One hundred and eleven years ago this week Paul Henreid was born. We know him mostly from his movie roles as the suave sophisticate who romanced Hollywood’s most beautiful and powerful women. But his life was not at all smooth as he was forced to face difficulties and overcome obstacles over and over again, forced to forge a new career several times throughout his life. His story is fascinating, one of remarkable courage and his daughter, Monika, is telling it in Paul Henreid Beyond Victor Laszlo, a documentary she has written, produced, and directed. Watch the promotional video here.
I am honoring Paul Henreid this year with this special interview with Monika. You’ll have to watch Paul Henreid Beyond Victor Laszlo to get a sense of the man who was Paul Henreid, but I think this might whet your appetite. I want to thank Monika sincerely for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s a special treat indeed and I am thrilled.
A: I watched the promos for Paul Henreid Beyond Victor Laszlo and was particularly taken with the one you narrate. I could hear the passion in your voice and how important this project is to you. Can you talk a bit about that?
M: My father is one of a few actors from the Classic Age who does not have a documentary about his life. The Biography Channel didn’t even give him a half hour. If you look him up (IMDB, Wikipedia, etc), you only get part of the story and a lot of the ‘legend’. I just want to tell the whole story accurately.
A: What surprised you most about your father as you researched his life and career for the documentary?
M: The number of disappointments and challenges were absolutely amazing. Although he was often in the right place at the right time, he was equally often in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A: As fans we’d never know what Paul Henreid had been through by his on-screen persona. Although he portrayed a variety of roles in many genres of film, I think it’s safe to say he is best remembered for the romantic, sophisticated leading man. By the time he became a movie actor, however, he’d resurrected his career, his life, several times. Where do you think that his perseverance and grit came from?
M: His first experience with total life change and resurrection came at the tender age of nine when his father died. He never forgot.
A: Your father’s career survived three blacklistings – in his native Austria, in Great Britain and again during the McCarthy era. How was he able to bounce back with what seems like renewed energy at every difficult turn?
M: By the mid 1930’s when he was first blacklisted, he and my mother were already together. She was ‘the wind beneath his wings’. Where he would get very pensive and sullen, she would be the optimist and remind him of his talent and passion for the arts. He took his career very seriously and considered it a duty to always continue.
A: I read that Mr. Henreid was cautioned by an uncle to stay away from acting. The gist was that it was a profession beneath his lot in life at the time. Is that true? How did he come to want to act? And is it true that he was discovered by Otto Preminger during an acting school performance?
M: True. When asked what he wanted to do, his first choice was becoming a doctor. That same uncle said he was not a good enough student and that it was too expensive. Second choice was acting … maybe like with so many other actors, a way to get “out” of himself and his unhappy life. After many years of working in the publishing business(his third choice), he had saved enough money to go to the theater conservatory. Indeed, he was “discovered” there by Otto P.
A: Before we continue with his career, I have to mention his long marriage to your mother Lisl Glück. They were married in 1936 and were together until his death in 1992. That’s a successful marriage under any circumstance, but particularly for Hollywood. What do you attribute that to?
M: They met as teens at school parties and then again at an after-theater performance of his first play. So technically, it was love at second sight :). That was 1933 and then never parted. Aside from being in love, they respected each others talents, passion for the arts and life, intelligence, sense of humor, etc. Their relationship worked on so many levels.
A: Paul Henreid delivered terrific performances as unsympathetic characters like in Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948) and William Dieterle’s Rope of Sand (1949). Did he enjoy playing these types of roles?
M: He always saw himself as a character actor. He found the villains more interesting and usually better written than the clichéd romantic leads.
A: On Casablanca – Is it true he was wary of appearing in this film? If so, why?
M: True. By the time he was offered Casablanca, he had already been credited ‘above the title’ along with his leading ladies, Michele Morgan – Joan of Paris and Bette Davis – Now Voyager. In Hollywood, perception and placement means everything. The role of Laszlo wasn’t very big and he would lose his stature as a leading man. He got his agent to demand increasing the size of the role and get top billing. Nonetheless in the end he was right. He lost his first class leading man status and was given “lesser” films. Of course, we know better now.
A: Those of us who know a bit about old Hollywood and movies are familiar with your father’s varied work on screen and behind the camera, but for many – as the title of your documentary implies – he is Victor Lazslo in Casablanca. Was he aware of the impact of that film and that it would be viewed as so important in his career?
M: He died just before the 50th anniversary. He knew it had become very useful as a teaching tool and that it had been seen and popularized through television. That it has ranked in the Top 10 list, forever, he didn’t know.
A: By the way, his La Marseillaise scene in Casablanca is the one that had me crying uncontrollably when I first saw the film on a big screen. It’s impact has not diminished.
M: Authenticity. The tears are real, his and those of the others in the scene. All emigres, refugees, Europeans.
A: What was Paul Henreid’s favorite role and movie?
M: I don’t believe there was just one … but I would guess playing Robert Schumann in Song of Love would be up there. Music was very important in his life and Schumann was possibly his favorite composer.
A: What is your favorite of his performances?
M: Laurent van Horn … The Spanish Main. It was most like him … charming, romantic, funny, athletic, smart AND in gorgeous color !
A: You recently posted on Facebook that you don’t think your father always wanted to direct films, but grew to love it. Why did he start directing?
M: He always liked being in charge … in charge of everything. Planning a day, a meal, a trip, etc. So directing a film, tv, or theater was a natural. Also because of his extensive training, he had an overview of how to tell a story. He always, always brought ideas to the directors with whom he worked, right from the beginning. That of course got him a reputation of being ‘difficult’ and even got him suspended at WB. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he and Bette bonded so well 🙂
A: His directorial debut came with For Men Only (1952) in which he also stars. Do you have any stories about that initial directing experience? He must have liked it because his directing career is quite impressive with 7 feature films and over 300 television shows to his credit.
M: He loved talent and working with new, undiscovered actors. For this film he hired Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes, Margaret Field and others who all went ahead and had good careers. He did the same for Rita Moreno and Richard Dreyfuss to drop a few names, both of whom are interviewed in my documentary 🙂
A: I’d like to know a bit about your father’s friendship with Bette Davis. They made the great Now, Voyager (1942) together as well as Deception (1946), which doesn’t get much attention, but I love. The two also performed in the Lux Radio Theatre production of Mr. Skeffington, which I’ve listened to numerous times. He later directed Davis in Dead Ringer (1964). They were also good friends. In fact, you’ve described Bette Davis as a second mother to you. Can you talk a bit about their professional collaborations and about their friendship?
M: My father always enjoyed strong women. My mother, writer/producer Joan Harrison, and Ida Lupino were tops with him. He was the consummate professional as were these ladies. He and Bette just connected on so many levels both in work and life. Lucky for fans their chemistry is there on the screen and on the radio forever. Bette and my mother were also friends discussing family, designing clothes, discussing hair, makeup, etc. And when the three didn’t see each other, there were letters… old fashioned, hand written letters … hundreds of them over a 40 year friendship.
A: You play Janet, the maid in Dead Ringer, your acting debut. How was it working with Davis? Being directed by your father?
M: NOT my acting debut 🙂 (Aurora says “yikes”)
I felt right at home, surrounded by ‘family’. Again, they were pros and there is nothing better than working with the pros. As long as we all did our homework, knew our lines and motivations, were punctual and treated cast and crew with respect, we were good! I worked with my father often both in front of and behind the camera and on stage.
A: I found this terrific article and pictures online about the dogs used in Dead Ringer. What do you think?
M: Hollywood hooey … typical PR. My dog was a male Lhasa Apso named Charlie. Duke’s real name was Thor and the dumbest movie dog in Hollywood. Nothing fierce about him.
A: Can you share a few behind the scenes stories your father may have told you? Did you visit the sets of his movies and TV shows?
M: Too many from which to chose. 🙂 I visited often from the time I was two years old 🙂
A: Paul Henreid was blacklisted by HUAC and the McCarthy hearings. He began directing TV after that. I read that Alfred Hitchcock hired him in 1955 despite the blacklist. Is this true?
A: Your father subsequently directed many, great episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” How closely did he work with Hitchcock and are there any stories to be told from those experiences?
M: He never really worked with Hitch. They eventually knew each other socially though. This was another great way to find new talent like Barbara Cook, Vic Morrow and so many others and give jobs to some of his old friends like Bette and Peter Lorre.
A: How would you like your father to be remembered?
M: As a man who accomplished his mission. He wanted to leave a body of good work and live an honorable life.
A: What’s the greatest piece of advice your father ever gave you?
M: Do your homework!
Paul Henreid Byond Victor Laszlo is not quite ready for release, but can be with your help. Please consider making a tax deductible donation and helping to spread the word. This touching story of a movie legend should be told.
Do not forget to set your DVRs on January 10 as Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is dedicating its daytime schedule to Paul Henreid for his birthday. Be sure to follow Monika Henreid on Twitter @MEHenreid and Facebook. She’ll be sharing behind the scenes stories during the airing of the seven films.
Paul Henreid (January 10, 1908 – March 29, 1992)