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'Casablanca' star lives in the shadow of his character

Paul Henreid, who played Nazi resistence leader Victor Laszlo, never achieved the fame of some of the movie's other stars and played largely European-type roles.

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Film critic Pauline Kael attributed much of Casablanca's authenticity and spark to its many European actors – refugees playing refugees. Of 14 main roles, only three are US-born actors. "There were Austrians, Czechs, Lithuanians," Henreid notes. "The script was rewritten every day. The actors got their lines, and would balk. Yugoslavs or Russians would say, 'I can't speak like a guy from Nebraska if I'm a central European émigré to North Africa.' "

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Henreid himself criticized Laszlo's authenticity. He doubted a resistance leader who escaped Nazi camps could waltz into the swankest cafe in town wearing a white suit with his wife on his arm. Nor would Laszlo be able to negotiate with Vichy police and Nazi officers.

But nothing came of the protestations. It was Hollywood, in 1942. Casablanca's "airport," to give perspective, was the Van Nuys airfield in suburban Los Angeles, with a load of potted palms added for Mediterranean flavor.

Henreid, along with European actors like Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich, gets credit for helping build a genre later known as "film noir," edgy black-and-white psychological thrillers – such as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep." Henreid received critical acclaim for "Now, Voyager," with Bette Davis. But he got few leading roles after "Casablanca."

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Monika Henreid now lives in Montana. She has worked as an actress in a few small movies. After a recent screening of "Casablanca" in Vienna, where she has come to do her documentary work on her father, she laments that the man who played Laszlo, and whose life was forever altered by not signing a Nazi oath, spent many creative years in a McCarthy-era limbo. She told a Viennese audience before a showing of the film that her father insisted in his contract that the Laszlo character end up with Ilsa Lund – and apparently several different endings of the film were written.

Henreid's wife, Lisl, whom he met in Vienna on the night of his first play as an actor, was the one who kept him going. Their marriage lasted 49 years. After the war, the Henreids sometimes summered in Austria. But he never returned to live. The "Vienna my father grew up in was gone, physically and culturally," his daughter says. "He wasn't famous when he left, anyway. We couldn't come back for so many reasons. Daughters were in school. There wasn't any work. Sometimes life just interferes with your plans."

Like getting an iconic part and then getting pigeonholed for it. On the other hand, if Henreid hadn't done the movie, he probably would have regretted it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of his life.


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