Sydney Greenstreet

Active - 1941 - 1949  |   Born - Dec 27, 1879 in Sandwich, Kent, England  |   Died - Jan 18, 1954   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Mystery, Thriller, War

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

Sydney Greenstreet ranked among Hollywood's consummate character actors, a classic rogue whose villainous turns in motion pictures like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon remain among the most memorable and enigmatic depictions of evil ever captured on film. Born December 27, 1879, in Sandwich, England, Greenstreet's initial ambition was to make his fortune as a tea planter, and toward that aim he moved to Sri Lanka at the age of 18. A drought left him penniless, however, and he soon returned to England, where he worked a variety of odd jobs while studying acting in the evening under Ben Greet. In 1902, he made his theatrical debut portraying a murderer in Sherlock Holmes, and two years later he traveled with Greet to the United States. After making his Broadway debut in Everyman, Greenstreet's American residency continued for the rest of his life.

Greenstreet remained exclusively a theatrical performer for over three decades. He shifted easily from musical comedy to Shakespeare, and in 1933 he joined the Lunts in Idiot's Delight, performing with their Theatre Guild for the duration of the decade. While appearing in Los Angeles in a touring production of There Shall Be No Night in 1940, Greenstreet met John Huston, who requested he play the ruthless Guttman in his 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. A heavy, imposing man, Greenstreet was perfectly cast as the massive yet strangely effete Guttman, a dignified dandy who was in truth the very essence of malevolence. Making his film debut at the age of 62, he appeared alongside the two actors with whom he would be forever connected, star Humphrey Bogart and fellow character actor Peter Lorre.

The acclaim afforded Greenstreet for The Maltese Falcon earned him a long-term contract with Warner Bros., where, after appearing in They Died With Their Boots On, he again played opposite Bogart in 1942's Across the Pacific. In 1942, he appeared briefly in Casablanca, another reunion with Bogart as well as Lorre. When Greenstreet and Lorre again reteamed in 1943's Background in Danger, their fate was sealed, and they appeared together numerous other times including 1944's Passage to Marseilles (again with Bogart), The Mask of Dimitrios, The Conspirators, and Hollywood Canteen, in which they portrayed themselves. Yearning to play comedy, Greenstreet got his wish in 1945's Pillow to Post, which cast him alongside Ida Lupino. He also appeared opposite Bogart again in the drama Conflict and with Barbara Stanwyck in Christmas in Connecticut. In 1952, he announced his retirement, and died two years later on January 18, 1954.

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  • Left home at age 18 to make his fortune as a tea planter in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but didn't succeed, and returned to England several years later.
  • Made British stage debut (as a murderer) in a 1902 Sherlock Holmes mystery.
  • Moved to New York several years later and performed steadily in the theater for more than three decades, beginning in 1905. 
  • Made film debut in 1941's The Maltese Falcon—the first of nine collaborations with fellow character actor Peter Lorre (and five with Humphrey Bogart). Falcon also earned Greenstreet his only Oscar nomination.
  • Provided the voice of detective Nero Wolfe for two years on radio after retiring from films in 1949.