Over his 60-year acting career, Eduardo Ciannelli made any kind of gangster or cutthroat seem classy and sophisticated. He was as much a scene stealer whether he was smiling or scowling, his stare could be comedic, cautious, caring or calculating, and with his training and talent as a singer, he had a voice that could soothe or intimidate.
Ciannelli was born on Ischia, Italy, near Naples in 1889, to an Italian father and British mother. Planning to be a doctor like his father who ran a health spa on the island, Ciannelli finished medical school, but soon devoted himself to opera. He trained and toured all over Europe, and became a performer and recording artist of some note—you can hear him on this YouTube video, a recording of “Caruso Among the Angels.”
After a visit to Niagara Falls and New York City, he fell in love with America, and emigrated after WW1. He quickly learned English and wrote two plays that were produced on Broadway. With connections made there and at the Metropolitan Opera, Ciannelli built a solid stage career over the next decade-plus, working as a stage manager and headlining musicals and operettas, including a production of Rose-Marie. He worked with The Theater Guild, focusing on drama and comedy with The Front Page, Uncle Vanya, The Inspector General and Winterset, and his performances increasingly earned him critical acclaim and Hollywood attention.
In his first film, MGM’s Reunion in Vienna (1933) and in Winterset (1936), Ciannelli recreated roles he originated on stage. His gangster character in Winterset, named Trock Estrella, made an impression and set a type the actor would excel at and revisit throughout his career, the terrifyingly smooth, menacing, urbane mobster. It also made him Grahame Greene’s first choice to play Raven in This Gun for Hire (1942, adapted from his novel A Gun for Sale). Ciannelli was again a mobster, as the boss targeting Bette Davis in Marked Woman (1937), but would soon prove he could do wonders with a wider variety of film roles.
After some smaller roles in B’s—a haunted house owner, a henchman—Ciannelli got one of his best-remembered parts in Gunga Din (1939) as the evil Thugee leader who compares himself to history’s greatest conquerors and urges his followers to “rise and kill for the love of Kali! Kill, kill, kill!” He was a bank robber in Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (1939), prison escapee in Strange Cargo (1940) and Egyptian high priest in The Mummy’s Hand (1940). He was a nasty, fun part of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), and for his friendly Italian bar owner in Kitty Foyle (1940) he earned an Oscar nomination.
Republic gave him a juicy role as Doctor Satan in the serial Mysterious Doctor (1940), and Ciannelli would make two more serials, playing a foreign super villain in Sky Raiders (1942), and a Nazi in Adventures of the Flying Cadets (1943). He went by “Edward” for part of the 40’s, during which time he played small and sometimes uncredited roles in bigger films like Passage to Marseille (1944), The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), A Bell for Adano (1945), and Gilda (1946). In smaller pictures he had a better range of roles, including more gangsters in Dillinger (1945) and Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), a priest in The Lost Moment (1947), and a VIP in the mystery I Love Trouble (1948).
Ciannelli returned to Europe to appear in Pact with the Devil (1950) and from then on divided his time between Italy and America, making frequent TV appearances (Naked City, The Untouchables, Burke’s Law, to name just a few) and Italian films like Volcano (1950). He also started an Italian-English dubbing company with his son Lewis, one of two children with Alma, his wife since 1918. Some of Ciannelli’s notable movies of this era were The Stranger’s Hand (1954), Helen of Troy (1956), and Houseboat (1958). He also had a recurring role as the nightclub owner on the TV detective series Johnny Staccato from 1959-60.
He stayed busy through the 60’s, got a Tony nomination in 1961 for The Devil’s Advocate, was constantly seen on TV, and his films through the decade included The Visit (1964), The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), and the western Mackenna’s Gold (1969). He played mob bosses in The Brotherhood (1968) and Stiletto (1969), which led some reviewers to speculate he’d have done a fine job as Don Corleone in The Godfather, had he lived long enough to get the chance. Ciannelli died of cancer in Rome, 1969 at the age of 80.
This post is part of the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Click here to catch up on all the wonderful talents getting the spotlight they deserve.