He has been a rabble-rousing Roman poet and a choreographer struggling with a recalcitrant young ballerina, a doctor battling encroaching age and hospital bureaucracy and a Nazi saboteur hanging from the Statue of Liberty by his fingernails. If you know who he is, you are a serious student of film history. If not, then you may ask – as the title of the new documentary opening on Nov. 23 bluntly puts it — “Who Is Norman Lloyd?”
The answer, which this delightful documentary offers vividly, is that Norman Lloyd is “a living history of American entertainment in the 20th century.” A list of the men and women he worked with would include Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Joseph Losey, Bertolt Brecht, Eva Le Gallienne, Elia Kazan, Lewis Milestone, Martin Scorsese and Ray Bradbury — and that’s just the short list. He has been actor, director and producer and, at 93, he is one of the great institutional memories of the performing arts in this country.
Not a bad life for a nice Jewish boy from Jersey City.
“Oh, gee, when I think back on it, it’s amazing what happens to us as we move out into the world,” Lloyd said in a telephone interview earlier this month, coincidentally on his 93rd birthday. “My family were Conservative Jews. My parents were both born in this country, but my father grew up on the Lower East Side and my mother was born and raised in Harlem when there was a large Jewish ‘colony’ there. Eventually they moved to Jersey City to get away from New York.”
But for a theater-mad kid, New York was heaven in the 1920s, and it was inevitable that Lloyd would gravitate back to the city. Inevitable and, he believes, ethnically ordained.
“The Jews are an artistic people,” he says. “It’s clear from the music, the actors, the writers. They are just artists. In the early part of the 20th century when they first came over they had no money, but they still went to theater. The theater and education were the two biggest things in their lives. More important than clothes. I think it’s always been inherent in the race.”
Lloyd has worked in every medium available to him, from live theater to radio to film to television. Although he began his career as a boy song-and-dance man — “the worst song-and-dance man in history,” he says in the film, with a puckish grin — he went legit by joining Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater where he worked with the charismatic Le Gallienne and such other young and promising actors as John Garfield, Howard da Silva and Alexander Scourby.
From there he joined the Mercury Theater, working with Orson Welles and John Houseman, who would become a lifelong friend, most prominently in the role of Cinna the poet in Welles’ legendary anti-Fascist “Julius Caesar.” It was a small but pivotal role, and it made Lloyd’s reputation. He would go to Hollywood with Welles, but their initial project fell through and he didn’t want to hang around Los Angeles with no specific work. “That’s how I turned down a part in ‘Citizen Kane,’ he says with great merriment.
No matter. He would be back the following year, 1942, working for Hitchcock in the title role of “Saboteur” and kindling a friendship that would last until Hitch’s death. It was a friendship that would save Lloyd’s career when he became a victim of the blacklist in the ‘50s. Hitchcock wanted Lloyd, who by that time was working both in front of and behind the camera, as a producer on his new television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
When the network demurred, Hitchcock merely said, “I want him,” and Lloyd was hired. He would rise to the position of executive producer and worked on the show for the entire length of its run.
Given the length and richness of his career, which medium gave Lloyd the most pleasure?
“There are three answers to that one,” he says. “As an actor, it’s the theater and the reason for that is your communication with the audience. If you’re in the groove you get something back from the audience that is so exciting and rewarding that no film or television work can possibly compete. As a director it’s movies, because there you are telling the story — you may not have written it, but you are telling it. As a producer, it’s television, because of the continuity. I spent eight years with ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘Hollywood Television Theater.’ When you’re doing those shows it’s like being part of an extended family.”
Truth be told, though, Lloyd would probably prefer to be on a tennis court, which is how he met and became friends with Chaplin, who cast him as the choreographer in “Limelight.” Even now, at 93, Lloyd still plays three sets of tennis twice a week.
“It used to be four times a week, so I guess I’m slowing down a bit,” he says. “Two years ago I won the Directors Guild doubles tournament,” a memory that gives him as much naches as any of his achievements in film, theater or television.
And he still works.
In the documentary, we see Lloyd on the set of a short film being made by a first-time director, and he is as involved and as gracious as if he were still working with Hitchcock, Chaplin or Renoir, his three favorite directors, or playing Dr. Auschlander on “St. Elsewhere,” one of his favorite roles.
What is his secret?
“I always kept physically active,” he explains. “I played tennis all the time; I used to play three or four times a week. In those days we played singles, now I play doubles. I used to ride a bike every morning before going to work. If I couldn’t do those things I’d walk. I eat everything except shellfish, but to moderation. I drink wine, I have a slug of whiskey every night like my grandfather did. That’s all I’ve ever done. You have to be lucky.”
He certainly has done that. And we have been lucky to have him.
“Who Is Norman Lloyd?” will play on a double bill with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur,” featuring Lloyd in the title role, at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) from Nov. 23-29. Lloyd will be present for a special evening on Monday, Nov. 26 at 8:15 p.m. For more information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.