw “S.Z.” in a European silent film, when he was still a young man. It was a comedy role and he was already somewhat heavy-set and appealingly “sweet” looking. In his performance, his gestures clearly anticipate how he will speak his lines in ‘talkies.” We was a joy then and subsequently. Also, if I remember correctly, the film credits suggested to me that his wife (or sister) was also in that film.

  • Gerry-G-Goldberg

    Does anyone know the name of the movie?

    • Astriana

      ooh! i’m andidg it to my list! thanks for the idea. i love the manageable chunks idea! i’m going to apply that to reading a book a week for a year once i’m done with the Quest.

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Gary Cahall

    Sorry, Gerry, but I can’t track down which of the 10 silent films (according to IMDb) Sakall made in Hungary and Germany might have been the one you saw. I am a bit jealous that you got to see it, though. Unfortunately, none of his silent works are currently available on home video.

  • Gord Jackson

    Loved his turn as the proprietor from “In the Good, Old Summertime” as it nicely mixed some buffoonery with a more serious side to his character. Great chemistry with screen wife Spring Byington.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenneth.m.henderson Kenneth Henderson

    SZ in 1931 played the part of Bill Anerley in Edgar Wallace’s Der Zinker(The Squeeker) made in Germany. The production company was that associated with Anny Ondra who was the female lead in Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail(1929). This film has just been released in Germany on DVD with both the original music score & an alternative new score. Unfortunately this release does not have English subtitles. I got it this week along with another title from Czech star Ondra’s company, The Hound of the Baskerville’s(1937). Appearing in both these films is sinister looking actor Fritz Rasp who was famous as the man stealing money from the boy in Emil und Die Detektive(1931) & for today’s audiences as a major lead in the greatly restored Metropolis(Germany 1927).

    With the exception of Emil, which I have had for a number of years with the color 50s version(where’s the Disney version on DVD???) I got the other three in the past few days on disc(Dec 2010).

  • Publius

    S. Z. Sakall was always a joy to me when I watched him on screen. I didn’t know he was suppossed to be a math teacher in CASABLANCA turned waiter. The first time I saw him on television was in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY as the befuddled money man who wants girls-girls and more girls. He was hysterical in CHRISTMAS IN CONNETICUT, which will probably be the role he is most remembered for, outside of CASABLANCA. My favorite line in that film that he says is “you will get along beautifully in America” to a German couple who are going to America toward the end of the film. He also wrote a very nice essay in praise of Hollywood that was loved and admired by all who read it. I was surprised to learn that he was a circus clown in his early days of performing, and he could do (believe it or not) cartwheels and acrobatic leaps. A delightful actor, and a good physical comedian. They aren’t turning out actors like him anymore.

  • jdroper3

    “Cuddles” was always a great addition to any movie. Just finished watching him in “Christmas in Connecticut,” and he was great as always. Thanks for this venue!

  • Raif Damico

    I first saw Cuddles in Tea For Two and always after that I would love whatever the movie he was in because of him. He was a special part in every movie. He added that specisl touch in Casablanca.He is a testament of that past Hollywood magic.

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  • Movie Maniac

    Nyak,nyak, nyak—-SZ is always a wonderful addition to any film. Love his bit with Humphrey Bogart in “Thank Your Lucky Stars.”

  • Paul Sprenger

    S.Z. Sakall-“Cuddles” also had a nice supporting role in the 1950 Warner Bros. Musical,”The Daughter of Rosie O’ Grady”,staring June Haver, Gordon Mac Crea,and a young teenage Debbie Reynolds and many others which was just released earlier this year to DVD.This movie had never been available before to video.This was a reasonable good musical from that period.So if your interested this is available currently from the Warner Bros.Archive Collection.

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  • twoshoes4u

    His accent did become annoying and over the top at times.

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  • Dueepjs

    All those who get an opportunity to see Errol Flynn’s never say goodbye will love Cuddles as the restuaranteur, using words like Feminiminity…huh???and his trying to pronounce Nicodemus and Ebenezer is hilarious. Such a lovable personality.

  • Ariel

    Seven Sweethearts.  Hokey story, but he’s fabulous.

  • Stu Gilles

    s.z. sakall wrote what sounds an hilarious autobiography called something like ‘my life under the kaiser, hitler and the warner brothers’.  has anyone ever seen a copy?  it has been out of print for many years.  perhaps one of the kindle publishers might be able to take it up.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.medina.94043626 Robert Medina

    S.Z.Sakall Was one of the funniest actors who with out him the picture may have been a flop. I enjoyed watching him and laughing(along with the people) at his unique acting. He was a one-of-a-kind !, We need more actors with his type of joy and wit.

    • Mike wolf

      Absolutely true…..who could forget him saying to Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut…..”Now look, this is how you flop flip the flip flops” when he tries to teach her to flip pancakes……priceless Cuddles!

  • John M

    In all the films, he frequently had some sort of a dilemma, and with his accent and bouncy cheeks, delivered humorous lines that were priceless. It never seemed like he was “acting”, but rather just playing himself in all those films that would lift any viewer’s spirits. Bravo, Cuddles!

  • gregoryvii

    “Cuddles” is the greatest!