Sydney Greenstreet: Favorite ’40s “Heavy”

Sydney-Greenstreet

It’s a rare accomplishment for an actor or actress to receive an Academy Award nomination for their very first film appearance. It’s even more rare for that first appearance to come at the rather advanced (for Hollywood) age of 61! But that’s just what happened to Sydney Greenstreet, whose, shall we say, imposing presence and air of sophisticated menace served him well in a relatively brief nine-year career packed with memorable characters.

A native of (no jokes, please) Sandwich, Kent, England, Greenstreet was born in December, 1879. A fine student and amateur athlete, he left England in 1899 to try his hands at the tea plantations of colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but returned home two years later. When the acting bug bit  Sydney in 1902, it was the start of an acclaimed  four-decade stage run that would see him performing around the world, including Broadway, with stars ranging from Lunt and Fontanne to Bob Hope.

It was during a performance in Los Angeles that Greenstreet caught the eye of neophyte director John Huston, who cast him as Kasper Gutman, the sinister “Fat Man,” in his 1941 filming of Dashiell Hammett’s thriller The Maltese Falcon.  Shot by floor-level cameras aiming up to emphasize his 285-pound girth, Greenstreet’s outwardly jovial demeanor and erudite manner  (“By gad, sir, you are a character!”) were a perfect counterpoint to the streetwise toughness of private eye Humphrey Bogart, and garnered the veteran thespian his sole Oscar nomination. The noir classic also featured Sydney’s wonderful chemistry with twitchy co-star Peter Lorre, which Warner Bros.  took advantage of by putting them in seven more pictures together, including such suspense films as The Mask of Dimitrios and Three Strangers.

A string of supporting roles followed: 19th-century military hero Gen. Winfield Scott in the Errol Flynn frontier drama They Died with Their Boots On; opposite Bogart again  in Casablanca (Article) as the fly-swatting black marketeer Ferrari, and as a pro-Vichy French naval officer in Passage to Marseille; a rare comedic turn as magazine writer Barbara Stanwyck’s publisher in Christmas in Connecticut; and as a corrupt sheriff making life miserable forJoan Crawford in Flamingo Road.

Health problems stemming from diabetes and Bright’s disease forced Greenstreet to step away from the cameras after starring with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart in 1949′s Malaya, while he continued to work on radio as the voice of corpulent crime-solver Nero Wolfe for two years. His trademark guttural laugh was silenced in January, 1954.

  • http://www.PeterLorreBook.com Cheryl

    Nice article — but a couple corrections. The correct title is “The Mask of Dimitrios”, not “The Mask of Demitrios”. And Sydney made a total of 9 films with Peter Lorre, not 8: “The Maltese Falcon”, “Casablanca”, “Background to Danger”, “Passage to Marseille”, “The Mask of Dimitrios”, “The Conspirators”, “Hollywood Canteen”, “Three Strangers”, and “The Verdict”. You can read more about the on-screen partnership of Lorre and Greenstreet in the authorized Lorre biography “The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre” (University Press, 2005), by Stephen D. Youngkin.

    • Blizzard

      Why has no one mentioned his villainy as Count Fosco in THE WOMAN IN WHITE,
      starring Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, Gig Young, and Agnes Moorhead as his wife
      who does him in at the picture’s end..

  • http://MoviesUnlimited June

    Another error I believe…..
    You mentioned Sydney Greenstreet performing with
    Lunt and Fonatine. I believe the correct spelling is Fontanne.

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

    To borrow one of Mr. Greenstreet’s best-known exclamations,”by gad,” but my spelling was off. Thanks, Cheryl and June, for the corrections. I didn’t include Hollywood Canteen in the Greenstreet-Lorre collaborations because they have only cameos as themselves. The Lorre book you mention, Cheryl, sounds interesting.

  • Peter Yetman

    Cahill’s short article on Sidney Greenstreet was very informative. I was unaware that he had such a short career. As an avid fan of the thirties, forties and fifties movies I probibly should have known that fact. Anyway, I believe Mr. Greenstreet was one of the top rankers during his short time in the movies!

  • http://comcast pat faccone

    sydney greenstreet thought that liposuction would help alleviate his diabetic condition even though it was at that time a new and risky procedure. after the succesful operation he wound up with a very bad infectionand succumed a few days after that.

  • http://www.PeterLorreBook.com Cheryl

    Glad to help out, Gary! Although Peter and Sydney’s part in “Hollywood Canteen” was small, it’s significant in that they wrote the scene themselves. They were asked what they would like to do, and they decided to play off on their screen image as menaces. Many consider their cameo a highlight of the film. I hope you get a chance to take a look at “The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre”, too. You can find out more about it from the book’s official website — http://www.PeterLorreBook.com. In the FAQ section of the website, you’ll find some information about a supposed “10th” Lorre and Greenstreet film, “In This Our Life”.

  • http://Websitewww.robertwinstonmercy.com NameRobert Winston Mercy

    While working on a Playhouse 90 set in Hollywood circa 1961 I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Lorrie who by then was starting to but on weight do to heavy medication as a result of an accident. We had many mutual interest and both shared a loathing for what Jerry Lewis found humorous.

  • Patrick A. Romano

    Anyone remember Sydney Greenstreet in “Flamingo Road” with Joan Crawford??????

    • Marshall

      Of course! One of my favorite Joan Crawford movies.

  • BRIAN

    Background To Danger(1943)

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    • Leticia

      Start off in the Cairns, It aatctrts around 1, 000, 000 tourists per year. Then go out to the Whitsundays (preferably Hamilton Island). Make your way down to The Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and The Gold Coast. Sydney and Melbourne are then 1 2 hour flights away. The Eastern Coast is where you will get the most enjoyment out of your trip.

  • Charles

    An absolute pleasure to watch his performances.

    • Kanika

      I don’t know if this is a world fact, but it’s a laanugge fact the Irish phrase An dtiginn tu? [which means "Do you understand?"] is where the Americans got the word Dig Like to digg something :LI’m not sure if this makes any sense to anyone else But it’s the only thing I could think of Orla xO

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  • Joe Gregorio

    I have so many favorite character actors and, of course, Sydney Greenstreet is one of them. Enjoyed himin all of his films, and who could forget his inimitable laugh.

  • Stmart

    YES, Gen Scott teaching Flynn’s Custer how to enjoy “creamed Bermuda onions.”

  • Joseph23006

    He was one of those rare actors whose presence on the screen telegraphed a lot of information about his character before he ever said a word.

  • a1walter2

    Any film Sydney was in, I watch and collect.

  • Al Hooper

    Big Syd was superb. I can’t imagine The Maltese Falcon with anyone else as Kasper Gutman, and his relatively small part in Casablanca energized that film with his every appearance.

  • ROGER LYNN

    Christmas In Connecticut,,as Mr Yardley was my favorite of his,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  • Bruce Reber

    He gave a fine performance as the preacher in “Between Two Worlds” (Warner Bros. 1944), co-starring John Garfield, Eleanor Parker and Paul Henreid. To those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this fine suspense/fantasy.

  • Gord Jackson

    Always liked Sydney Greenstrett on screen as well as on radio as Nero Wolfe.

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