Norman Lloyd at 100: Hollywood’s Living Memory

After nine decades in the business, the former collaborator of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles is still looking for his next great role.

The earliest surviving footage of broadcast television in America is a fragment of “The Streets of New York,” an adaptation of playwright Dion Boucicault’s 19th-century drama, aired by the experimental New York NBC affiliate W2XBS on August 31, 1939. All that now remains of the hour-long program is a silent, 11-minute kinescope, filmed off a TV screen and archived at the Paley Center For Media. And there, in those primitive flickering images, you can catch a glimpse of one of the show’s actors: the 24-year-old Norman Lloyd.

Next July, you can see the 99-year-old Lloyd in the Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck,” which shot on location in New York this summer and in which Lloyd plays, by his own admission, “a lecherous old man.” In between those unlikely bookends is a career that has quite literally spanned the 20th century and edged into the 21st, during which Lloyd has shared the stage, screen and many a memorable evening with the artistic giants of his time: Ingrid Bergman, Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles…and yes, Judd Apatow.

It is possible that someone could have done all of that and emerged a dullard, with little in the way of wit or wisdom to share. But that would be someone other than Lloyd. As he prepares to celebrate his centenary (on November 8, a day that has been designated by the City of Los Angeles as Norman Lloyd Day), Lloyd is like a living memory bank for nine decades of Hollywood and Broadway history — more than that, really, for in addition to his own voluminous tales of a life in the theater, television and film, Lloyd has cataloged the best stories of everyone he ever worked with, all of them perpetually ready for the telling on the tip of his quicksilver tongue.

For example, although Lloyd never managed to see a stage performance by Laurette Taylor, the theater legend who originated the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” he relishes telling a story about Taylor passed on to him by his friend Lou Calhern, who played King Lear to Lloyd’s Fool on Broadway in 1950. Twenty-five years earlier, Calhern had starred with Taylor in the Philip Barry play “In a Garden,” where, in one scene, Calhern’s character asked Taylor’s to recall the three most unforgettable things that happened to her in her life. Only, on this particular night, Calhern, who’d had a bit too much to drink, decided to get creative. After Taylor had given her three, in-character responses, he went off-script, looked her in the eye and said, “Now, tell me three more.”

“Laurette Taylor, who was a genius, started to dig for three real things in her life that had affected her deeply,” Lloyd says, with all the conviction of a firsthand witness. “She did it in such a way that not only was the audience spellbound, but Lou himself got frightened. Suddenly, something was happening that was scary, because she was digging down to the bottom of the earth, and she dug and dug and Lou got more and more sober. Finally, she finished saying the three additional things, picked up her handbag and started offstage. Lou, sober now, followed her off, and as they got in the wings, she turned around with this bag and smashed him on the nose.”

Lloyd is a fount of such tales, and any print interview is at a loss to capture the way he tells them, with a richness of detail that suggests they only just happened moments ago, and a master raconteur’s sense of how to keep the listener hooked until the final moral, punchline, or unexpected reveal. It’s a skill he may have honed during his five seasons as associate producer of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” the 1955-62 anthology series whose weekly episodes were bookended by pithy introductions and postscripts by the Master of Suspense himself. (Lloyd continued on as producer, and eventually executive producer, of the follow-up series “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” from 1962-65.)

“He gave me a continuity with the past, and enriched my life as a filmmaker by making me feel I was part of something; the sense that, through his eyes, I could see back almost to the dawn of film,” says Peter Weir, who directed Lloyd in one of his best-known roles, as the fusty prep school headmaster ruffled by the arrival of Robin Williams’s unorthodox English teacher in “Dead Poets Society.” “I think it was something I didn’t know how much I wanted to connect to, because the film industry in L.A. and almost anywhere in the world tends to live in the moment. There are plenty of books and documentaries, but it’s a very different thing to meet someone who had experienced this, and who could bring alive some of these sacred monsters from the past and fill them out as flesh and blood.”

“Hitch,” as Lloyd is fond of calling his former employer, first met Lloyd in 1942, when (on the recommendation of a mutual friend, producer John Houseman) he cast the young stage actor in his film debut, as the field man for a far-reaching American terrorist conspiracy in the thriller “Saboteur” — a small but memorably creepy role capped by Lloyd’s trick-shot stunt fall from the arm of the Statue of Liberty. He joined “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in its third season, just as the filmmaker was lessening his direct involvement with the program. Together with Hitchcock’s former secretary turned writer-producer, Joan Harrison, Lloyd was charged with overseeing every key creative aspect of the series, from the commissioning of scripts (by the likes of Ray Bradbury and a pre-“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” Roald Dahl) to the hiring of directors and casting.

Beyond giving early breaks to the young Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Sydney Pollack, Lloyd directed nearly two dozen Hitchcock episodes himself, including one of the most celebrated, “Man From the South” (1960), in which casino gambler Steve McQueen accepts the sinister Peter Lorre’s wager that he can’t strike his butane cigarette lighter successfully ten times in a row. The stakes: Lorre’s sports car against McQueen’s pinky finger. “There are a couple of great moments in that picture,” says Lloyd. “One is Peter Lorre’s entrance. I must have been inspired when it happened, because Peter inspired me; I thought he was the most wonderful thing on earth. That entrance I gave him, of just leaning into the frame for the cigarette…Oh!”

It was the Hitchcock gig that brought Lloyd to L.A. for good after a couple of earlier flirtations. One of those had been in 1939, when Welles invited multiple members of his Mercury Theatre repertory company out West to work on a planned RKO film version of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — a movie, like so many Welles projects before and after, that ultimately failed to materialize. Like many, Lloyd, who had played Cinna the Poet in Welles’ lauded modern-dress Broadway production of “Julius Caesar” (events dramatized in the 2008 Richard Linklater film “Me and Orson Welles”), considered the 24-year-old wunderkind director to be a genius. “Orson was, in my view, the most talented theater director we ever had,” he says. “He brought to American theater an entirety, in the sense that you sat in the theater and you were enveloped in acting, writing, sound, music, effects, lighting. He just took your breath away with the production.”

But when “Heart of Darkness” stalled, a frustrated Lloyd hightailed it back to New York. He was, after all, a man of the theater at a time when movies were still seen as a less noble actorly pursuit. It was a decision that would cost him his friendship with Welles, and likely a role in the movie Welles ended up making instead: “Citizen Kane.” Decades later, when Lloyd appeared on a panel as part of a week-long tribute to the director given by the Directors Guild of America, Welles, unexpectedly in attendance, came up to Llolyd afterwards and enveloped him in a bear-hug embrace.

“And in the embrace he whispered in my ear, ‘You son of a bitch,’” recalls Lloyd. “It was the last time I saw him. But I took that as a term of affection. I always felt with Orson, in regard to me, he was on guard, he felt that I was critical of him. Well, I have to join that up with something John Houseman once said about me. He said, ‘Norman, you would have had a much better career if you were not so contemptuous of directors.’”

***

When Lloyd did settle in Hollywood in 1957, with wife and two young children in tow, he bought a modest, ranch-style house built into a cliff in a rustic stretch of Mandeville Canyon, where he still resides today, surrounded by casually displayed artifacts and heirlooms of varied and remarkable provenance: a call sheet from “Limelight,” the 1952 Chaplin picture in which he acted alongside Charlie and Buster Keaton; a ceramic pot sculpted by Jean Renoir, who directed Lloyd in “The Southerner” (1945); and a panoramic photo of a 1928 World Series game, given to Lloyd by — of all people — sports and political commentator Keith Olbermann.

“It’s one thing to have a life that goes a century. It’s another thing to have brought it with you to the end of that milestone,” notes Olbermann, a longtime Lloyd fan who had never actually met his idol when he devoted a segment of his MSNBC “Countdown” series to Lloyd’s 93rd birthday in 2007. A week later, he received a handwritten note from Lloyd thanking him for the mention and noting that he was en route to New York to present a screening of a documentary about himself, “Who Is Norman Lloyd?,” at the Film Forum cinema. Olbermann in turn invited Lloyd onto his show, and a fast friendship ensued.

Frequently, those conversations turn to baseball, another subject on which Lloyd, a lifelong Dodgers fan, holds extensive knowledge. “We had a phone conversation after the Dodgers lost in the playoffs last year,” Olbermann recalls. “He was dreadfully concerned about Clayton Kershaw having thrown too many pitches in the last game. When we talk baseball, it runs the gamut from when he saw Babe Ruth rip his pants during the 1926 World Series — he was in person for that — to Yasiel Puig. There’s no datedness to what he has to say, and that’s the extraordinary thing about him.”

Displayed prominently on one wall of Lloyd’s living room, you will also find a large painting of his late wife, Peggy, done by the noted Southern California portrait artist (and longtime companion of writer Christopher Isherwood) Don Bachardy. “That was the day Picasso died, and Peggy was absolutely destroyed, heartbroken,” Lloyd recalls. “Don captured that moment.” They married in 1936 and remained together until her death in August, 2011, a few months after the couple celebrated their 75th anniversary. “Peggy, when she was in her last illness, asked me one day, ‘How long have we been married?’ I said, ‘75 years.’ And she said, ‘It should last.’”

“Their relationship was really touching,” says Variety EVP and Editorial Director Peter Bart, who has known Lloyd for 25 years, mostly as a tennis opponent. “Norman and Peggy together was a lovely thing to behold — their love and their occasional friction. They would get into little side quarrels that you could imagine were the reflection of an incident that might have occurred in 1934 at the opening of a play. I was born in 1932, and they’d be telling stories that make me feel like a kid.”

Lloyd regards his marriage as one of the great pieces of luck in his life. Another was landing an apprenticeship at age 17 with actress and director Eva Le Gallienne, one of the storied grande dames of the British and American theater. It was Le Gallienne who sent the ambitious young lad to elocution lessons to expunge his Brooklyn accent, resulting in the resonant, Mid-Atlantic stage voice with which Lloyd can still command a room to this day. “I was in my second year at NYU, I knew what I wanted to do, and I just walked out of college,” he says. “So, from the age of 17, I’ve been able to do what I wanted, and that makes for a kind of contentment, a fairly pleasant demeanor.”

He’s been lucky, too, to have friends with tennis courts — friends like Chaplin, whom Lloyd happily recalls beating regularly because of the comic legend’s vain resistance to wearing his eyeglasses; actor Jose Ferrer; and producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., on whose court Lloyd has played regularly, every Saturday, since 1957. (He jokes that another weekly game, on Thursdays, has recently been “decimated by death,” but is optimistic that it will resume soon.)

“To me the most amusing thing is that Norman, even in his nineties, would serve and then follow the serve to the net,” says Bart. “Now, I haven’t followed my serve to the net in many years, because it’s a lot of work. It’s really aggressive. You get up there and then your job is to rally the ball. But if you play against Norman, he wants to win the points. He was extremely frustrated that, at the age of 96 or 97, he was no longer able to serve overhand. He now had to serve underhand, and he’d get very embarrassed and apologize profusely that he had to do that.”

Lloyd’s is a life and career recalled with exceptional generosity and lack of resentment, but not without its share of frustrations and disappointments. After the end of the Hitchcock series, Universal studio chief Lew Wasserman set him up with a movie producing deal, but little came of it. The projects Lloyd wanted to do, including a feature-length animated film directed by John Hubley and an adaptation of Paul Bowles’ drug-laced murder-mystery “Up Above the World,” were deemed too difficult or edgy, and he soon found himself back in television, producing a series of well-received movies-of-the-week and, eventually, the PBS series “Hollywood Television Theatre,” an ambitious slate of play adaptations shot on the stages of KCET in Hollywood. (For much of the 1950s and ‘60s, he and Chaplin also jointly owned the film rights to Horace McCoy’s novel “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” but, partly owing to Chaplin’s European exile, failed to mount a production before the rights reverted back to McCoy’s estate. When the film was finally made, in 1969, Lloyd’s onetime TV protege, Sydney Pollack, sat in the director’s chair.)

***

For those born in the era of color TV, however, Lloyd is best known for his work in front of the camera, in “Dead Poets Society” and as Dr. Daniel Auschlander, chief of services at Boston’s beleaguered St. Eligius hospital in the 1982-88 NBC medical drama “St. Elsewhere.” Joining an ensemble that included veterans Ed Flanders and William Daniels alongside the young Howie Mandel, David Morse and Denzel Washignton, Lloyd was originally hired for a four-episode guest stint as Auschlander, a liver specialist himself stricken with liver cancer.

“But we all just decided he was too much fun to write for and too much fun to have on the set, so we just kept him on,” recalls series writer-producer Tom Fontana. “He was, at the time, the longest-living liver cancer patient in history.” In a prophetic bit of art imitating life, Lloyd is first seen in the “St. Elsewhere” pilot energetically jogging up a flight of stairs in lieu of the elevator, prompting another character to remark, “Knowing Dr. Daniel Auschlander, he’ll outlive all of us.”

Ask Lloyd about the work he’s proudest of, however, and invariably the conversation shifts back to the theater, to “Julius Caesar” and “Lear” and a 1945 Los Angeles production of Ben Johnson’s “Volpone,” where he played the wily servant Mosca, under the direction of Morris Carnovsky. Those were heady times in the American theater, when the influence of Method acting was changing things “from the bottom up, because it took away the artificiality that came over from the 19th century,” says Lloyd.

He also holds a special fondness for “Mr. Lincoln,” a five-part TV miniseries about the early life of the 16th U.S. President, written by novelist, critic and playwright James Agee and produced for the Ford Foundation-funded anthology series “Omnibus.” Lloyd shot on location in and around New Salem, Illinois (where the twenty-something Lincoln began his career as a businessman and lawyer), with the commanding Royal Dano as Lincoln and a 22-year-old Joann Woodward (in her screen debut) as Ann Rutledge.

To direct a few second-unit shots of Lincoln’s actual Kentucky birthplace, Lloyd hired a young Look magazine photographer who had recently directed his first low-budget movie, only to discover that, after a few days on location, Stanley Kubrick was giving press interviews in which he claimed to be in charge of the entire “Mr. Lincoln” project. Remembers Lloyd: “I said to my assistant, ‘This guy’s going to be a big, big success. Anyone who has this gall, you won’t stop him!’ And I was right.” (Lloyd laments that a recent commercial DVD release of the Lincoln film contains a cut version, and erroneously credits Kubrick as the director of a lengthy sequence depicting Lincoln’s funereal train procession.)

Despite his work in “Saboteur,” “Dead Poets Society” and a handful of others, Lloyd regrets that “in pictures, I never really got a full head of steam going” — one possible reason why, notwithstanding recent tributes at the Telluride and Cannes film festivals, and a 2014 UCLA Film & Television Archive retrospective, Lloyd has never been honored with any major industry award. “I was talked about for a nomination,” he says of his 2003 turn in Curtis Hanson’s family drama “In Her Shoes,” as a blind, bedridden literature professor who helps nurse Cameron Diaz to overcome her dyslexia, “but nothing happened, as usual.”

Then again, Lloyd doesn’t see that much on the small or big screen nowadays that fills him with envy. He thought “The Wolf of Wall Street” was “a disgrace” and, while admittedly biased, found Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” lacking the authenticity of Agee’s carefully researched “Mr. Lincoln” script. “There was a certain stock feeling about it. It was all exactly what you’d expect from a historical picture, and slightly boring,” he says.

At the time of our interview, his most recent viewing had consisted of “Birdman,” a movie set in a theatrical milieu more than a touch familiar to the veteran performer, and Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” Lloyd deemed the former to be a pretentious and overstylized dud, despite his admiration for the performances of Michael Keaton and Emma Stone, but looked more kindly on Allen’s film, largely due to Colin Firth’s comic elan.

“He was remarkable,” says Lloyd. “He does a scene where he tells Emma Stone how much he hates her, and he does it in the most sanitary, impersonal way — perfectly spoken, with a marvelous attitude. Two reels later, he’s telling the same girl that he loves her, in exactly the same way he had told her he hated her. Brilliant acting. Brilliant! And he does it in a style that I personally like so much, which is the traditional style of the leading man actor who speaks beautifully, moves beautifully, looks marvelous, and is doing these terrible things.”

Lloyd is also bullish about “Trainwreck,” a role that forced him to work in Apatow’s loose, improvisational style. “He throws you a line and you pick up that line and improvise from it with the other actors, until he throws you another line. Those are the stepping stones,” he says. “He had me improvising with a six-foot-two Jamaican, who improvised in Jamaican gibberish. I thought that was the greatest thing I ever heard. Judd said, ‘Now I want you to do an improvisation walking from this wall to that wall.’ It was a distance of about 15 feet. So I said, ‘What’s the scene about?’ He said, “Nothing, because it’s not going to be in the picture.’ So I said, ‘If it’s not going to be in the picture, why are we doing it?’ And he said, ‘For the trailer!’”

“I wasn’t sure if it was safe to fly a 99-year-old man to New York,” says Apatow, who met Lloyd at the urging of a mutual friend (and Lloyd’s Brentwood neighbor), actor Ed O’Neill, who’d previously landed Lloyd a guest spot on a 2010 episode of “Modern Family.” “He came alone, requested no special assistance. I asked him how many hours a day he could work and he said, ‘Just don’t work me past midnight.’ He worked four nearly 12-hour days and had more energy than I did. He had the best time and was hilarious and inventive. It was a career high moment for me.”

“I called Norman and said, ‘Do you think you can get yourself to New York to be in Judd Apatow’s new movie?'” remembers O’Neill. “And he said, ‘Or die trying!'”

Indeed, it’s one of the marvels of Lloyd that, for all the larger-than-life figures he traveled among, he himself retains a modesty of ego and, after more than 80 years in the business, a working actor-producer’s hunger for the next project. “He’s like a front-line soldier. He’s in the trenches and not back in Paris or London theorizing and strategizing,” says Weir, who was surprised when, just a couple of years ago, Lloyd sent him a script he’d optioned that he hoped Weir might direct — an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s western play “The Shrewing-Up of Blanco Posnet.” “We talked about it. It wasn’t right for me, but the conversations we had about it were those of a producer with a director. It was fascinating. I’d put the phone down and shake my head. Here’s a man approaching a century who’s discussing the ways in which this could be made into a film.”

After six hours of talking, the afternoon light in Lloyd’s living room has faded to dusk, but Lloyd himself is unflagging, with still more stories to tell. Including this one: Recently, he met with the Coen Brothers to discuss a role in their forthcoming “Hail, Caesar!,” a comedy set against the Hollywood studio system of the 1950s. The Coens were interested in Lloyd for a character based on Herbert Marcuse, the German-born philosopher and sociologist who became one of the leading exponents of Marxist theory in America. Lloyd felt the audition went exceedingly well, but then came the bad news from his agent: the Coens were hesitant to cast him because of a scene that would have to be filmed on open water in a working submarine.

“It’s a scene where he’s talking to someone, smoking his pipe, standing in the hatch of the submarine, and the thing is bobbing on the seas. Then he finishes what he has to say, pulls the hatch and goes down inside,” says Lloyd. “They said, ‘We don’t know, with Norman being 100, on the ocean…we’re very worried about that.’ I said to my agent, ‘There is nothing I can do about the ocean. If they want to take a chance, I’ll take a chance on the bobbing waves.’” Lloyd pauses, feigning disappointment, but with a mischievous glint in his eyes, the delight of having a new tale to dine out on for what will doubtless be years to come. “They’ve since cast the part with a much younger man,” he booms. “In his eighties!”

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