A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... GEORGE ZUCCO (January 11, 1886 – May 27, 1960)

Collage George Zucco.jpg

Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think??? And while you’re considering it, I’ve decided to spend the whole month of October (one of my very favorite months!) celebrating the folks that make Hallowe’en so special for me by their work in scary movies (some of my very favorite movies!!)

Well our next guest has always come off as a man of superior brains and intellect. Every role he played was one of cunning and craft. Let me introduce you to George Zucco (January 11, 1886 – May 27, 1960). Born in Manchester, Lancashire, England, George Desylla Zucco’s mother, Marian (née Rintoul), ran a dressmaking business; she was a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. His father, George De Sylla Zucco, was a Greek merchant.

Young George debuted on the Canadian stage in 1908. He and his wife Frances toured the American vaudeville circuit during the 1910s, their satirical sketch about suffragettes earning them renown. He returned to Great Britain and served as a lieutenant in the British Army’s West Yorkshire Regiment during World War I. He saw action and was wounded in his right arm by gunfire. Subsequent surgery partially handicapped the use of two fingers and a thumb. However, having honed his theatrical talents, he proceeded to enter the London stage scene and was rewarded with a developing career that made him a leading man as the 1920s progressed and made his film debut in 1931, playing Eugène Godefroy Cavaignac in THE DREYFUS CASE an early British re-telling of the Dreyfus Affair with Cedric Hardwicke. What followed were thirteen B-grade movies through 1935, until THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (1936) with Roland Young and Ralph Richardson. Zucco then returned to America and Broadway by late 1935 to play Disraeli opposite Helen Hayes in the original play VICTORIA REGINA which ran from December 1935 to June 1936. After that came a Hollywood contract and his first American picture, SINNER TAKE ALL (1936). Zucco had a sharp hawk nose, magnetic dark eyes, and an arching brow that fit well with authoritative and intimidating characters. That same year, he was in the second installment of the "Thin Man" series with William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Jimmy Stewart,  followed by a series of supporting roles in nine films in 1937, usually type-cast as a doctor or English aristocrat. There were good supporting roles in "A" films, but he was also taking on darker characters. This was evident in CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU (1938) and more so with ARREST BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1939). In the latter, he played Rolf Alferson, alias the criminal mastermind "The Stinger," who could administer a poisonous sting from a needle at the tip of his cane. It was a typical pop movie in the pulp mystery/horror genre with the usual sort of ending, but it started him on the road as a Hollywood arch villain. That same year, he was cast as Professor Moriarty, the brilliant archenemy of the world's most famous detective in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939) opposite Basil Rathbone in the title role and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.

During the 1940s, he took every role he was offered, landing himself in B-films and Universal horror films, including THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940), THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942), THE MAD MONSTER (1942), THE MAD GHOUL (1943), DEAD MEN WALK (1943), THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944), HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944), and TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948).  Although some of these were made by the relatively major Universal Pictures, Zucco began grinding out outlandish horror stuff for the infamously “bottom-of-the-barrel” Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC). It would be incorrect to say he sold out completely to the horror genre though, even if horror buffs have made him their own. He was reunited with Basil Rathbone in another Sherlock Holmes adventure, SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943), this time playing not Moriarty, but a Nazi spy. His distinctive presence, talent, and class also got him cast in higher end films on occasion with big stars such as CAPTAIN OF CASTILE (1947) with Tyrone Power, THE PIRATE with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland (1948), JOAN OF ARC (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, and MADAM BOVARY (1949) with Jennifer Jones. Zucco even managed to make appearances in two Fred Astaire musicals, THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949) and LET’S DANCE (1950). He retired due to illness, after playing a bit part in DAVID AND BATHSHEBA in 1951. Kenneth Anger, in his 1988 book Hollywood Babylon II, claimed that Zucco died in a madhouse, convinced that he was being haunted by H.P. Lovecraft’s creation Cthulhu, and that Zucco's wife and adult daughter committed suicide in response to the loss. However, in reality, Zucco spent his final years in quiet dignity in the Monterey Sanitarium, an assisted-living facility and died from pneumonia in 1960, aged 74. His only daughter, 29-year old Frances Zucco, was an award-winning equestrian and minor actress; she died exactly 20 months to the day after her father from throat cancer on March 14, 1962. His widow Stella Francis whom he had married in 1930, died from natural causes in 1999 (aged 99). Quiet-spoken off stage, he had always been an avid dog lover who owned several German Shepherds. Because of his consistency as an actor and his professionalism at all times, his nickname on the set of Universal Studios was "One-Take Zucco". After his death, George Zucco was cremated and his ashes are now interred at the Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.

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