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.