That Hungarians from William Fox (Fuchs), founder of Fox, and actors like Peter Lorre and Tony Curtis, immigrated to and helped shape Hollywood in its golden era is not exactly new news. Less commemorated are the working actors who don’t have stars on Hollywood Boulevard, but were cast not despite their Central Europeanness but rather because such character actors were in demand, particularly in the post-War years, Bela Lugosi notwithstanding.
Two such actors were father and son Oscar (Oszkár) and Oscar Beregi Jr., both of whom were born in Hungary and found fame, to different degrees, in western Europe and Hollywood. Neither was a silver screen leading man, but rather were character actors, filling in roles that demanded an accent and dark Central European foreboding. This includes playing war criminals, Freud-like professors, and tough-guy Slavic villains.
Oscar Berengi (senior) had a life worthy of a film itself. Born in 1878 in Budapest of Jewish-Hungarian parents, he experienced antisemitism to a degree that a play he was performing in had to be cancelled following demonstrations. In fact, he was the only prominent actor in the Budapest National Theater of Jewish heritage at the time. Due to his political activities, he was banished to Vienna, where he continued his career as a stage actor. Eventually he caught the eye of director Fritz Lang, who cast him in 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. From there, he moved to Hollywood, signing a five-film deal with Universal Pictures. Among his notable films were Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madame and Alan Ladd-staring Desert Legion. Berengi spent the rest of his life in California, but was buried in Budapest in 1965.
Talent runs in some families, and Berengi’s son, also named Oscar, born in Budapest in 1918, followed in his father’s footsteps to act in Hollywood, though he is primarily known as a television actor. Like his father, the accent he retained from Central Europe helped him land work, particularly in post WWII stories. One of his most memorable roles was that of a former concentration camp commander in an iconic Twilight Zone episode. That said, the film roles he landed will likely not be forgotten, including small parts in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. He died in 1976, unfortunately leaving no next Oscar Berengi to continue the legacy. But these Hungarian actors, like technicians and artists from across Europe, built Hollywood with their talent and work, and are sadly all too soon forgotten.
Below is Oscar Beregi Jr in a clip from his famous Twilight Zone role:
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