'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.

picture post/getty images
Tête-à-tête: Paul Henreid, who played Nazi resistence leader Victor Laszlo in ‘Casablanca,’ shares a heartfelt moment with Ingrid Bergman. Henreid’s daughter, Monika, says the Austrian actor got narrowly defined roles after the movie.

"Welcome back to the fight," Nazi resistance leader Victor Laszlo says to Rick Blaine at the end of "Casablanca" – as the famous plane to Lisbon sputters and roars. "This time I know our side will win."

It's one of the finest Hollywood scenes ever – apotheosized by black and whites of Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund) face to face in the night fog, saying goodbye at the airport so her husband Laszlo can escape. They will always have Paris.

Of this trio, the elegant character of Laszlo, played by the refugee Austrian actor Paul Henreid, is nearly forgotten – in film and in real life. He went on to play roles as European types, Nazi heavies, and freedom fighters, as well as raised war bonds in Washington. But he got blacklisted in the McCarthy era for refusing to divulge the political views of fellow actors, and ended up directing TV fare for 25 years. Bogart got an Oscar nomination for "Casablanca." Henreid got typecast. He never broke free, becoming one of the countless Tinseltown footnotes who lived outside the Oscar glare.

Today Henreid's daughter, Monika, raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, shuttles from the US to Vienna to reconstruct her father's life on film – a narrative itself synonymous with the 20th century whirlwinds that tossed European artists and intellectuals around like the characters in Casablanca itself.

"He played heroic screen characters but often got slapped around in life, so he constantly tried to reinvent himself," says Ms. Henreid, whose father died in 1992. "People think he is French. No one can pronounce his name. He is known as Victor Laszlo, but he spent much of his life in L.A., working and directing. He gave Richard Dreyfuss his first film job; he discovered Burt Reynolds. But it [being typecast] took a toll."

• • •

Henreid came from an aristocratic Viennese family – his banker father was knighted, his mother owned a shop on the Herrengasse. He was twice blacklisted in Europe. He hung out with film director Otto Preminger and studied at the Max Reinhardt center. But in 1934 he refused to sign a Nazi loyalty oath that was part of a lucrative Berlin film contract. He escaped to London, worked on stage, but became a deportable alien after the Anchluss in 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria. Desperate to flee to America, he despaired when authorities told him the Austrian émigré list was full.

Then a US consulate official noticed Henreid's birthplace, Trieste, formerly a part of Austria but by then in Italy. "Oh, we've got lots of space on the Italian list," his daughter says the consular official told him. "When would you like to go?"

"Tomorrow," he answered.

Henreid created a European home in Los Angeles, a "Viennese island." It was a refuge for artists like Arthur Rubenstein, who practiced piano there, and for a never-ending troupe of scholars and intellectuals from the Old World.

Henreid existed half in and half out of Hollywood. "We didn't have Hollywood parties; it wasn't a celebrity center," his daughter says. "My father was close to Bette Davis, but we didn't live in Beverly Hills."

They had a nanny, a housekeeper, a cook, a French teacher, a gardener. "Sports wasn't something you talked about, it was something you did. You played tennis and rode horses every day," Monika Henreid says. "My mother taught the cook how to prepare Viennese food. It was very Old Europe. If the door to my parent's part of the house was closed, you didn't go in, you didn't even think about knocking."

"Casablanca," shot in 1942 just after Pearl Harbor, was based on a play by school teacher Murray Burnett ("Everybody Comes to Rick's") after a visit to Nazi-occupied Vienna. It continues to rank No. 1 or 2, along with Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane," as the best film of all time. Romance, moral tension, spies, Nazis, thieves, heroes, intrigue – all collide in Rick's Café Americain. It is run by a stoical antihero (Bogart), who, in the end, does the right thing since, "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed up world."

Google "Casablanca" today, and the film comes up before the Moroccan city. But when it was made, "Casablanca" was an afterthought for Warner Brothers; Hungarian director Michael Curtiz said he never realized it would be a classic. Instead, emblematic music like "As Time Goes By" emerged. So did countless one-liners now echoed in pop culture: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here," "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "Round up the usual suspects," "Here's looking at you kid." (The oft-repeated "Play it again, Sam," isn't an actual line in "Casablanca;" Rick only says "Play it.")

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.' "

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."

• • •

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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