George Sanders

For other people named George Sanders, see George Sanders (disambiguation).
George Sanders

A photograph of Sanders by Allan Warren, 1972
Born George Henry Sanders
(1906-07-03)3 July 1906
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died 25 April 1972(1972-04-25) (aged 65)
Castelldefels, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Cause of death Suicide
Education Bedales School, Brighton College
Alma mater Manchester Technical College
Occupation Actor, author, singer-songwriter, music composer
Years active 1929–1972
Partner(s) Lorraine Chanel
(1968–72; his death)
Family Tom Conway (brother)

George Henry Sanders (3 July 1906 – 25 April 1972) was an English film and television actor, singer-songwriter, music composer, and author. His career as an actor spanned more than 40 years. His upper-class English accent and bass voice often led him to be cast as sophisticated but villainous characters. He is perhaps best known as Jack Favell in Rebecca (1940), Scott ffolliott in Foreign Correspondent (1940) (a rare heroic part), Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950), for which he won an Academy Award, King Richard the Lionheart in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), Mr. Freeze in a two-parter episode of Batman (1966), the voice of the malevolent man-hating tiger Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book (1967), and as Simon Templar, "The Saint", in five films made in the 1930s and 1940s.

Early life

Sanders was born in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire, at number 6 Petrovski Ostrov. His parents were Henry Peter Ernest Sanders [1](1868–1960),[2] and Margarethe Jenny Bertha Sanders (1883–1967) née Kolbe, born in Saint Petersburg, of mostly German, but also Estonian and Scottish ancestry.[3][4] A biography published in 1990 claimed that Sanders's father was the illegitimate son of a Russian noblewoman of the Czar’s court and a prince of the House of Oldenburg, married to a sister of the Czar.[5]a[] The actor Tom Conway (1904–1967) was George Sanders's elder brother. Their younger sister, Margaret Sanders, was born in 1912.

George Sanders was 11 when, in 1917, at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the family moved to England.[6] Like his brother, he attended Bedales School and Brighton College, a boys' independent school in Brighton, then went on to Manchester Technical College.[7] After graduating he worked at an advertising agency, where the company secretary, the aspiring actress Greer Garson, suggested that he take up a career in acting.[8]

In the trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's
Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Sanders made his British film debut in 1929. Seven years later, after a series of British films, he took his first role in an American production in Lloyd's of London (1936) as Lord Everett Stacy. His 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.[9] He gravitated to supporting roles in A-pictures, often with all-British casts, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), in which he and Judith Anderson played cruel foils to Joan Fontaine's character, and in the same director's Foreign Correspondent, later that year, where he played one of his few heroic parts in a Europe threatened by Fascism.

His early leading roles were in B-pictures and adventure serials; in his first American job as a leading man, the rarely-seen International Settlement, (1938) with Dolores Del Rio he rose above material to play a sophisticated British man of danger; it did so well that it led to the title role in two popular wartime film series with similar characters, one based on The Falcon and the other on The Saint.[10] He played a smooth American Nazi in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) with Edward G. Robinson. Rage in Heaven (1941), an early film noir, cast him as the trustworthy good guy whose best friend, Robert Montgomery, goes murderously insane and sets him up for the rap, but such forays were seldom. By 1942, Sanders handed the role of the Falcon to his brother Tom, in The Falcon's Brother. The only other film in which the two acting siblings appeared together was Death of a Scoundrel (1956), in which they also played brothers.

Sanders played Lord Henry Wotton in the film version of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and was the third lead in the elegiacThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in the leads. Sanders starred with Angela Lansbury in Albert Lewin's The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (also 1947), based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant. Sanders and Lansbury also featured in Cecil B. deMille's biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949).

As Addison DeWitt in the trailer for
All About Eve (1950)

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.[11] He then starred as Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in Ivanhoe (1952), dying in a duel with Robert Taylor after professing his love for the Jewish maiden Rebecca, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Sanders starred as King Richard the Lionheart in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954).

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).[12]

Sanders went into television with the series The George Sanders Mystery Theater (1957). He played an upper-crust English villain, G. Emory Partridge, in two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1965, "The Gazebo in the Maze Affair" and "The Yukon Affair". He also portrayed Mr. Freeze in two episodes of the live-action TV series Batman, both shown in February 1966. Sanders voiced the malevolent Shere Khan in the Walt Disney production of The 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 piano in a gay bar in San Francisco. One of his last screen roles was in Doomwatch (1972), a feature film version of a contemporary BBC television series.


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. This was followed by Stranger at Home in 1946. Both were actually written by female authors: the former was by Craig Rice, and the latter by Leigh Brackett.


As Lord Henry Wotton in the trailer for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

In 1958 Sanders recorded an album called The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady. The album, released by ABC-Paramount Records, featured lush string arrangements of romantic ballads, crooned by Sanders in a fit baritone/bass (spanning from low to middle C), including "Such is My Love", a song he had himself composed. After going to great lengths to get the role he appeared in the Broadway cast of South Pacific, but was overwhelmed with anxiety over the singing and quickly dropped out. His singing voice can be heard in Call Me Madam (1953). He also signed on for the role of Sheridan Whiteside in the stage musical Sherry! (1967), based on Kaufman and Hart's play The Man Who Came to Dinner, but he found the stage production demanding and quit after his wife Benita Hume discovered that she had terminal bone cancer.

During the production of The Jungle Book Sanders refused 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.[13]

Personal life

On 27 October 1940 Sanders married Susan Larson. 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) after their divorce. On 10 February 1959 Sanders married Benita Hume, widow of Ronald Colman. She died in 1967, the same year Sanders's brother Tom Conway died of liver failure. Sanders had become distant from his brother because of Conway's drinking problem.[14] Sanders endured a further blow in the same year with the death of their mother, Margarethe.

Sanders's autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad, was published in 1960 and gathered critical praise for its wit. Sanders suggested the title A Dreadful Man for his biography, which was later written by his friend Brian Aherne and published in 1979.[15]

Sanders's 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.[16]

Later years and suicide

Sanders as Captain Billy Leech in The Black Swan (1942)

Sanders suffered from dementia, worsened by waning health, and visibly teetered in his last films, owing to a loss of balance. 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. At 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 persuaded him to sell his beloved house in Majorca, Spain, which he later bitterly regretted. From then on he drifted.[17]

On 23 April 1972, Sanders checked into a hotel in Castelldefels, a coastal town near Barcelona. He was found dead two days later, having gone into cardiac arrest after swallowing the contents of five bottles of the barbiturate Nembutal.[18][19] He left behind three 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.[20][21][22]

His signature appeared under the message.

Sanders's body was returned to Britain for funeral services, after which it was cremated and the ashes were scattered in the English Channel.

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 when he was 65, and that in his 50s he had appeared to be depressed since his marriages had failed and several tragedies had befallen him.[23]

Sanders has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for films at 1636 Vine Street and for television at 7007 Hollywood Boulevard.

He is mentioned in the song "Celluloid Heroes" by the Kinks: "If you covered him with garbage/George Sanders would still have style."

Sanders' ghost makes an appearance in Clive Barker's novel Coldheart Canyon (2001), as well as in the animated feature film Dante's Inferno (2007). In 2005, Charles Dennis played Sanders in his own play High Class Heel at the National Arts Club in New York City.

In the "House Arrest" episode of The Sopranos, Tony tells Doctor Melfi of his boredom and states "I'm ready for the George Sanders long walk here".

In the 2000 film Wonder Boys, George Sanders is one of the people Tobey Maguire's character mentions when he is naming high-profile suicides that have taken place in distant memory.

Select filmography




^ a: Nicholas II's sister Olga Alexandrovna married Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, but he was born in 1868, and therefore could not have been the father of Henry Sanders.


  2. (deaths)
  4. Sanders, George (1960). Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Hamish Hamilton. p. 8.
  5. VanDerBeets, Richard (1990). George Sanders: An Exhausted Life. Madison Books. ISBN 0819178063.
  6. Sanders 1960, pp. 9–10, 13.
  7. Sanders 1960, p. 17.
  8. Sanders 1960, p. 54.
  9. Sanders 1960, p.117
  10. Sanders 1960, pp. 199–200, 202
  11. McNally 2008, p. 33.
  12. Wilmut, Roger and Jimmy Grafton (1976). The Goon Show Companion: A History and Goonography. Robson Books Ltd. p. 90. ISBN 0903895641.
  13. Sherman, Richard. The Jungle Book audio commentary, Platinum Edition, Disc 1. 2007.
  14. Sanders 1960, pp. 106, 110.
  15. VanDerBeets 1990, p. xiii.
  16. VanDerBeets 1990, pp. 116, 119.
  17. Aherne 1979, pp. 183, 190.
  18. Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca. "Bored to Death." Entertainment Weekly, 8 May 1992. Retrieved: 30 April 2009.
  19. "George Sanders (July 3, 1906 – April 25, 1972)." George Sanders: Official Site. Retrieved: 8 December 2011. Archived 22 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. Niven, David (1975). Bring on the Empty Horses. Coronet Books/Hodder and Stoughton. p. 304. ISBN 0340209151.


  • Aherne, Brian. A Dreadful Man: The Story of Hollywood's Most Original Cad, George Sanders. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. ISBN 0-671-24797-2.
  • McNally, Peter. Bette Davis: The Performances that made her Great. Jefferson North Carolina: McFarland, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7864-3499-2.
  • Niven, David. The Moon's A Balloon. London: Dell Publishing, 1983. ISBN 978-0-440-15806-6.
  • Sanders, George. Memoirs of a Professional Cad: The Autobiography of George Sanders. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1960. ISBN 0-8108-2579-1.
  • VanDerBeets, Richard. George Sanders: An Exhausted Life. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Madison Books, 1990. ISBN 0-8191-7806-3.
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Husband of a Gabor Sister
Preceded by
Conrad Hilton
Zsa Zsa - Third
April 2, 1949 – April 2, 1954
Succeeded by
Herbert Hutner
Preceded by
Tony Gallucci
Magda - Fifth
December 5, 1970 – January 6, 1971
Succeeded by
Tibor Heltai
Acting roles
Preceded by
Louis Hayward
Simon Templar Actor
1939 – 1941
Succeeded by
Hugh Sinclair
Preceded by
David Farrar
Charles II Actor
Succeeded by
Gary Raymond
New title Mr. Freeze Actor
Succeeded by
Otto Preminger
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