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Todd McCarthy Remembers Hollywood Legend Norman Lloyd

·9-min read

Norman Lloyd was the last one standing. For a long time, it looked like an extended, slow-motion foot-race between Norman and Olivia de Havilland as to who would be the final significant figure from Hollywood’s golden age to pass from Earth to the eternal cinematic firmament. But Olivia left us in July of last year at 104, and now Norman, two years older, has joined all the others who helped make Hollywood what it was. The parade has now definitively, conclusively, gone by.

In a life bracketed by two pandemics, the Spanish flu of 1918-20 and the ongoing Covid onslaught, this Jersey and Brooklyn boy born into modest circumstances first strode onto the New York stage in 1932, was the last surviving member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theater and made his startling film debut in 1942 as the villain who fell from the top of the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

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He survived another plague, the Hollywood Blacklist, in the 1950s, thanks to Hitch, who snatched Norman off the House Un-American Activities Committee’s “gray list” to select stories, produce and direct for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. By the time the show’s run ended, in 1962, Norman had directed 19 episodes, two more than Hitchcock did. Norman then was executive producer of PBS’ long-running Hollywood Television Theater before finally becoming a household name in the 1980s as Dr. Daniel Auschlander on St. Elsewhere. The show’s producer, Tom Fontana, called Norman a combination of Peter Pan and Father Time.

A bald man of short stature, he nonetheless filled any room he entered with his deep, rich, booming voice which had been trained to reach the upper balcony of any theater in which he performed. In the style of the day, he cultivated a mid-Atlantic theatrical accent, and the cut of his tweedy clothes and sporty ivy caps similarly suggested a sense of mid-century British-style cultivation.

And did he have stories, great stories about Hitch, of course, and Chaplin, with whom he acted in Limelight and regularly played tennis in the 1940s and ‘50s; about working with Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton on a Hollywood stage production of the former’s Galileo, and even recent buddies like Norman Lear (following distantly at a mere age of 98), Elliott Gould and Judd Apatow, who directed Norman in his final film, Trainwreck, when the latter was 100. It was good to go out with a hit.

I had the good fortune to meet Norman through the great Jean Renoir, who, by the mid-1970s, was mostly confined to the home he designed himself off Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills and, in those pre-home video days, was keen to see any fine films he could watch at home on 16mm. I was in a position to procure titles for him, so Saturday matinees became a weekly ritual.

Jean and his wife Dido often invited a handful of friends over on these occasions, and one Saturday we screened Jean’s best American film, The Southerner. Joining us for the occasion was Norman, who played a supporting role in the picture, along with lovely wife Peggy and George Coulouris, the latter having acted with Norman in Welles’ legendary 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar and who went on to play Thatcher (“Is this any way to run a newspaper?!”) in Citizen Kane.

Norman’s big regret was not having stuck around in Hollywood long enough to act in Kane. When Welles’ original RKO project, Heart of Darkness, was canceled, he asked his actors to remain in Hollywood for a few weeks while he settled upon a new production. Norman, however, was talked into returning to New York by a friend who said there were some big opportunities in radio at the moment. It remained the biggest regret of Norman’s career and Orson never forgave him, although they did have a reunion, after a fashion, when they met at a Directors Guild event not long before Orson died.

It’s widely believed that, if Norman had stayed in Hollywood and been cast in Kane, he would have been given the role of Bernstein (played, in the end, by Everett Sloane), who delivered the poignant monologue about how he would never forget the young woman he saw getting off a ferry.

As things played out, Norman didn’t have to wait long to make his screen debut and did so under the guidance of another legend-in-the-making, Hitchcock. Ironically, it was John Houseman, Welles’ former partner at the Mercury, who recommended Norman to Hitch and David O. Selznick to play the villain in the director’s spy drama, Saboteur. It was a role audiences wouldn’t soon forget, as Norman made an indelible impression with his death scene, in which he fell from the top of the Statue of Liberty when the stitching in his coat unraveled. “I needed a better tailor!,” Norman always exclaimed.

Norman was a born raconteur, the life of any party whenever he felt like it. He had an old-fashioned, declamatory way of speaking that was instantly authoritative, theatrical in manner and funny in the bargain. His brilliant blue eyes could produce a twinkle seemingly on cue.

Peggy died in 2011, not long after she and Norman celebrated their 75th anniversary. Very often with couples that have been together so long, when one passes away, the survivor diminishes quickly. But this was not the case with the seemingly imperishable Norman. The following spring, Cannes Film Festival chief Thierry Fremaux and Norman’s close friend Pierre Rissient invited Norman to receive a special tribute at the Cannes Film Festival. I had the privilege of moderating the event, which was a spectacular success thanks to Norman’s storytelling prowess and way with an audience. He was 97 at the time and was greeted like a major film star. Richard Corliss wrote a full-page account of the event in Time magazine.

Five years later, on October 25, 2017, two weeks short of his 103rd birthday, Norman was taken to Dodger Stadium to see his beloved Dodgers take on the Houston Astros in the second game of the World Series. This also made the news, as the only previous series Norman had ever attended, at age 12, was Game 1 of the 1926 series at Yankee Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals faced off against a hometown team led by Babe Ruth. That game, which the Yankees won 2-1, was notable for a slide into second base that split the Babe’s pants.

Unfortunately for Norman and the Dodgers, Houston went on to win the game and, ultimately, the series, four games to three, and it wasn’t until this past season that Norman could finally celebrate—remotely—another Dodgers world championship.

The social highlight for everyone in Norman’s orbit every year was his birthday party, on November 8. It’s impressive for anyone to draw a hundred-plus guests on such an occasion, especially when you’ve outlived all your contemporaries. But that’s how many people congregated annually for at least a decade (until Covid interrupted tradition last fall) at the lovely home of a neighbor on Old Ranch Road, a shady, beautiful dead-end street where many residents keep horses and which has a feel of country life despite the sprawling city that surrounds it.

The ages of the guests always ran the gamut from infants to Norman’s unapproachable triple digits. Looking dapper as always in his old-fashioned, quasi-British way, Norman would mostly hold court on a couch in the living room as he was swarmed by guests. For a couple of hours, Norman maintained a steady pace receiving friendly faces by the dozens, but when the occasion called for it, Norman’s voice was always strong enough to break through the din to call the crowd to order.

Norman was a practiced speech-maker, to be sure, and no matter what he said he sounded dignified and commanding saying it. He was old school in the most delightful and endearing way and was a past-master at holding an audience. Everyone adored him.

Covid was tough on Norman to the extent that it reduced the number of friends he was able to see; having frequent visitors always helped keep him vital and connected. His wonderful nurses attended to him with great care and attention and he eventually began having friends over in a way that felt safe.

On my recent visits, usually with my son Nick, who enjoyed a mutual adoration relationship with this man who was 83 years older than he was, we sat outside in the back patio and peered through a sliding screen, on the other side of which Norman held forth at a breakfast table. The first time we saw him he was his old self, vigorously chatting about the four books he was simultaneously reading, telling stories and generally being his old self.

Into March and April of this year, however, Norman had noticeably taken a turn for the worse; he seemed to register what I was saying, but for the first time I had to do the lion’s share of the talking. His mind seemed a bit muddled, his concentration weakened, his ability to articulate at last compromised. Whenever I mentioned the name of someone he adored—Chaplin, Renoir, Hitchcock—he lit up, and he clearly registered who and what we were talking about. But the tank was running low at last.

With Norman at last taking his final curtain call, there truly is no significant actor left who was part of the politically engaged New York theatre of the 1930s, worked with major Hollywood filmmakers whose careers stretched from the silent cinema into the 1960s, was a pioneer in television and always kept his hand in with his first love, the stage. To know Norman Lloyd was to admire and love him, and as a great man of the theater he always fulfilled the goal of delivering the goods and leaving us wanting more.

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