Umberto Sclanizza was born in Venice, Italy on 26 February 1893. His parents separated when he was a child, and his father Vittorio took him and his sister Iole to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he set up in business among the enormous Italian community there. Here Umberto entered the theatre and began training as an actor.
In 1915 Italy joined the Allied side in the First World War, and passage was arranged to take young Italians back to their native country to fight. Umberto Sclanizza served in the Army as a chef in the front line throughout the war.
He decided to remain in Italy after the war, and began working in touring theatre. Through the theatre company he met, and married, Maria Papa, an actor from a famous theatrical dynasty hailing from the opposite end of Italy, Calabria. Three children Scilla Sclaviza - aka Scilla Sclanizza - (1926 - 2006), Mario Sclaniza (1927 - 1993), Iole Sclanizza (1928 -) were born of the marriage, and a fourth died - along with the mother - during childbirth, in 1932.
As the Second World War approached, Umberto Sclanizza attempted to evacuate his family to a quiet part of the Middle East (his mother had gone to live in Egypt after her divorce, where she had given birth to a daughter, Ida Ruffato, in 1900). But as the British Embassy was about to issue Visas for Egypt, Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis. In an ironic twist, this gave him the opening into film for which he is remembered. Films included: 'Un' Avventura di Salvator Rosa' (The Adventure of Salvator Rosa) (1939); 'Sei bambine ed il Perseo' (Perseus and the six children) (1940); 'Il Re d'Inghilterra non paga' ('The King of England Won't Pay') (1941); 'Don Buonaparte' (1941); 'Don Cesare di Bazan' (1942) aka 'La Lama del giustiziere', ('The Executioner's Blade' Italy: reissue title). The war came home to Italy in 1943 and the country was divided in bitter civil war. The film movement that emerged from the turmoil, characterised by Italian Neorealism, had little need of classical actors like Umberto Sclanizza, and, amidst persistent ill-health, he returned occasionally to theatre work before his death in Venice on 14 December 1951.
Umberto Sclanizza worked with great Italian actors (such as Gino Cervi) and film pioneers such as Giovacchino Forzano, whose Tirrenia Film Studio (founded in 1934) formed the north-Italian competition for Cinecitta for many years, before finally crumbling.
Sclanizza's three children each bore their family surname spelt in different ways, which suggests that the surname 'Sclanizza' is an italianisation of a Slavic or Jewish surname. The Fascist era required those with "foreign" names to make them sound more Italian. 'Sclanizza' is unheard of as a surname outside of the actor's descendent family.
Umberto Sclanizza's children often appeared as extras in his films.