Sunday, December 18, 2016

Mein lieber herr, Sig Ruman

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

Okay, I was all set to write about the life and career of Sig Ruman, but it turns out there's not a lot of information on him out there. His IMDB and Wikipedia pages have the same handful of facts: born in Hamburg, Germany in 1884; studied electrotechnology (yes, that's a real thing; it's the science of the application of electricity in technology); fought in World War 1; appeared on Broadway before switching to movies. I looked through my Billy Wilder biography, but he's barely mentioned there. Ditto for my Ernst Lubitsch biography. I guess I kinda hoped there was more information available.

So what can we say about him? For one thing, he was totally typecast. He usually played the pompous European blowhard. He was good at it, though! His size (six feet even, says IMDB), combined with his voice, made him a forceful presence on the screen. At the same time, he could inject a certain amount of whimsy into his roles. He seemed intimidating at first, but not so much that Groucho Marx or Jack Benny or Peter Lorre couldn't take him down a peg or two.

Obviously, he was a go-to guy to play a Nazi. One wonders how he felt about that. We know he shortened his name from Siegfried so it wouldn't sound too German. As many movies as he made, though, I imagine he was simply eager to accept the work. Even a cinematic Nazi is better than the real thing.

Not too much more I can say. For a long time, he was "that German guy" who always popped up in 30s and 40s movies until I learned who he was. I always enjoy seeing him, whether he's doing comedy or drama, but especially comedy. I can't think of any modern actor comparable to him. Christophe Waltz isn't as physically big as Ruman, nor as buffoonish. Ruman, like so many character actors from his time, was an original.

Films with Sig Ruman:
Nothing Sacred
To Be or Not To Be
Border Incident
Stalag 17
One Two Three


  1. Actually, there is a lot more to be learned and known about Sig Ruman, who was apparently a very well-liked and kindly person offscreen, and, despite having a successful line in playing Nazi's, pompous European Doctors, Professors, and Bureaucrats, also did get the occasional opportunities to play more human characters like Dutchy in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS(1939) and Louis Bouriette, the blind man who becomes the first person to be cured at Lourdes in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (he's also very good as a Father dealing with a son bordering on juvenile delinquency in an episode of an episode of JOHNNY STACCATO called "An Angry Young Man" (1960).

    Not only did Ruman study electrotechnology in school, he was also quite an amateur Entomologist (studies and collects insects). Margaret Sullivan remembered him happily showing of various specimens he had collected to her during the shooting of A DAY AT THE RACES.

    In the 1940's, Ruman moved to the small mountain town of Julian, California, about an hour from San Diego, after he went up there on a hunting trip and fell in love with the town. He became one of Julian's leading citizens, very fondly remembered by it's denizens, who recalled him lecturing on Entomology at the Julian High School Biology Class and a stout supporter of Julian's local charities. When he passed away in 1967, the whole town attended his funeral and he is buried in the Julian cemetery (we have actually been to the gravesite).


  2. Thanks. I knew about his movies, but nothing about his personal life, and I wanted to write something since I said I would.

  3. "An original" - that about covers it.

    Like most actors, more versatile than our memories of them might be. In Mr. Ruman's case, because of all the comedies, the memories are all kindly.

  4. Yeah, like many comedic actors, his dramatic side was just as strong. STALAG 17 might be one of the best examples of him doing both.

  5. Sig was very good and remarkable. I also prefer him in comedies. It was nice of the first commenter to provide more info on his life!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  6. I knew I wanted to write about Ruman as far back as last year. I'm still glad I did.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.