Born Theodor Emil Janenz into a middle-class home, German actor Emil Jannings ran away from home at age 16 to become a sailor, and ended up working as an assistant cook on a ocean liner. He returned home disillusioned, but soon took up the theater; at 18 he made his professional stage debut, going on to tour with several companies in numerous provincial towns. In 1906 he was invited to join Max Reinhardt's theater in Berlin, then considered to be the finest stage troupe in the world. Over the following decade, he established himself as a significant stage actor. Jannings debuted onscreen in 1914, but the first five years of his film career were routine. In 1919 he began appearing in a string of Germanic-slanted historical dramas, portraying imposing historical figures such as Louis XV, Henry VIII, and Peter the Great; next he starred in a series of literary adaptations. By the mid-'20s he had an international reputation, and many considered him the world's greatest screen actor. In 1927 Paramount signed him and he moved to Hollywood, appearing in a number of films designed to showcase his gift for tragedy. Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for his first two American films, The Last Command (1928) and The Way of All Flesh (1927). Because of his thick German accent, the advent of sound ended his American career. He returned to Germany in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he was enlisted to participate in the state's propaganda machine; an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis, he spent the next decade-plus making films that supported Nazi ideology. Propaganda Minister Goebbels awarded him in 1938 with a medal and an appointment to head Tobis, the company that produced his films, and he was honored as "Artist of the State" in 1941. At war's end Jannings was blacklisted by the Allied authorities, and he never made another film. He died five years later, lonely and bitter.
Biography by Rovi
- Made his professional stage debut at 18.
- Joined Max Reinhardt's Berlin theater in 1906.
- Moved to Hollywood in 1927 after signing a contract with Paramount.
- Winner of the first Academy Award for Best Actor, in 1929.
- Appeared in Nazi propaganda films after his Hollywood career stalled.