Tonio Selwart

Tonio Selwart

Tonio Selwart (June 9, 1896 – November 2, 2002) was a Bavarian actor and stage performer.


Named Antonio Franz Theus Selmair-Selwart at birth, Tonio Selwart was born in Wartenberg, Bavaria, Germany, and raised in Munich. After studying medicine like his father (a well known surgeon), he decided instead to become an actor, following a life-long interest in theater. Tonio thereafter studied acting and appeared in many plays throughout Europe. He appeared in a variety of stage productions, including classics such as Shakespeare and modern popular works like Heinrich von Kleist's romantic dream play, "The Prince of Homburg", in which he played the title role.

After further honing his skills as a director, Tonio decided to try his luck in the United States of America. His luck panned out in New York City, where he landed the lead part in Lawrence Langner's and Armina Marshall's play "The Pursuit of Happiness" for the Theatre Guild in 1930. The comedy proved to be his first big success in America, running from 1933 to 1934, and made him, as he often put it, "a matinee idol for a whole year!" Riding high on this success, Tonio decided to emigrate permanently and became an American citizen.

Fittingly enough, Selwart was himself an officer and fought in World War I on the Austro-Hungarian side, as a lieutenant in the cavalry.

He derived his nickname "Tonio" from his first name and from his family background -- his parents were Austrian, and he had an Italian grandmother. He was familiar with the short story "Tonio Kroger," which dealt with a half-German, half-Italian young artist in pre-WWI Germany and was written by Thomas Mann (a friend of his) and had a tape recording of the story being read by Mann himself.

Mr. Selwart was popular, and had many friends in the film and theater world. His wife, Claire Volkhart, a painter and sculptor, died in Germany in 1935 and his longtime companion, Ilse Jennings, a Paris-born Spanish artist, died in 1967.

He died at the age of 106 in New York City.

Acting career


Selwart made a total of 21 film appearances. His debut was in Fritz Lang's "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943), as a Nazi Gestapo chief. In the 1954 feature "The Barefoot Contessa" he appeared as the Pretender King, with Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. His last film appearance, "The Other Side of the Wind" (1972) for Orson Welles, is still unreleased. The film was reportedly left largely unedited when Welles died in 1985; Selwart as well as other cast and crew members had to be dismissed because of lack of funds. Even after the film was considered finished, the Iranian producers refused to release it. According to Welles in a letter to Selwart, it contains an excellent performance by this actor as the Baron. Selwart was much concerned that this "swan song" of his had never been released and even in 1992, at the age of 95, regretted that he would probably never see it. This was not only because of his age but because of his gradual loss of sight.

Other familiar titles are: "Anzio" by Edward Dmytryk, in 1968, his last Hollywood film appearance; "The North Star" (1943), directed by Lewis Milestone with a script by playwright Lillian Hellman, with Erich von Stroheim; "Edge of Darkness" (1943), also by Milestone, his first film role, where he played his first film German soldier role, opposite Judith Anderson; "Wilson" (1944), where he played the German ambassador to Washington, D.C. during World War I, Count von Bernstorff; "The Cross of Lorraine" (1943), with Gene Kelly; "The Hitler Gang", playing the Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg and "Romanoff and Juliet" (1961), written, directed and starring Peter Ustinov, and an Italian-American adaptation of Homer's "Iliad," "Helen of Troy" (1956), directed by Robert Wise, with Rossanna Podesta, Jacques Sernas, and in two featured roles, Tonio Selwart playing opposite a then almost unknown Brigitte Bardot, in 1956.

While he played only supporting roles in English-language cinema, Selwart starred in Italian and French films, notably in "Lupo della Frontiere" ("Wolf of the Frontier", 1951), during the 1950s; he never appeared in a German film. He also made a brief speaking part appearance in Luchino Visconti's Italian film "Senso" in 1954, at the beginning opera house scene, as an Austrian officer. He spoke fluent Italian, English and French, which helped him with roles in several countries. Starting from the late 1940s until the 1950s and 1960s, he also appeared on American television, making guest appearances in drama programs, most notably in "The Fifth Column" for Buick Electra Playhouse/CBS in 1960, playing an almost-deaf Nazi officer in a group of fifth columnists operating behind the lines in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s (the program was adapted from a story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by John Frankenheimer).


Selwart appeared on stage around the country (including Broadway) and in Canada. His performances included: "The Pursuit of Happiness" (touring with it across the U.S. and England), "Candle in the Wind" by Maxwell Anderson with Helen Hayes (where he played his first German Nazi officer role, a type of character he came to specialize in), "The Laughing Woman" with Helen Menken, "Autumn Crocus", "Seeds in the Wind", "Liliom" by Ferenc Molnar (in which Selwart played the title role), and "The Hidden River" in 1957, among many others.

Selwart's last American stage appearances were with the Lotte Lenya in the 1964 tour of "Brecht on Brecht" and in the 1965 Carnegie Hall performance of "Die Dreigroschenoper"—"The Threepenny Opera". He studied at The Actor's Studio in New York and with Michael Chekov in California. Tonio had referred to Chekov as "My best teacher in America." As a member of Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory he appeared in "Peter Pan", "Alice in Wonderland", and Frank Wedekind's "Spring's Awakening"—a tragedy about adolescence which he also directed. Writer and poet May Sarton appeared in this production—one of her earliest stage roles.

Reference note

Most of the information given here comes from Gretchen Berg, a journalist who interviewed Mr. Selwart in his home in 1992, in New York. She kept in touch with him until 1999, three years before his death. She had actually met him almost thirty years earlier, in 1963, when she was 20 and he was 67 at the Hotel St. Moritz with her father, film critic and historian Herman G. Weinberg and their mutual friend, Fritz Lang. Out of this encounter she fashioned a two-part article, "La Nuit Viennoise," published in Cahiers du Cinema, Paris, 1965-1966, in which she wrote about that evening, mentioning Selwart as having been a part of the festivities. She photographed Mr. Selwart in 1998 and 1999 as well, in his apartment in New York.

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