Oscar Actors: Lukas, Paul, 1943 Winner (Watch on the Rhine) with Bette Davis

An Hungarian-born American actor, Paul Lukas won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the film, Watch on the Rhine(1943).

Lukas was born on May 26, 1891 as Pál Lukács in Budpest, Hungary into a Jewish family. He was the son of Naria (née Zilahy) and Janos Lukacs, an advertising executive.

Lukas made his stage debut in Budapest in 1916 and his film debut in 1917. At first, he played elegant, smooth womanizers, but increasingly he became typecast as a villain. He had a successful stage and film career in Hungary, Germany and Austria, where he worked with Max Reinhardt. He arrived in Hollywood in 1927, and became a citizen of the U.S. in 1937.

He was busy in the 1930s, appearing in such films as the melodrama Rockabye, the crime caper Grumpy, Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, the comedy Ladies in Love, and the William Wyler’s drama Dodsworth.

He followed William Powell and Basil Rathbone portraying the series detective Phillo Vance, a cosmopolitan New Yorker, once in The Casino Murder Case (1935).

Oscar Role

His major film success was Watch on the Rhine (1943), in which he played an anti-Nazi fighter, a role he originated on Broadway in 1941. His portrayal of Kurt Mueller, a German émigré with an American wife, played by Bette Davis, was praised by critics.  The NY  Times wrote, “As the enemy of fascism, Mr. Lukas’ haggard, loving, resourceful determination becomes heroic by virtue of his sincerity and his superior abilities as an actor.”

He won the Best Actor Oscar for the role, winning out over such luminaries as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Walter Pidgeon in Madame Curie, and Mickey Rooney in The Human Comedy.  He also received the N.Y. Film Critics Circle Award for the same performance.

Lukas played Professor Aronnax in Disney’s film version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Suffering from memory problems during the production, Lukas became temperamental.

In the 1940s, Lukas was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservations of American Ideals, a conservative lobbying group opposed to Communist influence in Hollywood.

In the 1960s, Lukas made Fun in Acapulco with Elvis Presley in 1963, and Lord Jim with Peter O’Toole in 1965.  His final film, The Challenge, was released in 1970.

His only singing role was as Cosmo Constantine in the original 1950 Broadway version of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, opposite Ethel Merman (though he is heard singing in Cukor’s 1933 Little Women).

He died August 15, 1971, in Tangier, Morocco, while searching for a retirement place.