Just like everybody goes to Rick’s, everybody knows Leonid Kinskey, whether they know his name or not. Kinskey portrays Sascha, the voluble Russian bartender, in that classic of all classics, Casablanca (1943). We meet him quite early on, when Yvonne, Rick’s latest ex-girlfriend, has had a little too much to drink and needs to be escorted home. But as I learned, there’s more to Kinskey than Sascha. Not that I won’t bask in the glory that is Casablanca first…
Rick: Go with her, Sascha, and make sure she gets home.
Sascha: Yes, boss.
Rick: And come right back.
Sasha [less enthusiastically]: ….Yes, boss.
Later when Rick fixes a roulette game so that the young Bulgarian* couple can win the money to buy an exit visa, Sascha approves a little too enthusiastically for Rick’s taste.
*Yes, they are Bulgarian. The wife says so in the clip, and Rick tells her to go back to Bulgaria.
Given his effusiveness as Sascha and the variety of nationalities in his roles — French, Argentinian, Cuban, and German, among others — I was a little surprised to learn that Kinskey actually was born in St. Petersburg, on April 18, 1903. According to his obit in the U.K.’s Independent, Kinskey left Russia at age 17 and began his show-biz career touring South America as a mime with the Firebird Company. He appeared in a silent film, The Great Deception (1926), “but most of his part was cut.” Eventually, he appeared uncredited in his first talkie, Trouble in Paradise (1932), as a Communist. This clip won’t embed, ya gotta click the link.
Paradise kicked off Kinskey’s career for real, and he racked up more than 120 acting credits. In his film roles, he played “foreigners” like the agitator in Duck Soup (1933), or Tito in Down Argentine Way (1940), plus the occasional baddie, as in Algiers (1938). But there’s more to him than Continental smoothies and excitable revolutionaries…Kinskey played a few other interesting roles in real life as well.
The vow-renewal pioneer Nowadays, lots of people renew their wedding vows, usually for milestone anniversaries. But from 1943 to 1963, Leonid and his second wife, Iphigenie Castiglioni, got “re-married” in a different country every five years; their pairing ended only with her death in 1963. (Castiglioni was an Austrian actress who played the “bird woman” in Rear Window.) His first wife, Josephine Tankus, had passed away in 1939; they’d been married since 1930. He married Tina York in 1983 — yep, he was 80 years old at the time — a union which endured until his death in 1998.
The TV trailblazer The actor reportedly starred in TV’s first ever sit-com, “The Spotlight Club,” (aka “The Spot Lite Club,” depending on the source) on KTLA in 1948. He also turned down a regular role on “Hogan’s Heroes” after appearing in the pilot, saying, “The premise was to me both false and offensive. Nazis were seldom dumb and never funny.” He played a lot of roles in TV but never accepted commercials.
The film curator and director Again per the Independent, he worked with the U.S. government and the Soviets during World War II, selecting Hollywood movies for exhibition in the USSR. When his movie roles slowed down in the late ’50s, he started directing corporate industrial films. “To dramatize a machine or product requires a great deal more ingenuity to keep it going than a well-written scene played by able actors.”
Of course it is as Sascha that Kinskey is best remembered. He only got the role, he said, because the originally-cast Leon Mostovoy was fired for not being funny enough, and Kinskey was a drinking buddy of Humphrey Bogart’s. Which was a lucky thing for all concerned. It’s difficult to imagine Casablanca with any other “crazy Russian” bringing the laughs.
This post is part of the Fifth Annual What A Character! Blogathon. Check out all the other Day 2 posts here.