Joseph Calleia (// kə-LAY-ə; born Joseph Alexander Caesar Herstall Vincent Calleja, August 4, 1897 – October 31, 1975) was a Maltese-born American actor and singer on the stage and in films, radio and television.
After serving in the British Transport Service during World War I he travelled to the United States and began his career on the stage, initially in musical comedy, but later in such notable original Broadway productions as Broadway (1926), The Front Page (1928), The Last Mile (1930), and Grand Hotel (1930). Calleia became a star with the play Small Miracle (1934), his first real role as a heavy, and he was put under contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Calleia excelled as the villain in Hollywood films, but he fought against typecasting and created a succession of darkly mysterious characters edged with humor in films including Algiers (1938), Five Came Back (1939), Golden Boy (1939), The Glass Key (1942) and Gilda (1946). During World War II Calleia led the Malta War Relief organization in the US, and toured for the USO and the Hollywood Victory Committee. After the war he continued to work steadily in motion pictures and television, and he starred in the 1948 London stage premiere of Arthur Miller's Tony Award-winning play, All My Sons. Calleia's performance in Orson Welles's 1958 film Touch of Evil is regarded as one of the best in his career.
Joseph Alexander Caesar Herstall Vincent Calleja[b] was born August 4, 1897, in Notabile (now called Mdina), in the administrative area of Saqqajja,[c] in the Crown Colony of Malta. His parents were Pasquale and Eleonore Calleja; his father was an architect. Calleia studied at St. Julian's and St. Aloysius Colleges. At age 12 he used the English pound given to him for Christmas to buy two dozen harmonicas, and organized a local band whose performances were soon netting £100 a week. Sent by his father to London to study engineering, Calleia employed his good tenor voice in music halls, performing ballads of the Scottish Highlands in traditional dress. He worked as Joseph Spurin, using his mother's maiden name due to his father's disapproval.
In 1914 Calleia joined the British Transport Service. After cruising the world for two-and-a-half years, his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. Hospitalized for three months, Calleia was awarded a campaign medal and honorably discharged. He traveled to the United States in 1917. Unemployed, he sang for the Red Cross and armed services, and volunteered for the American Tank Corps.
Calleia began his stage career on Armistice Day. After World War I he found only limited success in vaudeville. He earned his living stoking the furnace at a department store, and got a night job washing and repairing New York City streetcars. By day he haunted theatrical booking offices. The Henry W. Savage agency sent Calleia to Denver, where he made his stage debut singing in the chorus of Jerome Kern's musical comedy Have a Heart. The following season he had a bit part in Pietro (1920), an Otis Skinner vehicle that played six weeks on Broadway and 40 weeks on tour. Calleia supplemented his salary by working as assistant stage manager and repairing trunks at $3 each.
Calleia's first speaking role on the stage was in The Broken Wing (1920), a Broadway comedy starring George Abbott and Louis Wolheim. He understudied all of the parts and appeared as a Mexican peon who played the guitar and sang a song called "Adelai". Calleia composed the tune, and asked Abbott to write the lyrics; the song was published and eventually brought each of them royalties of as much as $2,000 a year.