S. Z. Sakall — Actor by Insult (1943) 🇺🇸

S. Z. Sakall — Actor by Insult (1943) | www.vintoz.com

June 03, 2024

Rehearsal or not, the ingénue was hamming it something terrible. So terrible that she was driving the director batty.

by John Fuller

“No! No! No!” he finally yelled, jumping up from his seat in the front row. “You are supposed to be Juliet — not Sadie Thompson!”

The ingénue put her hands on her hips and leaned over the footlights. “Supposing you show me how, Herr Direktor,” she invited, icily.

Silence for a moment.

“If only to preserve my sanity, I accept your challenge,” the voice retorted from the darkened house. A patter of feet up the stairs leading to the stage, and a pudgy, puffing, roly-poly man with apple-cheeks waddled up to the leading man in shocking-pink hose and yellow doublet, clasped his fat hands, and beseeched him:

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Faint titters from up-stage.

“Oh, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love…”

Raucous laughter and guffaws all over the theater.

The little ingénue snickered, “You’re a natural-born actor, Herr Direktor, a great comedian. As a director you are wasting your time. Why don’t you quit directing and devote your energies to acting?”

For a second the pudgy, roly-poly, apple-cheeked man just stood there glaring. But all of a sudden he broke out in a smile, then a chuckle, and finally a roar.

“My dear,” he said, very kindly. “I believe you’re right. I am wasting my time.” He turned on his heel, waddled down the stairs, picked up his cane, and marched down the center aisle and out of the theater whistling some air by Johann Strauss.

Exit a director and enter a natural-born actor, a great comedian, one Szőke Szakáll, known to Hollywood by the more pronounceable handle of S. Z. Sakall.

Surprisingly enough he was recognized as a great comedian just about on sight, so that within a year he was snagging 3,000 pengős a week and almost as many fan letters, Hungarian women being partial to pudgy, roly-poly, apple-cheeked actors. He had become quite the bulwark of the Hungarian stage when a friend of his, about to produce a musical in Vienna, came back stage and offered him the comic lead.

Sakall shook his head.

“A question of salary?” the producer wanted to know.

“Not exactly. It’s a question of language: I don’t know three words in German.”

“That shouldn’t stop you,” the producer insisted. “You could learn the role by ear.”

“And not know what I’m saying?” Sakall protested.

“You’d be funny merely reciting the multiplication table in Portuguese,” his friend assured him.

So he went to Vienna, played the part, and was showered with “Bravo’s” by the critics who spoke of his “flare for inflection.” A scout for a German movie company lost no time in signing him up. In time, he learned the language, and became one of the top-ranking comedians in Europe. When Joe Pasternak came to Vienna, he took an immediate fancy to him, and invited him to come to America and make pictures for Universal.

“I don’t know three words in English,” Sakall protested, in good old Hungarian which Pasternak understands.

“That shouldn’t stop you,” Pasternak insisted. “You could learn your part by ear.”

Which is precisely how he learned his first American role, that of the confused producer in the Durbin [Deanna Durbin] picture, “It’s a Date.”

The S. Z. Sakall whom you will see doing his old stand-by, a humorous waiter, in “Casablanca,” is not the same S. Z. Sakall who came to these shores in 1939 and took an awful beating mastering his medium, Hollywood style. For three pictures he didn’t know what he was saying, but he learned fast. Directors nowadays find only one fault with him: his heretofore thick accent is wearing thin. Actually, he speaks English without any accent. For the screen he assumes one, typecasting being what it is in Hollywood.

Not that he minds typecasting. Perish the thought that he hankers to play New England farmers, or British lords or deep-South cavaliers. Just so long as people find him funny and laugh at his perpetual consternation and eternal bewilderment, he will find life not only profitable, but exciting.

A player who forgets scripts and studios the minute he gets home, he spends his leisure painting. A musician, he plays the drum and the trumpet. A sporting gentleman, he cuts a svelte figure-8 on ice.

He has one unrequited ambition: he’d like to meet that little ingénue who suggested he devote his time to acting, instead of directing. So he could give the lady her comeuppance? No, not S. Z. Sakall. His heart is filled with gratitude toward her.

“After all, I have her to thank for my career — she started me on it,” he added.

Collection: Hollywood Magazine, February 1943