Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Most fans of classic movies have seen S.Z. Sakall's chubby face, but many will not know the name. He starred in countless movies in a ton of endearing roles. Szőke Szakáll, known as S.Z. Sakall, was a Hungarian-Jewish film character actor born on February 2, 1883. He was in many films including In the Good Old Summertime, Lullaby of Broadway, Christmas in Connecticut and Casablanca in which he played Carl, the head waiter.

Chubby-jowled Sakall played numerous supporting roles in Hollywood musicals and comedies in the 1940s and 1950s. His rotund cuteness earned Sakall the nickname "Cuddles," and he was often billed as S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall in his later films, though he was never happy with the name. He was famous for using the phrase "everything is hunky dunky."

Szőke Szakáll was born Gerő Jenő, but even during his schooldays he was writing sketches for Budapest vaudeville shows under the pen-name Szőke Szakáll ("blonde beard", in reference to his own beard, grown to make him look older), which he retained when at the age of 18 he turned to acting.

The actor became a star of the Hungarian stage and screen in the 1910s and 1920s. At the beginning of the 1920s, he moved to Vienna, where he appeared in Hermann Leopoldi's Kabarett Leopoldi-Wiesenthal. In the 1930s, he was, next to Hans Moser, the most significant representative of the Wiener Film, the Viennese light romantic comedy genre. He also appeared in Berlin.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Sakall was forced to return to Hungary. He was involved in over 40 movies in his native land. When Hungary joined the Axis in 1940, he headed for Hollywood with his wife. Many of Sakall's close relatives later died in Nazi concentration camps, including all three of his sisters and his niece, as well as his wife's brother and sister.

At the age of 59, he portrayed his most famous character, Carl the head waiter in Casablanca. Producer Hal Wallis signed Sakall for the role three weeks after filming had begun. When he was first offered the part, Sakall hated it and turned it down. Sakall finally agreed to take the role provided they gave him four weeks of work. The two sides eventually agreed on three weeks. He received $1,750 per week for a total of $5,250. He actually had more screen time than either Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet.

Sakall appeared in 30 more movies after this, including 1945's Christmas in Connecticut with Barbara Stanwyck. Sakall appeared in four films in 1948: the drama Embraceable You, followed by April Showers, Michael Curtiz's Romance on the High Seas (Doris Day's film debut), and Whiplash.

1949 was a big year for Sakall. He was in four top movies. First Sakall played Felix Hofer in the Doris Day's second film, My Dream Is Yours. Later that year, he starred with June Haver and Ray Bolger in Look for the Silver Lining. Next, he played Otto Oberkugen in In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. Finally, Sakall was given the principal role of songwriter Fred Fisher in Oh, You Beautiful Doll, though top billing went to June Haver.

Sakall appeared in nine more movies during the 1950s, two of them musicals with Doris Day, playing J. Maxwell Bloomhaus in Tea for Two and Adolph Hubbell in Lullaby of Broadway. His other roles included: Poppa Schultz in the Errol Flynn western Montana; Miklos Teretzky in the June Haver musical The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady; Don Miguel in the Randolph Scott western Sugarfoot; Uncle Felix in the musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine with Virginia Mayo; in one of the episodes in the movie It's A Big Country which featured such famous names as Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Gary Cooper, Janet Leigh, Fredric March and Ethel Barrymore.

His last movie was in 1954 where he had the role of Joseph Ruder in The Student Prince. Sakall died of a heart attack in Hollywood shortly after filming the The Student Prince on February 12, 1955, ten days after his 72nd birthday...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for a thorough and interesting piece on the unforgettable S.Z. Sakall. Though he was one among many superlative supporting actors in "Casablanca" (Raines, Greenstreet, Lorre, Veidt), his character added such color - and warmth.
    I've enjoyed S.Z. Sakall in all the films of his that I've seen, but "Casablanca" ensured his 'film immortality.'