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 I got Capricorn 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.