Sunday, May 16, 2021

Under the Radar: Norman Lloyd

 


I'm sure most of you recognize the man on the right, the now-legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, but you ordinarily wouldn't know the man on the left, except, well, I just gave away his name in the title of this post. Yes, it's Norman Lloyd, never a household name, though he was in or involved with movies and TV shows that themselves may have attained that status, and, if you were a bit adventuresome in your 1980s television watching choices, and not too squeamish about hospital-related matters, Lloyd's by-then elderly face would have been familiar as well.


 

Though he acted as a child, his career more or less begins with the now-legendary Federal Theatre Project, itself a subsidiary of the now-legendary Works Progress Administration, itself a subsidiary of the now-legendary New Deal. The goal of the FTP was to keep stage actors, stage directors, and playwrights from starving to death during the Great Depression. It did that but also had an influence on popular entertainment that lasted decades beyond its elimination by an arts-hating Congress in 1939. For instance, while involved with the theatre, Lloyd became acquainted with two very promising actors-writers-directors-producers by the names of Orson Welles and John Houseman. When Welles and Houseman left the FTP to start their own theatrical troupe, the now-legendary Mercury Theatre, they asked Lloyd to join them, which he did. In fact, he acted in the theatre's very first production, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Performed in (1930s) modern dress, common enough in Shakespeare productions these days but a novelty back then, the production is said to have had clear antifascist overtones with Lloyd as Cinna the Poet dying at the hands of the secret police-like mob in a case of mistaken identity. So successful was this and other Mercury productions that Welles and Housman were invited to do a radio version, the now-legendary Mercury Theatre of the Air, in which Lloyd also took part, though he seems to have been otherwise occupied during the now-legendary "War of the Worlds" broadcast. God only allows so many now-legendarys in a person's life, and Lloyd already had more than his share. In fact, his decision to stay in New York rather than move out to Hollywood with the rest of the Mercury Theatre meant he lost out on a role in the now-legendary Citizen Kane. Realizing his mistake, Lloyd moved out to Tinseltown on his own a year later, where he came to the attention of the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock, who, as it turned out, had a few-more now-legendarys to throw Lloyd's way.



First off was 1942's Saboteur, in which the film's hero, played by Robert Cummings, is framed for an act of sabotage in a war plant that was actually the work of the film's villain, played by Lloyd. The movie's most memorable moment is its climax--sorry if I'm giving something away but I can't help it--which has Lloyd's character dangling from the Statue of Liberty's raised hand, before falling to his death. Three years later Hitchcock called upon Lloyd once again, this time to play a psychiatric patient being treated by a couple of rather glamorous shrinks, Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, in 1945's Spellbound. Though an excellent actor, Lloyd himself wasn't particularly glamorous, and so continued to play either villains or oddball characters for film directors other than Hitchcock throughout the 1940s. In The Southerner, also from 1945, he even played both. He was neither a villain nor an oddball in 1952's Limelight, and instead just a sidekick to Nigel Bruce's impresario character. It wasn't much but was written by, directed by, and, in the lead role, acted by the now-legendary--actually, he was legendary then--Charlie Chaplin, providing Lloyd with more great show biz anecdotes, as if he didn't have his allotted share already.


Now we come to not so much a now-legendary but now-notorious era of Hollywood history: the blacklist. John Houseman, Lloyd's old boss during his Mercury Theater days, was going to produce a movie version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar just as he and Orson Welles had done on Broadway (only this time with the actors clad in first century BC-appropriate togas) and wanted Lloyd once again aboard, most likely reprising his role as the doomed poet Cinna. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer balked. Like Zero Mostel, Betsy Blair, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant, Larry Parks, Betty Garrett, Will Geer, Herschel Bernardi, John Garfield, and many, many other talented actors and actresses (not to mention screenwriters and directors), Norman Lloyd's name had come to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lloyd had never been a member of the Communist Party, unlike, say, Parks, who had joined during the Great Depression (can't imagine why given how well capitalism was doing at the time.) Like Garfield, Blair, and Gilford, Lloyd may have signed petitions sponsored by or gone to political rallies of organizations deemed to be communist front groups by the HUAC. According to Lloyd himself, it was simply that he knew a lot of blacklistees, friends and acquaintances of his going back to his days in the Federal Theatre Project  as well as a brief stint in the now-legendary Group Theatre (I purposely left that one out earlier because I didn't want you to suffer from now-legendary overload.) Now in his early forties, Lloyd's show biz career seemed over with when an unlikely savior reappeared in his life. 


    Alfred Hitchcock's political views remain something of a mystery. I've read several biographies of the great filmmaker, and they don't tell you, when in England whether he voted for Labor or the Conservatives, or after he became an American citizen sometimes in the 1950s, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. It can be claimed by anybody along the political spectrum whose particular shade of thought happens to be out of style, but there is a definite distrust of authority that runs through Hitchcock's work. Policemen and British and U.S. intelligence agencies are never out-and-out villains in his movies, but then they don't have to be, since the cops and government agents are shown to be so menacingly inept, they often end up doing the real bad guys work for them! I wonder if Hitchcock viewed the McCarthy Era through that same lens. He wouldn't have to be a communist himself to think that the anticommunists were on a wild goose (or goose-stepping?) chase that could take them right to the top of the Statue of Liberty. Hitchcock at least saw Norman Lloyd as more like Robert Cummings in Saboteur than like, well, Norman Lloyd in Saboteur. But it wasn't a Hitchcock movie that hastened Lloyd's show biz resurrection but something that as much as any hit at the box office turned Hitchcock into a now-legendary figure: television. Of course, I'm talking about the long-running anthologies series titled Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and, when another 30 minutes was added to it, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.) Though he owned the show, and contributed the opening and closing remarks, Hitchcock in 1955 still had a thriving theatrical movie career (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds all still lie ahead) and so entrusted the actual production of the series to a favorite screenwriter of his, Joan Harrison, and Lloyd, who in addition to being an actor had also done some directing and producing. CBS protested the hiring of Lloyd, as had MGM earlier, but Hitchcock got his way. So why didn't John Houseman? Hard to say. It may have been that Hitchcock's apolitical demeanor made the whole thing seem like less of a threat than it did with Houseman, who owed his career to the still-controversial New Deal. And as a Hollywood power player, Hitch simply may have had more clout than Houseman (after all, The Paper Chase and all those Smith Barney commercials--"They make money the old-fashioned way, they earn it"--were still 20-some years in the future.) Under Lloyd's and Harrison's stewardship, the suspense anthology series earned high ratings and critical acclaim. In addition to producing the show, Lloyd directed 22 episodes, two more than Hitch himself.


 

Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour finally came to a close in 1965. For the next 17 years, Norman Lloyd kept himself busy producing and directing made-for-TV movies, interspersed with the occasional acting job, though that part of his career seemed mostly done with. An occasional acting job-turned-permanent changed all that in 1982. Lloyd was only supposed to appear in six episodes of a new medical drama series playing Dr. Daniel Auschlander, a liver specialist who finds out he has liver cancer, culminating in his character's death in episode six. However, the producers liked him so much that they put the cancer in uneasy remission, and those six episodes became six seasons, as Aushlander dealt with his own mortality while presiding over a large staff (and a large acting ensemble) in his role as Chief of Services at the run-down, inner-city, Catholic-turned-public-teaching hospital St. Eligius, derisively referred to as "St Elsewhere" by medical professionals who worked elsewhere, and from which the series took its name. Like costar Williams Daniels, who played the grouchy and sarcastic heart surgeon Dr. Mark Craig, Lloyd could go from drama to comedy and then back again, and then back again after that, at the turn of a coin, which an actor often had to do on St. Elsewhere. Though classified as a drama, the series had a wicked sense of humor (such as when a patient is crushed to death in a folding hospital bed) and, for some reason, loads of pop culture in-jokes ("Floyd has worked here forever. He may bury us all" Get it?) The humor was woven into the very fabric of the show (look at its title) and not what you would call "comedy relief". If you want that, go watch that other 1980s medical drama ("Trapper John M.D. His patients never die," Auschlander replies when asked which TV character he would most like to be.) No, St. Elsewhere would often throw a pie in the face of its serious subject matter, while still basically taking it seriously. You just had to watch it to know what that sentence means. Though it never got all that high of ratings, and at the end of every season seemed to be on the brink of cancellation, St. Elsewhere was easily the best show on TV in the 1980s, and one of the best shows of all time. If Norman Lloyd hadn't been in it, and hadn't been so wonderful in it, I probably wouldn't have bothered with this post. Two great Auschlander moments right at the top of my head, one dramatic, and one comedic. I said earlier he spent much of his time pondering his own mortality, and never more so than when he was at home with his wife, played by the equally wonderful Jane Wyatt. When Katherine has a health emergency of her own and needs an operation, Auschlander still can't quite stop talking about his own problems. However, after the surgery, which turns out to be a success, he goes to her hospital room and profusely apologizes to his unconscious wife for his self-centeredness. The comedic? Well, you wouldn't think chemotherapy is a subject that could produce a lot of yuks--I've seen first hand its effects on a close family member, and they were indeed unpleasant--yet a very funny scene has Auschlander getting his usual treatment, and trying to relax to it by listening to classical music. I don't remember if it was Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or Brahms, if I ever even knew to begin with, but the symphony is interrupted by a dog's bark. Auschlander opens his eyes and sees a German shepherd getting the same treatment! Auschlander is disabused of his self-centeredness once again. We all have problems, even dogs.


When St. Elsewhere went off the air in 1988, Lloyd was 74-years-old with thirty-three more years to go. He continued to act. Indeed the very next year he played the principal in The Dead Poets Society. His final acting job was 2015's Trainwreck, made when he was 100. In between, there was a lot of television guest shots, including Wiseguy, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Modern Family. When he wasn't acting, he played a lot of tennis, which he described as an "addiction". A fall in 2015 finally ended that pastime. And he was said by all, with ample evidence on YouTube, to be one of the all-time great raconteurs, with a neverending string of show biz stories to relate of all the famous people he had known in his long life, which finally came to an end this past Tuesday. With him, an age of classic theatre, classic movies, and classic television recedes into, you guessed it, legend.


   










  





12 comments:

  1. Hi, Kirk!

    In the recent spate of celebrity deaths, I'm happy to see that you picked up on the news about Norman Lloyd, an actor with an impressive career and tremendous longevity.

    Thanks for tracing Lloyd's career back to the beginning when he worked with Welles, Houseman and Hitchcock. It was interesting to learn that he was on the now-infamous blacklist. Marsha Hunt, one of my favorite actresses and activists, a great lady whom I have mentioned to you before, was also blacklisted, her career derailed, but managed to survive and thrive. In a few months Marsha will be age 104.

    I'm happy to learn that Norman Lloyd was a producer and director of Alfred Hitchcock's TV series, a show I watched regularly. Mrs. Shady is a tremendous fan of St. Elsewhere and watched the series reruns in recent years. Whenever she had the show on and Norman Lloyd appeared on the screen, I reminded her that he is one of the oldest living actors. She and I were both sad to learn that his longevity win streak finally came to an end this year as he approached his 107th birthday. For some reason I avoided St. Elsewhere during its original run. Based on the high marks you gave the series in this post, I think I'll tune in. It will be fun to watch Lloyd interact with the likes of Howie Mandel, Danzel Washington and Mark Harmon.

    I remember Lloyd in Dead Poet's Society, a film Mrs S and I both love. I remember Lloyd's iconic fall from the statue of Liberty in Saboteur, and I very much enjoyed hearing Lloyd describe how the stunt was set up and executed. It was odd for me to see Bob Cummings in a spine-tingling drama. My only exposure to him in my youth was in his TV sitcoms The Bob Cummings Show, Love That Bob and My Living Doll (with Julie Newmar).

    I also enjoyed hearing Lloyd talking about the production of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, how the writer waited until the last minute to submit the scripts and how Hitch and show sponsor Bristol Myers played along with the gags. It is evident that Lloyd was an interesting storyteller all his life, including his wonderful, entertaining address to fans who attended his 105th birthday party. Even then Norman was still of sound mind, strong voice and sharp wit.

    Thank you, good buddy Kirk, for putting together a comprehensive tribute to the late great Norman Lloyd, a testimonial that will someday be referred to as "now-legendary."

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    1. Shady, I do recall you doing a post at your place on Marsha Hunt. Unfortunately, I didn't recall it last night (or, more accurately, early this morning) or else I would have included her name with the rest. The names I do list are just the ones that came to mind at that moment. In the video clip where Norman Lloyd talks about the blacklist, he mentions "Charlie". That's a reference to Charlie Chaplin, who couldn't really be blacklisted since he was his own boss with his own studio, so instead was chased out of the country and not allowed to return until the early 1970s, when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. A few years before that occurred, however, Dick Van Dyke starred in a movie called The Comic, in which he played a disgruntled former silent screen comedian living out his old age in the 1960s. One scene has him staring at Chaplin's star on Hollywood Boulevard and grumbling, "They never did let you back in the country."

      I didn't have time last night (or, uh, this morning), I've been trying to find out if there were any St. Elsehwere castmembers at that 105th birthday celebration. I found one, Ed Begley Jr, who played immature surgeon Victor Erlich. There might have been other castmembers there who just escaped the journalists attention. As far as celebrities who weren't on St. Elsewhere, Elliot Gould was present as well.

      I've only seen bits and pieces of Bob Cummings sitcoms. When I hear that name, I immediately think of the college professor studying teenage habits in 1963's Beach Party, the first in the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movie franchise.

      My favorite part of that birthday speech was Lloyd's interaction with the boy in the top hat "He disappeared!" As far as the other interviews, I could have included at least ten more, and almost did.

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  2. Hello Kirk, Norman Lloyd is one of those character actors that is everywhere, but doesn't seem to have a peculiar look or trait (like Charles Lane's mien or Andy Devine's voice) that makes him instantly identifiable. I have most of the Hitchcock Hour dvd's somewhere--I love that show. The next time I get my player hooked up, I'll have to start looking for Lloyd's name.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, since I like both men and have seen them in many, many things, it's possible I'll do posts about Lane and Devine sometimes in the future.

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  3. I remember him from St Elsewhere! I loved that show.

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    1. Good to know you're a St Elsewhere fan, Debra. That show always had more of a cult following.

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  4. I've probably seen him many times but couldn't tell you about any of them. 105 when he died. And his wife Peggy died in 2011 at 98. The two of them ticked the average longevity age up a few notches.

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    1. Mike, to me there's no point to living that long if you've succumbed to dementia. But Lloyd seemed to have been of sound mind right until the end.

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  5. A legend indeed. There can't have been many actors with a career like that. And to carry on tennis - and acting - till 100 years old! and all those connections with the famous... wow. Thanks for this little bio of an amazing man.

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    1. Jenny, since I've known the name for years, I wish it had occurred to me to do a post on him when he was still alive. Maybe he would have seen it and invited me to his birthday party.

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  6. Norman Lloyd was an exceptional talent. I knew his story, but never would recognize him from his early days.

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    1. Mitchell, I first saw Saboteur about 15 years ago. I already knew Lloyd was in it and was able to spot him immediately, but had I not know he was in it, I doubt I would have recognized him.

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