Critic's Notebook: What Norman Lloyd Can Teach Us About the Coronavirus Crisis

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The 105-year-old stage and screen vet lived through times of harrowing national struggle but always emerged creatively stronger, writes The Hollywood Reporter’s chief film critic.

The other day I spoke with my great old friend Norman Lloyd, and I do mean great and I do mean old. As an actor, Norman's credentials stretch back to the Federal Theatre days of the mid-1930s — he's the last surviving member of Orson Welles' legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar — and he made his Hollywood debut as the villain who falls to his death from the top of the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 Saboteur. His most recent screen appearance was in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's Trainwreck; Norman always has kept up with the times.

Last November, on Norman's 105th birthday, there had to have been at least 100 guests gathered to celebrate the occasion. If the current kids are called Generation Z, what far more exclusive club does Norman belong to?

Until very recently, Norman was still very much a man about town, going out for lunches and dinners with friends old and young and even venturing to Dodger Stadium for a 2018 World Series game. He was certainly one of the few fans there who was a contemporary of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, which opened in 1913, just a year before Norman was born.

But now, as with the rest of us, Norman's normally busy social life is seriously restricted. He's hunkered down in his home, a cozy abode on a lovely little street on the Westside of L.A., where he's lived for decades. It's overflowing with photos and mementos of his wife, Peggy, who passed away in 2011 at 98, as well as of his close friends and collaborators from the old days, all long gone. These included his regular tennis partner Charlie Chaplin, for whom Norman acted in Limelight, Charles Laughton, Lewis Milestone, John Houseman and Jean Renoir, whose play Carola Norman directed for television, starring Leslie Caron, in 1973.

Norman was born 17 presidents ago, during Woodrow Wilson's second year in office and six years before women were allowed to vote in their first presidential election. The United States was still nearly three years away from joining the fight in World War I, and Norman's first life memory is of the enormous victory parade in New York City, which wasn't held until September 1919, 10 months after the armistice, shortly before he turned 5. The celebration was delayed so long because of the time involved to get everyone back from Europe.

The end of the war coincided with the outbreak of the devastating influenza pandemic, misleadingly called the Spanish flu. The first surge hit France in January of 1918 and didn't reach its worldwide peak until that October in a second wave that was far deadlier than the first. The virus, which had avian origins, took far more victims than the war; 500 million people, give or take, were infected, and the death toll was estimated at roughly 50 million, although it was probably far more. In New York City alone, 33,000 perished. This was a Lost Generation in more ways than one.

Few remember that there were actually four significant recessions during the so-called Roaring '20s, and during the 1920s Norman's family in Brooklyn scraped by as Norman became a child performer while still in school. His mother took him to plays, got him dance lessons and involved him in "kid acts" around the city until the stock market crash of 1929.

The next years were the toughest, but also the greatest, as Norman looks back. As he said to me the other day, "The best time in my life was the Great Depression, because the entire country was committed and people were committed to each other. Everyone was trying to help each other and we were all in this together. The whole country was pulling together."

Political fervor fueled much of what went on in the theater world during the Depression, and Norman became a significant part of it at a very green age. Graduating from high school at 15, he spent two years at NYU before committing himself to a life in the theater, and he still remembers one piece of advice given to him at the time by Alfred Lunt, one of the leading stage actors of the day: "Mean every word you say!"

In his 20s during the often desperate but nonetheless galvanizing 1930s, Norman led an exciting life of a sort that would be the envy of young working actors anytime, anyplace. He was accepted at Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Company; got involved in the social-political theater movement with Joseph Losey, with whom he continued to work through the early 1950s; and worked with Elia Kazan for the first time in 1936 with the Theater of Action, where he met Peggy Craven, whom he married that same year.

After a pit stop with the Federal Theatre, Norman was beckoned by Welles the following year and soon joined him in the move to Hollywood. It is generally thought that, had Norman remained with Welles in Hollywood long enough, through all the delays at RKO, he would have been given the role of Bernstein in Citizen Kane played, in the end, by Everett Sloane.

For Norman and many others, these worst of times, with the poverty, social distress and the rise of fascism in Europe, were also the best of times; every day was demanding and uncertain, but could also be thrilling and rewarding. The winds of change, social experimentation and creative excitement were in the air, as was the sense of people all being in the struggle together. Then again, perhaps one's 20s are always the most exciting time, no matter when you were born; that's when you're on the make, defining yourself, figuring out what you want to do with your life.  

So I wonder how many young artists and maybe some older ones as well — screenwriters, composers, novelists, cartoonists, choreographers, painters, graphic artists, sculptors, videographers, undefinables and maybe even a film critic or two — will use this relative downtime, when hustling and making the social rounds are off the calendar, to bear down and concentrate on work they've always wanted to do but put off, either by necessity or procrastination.

The economic blight will be punishing. However, as Norman and many others discovered during the 1930s, it's possible, even inevitable, that some very personal and meaningful work will emerge from bad times that wouldn't have been born otherwise.