Born in Vienna, Austria, Schildkraut was the son of popular stage (and later motion picture) actor Rudolf Schildkraut. The younger Schildkraut moved to the United States in the early 1900s. He appeared in many Broadway productions. Among the plays that he starred in was a notable production of Peer Gynt.
In 1921, he played the title role in the first American stage production of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom, the play that would eventually become the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. He then began working in silent movies, although he did return to the stage occasionally. He had early success in film as the Chevalier de Vaudrey in D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm with Lillian Gish. Later, he was featured in Cecil B. DeMille's epic 1927 film The King of Kings, as Judas Iscariot. Schildraut's father Rudolf also appeared in the film. Joseph Schildkraut also played a Viennese-accented, non-singing Gaylord Ravenal in the 1929 part-talkie film version of Edna Ferber's Show Boat. The character as written in the 1929 film was much closer to Ferber's original than to the depiction of him in the classic Kern and Hammerstein musical play based on the novel as well as the 1936 and 1951 film versions of the musical.
He received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola (1937). He gained further fame for playing the ambitious duc d'Orléans in the historical epic Marie Antoinette (1938), opposite Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power, John Barrymore and Robert Morley, and gave a notable performance as the villainous Nicolas Fouquet in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). He is also remembered for playing the role of Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). He was also an active character actor, and appeared in guest roles on several early television shows, notably the Hallmark Hall of Fame, in which he played Claudius in the 1953 television production of Hamlet, with Maurice Evans in the title role. He also appeared on two episodes of The Twilight Zone. In 1963, he was nominated for a Best Actor Emmy Award for his performance in a guest starring role on NBC's Sam Benedict legal drama with Edmond O'Brien and Richard Rust.
Schildkraut was married three times. He died in New York City. For his contribution to the motion picture industry, he was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6780 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood.
- Orphans of the Storm (1921)
- The Road to Yesterday (1925)
- The King of Kings (1927)
- Show Boat (1929)
- Viva Villa! (1934)
- Cleopatra (1934)
- The Crusades (1935)
- The Garden of Allah (1936)
- Slave Ship (1937)
- Souls at Sea (1937)
- The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
- Lancer Spy (1937)
- Marie Antoinette (1938)
- Suez (1938)
- Idiot's Delight (1939)
- The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)
- Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)
- The Rains Came (1939)
- The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)
- Flame of Barbary Coast (1945)
- The Cheaters (1945)
- Monsieur Beaucaire (1946)
- The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
- The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)