Born December 27, 1879 in Sandwich, Kent, England, Sydney Greenstreet was one of seven children of Ann (née Baker) and John Jarvis Greenstreet, a tanner. He left home at the age of 18 to make his fortune as a tea planter in Ceylon, but drought forced him out of business. He then managed a brewery while taking acting lessons.
Greenstreet made his stage debut in a 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes in which he played a murderer. He subsequently toured in England and the U.S. in Shakespearean productions and is said to have appeared in every one of Shakespeare’s plays at one time or another. He made his Broadway debut in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in 1907. He married his wife Dorothy with whom he would have one child, in 1918. They would remain married until his death.
Between 1907 and 1940, Greenstreet appeared in 30 Broadway productions including As You Like It, Lady Windemere’s Fan, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Volpone, The Good Earth, Roberta, The Taming of the Shrew, Idiot’s Delight, The Seagull and There Shall Be No Night.
The actor did not make his screen debut until the age of 61 when he played one of the villains in John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. He would make a total of 23 films over the next 8 years, four of them with Bogart and nine with Lorre.
Greenstreet followed his debut with three films in 1942, They Died with Their Boots On with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Across the Pacific with Bogart and Astor and Casablanca with Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Subsequent films included Passage to Marseille with Bogart and Michel Morgan, Between Two Worlds with John Garfield and Eleanor Parker, The Mask of Dimitrios with Zachary Scott, Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan, Devotion with Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland, The Hucksters with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr, The Woman in White with Alexis Smith and Eleanor Parker, The Velvet Touch with Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn and Claire Trevor, Flamingo Road with Joan Crawford and Zachary Scott and his last, Malaya with Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.
Tennessee Williams’ 1946 one-act play, The Last of My Solid Gold Watches was written with Greenstreet in mind and is dedicated to him.
Greenstreet’s last role was as Rex Stout’s fictional hero, Nero Wolf, in the radio series, The New Adventures of Nero Wolf which ran from 1950 to 1951.
Having suffered from diabetes and Bright’s disease for many years, Sydney Greenstreet died of complications from both conditions on January 18, 1954. He was 74.
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), directed by John Huston
After nearly 40 years on the stage, 35 of them on Broadway, the versatile actor made his screen debut at close to 300 pounds at the age of 61 playing Kasper Gutman, one of three eccentric criminals after the priceless statuette of the title. Huston’s film was the third and, by far, most successful screen version of Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective story starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade with Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane and Lee Patrick all billed above Greenstreet who earned one of the film’s 3 Oscar nominations, the others going to Huston as writer with the film itself a Best Picture nominee.
CASABLANCA (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz
Long regarded as one of the most beloved films of all time, Greenstreet moved from seventh billed in The Maltese Falcon to sixth billed in this one in which he is billed below Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt, but above Peter Lorre, S.K. Sakall and Dooley Wilson. Although his scenes are standouts as they were in all his films, the only Oscar-winning film in which he appeared, is ironically one of the few in which he is overshadowed by other actors, notably Bogart, Bergman and Henreid as the film’s central triangle, Rains, Veidt and piano player and singer, Wilson.
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945), directed by Peter Godfrey
This beloved holiday classic was one of the biggest box-office successes of the year and one of the first to benefit from the post-war euphoria that brought audiences to theatres in droves. Barbara Stanwyck had one of her most ingratiating roles as the home and food in over her head when her publisher, played by Greenstreet, invites himself to her home for Christmas. Greenstreet in a rare comedic role was one-of-three of the film’s character actors who all but stole the film from Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan as her sailor-hero. The others were S.Z. Sakall and Una O’Connor who clash over their opposing cooking styles.
THE HUCKSTERS (1947), directed by Jack Conway
Based on the best-selling exposé of the advertising business, this comedy-drama featured strong work from Clark Gable in a role originally intended for Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr in her first Hollywood film, third-billed Greenstreet at his most uproarious as the sinister, demanding client, the CEO of a soap company, Adolphe Menjou as Gable’s boss, Ava Gardner as the other woman and Keenan Wynn and Edward Arnold as talent agency executives. The film re-invigorated Gable’s career; made major stars of Kerr and Gardner and provided Greenstreet with one of his most fondly remembered roles, one they still talk about.
FLAMINGO ROAD (1949), directed by Michael Curtiz
Although it was marketed as a Joan Crawford film, third-billed Greenstreet walked of with all the notices as the evil town sheriff whose deputy Zachary Scott picks up Crawford’s carnival girl, discarding society gal Virginia Huston who Greenstreet had earmarked in his big plans for Scott. The actor is at his slimiest best here in a role that is generally considered one of his three great villain roles, the others, of course, being those in The Maltese Falcon and The Hucksters. It was resurrected as a TV series in 1980 with Cristina Raines in Crawford’s role and Howard Duff in Greenstreet’s.
SYDNEY GREENSTREET AND OSCAR
- The Maltese Falcon (1941) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor