Norman Lloyd: Hollywood’s Long Distance Runner, Part 1

Norman Lloyd hangs on for dear life in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

On November 8, 2017 Norman Lloyd will be 203 and he shows no signs of slowing down. In recent years, he has become the go-to historian for the American film industry’s golden era due to his friendship and working relationships with such cinema legends as Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Garfield, Bernard Herrmann, John Houseman, Joseph Losey and others. Lloyd also continues to take acting roles (he has a nice cameo in the 2015 Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck starring Amy Schumer) and appear as an interviewee in documentaries such as Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015) and Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age, which is currently in post-production.

*This is a revised and updated version of the original interview which was recorded in March 2010 just prior to Lloyd’s appearance at the first Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.  

Norman Lloyd in his study (photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter).

Jeff Stafford: What was your first film appearance? I have seen sources that list The Streets of New York in 1939 as your first credit?

Norman Lloyd: That was television. It was an experiment by NBC. They took over some radio studios they had in the NBC Rockefeller Studios in New York. And they tried to do a couple of plays in these radio studios. In other words, the sets were up against the wall and [for] the next set the camera moved over along the wall facing another set, then it moved over to another set…which was The Streets of New York directed by Anthony Mann.

Phylis Isley aka Jennifer Jones

JS: And I understand Jennifer Jones was in that too?

NL: Yes, under the name of Phylis Isley, which was her real name.

JS: Was that an actual live TV production?

NL: It was whatever they had because this was the start of an experiment called television and right after that we got in the war and they just dropped the whole thing. Then we renewed after the war but this was the first time and there is a kinoscope of five minutes of that. It’s the worst – on my part – the worst acting known to man. It was absolutely ghastly. George Coulouris was in it with me and Whitford Kane and Phylis Isley and John Call.

Now I did two shows at that time. I did The Streets of New York and there had been a play on Broadway about Brigham Young that starred Dean Jagger and Mildred Natwick. And they decided they would try that on this new thing called television. And they asked me to play this character lead on it that was supporting Dean and Natwick. I wasn’t in the theatre production but I was in this production on television.  JS: So this was your first time on television but you were also acting on the stage in New York. At what point did you go out to Hollywood and start to make films?

NL: In 1942 for Hitchcock. By the way, I had started in 1932 with Eva Le Gallienne down at the Civic Repertory Theatre so I had almost ten years of that when Hitch cast me in this part in Saboteur. We did second unit work around the base of the actual Statue of Liberty early in December 1941. Then in 1942 February I came to do the meat of the picture. And that was my first real film.

Norman Lloyd as Cinna, the poet, in Orson Welles’ anti-fascist version for the stage of Julius Caesar in 1937.

JS: Did you have to do a screen test for that part?

NL: Yes I did. Hitchcock asked John Houseman – both of them were under contract to David O. Selznick – and when Hitch was going to proceed with this picture he asked John Houseman who was vice-president of Selznick International if he knew of a young actor, an unknown, who he wanted for the part of the saboteur. And John Houseman recommended me because Houseman had been partners with Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater. Houseman knew me from the Mercury Theatre when I was in Julius Caesar and The Shoemaker’s Holiday. So John recommended me and I met Hitch – I think it was about 8 o’clock in the morning. He was a great one for starting early. He said “Fine, I would like you to test” and I did. And fortunately I got the part.

SABOTEUR, Norman Lloyd, Priscilla Lane, 1942

JS: When you were creating the character of Frank Fry did he try to give you instructions on his behavior or did he let you come up with the physical interpretation of the part?

NL: I think in all fairness I can say he let me develop that character as an actor. What I want to make clear is that you should learn with Hitchcock a couple of things. One, as he said [imitates Hitchcock’s voice], “I hire professional actors and expect them to do their jobs.” So much for all that internal directing. Number two – in my case, I realized quickly that with his direction, which was fascinating – that he told you where to go, where to look; he staged the scene in such a way that you realized THAT was the direction. In other words, he knew every cut that he wanted to make. So that he would stage you into a scene and you realized he didn’t direct you internally but he told you what to do.

Alfred Hitchcock (far left) on the set of Saboteur (1942) with his daughter Pat and male lead Robert Cummings.

There’s the famous story about a particular actor who I shall not mention who was in one of his pictures and Hitch directed him to sit at a certain point and the method actor asked him “Why did I sit?” and Hitch said “To put your ass in the seat of the chair.” So do I make my point?

JS: I always thought the ending of Saboteur was interesting because Hitchcock put you in the situation of jeopardy instead of the hero. It almost makes the audience feel sorry for you.

NL: He said later on that he made two big mistakes that he could mention as a storyteller. One was the ending of Saboteur and the other was a picture called Sabotage [aka The Woman Alone] which I’ll describe to you in a moment of why he went wrong with that. But here he said several times long after we shot it that the wrong man was in jeopardy. It should have been Bob Cummings and not me.  He also did Sabotage [1936], where we know that at a certain time a bomb is going to go off and a boy carrying a suitcase – there’s a bomb in it – doesn’t know there’s a bomb in it, and he keeps cutting to the clock and the bus is stuck [in traffic] on Oxford Street in London. It really drives you crazy with the suspense. Finally at twelve o’clock the bomb goes off and the boy is blown up with the bomb and a lot of other people. But the point is (imitating Hitchcock’s voice) “I shouldn’t have blown up that boy.” It’s a fabulous sequence and he couldn’t let go of it because it’s such a great sequence.

Norman Lloyd co-stars with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

JS: Did you have to go through the same casting process for your next Hitchcock film Spellbound?

NL: No, I knew Hitch. He became a friend and he was a friend for a long time, about 38 years. You know I later produced for him on his television show. But at this point I had gone back to New York after Saboteur. I came out again in 1944 for John Houseman to do a picture at Paramount. And in the course of time I very quickly looked up Hitch as a friend. He [was preparing] Spellbound and he asked me to do this part, which was very early in his career with Ingrid Bergman…and I did.

Salvador Dali dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

JS: Was Salvador Dali actually on the set of Spellbound to supervise the fantasy sequence?

NL: No, he wasn’t there when I was there. It was my hand you see doing all that stuff.  The man who seemed to be around when that was going on under Hitch’s direction was William Cameron Menzies. And he had something to do with all that but it was Dali, yes. But he was not there the day I shot.

JS: Were you a freelance actor in the years between 1945 and 1952? You were working for a lot of different studios then.

Norman Lloyd co-stars in the 1946 drama The Green Years starring a young Dean Stockwell.

NL: Yes, but in 1945 I was put under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and I did The Green Years there, The Beginning or the End, the atom bomb picture, and A Letter for Evie. 

Norman Lloyd (center) stars in the 1949 suspense drama for MGM, Scene of the Crime.

JS: What about Scene of the Crime?

NL: No curiously, Scene of the Crime, which was the best thing I did there, was after they had let me go. Actually their letting me go was rather amusing. I was under contract there and they were very nice about this point. In the latter part of the 1945 I met with Lewis Milestone, who made a masterpiece in this town called All Quiet on the Western Front and with whom I had acted in a picture called A Walk in the Sun, which I think is a beautiful film.

Working with Milestone as a actor we got to talking about this, that and other things and he signed a deal to do a picture called Arch of Triumph with Bergman and Boyer and Charles Laughton and Louis Calhern. Wonderful cast. And he asked me if I would be his associate because he felt there was a directorial bent in my shorted career. So I wanted to do that. Now it so happens I was still under contract to Metro and they sent me a script that they wanted me to be in – I think Arch Oboler was going to direct it. When you’re that young you’re crazy and wonderfully so and I said “No, I’m not going to do this. I reject your script.” Well, Billy Grady who was in charge of the talent at Metro said “What? Take his clothes” – which were in my dressing room – “And throw them out on Washington Boulevard.” And I was delighted because I could then go to work for Milestone, which is what I wanted.

JS: It sounds like that contract player system wasn’t a good thing for everyone.

NL: I’ll tell you something. We all chafed under it. We all said if we were only free what masterpieces we would make and what great acting would go on. You know, in retrospect a hundred years later that was the best way to make pictures. The studios were the best way to make pictures. I don’t care what anyone says. I know there were some independent films and independent producers and so forth who made wonderful films. But if you’re talking about the motion picture industry and the way to make a program of pictures, that was the way. For actors it was great because you kept making pictures….even though it’s in the nature of talent to beef all the time. I mean you’re not a real artist unless you’re beefing all the time and saying, “Oh if they’d only free me, god what I could do.” But when I look back and I think what’s going on in this town today, that was the way.

JS: Well, the studio system lasted a long time and produced a lot of wonderful movies, even the B movies which look better than a lot of movies you see today.

NL: Some of them are marvelous. The film noirs. Wow. Some of the writing in them…so racy for its time.

French director Jean Renoir in Hollywood in the mid-forties.

JS: There’s one director you worked with early on that I wanted to ask you about, Jean Renoir. On The Southerner, was his style of directing in Hollywood difficult for the cast and crew because he was European? Was that a good or bad experience?

NL: You know I’ve worked with Chaplin, with Hitchcock, with Welles. No one was more beautiful than Jean Renoir. [He] was off by himself, a great artist. A man who conjured up a whole world when he worked. Only the other day I ran the BBC interview with Orson Welles and he thought Renoir was the greatest director. In a documentary in which Welles said the least important person on the set is the director. You know that’s Orson showing off. But the thing is I could go on forever about Jean Renoir. I loved that man. I mean, when you think of Grand Illusion, Rules of the Game and other pictures…Le Bete Humaine, Boudu Saved from Drowning.

As Chaplin used to say an artist is as great as the story he has to tell, not the particular script. What is the story he brings to the script? What is his life? And Jean was France. He brought a whole nation into his script. A script like Grand Illusion is literature. It’s not a motion picture script. You can read it as literature.

THE SOUTHERNER, Zachary Scott, Betty Field, 1945

So when I worked on The Southerner with him I already knew him. I was brought into his office by my agent at the time and the part was not fully written and he talked a lot about it, what he wanted out of it. I just caught fire. Jesus, I gotta work with this guy. This is just remarkable, an experience.

He had made an earlier picture called Swamp Water with Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter and Walter Huston. And since you referred to the language thing there’s an amusing story about Jean when he was directing them. It was his first picture in English. And they did a scene… Anne Baxter and Dana…[laughs] and Jean said [he imitates the director], “That scene is very good but you should smell a little.” So they looked at each other and tried to figure out where in the scene they should “smell.” They tried it again. Jean said “I like it. I like it. But you should smell a little.” Well, it took them a long time, about five or six [takes] but he was meaning “smile.”  It began in the Okefenokee Swamp where he was making the picture. In a long shot he had someone doubling for Anne Baxter and he called out to her, “Little girl, when you get in the boat, wet a little.” Well, she was somebody they picked up in the swamp to do this in the long shot and she didn’t know how to go about “wetting.” He meant “wait.”  I loved Jean, I loved him!

JS: I had heard that William Faulkner had worked on the screenplay of The Southerner. Was he ever on the set? Did you get to meet him?

NL: Faulkner? No, he was not on the set. It seemed to be common knowledge that the credits [list[ Hugo Butler….so if Faulkner was working with Jean, it would have been in the privacy of Jean’s home. You never knew with Faulkner. He said he wanted to work at home – you know that story? The studio found him in Oxford [Mississippi]. He’d gone to the studio and said I’d like to work from home today.  One of my favorite stories in picture making was when we were doing a scene [for The Southerner] by the house they lived in…that is Zach Scott and Betty Field, a beautiful actress. There was a little truck garden there and the scene required a cow to do through it and trample on it and the cow was to be chased by a little dog, a little Charleston terrier. Well, first take, the dog was put in the scene and he’s scared of the cow and he runs out of the scene. Second take, he runs out of the scene. Finally they try another device but he’s so frightened of this cow so finally on the fifth take as he ran out Jean caught him and threw the dog back in at the cow’s feet and said to the dog “Act, idiot.”

JS: Let’s talk about Orson Welles. I know you worked with him in the Mercury Theatre but did you ever have an opportunity to act with him in a film?

NL: In 1939 the year after the Mercury [Theatre] closed, RKO signed Orson to a deal to make a picture called The Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad story. Orson brought us all out here to make the picture and when I say out here – Los Angeles from New York. He combined elements from his theatre company such as myself and George Coulouris and certain technicians and his radio company. He combined the two and we were here for six weeks.

Orson Welles (left background) narrates a production for radio by The Mercury Theater.

We had one reading of the script and RKO decided it didn’t want to make it. As you know it was later made as Apocalypse Now by Coppola but set in Viet Nam. Orson was going to do it in the original setting of the novel. After we were here six weeks – and I must say my tennis improved enormously, I didn’t do a damn thing – we were all shown into Orson’s office [at RKO] and he told us the studio wasn’t going to do the picture but they gave him an opportunity to make another picture with them if he came up with another property. So he asked us all to stay.

There was no money forthcoming. We had been paid for six weeks but we were so spoiled we insist on being paid even when we don’t work, especially when you have a tennis game. So I went back to the hotel and discussed this with my wife and we thought about it and my wife and I decided to go back to New York. As a consequence, I never made a picture with Orson Welles because he then put together Citizen Kane. But you know – just dumb luck.

I don’t know what I would have played in Kane. There were a lot of parts but I fell into Saboteur which overlapped in a funny way during the same time period. And Saboteur was more rewarding for me from a personal standpoint, even if I’d been one of those guys in Citizen Kane. The thing is, we were real actors so we were broke all the time. So my wife and I thought about it and said we can’t wait until he makes a deal. We better get back to New York where I can get a job so that’s [what we did]. JS: There was a movie you made later and one that I love called He Ran All the Way. I’d like to get your memories about making it. And it was made at the height of the blacklist, right?

NL: John Garfield was one of the most beautiful guys I’ve ever known.  He was a wonderful person and a damn good actor. John Berry [the director] was very close to me. I first met him when he was an extra in Julius Caesar for Orson and he had directorial ambitions. Later on he staged the road company of Native Son, which had regionally been staged by Orson. Eventually John Houseman brought him to Hollywood as a director where he did good work. He was blacklisted. At the time they would try to serve him – they came in the front door literally – he went out the back door and over a fence and made his way eventually to various stops. People helped him and he got to France where he made quite a few pictures.

John Garfield, New York stage actor and Hollywood star circa the late forties.

He Ran All the Way was when he was let back in the country, so to speak. It was the last picture Julie [Garfield] made. That was 1951… well the Blacklist was in effect. Garfield was not a man who was gonna be influenced by that. And he had his own company with a guy named Bob Roberts who had been his business manager. So the picture was made under that shadow. The cameraman was James Wong Howe, whose wife was blacklisted I believe – Sanora Babb. And Berry had been blacklisted and Garfield in effect was blacklisted because they said his wife was a leftie. And he had been identified with the Group Theatre which was considered left wing. He worked with [Clifford] Odets in those group theatre plays. Yes, so all in all, he was of the Left and Berry was of the Left and I knew them both very well and they asked me if I’d be in the picture and I said of course because I wanted them to have every possible break.

John Garfield’s breakthrough film was Four Daughters (1938) opposite Priscilla Lane.

Julie needed a break. He wasn’t being hired. So the picture was made. It’s a good picture and he’s very good in it. Then went back to New York and he did a play the title of which escapes me and he was talking about doing another play. I think he was talking about doing Volpone. He may have done Peer Gynt, I don’t know. Then he died. It was a sad, terrible story because he was 39 years old. He had a lot of work to do in front of him.

Julie was raised up from the streets of New York by Angelo Patri who was the foremost educator in the New York area. But he spotted this kid and had him do elocution and different things and Julie brought that quality into pictures. He brought his story in so when they released a picture called Four Daughters with the Lane Sisters in it – Garfield was the young man. He created a sensation because he brought that quality in…it had its own almost poetic flavor. No, I can’t speak enough about him and what they did to him.  JS: Just before that you had worked with Joseph Losey on a remake of M.

NL: It was done in the United States and I knew Joe very well. I’d done four plays in the theatre with him, the most important of which were The Living Newspapers which were unique in the history of the American theatre. We did those in the Federal Theatre. Brooks Atkinson, who was then the foremost critic, thought that they were major contributions to the history of the American theatre. I played the leading roles and Joe directed them. Joe worked in the theatre after that without much luck. Then he got into radio and was eventually brought out to Hollywood…which did not go well for him.  He made a picture called The Boy with the Green Hair and then he made a picture with Evelyn Keyes called The Prowler. He made it with Sam Spiegel. I never saw it but the notices said the first reel was great and then it ran into trouble. But then nothing was happening and he was blacklisted. But before he decided to go to Europe he made M for [Seymour] Nebenzal who owned the property. They owned it from the original production that Fritz Lang had done with Peter Lorre. And Joe did a good job on it and David Wayne was very good in it.

But I tell you my friend, Peter Lorre…that’s one of the performances in the history of films. If you said the five greatest performances, certainly Lorre in M is one of them. By the way, the whole picture, the way it was shot and the way Lang directed it [sighs]…anyway, Joe took the job because he didn’t have a job but it was not a picture to remake because it was perfection itself. So Joe asked me to be in it and I said to myself, why are we remaking it? But what the hell, there’s a check at the end of the week.

Peter Lorre in M (1931)

Here is the link to Part 2 of the interview: https://cinemasojourns.com/2017/04/16/norman-lloyd-hollywoods-long-distance-runner-part-2/#more-3265

Other websites of interest:

http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/02/norman-lloyd-101-years-old-hollywood

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/trainwreck/norman-lloyd-interview/

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-magnificent-memory-of-norman-lloyd

http://variety.com/2014/film/features/norman-lloyd-at-100-hollywoods-living-memory-1201345747/

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/a-trip-through-film-history-with-norman-lloyd

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One thought on “Norman Lloyd: Hollywood’s Long Distance Runner, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Norman Lloyd: Hollywood’s Long Distance Runner, Part 2 | Cinema Sojourns

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