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 made use of 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 (1944) , The Verdict (1946) and Three Strangers (also ’46).
A string of supporting roles kept the actor busy on the Warners lot: 19th-century military hero Gen. Winfield Scott in the Errol Flynn frontier drama They Died with Their Boots On (1941); opposite Bogart again the following year in Casablanca, as the “infulential and respected”l black marketeer Signor Ferrari; and as a pro-Vichy rench naval officer in Passage to Marseille (1944). Sydney got a rare chance to flex his comedic muscles as magazine writer Barbara Stanwyck’s publisher, in search of a good home-cooked holiday meal, in the 1945 Yuletide favorite Christmas in Connecticut. He was decidedly less jovial as the tyrannical soap company head who butts heads with ad man Clark Gable in 1947’s The Hucksters, and he was soon back in familiarly menacing territory as Count Fosco in 1948’s The Woman in White and as the corrupt Southern sheriff making life miserable for ex-carnival dancer Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949).
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 of 1954.