December 25 is the birthday of a suspiciously large number of people: among them is the beloved character actor Mike Mazurki (Markijan Mazurkiewicz, 1907-1990). A former professional wrestler, Mazurki stood 6′ 5″ tall, and normally played thugs, henchmen, gangsters, bouncers and other sorts of tough guys. Most of his roles were bit parts, but on numerous occasions he was given fairly generously sized supporting roles. Often his roles were identified as Polish, although Mazurki was from Galicia, an Eastern European region that has variously been part of Poland, Austria-Hungary and Ukraine over the centuries. Mazurki was ethnic Ukrainian.
Mazurki emigrated to the U.S. with his family at the age of six. Surprising to report, he earned a law degree from Fordham — he wrestled because the job was better paying! He also played pro football and basketball in his youth. His first screen credit was an extra role in Mae West’s Belle of the Nineties (1934). With a yellowface part in The Shanghai Gesture (1941) he began appearing in films regularly. Just a few of his over 150 credits: Gentleman Jim (1942), It Ain’t Hay (1943, with Abbott and Costello), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Whistling in Brooklyn (1943), The Princess and the Pirate (1945), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945, Jack Benny’s last film), Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945), Dick Tracy (1945), Nightmare Alley (1947), My Favorite Spy (1951), Davy Crocket King of the Wild Frontier (1955 and its 1956 sequel), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
John Ford took a later career liking to him, possible as a sort of Victor McLaglen replacement, whom the actor somewhat resembled (he also looked something like Anthony Quinn). You can see him in Ford’s Donovan’s Reed (1963), Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and 7 Women (1966). Jerry Lewis also liked him, casting him in The Errand Boy (1961), The Disorderly Orderly (1964) and Which Way to the Front? (1970). Mazurki’s penultimate film was Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy, a wonderful bit of Hollywood magic given his appearance in the original screen adaptation 45 years earlier. His very last role was in the 1990 straight-to-video comedy Mob Boss starring Eddie Deezen, Morgan Fairchild, William Hickey and Stuart Whitman.
To learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.