George Henry Sanders
3 July 1906
|Died||25 April 1972 (aged 65)|
|Alma mater||Manchester Technical College|
|Partner||Lorraine Chanel (1968–1972; his death)|
|Relatives||Tom Conway (brother)|
George Henry Sanders (3 July 1906 – 25 April 1972) was a British actor and singer whose career spanned over 40 years. His heavy, upper-class English accent and smooth, baritone voice often led him to be cast as sophisticated but villainous characters. He is remembered for his roles as Jack Favell in Rebecca (1940), Scott ffolliott in Foreign Correspondent (1940, a rare heroic part), The Saran of Gaza in Samson and Delilah (1949), the most popular film of the year, Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950, for which he won an Oscar), Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert in Ivanhoe (1952), King Richard the Lionheart in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Mr. Freeze in a two-part episode of Batman (1966), and the voice of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book (1967). Fans of detective stories know Sanders as Simon Templar, The Saint, (1939–41), and the suave crimefighter The Falcon (1941–42).
Sanders was born on 3 July 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, at number 6 Petrovski Ostrov, to rope manufacturer Henry Sanders and horticulturist Margaret (née Kolbe), who was also born in Saint Petersburg, of mostly German, but also Estonian and Scottish ancestry (Sanders wrote of his mother's descent from "the Thomas Clayhills of Dundee, who went to Estonia in 1626 to establish a business there"). Sanders referred to his parents as "well-off" and noted his mother's "forebears of solid social position and impeccable respectability", stating that "to the best of (his) knowledge, (his) father came in the mail".
A biography published in 1990 alleged that family members' "recent disclosures... indicate" that Sanders' father was the out-of-wedlock son of a Russian noblewoman of the Tsar’s court, and a prince of the House of Oldenburg who was married to a sister of the Tsar. At the time of Henry Sanders's birth, the Anglo-Russian Sanders family were living at Saint Petersburg; the mother, Dagmar, was a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress, and it was said to be through this connection Henry came to be adopted by the Sanders family.
In 1917, at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Sanders and his family moved to Great Britain. Like his brother, he attended Bedales School and Brighton College, a boys' independent school in Brighton, then went on to Manchester Technical College, after which he worked in textile research.
Sanders travelled to South America, where he managed a tobacco plantation. The Depression sent him back to Britain. He worked at an advertising agency, where the company secretary, aspiring actress Greer Garson, suggested that he take up a career in acting.
Sanders learned how to sing and got a role on stage in Ballyhoo, which only had a short run, but helped establish him as an actor.
He began to work regularly on the British stage, appearing several times with Edna Best. He co-starred with Dennis King in The Command Performance.
Sanders travelled to New York to appear on Broadway in a production of Noël Coward's Conversation Piece (1934), directed by Coward, which only ran for 55 performances.
Some of these British films[clarification needed] were distributed by 20th Century Fox, which was looking for an actor to play a villain in its Hollywood-shot film Lloyd's of London (1936). Sanders was duly cast as Lord Everett Stacy, opposite Tyrone Power, in one of his first leads, as the hero; Sanders' smooth, upper-class English accent, his sleek manner, and his suave, superior, and somewhat threatening air made him in demand for American films for years to come. Lloyd's of London was a big hit, and in November 1936, Fox placed Sanders under a seven-year contract.
Sanders returned to Hollywood, where RKO wanted him to play the hero in a series of B-movies, The Saint. The Saint in New York (1938) had already been made starring Louis Hayward in the title role, but when he decided not to return to the role, Sanders took over for The Saint Strikes Back (1939). In 1940, Sanders played Jack Favell in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, opposite Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
Sanders was borrowed by United Artists to play the lead in an A film, The Moon and Sixpence (1942), based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.
RKO had canceled its Saint series and replaced it with The Falcon in 1941. George Sanders was assigned the leading role of Gay Laurence, debonair man about town always involved in murder cases. Saint author Leslie Charteris thought the resemblance between the Falcon and the Saint was obvious, and sued the studio for unfair competition. Sanders himself was also unhappy about playing still another screen sleuth in still more "B" pictures, and bowed out of the series in 1942 after only four films. (He was replaced by his elder brother, Tom Conway.)
In July 1942, Fox suspended Sanders for refusing the lead in The Undying Monster (1942). "I like to be seen in pictures that at least seem to be slightly worthwhile." In September, they suspended him again for refusing an "unsympathetic role" in The Immortal Sergeant (he was replaced by Morton Lowry). In November, Fox and Sanders came to terms, with the studio offering him a raise in pay and the lead in a film, School for Saboteurs, which became They Came to Blow Up America.
RKO called him back for This Land Is Mine (1943). They bought an original story for him, Nine Lives, but it does not appear to have been made. He was lent to Columbia for Appointment in Berlin (1943).
In February 1943, Fox announced it was developing three film projects for Sanders – The Porcelain Lady, a murder mystery, plus biopics of the Earl of Suffolk and Bethune. Fox originally announced him to play the role of the detective in Laura (1944) alongside Laird Cregar, but neither ended up being in the final film. In 1947, George Sanders portrayed King Charles II in Fox's lavish production of the scandalous historical bodice-ripper, Forever Amber.
Sanders signed a new three-film contract with RKO, starting with Action in Arabia (1944). The film superficially looked expensive but it was actually a low-budget feature, embellished by spectacular location footage filmed in 1933 for an unfinished production about Lawrence of Arabia.
For his role as the acerbic, cold-blooded theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), Sanders won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
He was a leading man in Black Jack (1950), but was back to supporting-villain roles in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951). He signed a three-picture deal with MGM, for which he did The Light Touch (1951) and Ivanhoe (1952), playing Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, dying in a duel with Robert Taylor after professing his love for Jewish maiden Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. It was a huge success.
Sanders went to Italy to appear opposite Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy (1954). Back in Hollywood, he made several movies for MGM: Jupiter's Darling (1955), Moonfleet (1955), The Scarlet Coat (1955), and The King's Thief (1955) (again as Charles II).
In 1955, he was announced as hosting and occasionally appearing in The Ringmaster, a TV series about the circus.
Sanders played the lead in Death of a Scoundrel (1956) and the TV series The George Sanders Mystery Theater (1957).
He worked one last time with Power on Solomon and Sheba (1959); Power died during filming and was replaced by Yul Brynner.
In 1961, he appeared in The Rebel with Tony Hancock before being top-billed in Cairo (1963), then appeared in The Cracksman (1963), Dark Purpose (1964), and The Golden Head (1964). Peter Sellers and Sanders appeared together in The Pink Panther sequel A Shot in the Dark (1964). Sanders had earlier inspired Sellers's character Hercules Grytpype-Thynne in the BBC radio comedy series The Goon Show (1951–60).
Sanders declared bankruptcy in 1966 due to some poor investments.
Sanders was cast in the musical comedy, Sherry!, but withdrew from the show while it was out-of-town. He was replaced by Clive Revill for Broadway.
He voiced the Bengal Tiger, Shere Khan in Jungle Book, (1967). He had a supporting role in John Huston's The Kremlin Letter (1969), in which his first scene showed him dressed in drag and playing the piano in a gay bar in San Francisco. In 1969, he announced he was leaving show business.
Two ghostwritten crime novels were published under his name to cash in on his fame at the height of his wartime film series. The first was Crime on My Hands (1944), written in the first person, and mentioning his Saint and Falcon films.
During the production of The Jungle Book, Sanders was unavailable to provide the singing voice for his character Shere Khan during the final recording of the song, "That's What Friends Are For". According to Richard Sherman, Bill Lee, a member of The Mellomen, was called in to substitute for Sanders.
On 27 October 1940, Sanders married Susan Larson (born Elsie Poole). The couple divorced in 1949. From later that year until 1954, Sanders was married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, with whom he starred in the film Death of a Scoundrel (1956). On 10 February 1959, Sanders married Benita Hume, widow of Ronald Colman. She died of bone cancer in 1967, aged 60, the same year that Sanders's brother Tom Conway died of liver failure. Sanders had become distant from his brother because of Conway's drinking problem.
Sanders' autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad was published in 1960 and gained critical praise for its wit. Sanders suggested the title A Dreadful Man for his biography, later written by his friend Brian Aherne and published in 1979. Sanders's fourth and last marriage on 4 December 1970 was to Magda Gabor, the elder sister of his second wife. This marriage lasted only 32 days, after which he began drinking heavily.
Even before his dementia, Sanders had grown increasingly reclusive and depressed due to a string of tragedies, including the deaths of his third wife, his mother and his brother Tom in the space of a year. This was followed by a failed investment, which cost him millions. Before his dementia diagnosis, he got a quick divorce from his fourth wife. According to Aherne's biography, he also had a minor stroke. Sanders could not bear the prospect of losing his health or needing help to carry out everyday tasks, and became deeply depressed. About this time, he found that he could no longer play his grand piano, so he dragged it outside and smashed it with an axe. His last girlfriend, Lorraine Chanel, with whom he had an on-off relationship in the last four years of his life, persuaded him to sell his beloved house in Majorca, Spain, which he later bitterly regretted. From then on, he drifted.
On 23 April 1972, Sanders checked into a hotel in Castelldefels, a coastal town near Barcelona, where he phoned his friend George Mikell. Two days after swallowing the contents of five bottles of the barbiturate Nembutal, he died from cardiac arrest.  He left behind two suicide notes, one of which read:
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
David Niven wrote in Bring on the Empty Horses (1975), the second volume of his memoirs, that in 1937, his friend George Sanders had predicted that he would commit suicide from a barbiturate overdose when he was 65, and that in his 50s, he had appeared to be depressed because his marriages had failed and several tragedies had befallen him.
Sanders has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for films at 1636 Vine Street and television at 7007 Hollywood Boulevard.