Born May 26, 1891 in Budapest, Hungary, Paul Lukas was the son of Adolf Munkácsi and Mária Schneckendorf. He was later adopted by Mária (née Zilahy) and János Lukács, an advertising executive, possibly in 1895, the year given as his year of birth during his lifetime.
Lukas volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1913 and served in the cavalry during World War I before became an aviator. Wounded, he was sent home in 1915 after which he studied at the Hungarian Academy of Acting. He made his formal acting debut at the National Theatre in 1916 and was briefly married that year, the marriage ending in 1917.
In Hungarian short subjects from 1915, major films from 1917, Lukas played the title role in Michael Curtiz’s 1920 film, Bocaccio and played a small part in Alexander Korda’s 1922 biblical film, Samson and Delilah. At first, he played elegant, smooth womanizers, but increasingly he became typecast as a villain. Impressed with his performance in Antonia in Budapest, Adolph Zukor brought him to Hollywood in 1927, the year he married second wife Gizella “Daisy” Benes to whom he would remain married until her death in 1962.
Extremely busy in the 1930s, his films included Downstairs with John Gilbert, Rockabye with Constance Bennett, The Kiss Before the Mirror with Frank Morgan and Nancy Carroll, Little Women opposite Katharine Hepburn and Dodsworth with Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, after which he became a naturalized American citizen in 1937. In December of that year, he made his Broadway debut opposite Ruth Gordon in a revival of A Doll’s House.
In 1938, Lukas co-starred in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, followed in 1939 by Confessions of a Nazi Spy with Edward G. Robinson and in 1940 by The Ghost Breakers with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard. In 1941 he returned to Broadway to play his greatest role in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine opposite Mady Christians. He reprised the role in the 1943 film version opposite Bette Davis, winning a New York Film Critics Award, a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his performance.
Curiously, Lukas’ Oscar win did not lead to a star career in Hollywood. His only leading role was in 1944’s Address Unknown in which he played a German émigré to the U.S. that was the opposite of the one he played in his Oscar winning role. He did have a starring role in his return to Broadway in 1950’s Call Me Madam in which he played opposite Ethel Merman. He did not reprise his role in the Irving Berlin musical when it was filmed in 1953. Instead, he returned to character acting on screen in such notable films as 1950’s Kim with Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell, 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Kirk Douglas and James Mason, 1958’s The Roots of Heaven with Flynn and Trevor Howard, 1962’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Glenn Ford and Ingrid Thulin and 1963’s 55 Days at Peking with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, the year he married third wife Annette Driesens the year after the death of his second.
Lukas’ last major film was 1965’s Lord Jim in support of Peter O’Toole and James Mason. He died in Tangier, Morocco on August 15, 1971 while searching for a retirement home and buried in Spain. He was 80.
LITTLE WOMEN (1933), directed by George Cukor
Lukas was third billed behind Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett in this third and best film version of Louise May Alcott’s ever-popular novel even though he doesn’t appear until well into the film. He plays Professor Bhaer who will eventually become husband to Hepburn’s Jo, a character that usually rates below that of the sisters, Marmee, Aunt March and Laurie, Luks more than holds his own with the formidable cast of Hepburn, Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Spring Byington, Edna May Oliver (a last minute replacement for the late Louise Closser Hale) and Douglass Montgomery (who replaced Eric Linden) in those higher profile roles.
THE LADY VANISHES (1938), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Lukas is at his best as the smooth talking “brain specialist”, Dr. Hartz, who suggests that star Margaret Lockwood’s memory of Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), the old lady who has disappeared, was an hallucination brought on by the bump on the head Lockwood received before boarding the train. One of the best of Hitchcock’s British films, this one is as much a comic delight as it is a baffling thriller. The performances of Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in the leads, Lukas, Whitty, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Mary Clare, Catherine Lacey and more in support make this one to treasure.
WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943), directed by Herman Shumlin
Warner Bros. imported Lukas as the anti-Fascist German-born engineer, Lucile Watson as his highly opinionated mother-in-law, Eric Roberts as his younger son, George Coulouris as the villainous Romanian count and Frank Wilson as Watson’s butler from Lillian Hellman’s celebrated 1941 Broadway play. Mady Christians, who played Lukas’ wife was replaced by Bette Davis, with Geraldine Fitzgerald, Beulah Bondi, Donald Woods and Donald Buka filling other key roles. Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, Actor (Lukas), Supporting Actress (Watson) and Screenplay, it won only for Lukas’ impassioned performance.
ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944), directed by William Cameron Menzies
Lukas’ character here is the antithesis of his heroic German in Watch on the Rhine. A German-American art dealer, he returns to Germany during Hitler’s rise and becomes attracted to Nazi Propaganda, even to the point of refusing to help his son’s Jewish-American fiancé (K.T. Stevens) who is shot in the back at his door. Mady Christians gets to play his wife on screen in this one, with Peter van Eyck as their son and Morris Carnovsky as Lukas’ former partner and father of the murdered girl. Nominated for Oscars for Black-and-White Art Direction and Original Dramatic Score, it failed to win in either category.
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), directed by Richard Fleischer
Lukas was a substitute for Charles Boyer, who turned down the role of the professor in Disney’s big budget live action film, its first in CinemaScope. He allegedly did not get along with any of the film’s other actors including Kirk Douglas, James Mason and even long-time friend Peter Lorre, who considered him aloof. It was later revealed that the reason for his frequent outbursts of pique was that, although only in his early 60s, his memory was failing. His career did not rebound until the 1960s when he became a welcome presence in such films as 55 Days at Peking and Lord Jim.
PAUL LUKAS AND OSCAR
- Watch on the Rhine (1943) – Oscar – Best Actor