July 4th, 2022


The Maltese Actor

Greg Crosby

By Greg Crosby

Published Nov. 7, 2014

The Maltese Actor

Good Morning. Today class, we are going to talk about a movie actor. Can you guess which one? Could it be Robert Pattinson? Megan Fox? Maybe Zac Efron or Ryan Gosling? Perhaps Emma Stone? Or Amy Adams? Oh no, boys and girls, it won't be any of those people because I don't know who they are. No, today we are spotlighting a real old-timer. No, not Tom Cruise. We're going back much further than that, kids. Think last century. Think the second and third quarters of the last century. It hurts your head, right?

Let's take the Wayback Machine to the time that was called "The Golden Age" of movies. The time of the great stars like Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and so many other legends. But the actor we're focusing on today isn't in that upper tier of movie star. He's the Maltese actor, but he's not Humphrey Bogart. Classic movie lovers might recognize his face, but the name doesn't exactly role off the tongue.

Yet of this actor Orson Wells once said, "I fell in love with him as a ten-year-old boy. I saw him in a play in New York, a small miracle called 24 Hours to Kill or something like that. A very well staged melodrama that was an enormous hit for about a year --- it was made as a movie later with somebody else. He had the leading role, and I never forgot him. And through the years I'd seen him in movies --- little things. And I could never forget that performance of his. He's always played very stereotyped parts in pictures but is one of the best actors I've ever known. I have such respect for him. You play next to him and you just feel the thing that you do with a big actor --- this dynamo going on. What an actor --- Joseph Calleia!"

Wells directed and performed with Calleia in "Touch of Evil" (1958). The picture starred Wells, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. Calleia played Police Sergeant Pete Menzies. Calleia was never the lead star in the pictures he made, but his presence was powerful and he wound up making 59 films before he retired.

He was Maltese, born on that barren island of Malta between Italy and Africa in the Mediterranean in 1897. His full name was Giuseppe Maria Spurrin-Calleja --- but he was better known as Joseph or Joe Calleia, one of Hollywood's most recognized bad guys. He organized a harmonica band of boys that earned him enough money to leave Malta in 1914, at the age of 17.

He began his career touring Europe as a teenage singer with a harmonica band, arriving in New York in 1926 as a singer and then turned to drama. Although Calleia made nearly 60 films, he always claimed to prefer stage performance to film acting. He was considered a bright light on Broadway between 1926 and 1945, and appeared in several hit plays.

He was brought to Hollywood in 1931 and was for the most part, typecast as a mobster or other dark villains throughout the thirties, finally breaking that mold playing opposite Mae West as her dashing lover in "My Little Chickadee."

He was memorable as the nightclub owner in "After the Thin Man," as El Sordo in "For Whom the Bells Toll," as Buldeo in Alexandra Korda's production of "The Jungle Book," and as the detective in "Gilda" which starred Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth.

Among his other pictures were "Marie Antoinette," Algiers," "Juarez," "Five Came Back," "Golden Boy," "The Glass Key," "Deadline at Dawn," "The Alamo" and "Johnny Cool." He also appeared on the TV shows "Have Gun Will Travel" and "Zorro."

By 1963 Calleia left Hollywood and sailed to his native Malta to retire. A kind and generous man and very appreciative of his fans wherever they were he was quick to read all their letters and quick to send autographed pictures. He once quipped: "Everyone recognizes my face, but no one knows my name."

During his retirement in Malta he received a telegram from Francis Ford Coppola, who offered him the part of Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972). As much as Coppola wanted Calleia for the part, Calleia had to refuse because of health reasons. The part went to Marlon Brando.

Joseph Calleia died in 1975. His beloved Malta issued two commemorative stamps in 1997 to honor their famous native son, and in October 2005 a monument consisting of a bust of Calleia was erected in front of the house where he was born.

One of those wonderful anonymous actors that entertained so many movie fans for so many years. He had a great face.

Now you have a name to go with it.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. He's also a Southern California-based freelance writer.