Kurt Kreuger, 89, Actor Portrayed Nazis

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Kurt Kreuger, 89, a German-born actor whose sinister blond good looks made him one of Hollywood’s reigning on-screen Nazis during World War II and a popular male pinup, died July 12 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a stroke.

Kreuger made his film debut as a German seaman in Edward Dmytryk’s “Mystery Sea Raider” (1940) and went on to play a variety of Gestapo henchmen and Nazi youth leaders before his breakthrough in “Sahara” (1943).

In that film, he played a German fighter pilot shot down over the North African desert and held captive by Humphrey Bogart and his desperate tank crew.

Directed by Zoltan Korda, “Sahara” has come to be regarded as one of the most strikingly photographed and forcefully acted war movies of its time, depicting great cruelty and hardship when most films glossed over those themes.

In that desert drama, Kreuger said his intense death scene at the hands of a Sudanese soldier named Tambul (Rex Ingram) came close to the real thing.

He told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1992: “I was running across the dunes when Tambul jumped on top of me and pressed my head into the sand to suffocate me. Only Zoltan forgot to yell cut, and Ingram was so emotionally caught up in the scene that he kept pressing my face harder and harder.

“Finally, I went unconscious. Nobody knew this. Even the crew was transfixed, watching this dramatic ‘killing.’ If Zoltan hadn’t finally said cut, as an afterthought, it would have been all over for me.”

Kreuger went on to appear in “Hotel Berlin,” “Paris Underground” and Robert Wise’s directorial debut, “Mademoiselle Fifi.” In the last he was a Prussian soldier who menaces a French laundress (Simone Simon) during the Franco-Prussian War.

After World War II, Kreuger transitioned from Nazis to other contemporary scoundrels in such films as the minor noir classic “The Dark Corner.” He had a promising role in Preston Sturges’ dark comedy “Unfaithfully Yours” (1948), flirting with the wife of a pathologically jealous symphony conductor (Rex Harrison).

“Unfortunately,” Kreuger later said, “when the movie was released, Rex Harrison got involved in the suicide of his lover, Carole Landis, and as Twentieth Century Fox feared a boycott of the film … the film was not promoted by the studio.”

He grew increasingly frustrated with what he called the “idle” pace of his career, broke his studio contract and left to act in Europe. He demonstrated a previously hidden talent for singing in the 1953 German film “Die Blaue Stunde” (“The Blue Hour”) and in 1954 played Ingrid Bergman’s ex-lover in “La Paura” (“Fear”), directed by Roberto Rossellini.

The films were not successes. He went back to playing a German U-boat navigator in “The Enemy Below” (1957) and a cruel commanding officer in “Legion of the Doomed” (1958). He was said to be deeply disappointed to lose the complex German officer role played by Marlon Brando in “The Young Lions.”

The son of a businessman, Kreuger was born July 23, 1916, in Michenberg, Germany, and raised in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where he preferred skiing to schooling.

His father encouraged his early studies in economics and medicine in London and New York but withdrew financial support when his son made clear his interest in acting. Early on, he won a small part on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s wartime drama “Candle in the Wind” (1941) starring Helen Hayes, who remained a friend.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1944 and said he rarely felt any social repercussions at the time for playing Nazis. “I sensed some kind of hatred from neighbors after I had bought my first home in Hollywood, but for the rest of it, I was welcome everywhere,” he said. “I’ve never very much considered myself a German. This may well be the key to why I’ve always felt like a cosmopolitan.”

A bachelor, he traveled the world in luxury, once complaining to a newspaper travel editor about too much coverage of “cheapest fares and B&Bs.” Besides his main residence in Beverly Hills, he also enjoyed skiing near his second home in Aspen, Colo. He had many German shepherds and schnauzers.

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