Love Malta

Joseph Calleja: The Maltese Actor Who Made it to Hollywood

Share with friends

Malta is famous for often appearing on screen with its views and architecture. Yet, there are other reasons Malta or its people appear on screen. One of the most famous is in fact, a maltese actor, who had no shortage of impressive films on his roster: Joseph Calleja.

Early Life

Joseph Calleja’s parents, Pasquale and Eleonore Calleja, were of Spanish and English origins. Of course, it seems that as a young man Calleia always had a love for the arts. At age 12 he supposedly bought some harmonicas and got together a group of peer-musicians and made a band. 

Image was cropped. Attribution: Walter Wanger, producer, and United Artists; no photographer credited, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After studying in St Julian’s and St. Aloysius’ Colleges, he went to London to become an engineer. Still, his heart was in the art-world and so he started to get gigs in music halls. He did so till the Great War. After it began, he joined the British Transport service and spent almost three years cruising the world. 

In 1917 Joseph Calleja went to the US. It was here that he changed his name, started identifying his own potential and realizing it. 

The Taste of the Entertainment World

His first jobs in New York were stoking a furnace at a department store and repairing taxis in New York City. In the meantime he started performing in several plays and musicals on Broadway. A 10-year old Orson Welles saw him act in the leading role in one of these plays (Small Miracle, 1934). Later Welles would say that he was one of the best actors he’s ever known. 

This play also led him to his next stop: Hollywood, in a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

Joseph Calleja in Hollywood

Calleia (as he was then known, to make it more easily readable) was now starring in a bunch of films. He was mostly typecast as a villain, probably due to his Mediterranean features. Additionally, he acted alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest names of the time.

Here are some notable Joseph Calleja films that he starred in alongside some big Hollywood names:

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) by Sam Wood, With Gary Cooper and Igrid Bergman
  • Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (1942) by Zoltan Korda
  • Gilda (1946) by Charles Vidor, With Rita Hayworth and George Macready
  • The Caddy (1955) by Norman Taurog, With  singer and actor Dean Martin and comedian-actor Jerry Lewis
  • Touch of Evil (1958) by Orson Welles, With Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh
  • The Alamo (1960) by John Wayne, With John Wayne himself as director and actor. 
Image was cropped. Attribution: Universal Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. First appered in alley Sunday Star-Monitor-Herald (Harlingen, Texas), March 10, 1940 (page 10)

Fun Facts about Joseph Calleja

That’s Amore

You’re probably familiar with the song That’s Amore. That song was introduced by Dean Martin in the film The Caddy, where he’s singing around this dinner table with Jerry Lewis by his side. In fact, in this famous scene Calleja can be seen going along between them playing an accordian. 

Working with Welles and Heston

It should be mentioned that the 10-year old Orson Welles never forgot Calleja. He eventually managed to get him to star in his incredible noir Touch of Evil. This is probably my personal favorite role of Calleja. He not only delivers a killer-performance, but we have to remember that he was being directed by and acting with one of film’s most acclaimed directors. 

The Godfather

To come to the anecdote in the article’s title, this seems to be true. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, but also if it wasn’t. In any case, after retiring from Hollywood and returning to Malta in the mid 60’s, Calleja received a telegram from Francis Ford Coppola to act in The Godfather. The role he was offered—again, supposedly—was the one which was eventually given to Marlon Brando; that of Vito Corleone. 

Unfortunately Calleja rejected the offer due to health reasons. 

It is worth noting that as great as this story is, Coppola never confirmed it—although that would make sense seeing as his story was about how he always had Brando in mind—but according to what I heard from the late local film buff Andrew Borda, who was a good friend of Calleia, this was happened. 

Image was cropped. Attribution: Continentaleurope, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mementos in Malta

Calleja died in 1975 and was buried in Addolorata cemetery in Paola. The Maltese government had released a stamp with his face in his honor for his 100th birthday in 1997, and eventually also erected a bust in front of his birthplace by the Maltese sculptor Anton Agius. Unfortunately Calleja’s home in Sliema was recently demolished to make way for a guesthouse. 

Share with friends