What A Character: S.Z. Sakall

With his assortment of lovable supporting roles — befuddled yet helpful uncles and friends, slightly curmudgeonly shop owners, eccentric producers — S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall is pretty much the definition of a Hollywood character actor. His variations on a discombobulated theme, often tinged with sly wit, charmed American audiences from the early ’40s through the mid-’50s, yet he’d been acting for 30 years before he ever set foot in Hollywood.

Who the heck is Gerö Jenö? That is S.Z. Sakall’s birth name, sometimes translated from his native Hungarian as “Jacob Gerö,” which is what appeared on his U.S. citizenship paperwork. Most sources say he was born in 1883, on February 2 in Budapest. (In case you were wondering, he was a Capricorn Aquarius.) Edit: Someone rightly commented that Feb. 2 is Aquarius, it’s squarely in the sign, not sure where Capricorn came from.

By the early 1900s, Gerö Jenö was writing scripts for musical-comedy theatre in Hungary. Several sources mention that he took his stage name, S.Z. Sakall, from the Hungarian phrase “szoke szakall,” in English “blond beard,” which he apparently grew to look older. He started acting at the age of 18. In the early ’20s, he moved to Berlin and appeared in his first film in 1927.

He continued working on stage and in film in Vienna and Berlin, and briefly had a production company, until 1933, when the Nazis took over Germany. Sakall, who was Jewish, had to go back to Hungary. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis, giving the Nazis control of most of Europe.  Many — Jews and others who objected to the regime — who were able to leave, did so. Those in the film industry made their way to either London or Hollywood, and formed an essential part of American and western European moviemaking for the next two decades, exerting tremendous influence on both the style and content of films. A look at the cast and crew list for Casablanca (1942) has a fair proportion of these refugees: director Michael Curtiz; composer Max Steiner; and actors Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Sakall.


RENAULT: Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.
CARL: I have already given him the best, knowing he is German, and would take it anyway.

I can’t help but wonder how Sakall was affected by these lines and others in Casablanca. Perhaps the proximity of art to life was the reason Sakall at first refused the role of Carl the math-professor-turned-headwaiter, even though his Yankee Doodle Dandy director and fellow Hungarian Curtiz was helming, and the cast included top-name talent. Pure speculation on my part. What I do know is that all three of his sisters, his niece, and his wife’s brother and sister were murdered by the Nazis.

1948 photo from The Baltimore Sun: HAPPY HOLLYWOOD WEDLOCK — S.Z. (“Cuddles”) Sakall and his spouse Boeszike (he can pronounce it) have enjoyed nearly 30 years of wedded bliss. Boeszike comes to work with Cuddles nearly every day to help him with his lines, and bits of business, and for them love’s young dream is still way up there on rosy cloud No. 1. Cuddles, assisted by Boeszike, is soon to be seen in Warner Bros.’ “Whiplash.” / From: Warner Bros. Studio / Burbank, California

I don’t know for sure when Sakall acquired his famous nickname, Cuddles, or who gave it to him — his TCM clip cites Jack Warner as the source, but I’ve also heard that Doris Day coined it. He was first credited as “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall” in 1945’s San Antonio.* I’ve read that he wasn’t fond of his nickname, and also that his charm, basic niceness and, um, cuddly exterior made it entirely appropriate both in film and in life.
In 1954, Sakall published his wonderfully-titled memoir, The Story of Cuddles: My Life Under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolph Hitler and the Warner Brothers. The book is out of print and the one used copy I could find goes for $480.10. If anyone wants to buy me this for Christmas…I’m just saying. He passed away from heart failure in 1955.

It wouldn’t be going out on much of a limb to say Cuddles is best-known for Casablanca. So it is fitting that Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, John Qualen, the film’s producer Hal Wallis, its director Michael Curtiz, its composer Max Steiner, and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall were all laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.**

My Top Three Cuddles Roles

Ball of Fire Sakall plays one of 7 professors attempting to produce an encyclopedia. Because they’ve been cloistered in a mansion for 9 years, the group reacts strongly when showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) turns up. As kindly physiology professor Magenbruch, he delivers many of his lines with a touch of mischief…his area of academic study is sex.

Christmas in Connecticut Sakall reunited with Stanwyck for this screwball comedy about a homemaking columnist who isn’t married and doesn’t have any kids. Cuddles plays her good friend, a chef named Felix, who is soon promoted to uncle. In my opinion, this is the quintessential Cuddles role, featuring all the befuddlement and exasperation for which he is known, together with the classic phrase, “It’ll be hunky-dunky,” Cuddle-ese for “hunky-dory.”

Casablanca As mentioned above, Sakall was unwilling to appear in this film. He tried to get Warner Brothers to pay him four weeks’ work, but the studio would only agree to three. His name was misspelled in the credits. But the character is essential to the story and serves as a sympathetic counterpoint to Humphrey Bogart’s brusque Rick.

*San Antonio starred Errol Flynn as a cowboy fighting cattle rustlers and Alexis Smith as the singer who falls in love with him. Sakall plays the singer’s manager, who repeatedly refers to riderless horses as “empty horses.” This phrase was most likely borrowed from, and a dig at, Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, with whom Flynn and David Niven notoriously clashed while filming Charge of the Light Brigade. (Niven called his second autobiography Bring on the Empty Horses.) There is at least one other connection to Casablanca: Dan Seymour, who played the bouncer Abdul, appears uncredited in San Antonio. The entire film is available on YouTube.

** Sakall’s nearest famous neighbors at Forest Lawn are the Ruggles brothers. Actor Charlie is in the same row; director Wesley is in the next row, across from Charlie.

50 responses to “What A Character: S.Z. Sakall

    • Thanks Margaret. I will watch anything he’s in of course, these are just the ones I keep going back to. Thank you for stopping by!

  1. That was a fun post! Despite seeing S.Z. Sakall in many movies, I’ve never read much about him before. Poor thing getting saddled with Cuddles!

  2. Paula~ How can you NOT love Cuddles??! What a fantastic character actor who was in some amazing films. It’s hard not to think of Casablanca and Ball of Fire immediately when you think of SZ Sakall. I heard he was a refugee who fled from the Nazis but had no clue how many members of his close family had been murdered by them. How beyond-comprehension tragic. What a brilliant post, Paula!

  3. Great post, Paula. Who doesn’t love Sakall? Life the previous poster, I love him in “Ball of Fire.” I also love him in “Christmas in Connecticut” again with Stanwyck (another favorite of mine). I think making” Casablanca” was tough going for many of the displaced European actors. I read that when they sang “La Marseillaise” they didn’t have to tell anyone to cry on cue. It came naturally.

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  5. I watched In The Good Old Summertime just last night – I love Sakall opposite Judy Garland and, later, Doris Day in Tea For Two and Lullaby of Broadway. There’s a wonderful warmth about him that translates onto film, and he knew how to deliver a look that bypassed the rest of the cast and went straight to the audience.

  6. Hi, Paula and company:

    Excellent choice and write up!

    I think Mr. Jeno had the coolest job on Earth for his time in front of the camera. To be given money for being himself!
    Impeccable comedic timing and delivery. The orator of so many memorably funny lines.
    Still think his best work is evenly divided between ‘Ball of Fire’ and ‘Casablanca’.
    His work with Claude Rains and response to the soon to leave refugee couple’s “What watch? Such Much” riff are priceless!

    • I know, we should all be so lucky in our work. I’ve probably seen the “What watch?” bit 10 times but it gets me every time. Thanks so much Jack :)

  7. What a terrific post for a favorite character actor, Paula… thank you very much! I’d heard some some of the story of SZ Sakall so knew about his sisters but not about the rare and out-of-print autobiography.
    I couldn’t choose a favorite, role – maybe Christmas in Connecticut – but the little bit of dancing by “Adolph Hubbell” in Lullaby of Broadway is so charming.

    Annie

    • Well it was difficult, and that’s true, Hubbell is a charming guy :) I’d love to get a hold of the autobiography. Thanks Annie!

  8. Nice profile on “Cuddles”. He like other comedians experienced tragedy, but did not let it overwhelm him.

  9. Who doesn’t love this actor and you do him great honor. Just LOVE. Oh, sorry. Lost control. Those looks, aside from his delivery in anything I ever saw him in. Just wonderful.

    Thanks for choosing Cuddles and sharing him with us.

    Aurora

  10. Loved him in Christmas in Connecticut. And now that I know his personal history, his part in Casablanca will have even greater resonance. Thank you so much for sharing his very important story.

    • You’re welcome and thank you for your comment. I can’t imagine that Casablanca didn’t affect him and, as Steve said above, the other exiles. I will watch the film a little differently now.

  11. Wow – I didn’t realize he had lost so many family members in WWII. How sad…

    I like your top three picks – I think those are my faves too, especially “Christmas in Connecticut.”

  12. Very nice write-up. I love him in pretty much everything he’s in. Always playing the slightly bumbling but loving sidekick. He was great in Yankee Doodle Dandy as the producer that is ‘duped’ into producing a hit play.

    • Yes, I like him in that too. Probably Cuddles’ most demanding character…”before I put 10 grand into a show, we must have songs, dances, and a lot of women, women, women!” ;) Thanks Joel!

  13. Great post, Paula! I couldn’t recognize him by name, but the Casablanca image made me remember him. He was for sure creative about naming his autobiography! And good to know that San Antonio is on Youtube. I’ll watch it in my free time.
    Kisses!

  14. Paula, this blogathon has brought so many remarkable actors to the forefront. I’ve learned so much. I didn’t know about what Sakall had endured during the war and how he then goes on to do Casablanca.

    The newspaper article also demonstrated a lovely marriage. That was sweet to see. I always love to catch his scene in Casablanca with the couple trying to figure out the time. “What watch?” they ask and after listening to their a bit of dialogue, he quietly quips how they’ll get along fine in America. Funny!

    Really nice post and thanks again for the blogathon!!

  15. This is a great post- Another one I recognize but knew nothing about. Sad that it sounds like they gave him a hard way to go on Casablanca, but hopefully working with Bogie and Lorre was a good consolation prize :)

    • Happy to put a name to a face. I think once filming started, it went well…by that I mean, I didn’t find any info to the contrary. Thanks Kari!

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  17. S. Z. Sakall was an Aquarius (February 2nd) according to Western Astrology. His book is as delightful as he was onscreen. I had several laugh-out-loud moments, but the section with the four non-musicians and the banker was a true riot. In the book, he said his real name was Eugene Gero, even though American paperwork lists him other ways, especially as Jeno Gero and Jacob Gero, and my favorite Szoke Szakall (blond beard), which became his legal name in the USA.

    He did great work. Even my kids loved him. I fell for him when I was a kid watching his movies on TV, especially Casablanca, Christmas in Connecticut, Lullaby of Broadway, Ball of Fire, and so many more, plus he starred with so many of my favorite movie stars.

    He tragically lost several close family members in the Nazi concentration camps, yet he was able to carry on and keep us entertained (until this day, thanks to the magic of DVDs). Thank you for the lovely tribute to our dear “Cuddles”.

    I’m blessed. I own a copy of his book (a real treasure) and a copy of Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

    • Wow, how cool is that…i’ve got to get a hold of that book! You’re welcome & thanks so much for all your great info. No idea why I wrote Capricorn, I know that date is Aquarius. Cuddles is one of the best, somebody I’d really liked to have known, we are fortunate in that he lives on in his movies :)

  18. Just checked my records. His many names included, his real name: Eugene GERÕ

    GERÕ was his family’s surname.

    Other variations:
    Jacob GERÕ
    Gerõ JENÕ
    S. Z. SAKALL (his American screen name)
    Szõke SZAKÁLL (his European stage name, meaning “blond beard”, which became his legal American name, including on his death records)

    His nicknames were:
    Yani (in Hungary, as a child)
    Jani (his wife’s nickname for him)
    Cuddles

    He was known as a man of many names, as alluded to in his book, but not all are noted specifically.

    Oddly, on his death record, it gives his father’s surname as GRUNWALD, even though his name was Henry GERÕ, and his mother’s maiden name is listed as FISHER. I can’t be certain about that, so don’t set it in stone. This could have been a transcription error from someone else’s record. It wouldn’t be the first time.

    After the death of S.Z.’s mother, his father married her widowed younger sister, Emma, and they had two additional children before his death. Aunt Emma raised all seven children alone: her two younger children, and her sister’s five (Emma’s nieces/nephews-stepchildren). The children loved and adored Emma. Hope this helps.

  19. Forgot to mention that his first wife, Giza GROSSNER, was the sister of his best friend Julius. She always had a weak heart and sadly, she died very young. They’d only been married about 2 years. Sadly, she only gets about 2 paragraphs in the book.

    He never learned to master English. He learned his lines phonetically. For someone who didn’t know English, his timing and delivery were perfect, in my opinion. Such a wonderfully delightful talent he was. Paul Tabori translated the autobiography into English for our benefit.

    The book is rather thin, only 231, but most enjoyable, even though he left many of my questions unanswered. But it’s what he wanted to share with us at that time, and for that, I’m grateful.

    • Wow…you’d never know he was doing all that phonetically. His timing and delivery were indeed perfect. Just wow. Thank you :)

  20. Just noticed the accent marks in his name didn’t post properly. In some records there were two dots above the O in GERO and Jeno. Other times they were written with what looks like quotation marks ” above the O. Jeno was probably one of the nicknames of Eugene, and it was somehow transposed as Gero Jeno instead of Jeno GERO (little dots or ” above the final O in both names. Yani, Jani, Jeno, and Jacob were probably all derived from Eugene, especially since he used a many different names in his lifetime. With the language barrier, it’s understandable how some reporters and quick “biographers” could have also misunderstood the name, and if one made the error, others followed suit. The book clearly gives the family surname as GERO.

  21. Cagney got annoyed at Cuddles in Yankee Doodle Dandy in the scene where Cuddle’s character is about to buy the play. He really thought Cuddles was going overboard in trying to steal the scene. But I think Curtiz handled it and there were no hard feelings. Yankee Doodle Dandy is a tremendous film but it can drag a little bit in the beginning partly because it is autobiographical. The moment Cuddles enters the film is the point where the movie really take off and the last hour plus is fast and furious.

    S.Z. was a great character actor and is sorely missed. Cuddles made some nice films with Jack Carson and Doris day. I would love a copy of that book also, :) .

  22. Ancestralghost stated that Mr. Szakall’s real name was “somehow transposed as Gero Jeno instead of Jeno GERO”. In Hungary, the surname comes before the given name (so James Cagney, if Hungarian, would be Cagney James). Also, “His nicknames were:
    Yani (in Hungary, as a child) Jani (his wife’s nickname for him)”. Yani and Jani are the same thing since “J” is pronounced as a “Y” in Hungarian.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this read! I’ve always loved Mr. Szakall. He always reminds me of my Hungarian grandmother (nagyanya), right down to the white hair, Hungarian accent and double chin! I especially love when he is in the kitchen in Christmas in CT adding paprika to what he is cooking, “Paprika, that vill fix it!”—–He’s right, paprika makes everything better!

    • Thank you for stopping by, for explaining further about Cuddles’ real name and for sharing your memories. I never knew that about the order of Hungarian names.

      I’m not Hungarian, but Cuddles is definitely like family. I guess if paprika can’t fix it…start over :)

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