Bitter Pill Facts About George Sanders, The British Villain

August 21, 2023 | Byron Fast

Bitter Pill Facts About George Sanders, The British Villain

While the name George Sanders may not ring a loud and clear bell—his face and voice are instantly recognizable. Studios tended to use him for villainous roles or as characters who were agonizingly pretentious. He was, in fact, a man that audiences loved to hate. 

The funny thing was that in real life he was more or less the same. Was there a reason why Sanders was so bitter?

1. He Had A Rude Awakening

George Henry Sanders was born on July 3, 1906 to British parents in Saint Petersburg Russia. He had a glittering childhood and enjoyed all the privileges of his high-class life. But this utopic lifestyle was doomed. In 1917, the Russian Revolution turned his world upside down. Young Sanders had his first taste of reality—and it was brutal.

George Sanders In A SuitMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

2. He Fled The Country

The Russian Revolution stripped Sanders of the luxury he'd become accustomed to: “The Tsar had signed away our inheritances, our holdings, and our gilt-edged future...” His family—seeing the writing on the wall—had no choice but to flee the country. They ended up in Britain, but this turned about to be yet another nightmare for the young boy.

Portrait Of George SandersMichael Hardy, Getty Images

3. He Was Lonely

In England, George Sanders was a refugee. There was a loneliness to being a foreigner in a new country. His new situation was in biting contrast to his comfortable, carefree lifestyle in Russia. However, by the time 1926 rolled around, Sanders found a way to escape. The young man had a taste for adventure—and as we'll see, it got him into loads of trouble.

George Sanders Leaning Back And Smiling.Express, Getty Images

4. He Had A Bizarre Lifestyle

George Sanders began working for a tobacco company in 1926—and this led him to a colorful and bizarre chapter of his life in South America. According to his memoirs, Sanders got up to all kinds of shenanigans. He owned a pet ostrich, swam in his dress clothes in Parque Belgrano—and most scandalously—had a drunken duel.

George Sanders With A Model AirplaneArchive Photos, Getty Images

5. They Kicked Him Out

According to Sanders, this infamous duel not only landed him behind bars, but also got him booted out of the continent altogether. When the Great Depression hit, he found himself back in Britain. There, he began a more sobering line of work in advertising, but not for long. 

The company secretary was none other than Greer Garson, who—at the time—had yet to become a huge star. She was the one to nudge Sanders toward a whole new career: acting.

Greer Garson wearing a yellow blouse, looking to the left.Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

6. He Managed To Stay On 

Sanders' first foray into films was 1936’s The Man Who Could Work Miracles. In it, the three male actors were supposed to seem god-like, so the costume department decided to grease them up. But there was just one problem. As a result, the horses they were riding also got greasy and…well…let’s just say things got slippery. 

In the end, Sanders was the only hunk who managed to stay on the horse. He may have stayed on the horse, but destiny was about to take him off the island. 

Anne Baxter And George SandersSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

7. He Could Not Refuse

In addition to films, Sanders continued to work on the British stage. That's when received an offer that he simply could not refuse: a role in the stage play, Conversation Piece. Written and directed by the prolific playwright Noel Coward, the project took place in New York City. 

Sanders raced across the pond to kickstart his American career. Sadly, the play was not a success and had to close after only 55 performances. But there was still hope. Hollywood was just around the around corner.

Noel Coward Playing The PianoSasha, Getty Images

8. He Was A Villain 

In 1936, 20th Century Fox needed someone to play a villainous role. The film was Lloyd's of London and the studio thought that Sanders’ British accent and suave demeanor made him the perfect foil to Tyrone Power’s character. 

Lloyd’s of London was an instant sensation that began Power’s illustrious career—and Sanders didn't leave empty-handed either...Fox offered him a seven-year contract. 

Portrait of Tyrone PowerJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

9. He Was A Saint 

The first thing Fox did with Sanders was to loan him out. RKO was looking for a suave and debonair guy to fill the shoes of a Robin Hood type character known as the Saint. This was a series of B-movies whose original star had decided to take a hike. Sanders stepped in and made the roll his own. But wait a minute. 

Had Sanders really come all the way to Hollywood just to star in some B-movies? That was when Mr Alfred Hitchock came calling and everything changed. 

George Sanders PortraitArchive Photos, Getty Images

10. It Was A Step Up 

1940’s Rebecca was Hitchock’s first American feature and his only one to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Again, Sanders played the villain. Many critics consider Rebecca to be a classic, and it has an astounding approval rating of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. This was a huge step up from his previous B-movies. hat would Sanders do now? 

Photograph of Alfred HitchcockHulton Archive / Stringer, Getty Images

11. He Got The Lead

It was now time for Sanders to be the lead in a big picture. This was 1942’s The Moon and Sixpence. The source material was a W Somerset Maugham novel that was loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. Interestingly enough, the storyline was just as scandalous as the troubles the production encountered.

Sanders' character leaves his wife and family to selfishly pursue a career as a painter. He then seduces his friend’s wife only to casually reject her a short time later. Like the real Gauguin, he eventually moves to Polynesia—and that’s where conflict began to brew.

The Moon And The Sixpence SceneUnited Archives, Getty Images

12. They Did It Twice 

Like the real Gauguin, Sanders' character marries a woman when he is in Polynesia. To play the role of his wife, they cast an actor from Indonesia named Devi Wani. That's when the studio executives began to worry: Would audiences be okay with a white actor marrying someone Indonesian? 

To accommodate audiences that might not approve, they filmed two versions. One with Sanders and Wani, and another with Sanders and American actor, Elena Verdugo. Now Sanders would just have to wait. Would either version of The Moon and the Sixpence please audiences? 

Elena Verdugo 1953Radio-TV Mirror, Wikimedia Commons

13. He Walked Away 

As it turned out, The Moon and Sixpence was only a moderate success, so it was back to the B-movies for Sanders. RKO had since canceled The Saint and replaced it with something very similar called The Falcon. It was so similar, in fact, that the writer of The Saint sued the studio for taking his idea. 

Sanders was also not thrilled with the new series and stepped aside after just four films. Ironically, when Sanders stepped away from The Falcon, his brother replaced him. 

A Date With The Falcon PosterLMPC, Getty Images

14. It Was A Coin Toss

Since his brother was now also acting, they had to figure out who got to keep the family name and who had to change theirs. The brothers decided to let fate decide, so they flipped a coin. Sanders’ brother lost the toss and then had to find a different surname. 

He marched into a payphone and dialed a random number. When someone answered “Conway’s Fish Market," Sanders’ brother got his new name: Tom Conway. 

Tom Conway PortraitFilm Favorites, Getty Images

15. He Said No

Sanders decided he would leave the B-movies in his brother’s capable hands. He was now in search of classier material. What Fox offered him, however, was the 1942 werewolf film, The Undying Monster. Sanders couldn’t say “no” fast enough and landed himself in Fox’s bad books—and he definitely paid the price.

As punishment, the studio completely suspended him from making movies. Fox then offered Sanders a role in Immortal Sergeant which was a respectable drama starring Henry Fonda. Surely this was what Sanders was looking for—or was it? 

George Sanders Reading A BooHulton Archive, Getty Images

16. He Denied Them Twice

While Immortal Sergeant certainly sounded like a better fit than The Undying Monster, Sanders said no to Fox one more time. This time, Sanders said it was because he was through with playing villains, which didn’t appease the studio’s anger at all. They once again hit Sanders with a suspension. 

It seemed that Sanders was going to be spending a lot of time going to the movies instead of being in them. Then Fox did something surprising. 

George Sanders leaning out a windowStephenson, Getty Images

17. There Was A Cherry On Top 

Fox may have felt bad for all of the suspensions, because they then had a new offer for Sanders. It was a lead role in a movie where he wasn’t a villain. There was even a nice cherry on top: a pay raise. The film was School for Saboteurs and Sanders finally had something he wanted to appear in. 

Sanders was happy, Fox was happy. What could possibly go wrong? 

George Sanders And Lynn Bari In A CarArchive Photos, Getty Images

18. They Changed It

Once production was underway, Fox had an idea to change the title of the film. School for Saboteurs was now going by the much sillier sounding title: They Came To Blow Up America. Sanders completed the film which ended up being a mild success. But you know what wasn’t a success? Sander’s marriage. 

George Sanders On The PhoneSilver Screen Collection, Getty Images

19. She Was Madly In Love

Back in 1940, Sanders had married non-actor Susan Larsen and their relationship did not survive Sanders' rise to fame. But though his marriage had failed by 1949, the actor quickly found a new romance to spice up his life.

One night, the newly-single Sanders was tinkling the ivories at a party, and a beautiful woman approached him, and told him she was “madly in love” with him. Sanders looked up and saw that it was none other than Hollywood superstar Zsa Zsa Gabor. All Sanders had to do now was think of an appropriate—and witty—reply. 

Zsa Zsa Gabor sitting on a couchNixon, Getty Images

20. He Played It Cool

Sanders certainly knew who Gabor was and knew she’d been recently divorced from her second husband. Sanders knew enough to play it cool with Gabor, and so his answer to her proclamation of love was this: “How well I understand, my dear”. This was exactly the kind of witty and narcissistic reply that Gabor loved to hear.

They began their relationship that night—and it was destined to be a rocky one.

George Sanders And Zsa Zsa GaborPictorial Parade, Getty Images

21. She Kept Her Eye On Him

In 1950, Sanders landed a role in a film that everyone knew was going to be a hit. It was All About Eve and it starred Bette Davis. Sanders plays theater critic Addison DeWitt and he had a few scenes with a young up-and-coming actor—none other than Marilyn Monroe. Of course, when Gabor got a look at her, she became insanely jealous.

Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George SandersAll About Eve (1950), 20th Century Fox

22. She Fascinated Him

George Sanders certainly had a soft spot for Marilyn Monroe. Monroe's interest in "intellectual subjects" took him by surprise and he confessed that "In her presence it was hard to concentrate". Gabor certainly didn't like the idea of another stunning, blonde woman getting close to her husband and reportedly said, “I was furious. We were married and George would sit with that little tart. An innocent, wild animal, I would call her".

But though his role in All About Eve sparked some drama in his personal life, it was one of the best things Sanders ever did.

Marilyn Monroe In A Red DressBaron, Getty Images

23. It Was A Success

As it turned out, All About Eve was as big a hit as everyone thought it would be. It also ended up being Sanders' favorite of all his films. He called it “witty, sophisticated and brilliantly written and directed”. It worked out well for Sanders as well. 

He picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor—his only Academy Award. His career was really on fire, and he was married to the beautiful Gabor. He clearly had it all. Sadly, he was about to lose it. 

George Sanders And Zsa Zsa Gabor Looking At Each OtherBettmann, Getty Images

24. He Lost His Edge 

Sanders and Gabor tied the knot in 1949, the same year he divorced his first wife. Sanders was clearly enamored with Gabor, and she of him. In the early 1950s Gabor became a guest on many TV talk shows, while her outrageous comments were making her a star. Suddenly, Gabor was a national sensation, and Sanders felt envious. 

Envy isn’t a good look on anyone, and it sent Gabor into another man’s arms. 

Zsa Zsa Gabor factsLovely to Look At (1952), MGM

25. He Was All Man

When Sanders’ wife had an affair, it wasn’t just with anyone. Porfirio Rubirosa was not only a polo player, he was also a race car driver and diplomat, with a playboy reputation. He was all man and everyone knew something else about him: apparently, he was very good in bed. 

Sure Sanders had his Oscar, but Gabor trumped it with the world’s number one bachelor. This humiliated Sanders, and this made him do something incredibly stupid.

Portrait of Porfirio RubirosaHulton Archive, Getty Images

26. He Followed Her

Gabor’s affair with Rubirosa was all over the tabloids, which must have made Sanders feel even worse. The media had a field day, and the embarrassment pushed Sanders to the very brink. 

On Chiristmas Eve 1953, Sanders hired two detectives and drove with them to Gabor’s house in Bel Air. The first part of the plan was to wait in the car outside until Gabor and Rubirosa went up to the bedroom. And the second part? Well, he hadn’t really thought that through. 

Porfirio Rubirosa and Zsa Zsa GaborTerry Fincher, Getty Images

27. He Tried To Spy On Her

When Sanders and his detectives witnessed his wife and her lover climb the stairs to the bedroom, Sanders sprang into action. He used a ladder to climb the side of the building, and his plan was to look into the window and see what Gabor and Rubirosa were doing. What happened next, however, wasn’t according to Sanders’ plan: not at all. 

George Sanders And Zsa Zsa Gabor In Formal WearBettmann, Getty Images

28. He Broke Through

Instead of getting an eyeful of his wife and her lover in the act, Sanders accidentally broke through the window and landed on the bedroom floor. Gabor grabbed a bedsheet to cover herself, and Rubirosa did what cheaters do best: He took off. 

Sanders got over the surprise of being in the middle of the bedroom and went to work on humiliating Gabor. The way he did it, however, was more than a little odd. 

Porfirio Rubirosa in his carBernard Cahier, Getty Images

29. He Ripped It Up

Sanders wanted to let Gabor know how mad he was, so he grabbed a framed photo she had of him. Sanders then violently ripped the photo into several pieces. Then he upped the drama even more and made an announcement. He told his wife that he was an old man and had “no business climbing ladders”. 

Gabor’s response to her husband's intrusion is Hollywood folklore at its finest.

Zsa Zsa Gabor Wearing A Big HatKeystone, Getty Images

30. They Exchanged Gifts

Gabor had witnessed her husband breaking through her bedroom window and had quietly watched him tear up his own picture. So, how does a glamor puss like Gabor respond? She offered him a drink. 

Over cocktails, Gabor gave Sanders his Christmas gift. In response, Sanders cheekily said, “this visit is my Christmas present to you". 

George Sanders And Zsa Zsa Gabor Sitting OutsideGene Lester, Getty Images

31. It Shocked Him 

In 1959, Sanders appeared in Solomon and Sheba with Tyrone Power who Sanders knew well from filming Lloyd’s of London together. The location for the shoot was Spain and likely Sanders was happy to be re-acquainted with his co-star and friend. However, halfway through the filming, the two men had a duel to film. 

What happened during the duel scene shocked Sanders to his very core.

Tyrone Power and George Sanders in Solomon and ShebaKeystone, Getty Images

32. He Needed A Hospital 

While Sanders and Power were filming their duel scene, Power reeled back and appeared to be unwell. Power said that he needed a moment and went to his dressing trailer. When Sanders went in to check on his friend and co-star, he appeared to be in serious rouble. It was then that someone suggested they get him to a hospital. 

Sadly, the superstar did not survive the trip and passed in the ambulance. Power had already appeared in over half of the movie, what were they going to do?  

Tyrone Power HeadshotSmith Collection/Gado, Getty Images

33. He Had To No Time To Mourn

It turned out that they were going to have to reshoot all of Power’s scenes. Sanders was mourning the loss of a friend and colleague and now he had to continue working. To replace Power, the producers brought in Yul Brynner who was already famous from movies like The King and I and The Ten Commandments

How was Sanders going to work with someone who was replacing his dear departed friend? Not very well. 

George Sanders Using A White PhoneJohn Springer Collection, Getty Images

34. He Had Unkind Words

After his time on Solomon and Sheba, Sanders did not have kind words for co-star Brynner. He recounted how Brynner had an entourage of people with rather meaningless tasks. Some kept his head perfectly bald with an electric razor, while others rushed to light him up when he needed it. 

What Sanders really hated, however, was Brynner’s attitude.

Yul Brynner Sitting OutsideGianni Ferrari, Getty Images

35. He Had A Reputation

Sanders unkindly described his costar Yul Brynner as “sphinxlike” as his entourage took care of his every whim. He also went on about Brynner’s pretentious outfits which consisted of either a black or white leather Christian Dior suit. 

It was quickly becoming apparent that you didn’t want to be in Sanders’ bad books. He was getting a reputation as someone who could easily rip you to shreds with a few well-chosen words. 

Yul Brynner with his arms crossedullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

36. He Was Rude

Sanders also had a reputation of a different nature. It turned out that he hated giving interviews and it was for a surprising reason: because he didn’t receive any money from them. To make matters worse, Sanders didn’t give autographs to fans. 

He certainly wasn’t one to charm his fans and insisted that he liked that people thought he was “rude and disagreeable”. But that wasn't all.

George Sanders SmilingA.W. Cox, Getty Images

37. He Stopped The Laughter

Sanders was appearing with comedic actor Peter Sellers in his hilarious second installment of the The Pink Panther movie series: A Shot In The Dark. Sellers was a hilarious improviser and often caused crew members to break into laughter and therefore ruin the take. 

To combat this, Sanders introduced a kitty that anyone who broke into guffaws would have to pay into. By the end of the filming, it totalled 200 pounds—which they donated to a farmer. A Shot in The Dark was a goofball comedy. What came next was something much more serious. 

George Sanders And Peter Sellers Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images

38. He Was His Hero

George Sanders had been a big fan of Italian director Roberto Rossellini and got a chance to act in one of his films: Journey to Italy. Sanders’ costar was Ingrid Bergman, who was also the famed director’s wife. Sanders was more than a little excited to be working with one of his heroes of direction. Things, however, didn’t quite turn out as Sanders had hoped. 

George Sanders And Ingrid BergmanBettmann, Getty Images

39. He Burst Into Tears

Sanders was likely very excited to see Rossellini’s directing style. However, Rossellini seemed far more preoccupied with his scuba diving hobby than actually directing the film.

Sanders apparently spent the time in Italy feeling frustrated and angry and even bursting into tears. In spite of his unpleasant experience on the set, Journey to Italy is on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Essential 100 list of films. 

Rossellini And Ingrid Bergman And George SandersBettmann, Getty Images

40. They Had An Awkward Reunion

After what happened with Sanders’ wife and her lover, it was no surprise when Sanders and Gabor split up. They finalized the divorce in 1954, but then had a very awkward reunion. You see, Sanders and his brother were working together on 1956’s Death of a Scoundreland who should walk in as the leading lady? You guessed it: Zsa Zsa Gabor. 

Luckily, it seemed as though the split with Gabor had been amicable. Sanders was ready for wife number three. 

George Sanders And Zsa Zsa Gabor OlderMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

41. He Swept In 

Ronald Colman was a British star who had made the transition from silent films to Hollywood talkies. After appearing in Around the World in 80 Days, his next picture was going to be a horror movie called Village of the Damned. When the writers finished the script for the film, Colman wasn’t ready to film. 

Sadly, he’d passed as a result of an operation. Colman’s demise left his wife, Benita Hume, a widow—but not for long. It seemed that Sanders was waiting in the wings. He swooped in and married Hume just one year after she’d lost her husband. But there was another weird twist in store.

Benita Hume Glamor ShotUniversal History Archive, Getty Images

42. He Replaced Him 

Sanders had taken Colman’s wife, but that wasn’t all. Remember, Colman was going to appear in a horror movie just before his passing. When the producers of the film realized they needed a new leading man, they turned to Sanders. Sanders had married Colman’s widow and then taken his final film appearance. Surely this was not a great start to a marriage. 

George Sanders With Two MenUnited Archives, Getty Images

43. It Didn’t Last

Sanders later described his marriage to Hume as “the best thing that has happened” in his life. Sadly, the marriage was not going to last. Only a few years after they wed, Hume got a horrible diagnosis: She had bone cancer. Sanders canceled a show he was supposed to star in on Broadway and prepared to take care of his wife. 

In 1967, Hume lost her battle with cancer and Sanders lost his one true love. The loss devastated Sanders, and he used his pain as an inspiration for his next acting role. 

Benita Hume Holding FlowersFox Photos, Getty Images

44. It Was A Coincidence 

In 1967, Sanders got a call to voice a character in Disney’s animated movie The Jungle Book. The character was Shere Khan who was a ruthless tiger that hated all humans—a good fit for how Sanders was feeling after losing his wife. 

Animators made Shere Khan look exactly like Sanders—and of all the characters, this resemblance is the most uncanny.  

The Jungle Book PosterLMPC, Getty Images

45. He Called It Quits

After The Jungle Book, Sanders did one last film. This was the John Huston directed The Kremlin Letter. In his first scene, Sanders—who was then 61 years old—is in a San Francisco gay bar and playing the piano. After completing the picture, he announced that he was through with show business. 

It seemed that Sanders had still not recovered from losing his wife. Sadly, there was more heartache in store. 

George Sanders In The Kremlin LetterStanley Bielecki Movie Collection, Getty Images

46. He Faced A Double Tragedy 

While mourning the loss of Hume, Sanders had more tragedy to deal with. He lost both his mother and brother Tom Conway in one year. Around the same time, Sanders made a poor investment and lost millions of dollars. Things were looking bad for Sanders, so he looked in an unlikely place for help. 

George Sanders With His Hand Up20th Century Fox, Getty Images

47. She Made An Unusual Offer 

Even though Zsa Zsa Gabor had cheated on him, Sanders and his ex-wife remained close after their divorce. In 1970, Gabor saw how distraught her friend was. He was lonely and hurting financially. Gabor, in her special guileless way, offered Sanders more than a shoulder to cry on. She offered her own sister. 

Gabor could see how much Sanders was suffering, so she did what she thought was best: She suggested he marry her sister. 

George Sanders In A SuitMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

48. His Marriage Was A Sham 

Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sister, Magda Gabor had suffered from a stroke—something that would also ail Sanders in his final years. The two of them were, quite frankly, a mess. 

This would be Magda Gabor’s fifth marriage and Sanders’ fourth and final. Sanders soon saw the marriage for what it was—a sham—and had it annulled only 32 days after they’d wed. This was a cue for Sanders: he began a phase of heavy drinking. 

Magda Gabor SmilingBettmann, Getty Images

49. He’d Lost It

Even though his marriage to Magda Gabor had been a disaster, after it, Sanders still felt terribly alone. He was also suffering from a poor memory, which may have been a precursor to dementia. In addition, Sanders discovered that he no longer had the capacity to play the piano. 

When he realized that he’d lost that skill, he looked at the glorious grand piano in his house, took it outside and destroyed it with an axe. While it seemed that Sanders was at the end of his rope, believe it or not, he still had the energy to date. 

Older George SandersHarry Benson, Getty Images

50. He Sold It 

From 1968 to 1972, Sanders dated Mexican actor Lorraine Chanel, who had also been in a relationship with Gary Cooper. Chanel had been in a few forgettable movies but was hardly a star. For some unknown reason, Chanel persuaded Sanders to sell something that he really loved: his house in Majorca, Spain. 

The loss of his beloved home was yet another reason for Sanders to feel depressed. On April 23, 1972, he’d had enough. 

George Sanders Wearing PajamasMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

51. He Checked Himself In

Sanders couldn’t see much reason left to live. He went to a town called Castelldefels, which is near Barcelona. There, he checked himself into a hotel and swallowed five entire bottles of Nembutal, which is a barbiturate. Even with this large number of pills, he lived for another two days. When he passed he was 65 years old. 

In case there was any doubt about what had happened, Sanders left two notes explaining why he’d taken the pills. 

George Sanders And Barbara StanwyckMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

52. He Left Behind A Note

We only have one of the notes that Sanders wrote and it goes like this: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck”. It was clear that Sanders had taken his own life. While this act seemed to come out of nowhere, the reality is something quite different.  

George Sanders In BedArchive Photos, Getty Images

53. He Knew It All Along 

Three years after Sanders had taken his own life, actor and writer David Niven wrote his memoir Bring on the Empty Horses. In the memoir, Niven revealed what he’d known about his friend Sanders for some time. It turns out that way back in 1937, Sanders had confided in him that he would use barbiturates to take his own life and that he would do it when he was 65 years old. 

Was this just a good guess or his plan all along? Probably, we’ll never know. 

David Niven and Hjordis GenbergMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

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