Born Jacob Krantz in Vienna, Austria-Hungary into a Jewish family, he worked on a number of jobs before his looks got him into the film business. Hollywood executives changed his name to Cortez to appeal to film-goers as a "Latin lover" to compete with such highly popular actors of the era as Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Antonio Moreno. When rumour began to circulate that Cortez was not actually Latin, the studios tried to pass him off as French, before they finally admitted his Viennese origin.
Cortez appeared in over 100 films. A popular star, he was saddled in a number of run-of-the-mill romantic movies which would depend more on his looks than on the script. Pictures like Argentine Love (1924) and The Cat's Pajamas (1926) did little to extend his range as an actor. He did show that he had some range with his role in Pony Express (1924), but roles like that were few and far between.
Cortez would be the only actor to ever have his name above Greta Garbo when she appeared with him in her first American movie, The Torrent (1924). With the advent of sound, Cortez made the transition and he would play Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1931) (aka Dangerous Female). When sound cinema arrived, his powerful delivery and New York accent made him an ideal villain and conman, and he switched from sex symbol to character actor. He played a newspaper columnist Is My Face Red? (1932), a home wrecker in A Lost Lady (1934), a killer in Man Hunt (1936) and even Perry Mason in The Case of the Black Cat (1936).