Born George Henry Sanders to British parents living in St. Petersburg, Russia on July 3rd, 1906, he was the younger brother to Thomas Charles Sanders, born nearly two years prior. A sister, Margaret, came along in 1912. When The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, the family fled back to England where young George was soon enrolled in a boys' school. Upon graduation from technical college, he lived in South America before returning to work at an English advertising agency where his animated personality caught the attention of a secretary who suggested he try his hand at acting. (This secretary, by the way, was none other than Greer Garson!)
Sanders, whose singing voice also brought him attention, began to get his feet wet with bit parts in the British film industry. He would be nearing thirty, however, before anything clicked enough for him to pursue acting as a full time means of employment. He crossed the ocean to America and appeared on Broadway in the 1934 musical Conversation Piece, but was soon back home where he continued to take part in films there. He had a small role in the film The Man Who Could Work Miracles as an angel, a rare example of him appearing shirtless (that's him on the left) as he was soon to develop a career as an elegant, often significantly overdressed villain.
When Darryl F. Zanuck was making 1936's Lloyd's of London and needed a refined, but dastardly, antagonist to play opposite Tyrone Power, Sanders won the role along with a contract at 20th Century Fox . In Lloyd's, he played the uppity, sneering husband, a Lord, of Madeleine Carroll, who stands in the way of her blossoming interest in Power. The very next picture, Love is News, had him as a Count, this time the husband of Loretta Young, who again is the man preventing Power from obtaining the woman he wants. The entitled cad persona was already taking shape. Sanders found himself working consistently in a variety of films after this.
In Slave Ship, he played a character named “Lefty” (can you imagine?!) in support of Warner Baxter and Wallace Beery. Then he was placed with Gloria Stuart in The Lady Escapes, in which he was cast in the urbane sort of role he'd eventually become most famous for. Still in 1937, Lancer Spy had him masquerading as a severe Prussian officer and had him displaying one of his most unusual hair and makeup schemes.After working on a couple of films with Dolores Del Rio and costarring with Loretta Young and David Niven in Four Men and a Prayer, Sanders began what would turn into a five-film stint as The Saint, a spy named Simon Templar who proved very popular with audiences. Based on a successful series of novels, it was not the only series he took part in. He also portrayed Gay Lawrence, better known as The Falcon, in four films. Tiring of the part, he handed the series over to the next actor in a remarkable way. The movie The Falcon's Brother introduced Lawrence's brother, who would now become The Falcon, but the part was played by Sanders' own real-life brother Tom! Now known as Tom Conway, in order to avoid confusion in their names, he had been a fledgling actor himself in Hollywood since 1940. He went on to play The Falcon for several years.
During his work in the spy films, he continued to appear in other movies of varying importance. 1939 brought now-forgotten titles like So This is London and Nurse Edith Cavell, but also Allegheny Uprising, which placed him with Claire Trevor and John Wayne. In 1940, he was top-billed in The House of the Seven Gables with Vincent Price. This was followed by the wondrous Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca, in which Sanders played a shady cad who had been enmeshed in some sort of involvement with the title character prior to her death. He rounded out the terrific cast of Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce and Gladys Cooper. He also was the cast member on screen when Hitchcock made his obligatory cameo appearance (see pic at left.)
In 1940, Hitch cast him again, this time in the espionage film Foreign Correspondent. Here, he was amongst the actors (Joel McCrea, Laraine Day and Sanders' close friend Herbert Marshall included) who took part in the innovative sequence that had a passenger airliner crashing into the ocean. It's an exciting and unusual piece of action for its time. Also in 1940, Sanders married for the first time to a Susan Larson. The union would last until 1949.
Already, Sanders was working with a wide variety of actors, from Nelson Eddy & Jeannette MacDonald (in Bitter Sweet) to Robert Montgomery & Ingrid Bergman (in Rage in Heaven.) His career would be one that afforded him the opportunity to act with close to every name brand star of the '40s and '50s (and then some) in every conceivable genre. An association with Walter Wanger productions led to his appearance in a few Joan Bennett films in the early '40s as well. He even worked with the legendarily troubled Frances Farmer in 1942's Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (one of four films he did with Tyrone Power.) This one offered another very rare shot of (a husky) Sanders shirtless as his evil character was a boxing enthusiast.
The Moon and Sixpence had him playing a selfish, tormented painter based on Paul Gauguin with Herbert Marshall as a veiled version of Somerset Maugham. Marcus Welby, M.D. fans will be interested to spot his faithful, inquisitive and rather pudgy receptionist Elena Verdugo as Sanders' long-haired, curvy, south sea love interest here.
Earlier, I noted the severe hair and makeup that Sanders sported in Lancer Spy. Truly, his most outrageous role in that category, however, came when he made the swashbuckler The Black Swan, his last film with Power. As pirate Captain Billy Leech, he had thick, unruly red hair and a bushy beard and eyebrows to match.This being WWII (or the verge of it, where America was concerned) Sanders was kept busy in films with titles like They Came to Blow Up America, Appointment in Berlin, Paris After Dark and Action in Arabia. In 1944, he made The Lodger, playing the inspector who looks into the case of Jack the Ripper who may be the imposing Laird Cregar who is living in the same building as actress Merle Oberon. That same year, he costarred with the lovely Linda Darnell in Summer Storm, shown here. The story was based on a work by Anton Chekhov and gave Sanders a chance to show off his flair for Russian, picked up during his early years there.
1945 brought Hangover Square, a dark drama that teamed him with Cregar and Darnell, separate costars from his previous two films. The bleak tale was allegedly part of the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd. (It was also Cregar's last film as he died from the excessive dieting he'd undergone in order to land his role!) Next, Sanders affected a striking salt and pepper, goateed look for The Picture of Dorian Gray. He played a society snob and a very bad influence on the title character, portrayed by Hurd Hatfield. The cast included Angela Lansbury and, as shown here, Peter Lawford, Donna Reed and Donna Reed's hair.Sanders, either top or second-billed, played the leading man opposite such ladies as Ella Raines, Signe Hasso, Hedy Lamarr and Angela Lansbury as the '40s continued. In 1947, he was cast in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, a significant hit. That same year, he starred in Lured, opposite Miss Lucille Ball. The movie, about a serial killer who sends cryptic poems to his intended victims, was directed by the great Douglas Sirk and was the fourth of five films Sanders appeared in of his. (But who knew that Ball ever appeared in a Sirk film?!) The studio, fearing that Lured sounded too much like “Lurid” changed the name to Personal Column, which, understandably, did nothing to aid the film in finding its audience.
Even more controversial was Sanders' next movie, Forever Amber. It re-teamed him with (now blonde-wigged) Linda Darnell in the story of a girl who sleeps her way from poverty to near royalty, though obviously cleaned up considerably for the then-closely-governed cinema. Sanders played King Charles II, one of her conquests.
In 1949, Sanders married for a second time to a Hungarian-born socialite (divorced from hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton) who was mostly known for just being exquisitely glamorous and fun, a certain Miss Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor fell hard for the debonair Sanders and they were very happy for a time. Within a few years of their marriage, though, she began to make a name for herself on local television programs and eventually embarked on an acting career of her own. This was a source of friction for the couple as her notoriety and newfound employment began to make demands on her time and caused her to garner more attention than him.
After appearing in the epic Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr (and frequent costar Angela Lansbury), Sanders landed the role for which he would be most famous (and most acclaimed.) The Joseph Mankiewicz masterpiece All About Eve told the backstage story of an aging actress (Bette Davis) who is taken in by a scheming sycophant (Anne Baxter) as a rondolet of onlookers comments on or takes part in the action. The strong cast also included Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Celeste Holm and relative newcomer Marilyn Monroe, who gave Sanders the opportunity to try out some deliciously sarcastic lines. (According to Gabor, Monroe once appeared at Sanders' dressing room door clad in a fur coat and nothing else, leading to a sexual encounter which he proceeded to tell Gabor about in detail!) As acidic drama critic Addison DeWitt, Sanders more than held his own against fire-breathing Davis and the other dramatic performers around him and he was granted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (Interestingly, he did not win the Golden Globe that year. The trophy went to Edmund Gwenn in Mister 880.)
There was no sudden wave of leading roles for Sanders in the wake of his Oscar as has been the case many times for other Best Supporting Actors. In fact, he continued to make fewer leading appearances and concentrated more on playing the third corner of love triangles or the villain of various pieces. He costarred with Susan Hayward and Dan Dailey in I Can Get it for You Wholesale and with Stewart Granger and Pier Angeli in the Italian-made The Light Touch before heading off to England where he fought Robert Taylor for the hand of Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe (and she was quite a lovely prize as one can see here.)
In 1953. he worked with Miss Ethel Merman in the screen adaptation of her hit musical Call Me Madam. He did his own singing in a few numbers, something he is less known for, but which he took pride in. This was followed by Witness to Murder, all about Barbara Stanwyck being trailed by a slick killer. You get one guess as to who played the suave murderer! All About Eve's Gary Merrill also starred. By now, George and Zsa Zsa's marriage had fallen apart (mostly thanks to her involvement with Porfirio Rubiriosa) and they divorced, though they would forever remain on amiable terms, even working together on TV and in a movie afterwards!Journey to Italy, in 1954, reunited him with Ingrid Bergman. This Roberto Rossellini film was made during Bergman's ostracism from the U.S. following her affair and pregnancy with Rossellini. Miss Bergman was 5'9-1/2” and as a result had to be carefully matched with her leading men (she can often be seen in flat or low-heeled shoes in her movies), but there were no worries with Sanders, who stood 6'3-1/2.” They look quite tall together here! He was miserable throughout the filming due to Rossellini's languid style of working.
Rare is the man who can say he worked with Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor, Ethel Merman AND Esther Williams, but Sanders did! In the Roman warfare/aquatic adventure conglomeration Jupiter's Darling, Sanders played the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus, the man who is supposed to be wed to Williams before the handsome and daring Hannibal (played by Howard Keel) comes barrelling in with his army of elephants. Sanders recorded and filmed a song for the musical, but it was cut out before general release. Next came a triad of period films starting with Moonfleet with Stewart Granger, then The Scarlet Coat with Cornel Wilde and Michael Wilding, followed by The King's Thief. Here, he played King Charles II again (as he had in Forever Amber) opposite Edmund Purdom, Ann Blyth and David Niven. Dig the gaggle of little dogs he has surrounding him in this shot to the right!
After some less-glamorous films such as Never Say Goodbye (with Rock Hudson), While the City Sleeps (with Dana Andrews and Rhonda Fleming) and That Certain Feeling (a departure for him in that this was a Bob Hope comedy with Eva Marie Saint also on board), he reverted to tuxedoed splendor for Death of a Scoundrel. This film was a semi-family affair due to the fact that his ex-wife Zsa Zsa was one of the featured females (another being Yvonne De Carlo) and his brother Tom Conway was cast for the second (and last) time as his character's brother. In time, Conway's alcoholism would lead to an estrangement between the men and ultimately lead to Conway's death from cirrhosis in 1967.
Sanders hosted a television program in 1957 called The George Sanders Mystery Theater, but he only appeared in one (or two, depending on the source) of the episodes. He typically introduced them only. That same year, he took part in the small-scale MGM remake of Garbo's The Painted Veil, this time called The Seventh Sin. He played a heavy-drinking expatriate living in Hong Kong, who befriends Eleanor Parker, there with her estranged doctor husband Bill Travers. As was often the case, he gave one of the film's more interesting performances (if not the most interesting.)
Sanders got to work with Sophia Loren in 1959's That Kind of Woman. The film had him playing a millionaire who basically buys her for himself, with Keenan Wynn and her friend Barbara Nichols accompanying her on a train, though she quickly falls for soldier Tab Hunter (and no, I am not making up this cast!) He was supposed to reunite with Tyrone Power on his next film, Solomon and Sheba, but Power died during the filming, replaced with Yul Brynner. You can see George's height again coming into play here as he dwarfs the 5'10” Brynner. Sheba was played by curvaceous Gina Lollobrigida, giving Sanders the opportunity to work with both major Italian bombshells in one year.
Sanders married for the third time in 1959 to Benita Hume, the actress widow of Ronald Colman, who had died the year before. Far from slowing down, though, he had four films released in 1960. The Last Voyage cast him as Captain of a luxury liner that suffers an explosion and begins sinking (all the while with Dorothy Malone trapped under some fallen wreckage as Robert Stack tries in desperation to free her before she drowns.) Sanders seemed to walk through his part. He was accused of doing it even more so in Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons, playing a much married man killing off his wives one after the other.
Somehow, he found time to write a book during all this called Memoirs of a Professional Cad that was praised for its witty prose. (He had been credited with two books in the 1940s during his Saint/Falcon days, but both were ghost-written with his name attached for publicity and sales' sake.)
He had a supporting part in Trouble in the Sky, about the investigation into a pair of airline crashes, that starred Michael Craig. His most enduring film from this period was the now-cult horror flick Village of the Damned, in which he and his wife Barbara Shelley are aghast to discover that their blonde, albino-like son, is one of several children born at the same time who wreak havoc on the community. This was actually a film intended for Ronald Coleman, but Sanders took over the part when he died.
Sanders, who never had many illusions about acting, claiming the biggest goal of his life was to retire, began appearing in some lackluster movies. Operation Snatch, was not quite as dirty as it may sound, actually having to do with the obtaining of a gorilla in order to keep the apes of Gibraltar in good stead. Similarly, The Cracksman had to do with a locksmith coerced into helping a burglar and The Golden Head was about thieves who took a bust of Saint Laszlo. (These could almost be mistaken for porn titles!)
The Disney adventure classic In Search of The Castaways and Blake Edwards' very amusing comedy A Shot in the Dark (officially a sequel to The Pink Panther, but actually shot first!) were better-known works from this time frame. He also appeared with Kim Novak in 1965's The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders.
The hit, camp TV series Batman came calling in 1966 and he played Mr. Freeze, a role later undertaken by Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach. Sanders' ex Zsa Zsa Gabor also essayed a villainous role on the series with a character called Minerva.
After filming the spy movie The Quiller Memorandum with George Segal and Senta Berger, Sanders played four roles in the far-out comedy Good Times, which starred Sonny & Cher!! I'm telling you, this man worked with almost everyone. This was followed by the animated Disney film The Jungle Book, which made good use of Sanders' inimitable voice as he played the fierce Shere Kahn the Tiger. Another of his notable projects was taking on the old Clifton Webb role in a TV rendition of Laura, this time with Robert Stack, Farley Granger, Miss Arlene Francis and, in the title role, a stiff Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy's sister) in her screen acting debut and simultaneous swan song.
Sanders soon relocated to Majorca, Spain, where he had long owned a beautiful home. Several low-budget productions followed, surely done solely for the money, though he was enlisted as part of the cast of John Huston's spy drama The Kremlin Letter. Fans got quite a shock when Sanders, who must have felt by this time that he'd done virtually everything else, appeared in his first scene in full-on drag. (And it's a wonder Hermione Gingold didn't sue!) He was shown playing piano in a San Francisco gay bar, then recruited to use his gay sensibilities to get cozy with a Soviet suspect as part of the mission at hand. His character knitted and was shown admiring the bare behind of a male statue. This was quite a departure for the legendary ladies man.
His wife Hume had died of bone cancer the year before (something he used as an excuse to depart from the impending Broadway musical Sherry! with Miss Dolores Gray and based on The Man Who Came to Dinner, though in truth he was feeling insecure about doing it in the first place.) He began to display a loss of balance and a general sense of complete boredom with his work and in his life. He was quoted as having said, “Acting is like roller-skating. Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting.” In a bizarre move (and primarily because Zsa Zsa wouldn't remarry him), he proposed to Zsa Zsa's sister Magda Gabor and she accepted! The spur of the moment marriage lasted a mere six weeks, but it put him in the trivia books for having married two out of the three Gabor sisters.
He costarred in the Agatha Christie mystery Endless Night in 1972 with Hayley Mills and Britt Ekland, still as nattily dressed and aristocratic as ever, but perhaps should have made this his last appearance. At age sixty-five (young by today's standards!), with his health having faltered, a stroke having affected his movement and speech (and work), he grew depressed. He couldn't stand the thought of becoming infirm, nor of being reliant upon someone for help. Unable to properly play his beloved grand piano, he pushed it out of the house and promptly took an axe to it. He then, under the advisement of his current (and much younger) girlfriend, sold his Spanish house and began to aimlessly stay here and there.
On April 23rd, 1972, he checked into a hotel in a coastal town not far from Barcelona, Spain where he swallowed five bottles of Nembutal. He was discovered two days later with a note that said, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” The screen's ultimate cynic had left behind an appropriately cynical farewell. He had been talking about committing suicide in his sixties ever since he was a young man! The man whose stated goal was to retire, actually worked up until practically the very end. (He didn't even stick around until December when The Poseidon Adventure was released. It might have changed his mind!)
Despite getting a late start in the movies (his debut in a Hollywood film came when he was thirty), he appeared in 115 of them! (His final one, Psychomania – ironically about suicidal, devil-worshipping motorcyclists – came out in 1973.) George Sanders lent his distinctive voice and uniquely-profiled visage to so many great cinematic offerings over the years and his brand of haughty, aristocratic, confident, blasé performance is practically a thing of the past. He has, however, been an inspiration to me and I've enjoyed trying to “Sandersize” my own roles whenever appropriate.