Norman Lloyd’s Long and Triumphant Run

The Daily — May 12, 2021
Norman Lloyd in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942)

Norman Lloyd, the actor, director, and producer who died on Tuesday at the age of 106, will always be associated with the great directors he worked with: Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and Jean Renoir. With his passing, Lloyd joins “all the others who helped make Hollywood what it was,” writes Todd McCarthy for Deadline. “The parade has now definitively, conclusively, gone by.” With Lloyd, “a golden hoard of twentieth-century cultural memory is gone,” writes New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. “I’ve had the honor to speak with many extraordinary people in my journalistic career; my two-hour-long conversation with Norman is, hands down, my favorite among all interviews I’ve done, and will probably remain so.”

That conversation took place in the late spring of 2015, when Ross was conducting research for a New Yorker essay on Welles. Lloyd, born in Jersey City and raised in Brooklyn, took elocution lessons at an early age, acquiring the mid-Atlantic accent that had become de rigueur in theater and in the Hollywood movies made from, give or take, the 1920s through the 1940s. By the 1930s, he had become an active player in New York’s radical theater scene, appearing in productions directed by May Sarton and Elia Kazan. He was also a charter member of the Mercury Theatre founded by Welles and John Houseman, and in 1937, he played Cinna the Poet in the company’s first production, Caesar, an update of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in fascist Europe. Lloyd “gave me a fifteen-minute-long account of the rehearsal and performance of his scene, by the end of which I felt I had been watching from the wings,” writes Ross.

Late in the summer of 1939, Welles invited key members of the company, Lloyd included, to head out to Hollywood with him and begin work on his first film, Heart of Darkness. As that project was falling apart, Welles urged his troupe to stay on while he set up the next one, but Lloyd took an invitation to work in radio back in New York instead. “Those who stayed did Citizen Kane,” Lloyd wrote decades later in his memoir, Stages of Life in Theatre, Film and Television. “I have always regretted it.” Lloyd’s ultimate assessment of Welles was “sharply mixed,” notes Ross. On the one hand, Welles was “the greatest talent we ever had in the theater in America,” he told Ross, but on the other, considering, for example, the ending of Chaplin’s City Lights, when the blind girl recognizes the Little Tramp by the touch of his hand, Lloyd had to wonder: “Does Orson have that humanity?”

Lloyd was back in California soon enough, preparing to take on his first role in a feature film as Frank Fry, an American collaborating with a Nazi spy ring, in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942). In the film’s famous climax, Lloyd’s Fry faces off against Barry Kane, the heroic protagonist played by Robert Cummings, on the torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty. Backing away from Kane’s gun, Fry tumbles over the railing. Kane makes a gallant attempt at saving him, but few things seemed to have thrilled Hitchcock quite like a fatal fall.

Lloyd worked with Hitchcock again on Spellbound in 1945, the same year he played a villain in Renoir’s The Southerner. Todd McCarthy recalls supplying Renoir with 16 mm prints to screen at his home where Lloyd and his wife, actress and director Peggy (with whom he shared a seventy-five-year marriage), were frequent guests. For Chaplin, a close friend with whom he shared a passion for tennis, Lloyd played a choreographer in Limelight (1952). On the Criterion Channel, you can watch Lloyd talking in 2012 about his work with Chaplin.

When John Houseman tried to cast Lloyd in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar in 1953, the producer and the actor discovered that Lloyd had become a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. Houseman insisted that he and Peggy move into one of his houses practically rent-free. It wasn’t until Hitchcock told CBS that he was going to hire Lloyd as an associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he was able to work in Hollywood again. “The network told Hitch, there’s a problem with Lloyd, and he simply said, ‘I want him,’” Lloyd told the New York Post in 2007. “They all could have done that. But they were cowards. It was Hitch who freed me.” Lloyd directed nineteen episodes and went on to produce The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the early 1960s.

In 1982, Lloyd, by this point in his late sixties, took the role of Dr. Donald Auschlander on the NBC drama St. Elsewhere, fully aware that Auschlander was to die in the first season. But audiences took a liking to the wise doctor, and Lloyd stayed on through the show’s run of six full seasons. “He had enormous spunk,” showrunner Tom Fontana tells Variety. “Here’s a guy who had worked with Hitchcock and Welles and yet here he was with us doing this crazy show and breaking all the rules. He totally embraced it. He was the biggest cheerleader for the writers. He was totally game for the serious stuff and the crazy funny stuff.”

Notable roles that followed include the headmaster in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) and Newland Archer’s employer in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). In 2007, the actor Matthew Sussman set out to make a documentary, and when he told people what it was to be about, he was always met with the same question. So that question became the film’s title: Who Is Norman Lloyd? Talking to Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger later that year, Lloyd recalled Sussman setting up a shot. “We went down to the Battery to do a scene with the Statue of Liberty in back of me,” he remembered. “And this old fellow was watching and watching from the edge, and finally he shouted, ‘Hey, you! Didn’t you fall off that thing about sixty years ago?’ So that’s what pictures do for you. You live on.”

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