Joseph Calleia

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For the Kid Rock sidekick, see Joe C.. For the Maltese operatic tenor, see Joseph Calleja.
Joseph Calleia
Joseph Calleia in After the Thin Man trailer.jpg
from the trailer for the film
After the Thin Man (1936)
Born Giuseppe Maria Spurrin-Calleja
(1897-08-04)August 4, 1897
Saqqajja Square, Rabat, Malta
Died October 31, 1975(1975-10-31) (aged 78)
Sliema, Malta
Years active 1926–1963
Spouse(s) Eleonore Vassallo (1929–1968) (her death)

Joseph Calleia (August 4, 1897 – October 31, 1975) was a Maltese born American singer, composer, screenwriter and actor, both on Broadway and in film.

Early years[edit]

Born at Saqqajja Square, Rabat, Malta, to Pasquale and Elena Calleja, he was educated at St Julian's and St Aloysius colleges in Malta. He organized a harmonica band of boys which earned him enough money to leave Malta in 1914, at age 17, and began his career touring Europe as a teenage singer with a harmonica band, appearing in the cafés and music halls of many war-torn and weary capital cities. He later went to New York as a singer and then turned to drama.


Although Calleia made over 50 films, he always claimed to prefer stage performance to film acting. He was considered a bright light on Broadway between 1926 and 1945, and appeared in several hit plays.

"What an actor — Joseph Calleia", said Orson Welles, who directed and performed with Calleia in Touch of Evil (1958):

I fell in love with him as a ten-year-old boy. I saw him in a play in New York, a small miracle called 24 Hours to Kill or something like that.[1] A very well-staged melodrama which was an enormous hit for about a year — it was made as a movie later with somebody else. He had the leading role, and I never forgot him. And through the years I'd seen him in movies — little things. And I could never forget that performance of his. He's always played very stereotyped parts in pictures but is one of the best actors I've ever known. I have such respect for him. You play next to him and you just feel the thing that you do with a big actor — this dynamo going on.[2]:298

Select theatre credits[edit]

  • Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, September 16, 1926 to February 11, 1928, as "Joe, a waiter"[3]
  • The Front Page at Times Square Theatre, August 14, 1928 to April 1929, as "Kruger (Journal of Commerce)"[4]
  • The Last Mile at Sam H. Harris Theatre, February 13, 1930 to circa October 1930, as "Tom D'Amoro"[5]
  • Grand Hotel at the National Theatre, November 13, 1930 to December 1931, as "the chauffeur", and general stage manager[6]
  • Honeymoon at Little Theatre, December 23, 1932 to circa. February 1933, as "Nicola"[7]
  • Ten Minute Alibi at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, October 17, 1933 to January 1934, as "the hunter"[8]
  • Small Miracle at John Golden Theatre, September 26, 1934 to January 1935, as "Tony Mako"[9]


By 1931, Calleia had landed an MGM contract in Hollywood, where he successfully pursued a career in the film industry, appearing in a total of 57 movies between then and 1955, frequently playing cops or villains in gangster and western films.

He made his screen debut with appearances in two B-films, His Woman (1931) and The Girl in the Cab (1933). He very quickly made his mark, playing the role of a criminal in Public Hero No. 1 (1935), followed by Riff Raff (1935) in which he played a womanizer, co-starring with Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. In 1936, Calleia wrote the screenplay for Robin Hood of El Dorado. In 1943, he played El Sordo in For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Partial filmography[edit]


Calleia received the Critics' Award for his performance as Slimane in the 1938 film Algiers directed by John Cromwell.


Calleia retired in 1963 and died in Sliema, Malta, on October 31, 1975, aged 78. He was interred in the family vault at Santa Maria Addolorata Cemetery in Paola.


Calleia was posthumously honoured by the Malta postal authority with a set of two commemorative stamps issued in his memory in 1997. In October 2005, a monument consisting of a bust of Calleia was erected in front of the house where he was born. The bust was made gratis by sculptor Anton Agius on the initiative of then 15-year-old, Eman Bonnici.


External links[edit]