Norman Lloyd at 100: THR's Todd McCarthy on a Legend's Staying Power

NormLloydan - H 2014
Austin Hargrave

NormLloydan - H 2014

THR's chief film critic pays tribute to the Hollywood legend, who turns 100 in November and has collaborated with everyone from Chaplin to Apatow

He's been going to Broadway shows since he paid 50 cents for a balcony seat to see Al Jolson in Bombo in 1921. During the Great Depression he worked with Elia Kazan in the Theater of Action, then joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theater to act in the Boy Wonder's legendary Julius Caesar. He made his screen debut falling from the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, produced the world premiere of Bertholt Brecht's Galileo starring Charles Laughton at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, acted in films for Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin (and was the latter's tennis partner for years), selected the stories and hired the writers and directors for Hitchcock's long-running televisions shows and later won a whole new generation of fans playing Dr. Daniel Auschlander on St. Elsewhere for six years in the 1980s. Since then he's acted in films by Martin Scorsese and Peter Weir and, this past summer, played a role in Judd Apatow's forthcoming Trainwreck.

He is the great Norman Lloyd. And on Nov. 8 he will turn 100 years old. No one in the American performing arts has been at it longer than Norman, and I would wager that nobody has a more comprehensive first-hand knowledge of 20th (and 21st) century American film, theater and television — or can describe it more evocatively.

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Not long ago I mentioned to him that, as a wee lad, I was lucky to have seen the estimable Robert Ryan starring in a Broadway revival of the classic newspaper play The Front Page. Norman off-handedly replied that he had seen the original production of Hecht and MacArthur's hard-boiled masterpiece. That was in 1928, when Norman was 14. He thereupon proceeded to list from memory the show's cast of characters and the actors who played them, who, he added, were nearly all hired by Warner Bros. when sound came in to perform in their fast-talking urban pictures.

Such is the memory of Norman Lloyd. While people half his age complain about encroaching senior moments, Norman remains a master raconteur, remembering virtually everything related to his extraordinary career and describing it all in one of the acting world's few remaining Mid-Atlantic accents, the sort of modified British approach elocution teachers trained would-be thespians to adopt nearly a century ago if they desired a career in the legitimate thee-a-tah. And no one projects anymore the way Norman does.

Lloyd and Priscilla Lane in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

If Norman hadn't taken those speech lessons and gone onstage at an early age, he'd probably still have the Joisey accent he inherited from his parents, who moved the family from Jersey City to Brooklyn when he was a kid. He got the theater bug from his mother, whom he'd accompany to weekend matinees. Among the memories he still savors from those historic times are Eddie Cantor in Kid Boots in 1923, the original 1927 production of Showboat and anything starring the Lunts, whom he remembers for their “infinite charm and enormous skill.”

In a lifetime of theatergoing, he esteems two performances in particular. First was Paul Robeson's Othello on Broadway in 1943, saying of the actor, “He had the advantage over everybody because all he had to do was walk onstage and he immediately commanded all your attention.” The other, 17 years later, was Peter O'Toole's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford. “He didn't play him as an old Jewish man, he stood up straight and played him as a vigorous 35-year-old, demanding and strong. He played it so that, at the end of the play when Shylock is disgraced, all of your sympathy went with him.”

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When I asked Norman the other day to identify the most interesting period of American history he has lived through, he didn't hesitate: “Other people might tell you differently and it might seem paradoxical, but it was the Depression era of the 1930s," he said. "I knew a lot of people who were beaten by the Depression, but there was still a feeling of positiveness among people, everyone thought it's got to get better. We were all trying to get the country back on its feet. There was a feeling that you could do anything, and this was certainly very true in the theater.”

Ironically, it was one of the Depression's most despairing novels, Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, that Norman later wanted to adapt and direct for the screen. He and Chaplin bought the rights and held them for years but could never pull a production together; the leading roles were imagined for Sydney Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, many people remember their 20s as the most wonderful time in their lives, and it didn't hurt that Norman was only 20 when he met and married “the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” a young actress named Peggy Craven. They had a daughter and son and remained married until Peggy's death, at 98, three years ago.

Politics and experimentation surged through theater circles in the 1930s, and Norman was in the thick of it. He worked repeatedly in summer stock with a young director named Joseph Losey, whom, in 1947, Norman recruited to stage Brecht's Galileo. When Norman acted in a play called Crime, he could tell at once that the director, Kazan, would become a giant in his field.

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Welles' 1937 modern-dress fascist-era production of Julius Caesar has gone down in history as one of the landmark stage pieces in the American theater. Norman played the small but key role of Cinna the Poet, opposite Welles' Brutus. Norman was rightfully indignant at the woeful miscasting of the role of “Norman Lloyd” in Richard Linklater's 2009 film Me and Orson Welles, but was lost in admiration for the uncanny performance by Christian McKay as Welles; the young actor and Norman sought each other out at the time and became fast friends.

When Welles signed with RKO, Norman was among the Mercury players who went with him to Hollywood to appear in Welles' intended first film, Heart of Darkness. When the project was dropped and the actors were asked to stay in California until a substitute could be prepared, Norman angered Welles by returning to New York to resume his stage work. If he had remained, Norman would have made his screen debut in Citizen Kane (very likely, in my view, as Bernstein).

“I have always regretted it,” Norman admits of his short-sighted decision to abandon Welles, although the association he acquired in its place may have been of much greater creative and financial benefit in the long run. Norman made a striking film bow as the title character in Hitchcock's third Hollywood film, Saboteur, in which the villain eventually falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty when the stitching in his jacket sleeve tears loose. (When Hitchcock screened the film for Ben Hecht, the acerbic writer told the director, “He should have had a better tailor.”)

A photograph from Welles’ production of a fascist era-set ?Julius Caesar, signed by co-star Joseph Cotten (second from ?right), who played Publius. Lloyd (right) played Cinna the Poet.

Hitchcock cast Norman again in a small role in Spellbound, but it was more than a decade later when a bold helping hand from Hitchcock wrote a major new chapter in Norman's life story. During the infamous blacklist period, Norman had been gray-listed — a sort of guilt-by-association with alleged subversives — which denied him any employment in Hollywood beginning in the early 1950s (although it was during this time that Norman directed the acclaimed Omnibus five-part television series Mr. Lincoln, written by James Agee and for which Norman hired 22-year-old Look magazine photographer Stanley Kubrick to shoot second unit).

In 1957, Hitchcock resolved to bring Norman on as associate producer of his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as another show, Suspicion. When network executives questioned Norman's political viability, the ever-apolitical Hitchcock firmly stated, “I want him.” And that was that. With Hitch's valued right-hand Joan Harrison, Norman selected the stories, chose the writers (he discovered James Bridges) and found many of the actors, often in New York. Over 10 years, Hitchcock directed about a dozen of the episodes; Norman directed 25, including such classics as “Man From the South,” “The Jar” and “The Life Work of Juan Diaz.”

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Although he considers Renoir the wisest and warmest man he ever worked with (he appeared in the director's best American film, The Southerner, in 1945), Norman, when pressed, concludes that Chaplin was the greatest artist and personality of the past century. “He was the most famous man in the world. I don't think any figure at any time was more recognizable than Charlie as the Little Tramp,” he opined. “Truly great performers reveal not only their characters but bring everything they know about the world with them. It's not just what's in the script, but the story of everything you've done and of who you are. If you're Chaplin, you're the immigrant. No matter what he's doing, he's always the little guy trying to make his place in the world.” For Norman, the other great film actor in this regard was Jean Gabin, who “always carried his full experience of the world in his eyes and his voice.”

Entering Chaplin's world initially as an actor in Limelight, Norman was soon playing tennis with him four times a week and, with Peggy, accompanying Chaplin and his wife-to-be Oona to Catalina for sailing weekends. He later visited them in Switzerland during their exile from the U.S.

I've had the privilege of knowing Norman for more than 30 years and can vouch for the unending reach of his private theatrical knowledge. When I recently ran down a list for him of show business figures who made it to 100, I mentioned the comic "Professor" Irwin Corey. “I discovered him!” boomed Norman, explaining that he, as director, cast the unknown in the Chicago company of the revue Pins and Needles, produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. When I brought up the late actress Estelle Winwood, who made it to 101, Norman broke into a sly grin, remembering her from 1930s New York as one of “The Four Riders of the Algonquin,” along with her best friend Tallulah Bankhead.

There are a handful of others in the business still with us at 100 or more. The only other active one, famously, is the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, a miraculous 105. Others include producers Richard L. Bare and Elmo Williams, cinematographers Douglas Slocombe and Wolfgang Suschitzky, and two 104-year-old actresses, double Oscar winner Luise Rainer and Lupita Tovar, who is also the widow of the legendary agent Paul Kohner and grandmother of writer-directors Chris and Paul Weitz.

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Other than crediting his strong marriage and a weekly game of tennis, Norman has no prescription for a living a long life and retaining such a ready memory. “I don't eat shellfish, I drink wine moderately and have one whiskey every evening before dinner; I find it stimulates my appetite. I eat meat, poultry and fish in proper proportion, nothing to excess," he told me. “I think the word that I might apply here is 'attitude.' You must be active, you must be positive, even if things don't go the way you want them to. I think if you allow yourself to mope and feel sorry for yourself, it can take years off your life.”

Happy Birthday, Norman. And many more.