LOS ANGELES— After 75 years in the acting business, six years on the blacklist, and decades of working for the kind of wages that today’s Screen Actors Guild would laugh at, Norman Lloyd is still being asked for the shirt off his back.
“Have you got a dress shirt?” his director is asking him. It seems that another actor aboard this particularly low-budget L.A. indie needs to dress as a limo driver, and they don’t have the proper costume. The director has somehow imagined that Lloyd—a man who has worked with Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Bertolt Brecht—should double as wardrobe mistress.
“I have but one wardrobe to give to my country,” Lloyd mutters into the camera, all plummy-toned and gimlet-eyed. Clearly, it is days like this that make him question why he keeps on working.
At 93, Lloyd has had more than a few years of perfecting the mischievous/querulous/imperious countenance that so identifies him to audiences. It was working overtime on a recent Sunday afternoon, as he recalled the shirt scene—which appears in
Who Is Norman Lloyd?, a documentary portrait of the actor/director/producer that opens at Film Forum this week, at which Lloyd himself will appear on Monday night.
“The guy didn’t know his ass from his elbow,” Lloyd said, in as genteel a way as one might say such a thing. “My friend Karl Malden said, ‘You’re nuts to do this! You don’t know a goddamn thing about this guy!’ I said, ‘I know, I know, but the script is beautiful.’ ”
The scene is in the film, of course, to show that at 93 sprightly years old, Lloyd is still working, willing to take chances and willing to give a young director a hand—even if said director suffers from ass-elbow deficit disorder. And even if Lloyd doesn’t quite believe in the business the way he used to.
“That scene in the movie of me walking out of the house carrying my own clothes?” Lloyd says with a smile. “I know why it was included, but I haven’t done that since I was 17 years old.” On the other hand, when he made Saboteur (also showing at Film Forum) with Alfred Hitchcock—in which, as the title character, he famously plummets from atop the Statue of Liberty—he was paid $350 a week. “They needed me a few more days, so they gave me $25 a day.” When he began on the New York stage, actors weren’t paid for rehearsal. “They get paid now,” he says, noting that the change is due to people who stood up to an entrenched establishment.
But money wasn’t his motivation then. And it wouldn’t be now, he says.
“If I were a young person today, I don’t think I’d go into this business. We thought we could change the world. In many ways, we were wrong. . . . When I started out, theater was crucial! Immigrants, they’d rather have had education and theater than clothes. They’d wrap a herring in a loaf of bread and sit there eating it, watching a play.”
Such passion helps provide an answer to the question “Who is Norman Lloyd?” but he is hardly an unknown. Younger generations might recognize him from Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes. He was a regular on St. Elsewhere, guest-starred on The Practice, and was recently—and belatedly—inducted into the Players Club. Having started his stage career in 1932 with Eva Le Gallienne, who recommended that he take elocution lessons to rid himself of his Brooklynese, Lloyd was Cinna the Poet in Welles’s celebrated, 1937 fascist-themed staging of Julius Caesar—and is one of the few surviving members of the Mercury Theater. And he participated in multiple WPA productions in the ’30s, something he believes might have helped get him blacklisted in the ’50s.
“There were these guys in Syracuse who ran supermarkets,” Lloyd remembers. “They got up a list of people, it was called Red Channels, and if the networks permitted any of these people on the air, they wouldn’t sell the products that were advertised. It was that kind of thing.
“It was the beginning of filmed television in this town,” he continues, “and MCA, who were my agents, wanted to get into television. So they set aside $100,000 to make these half-hour pictures, which we could shoot in a day and a half. There were three guys who were asked to be the directors, and one of them was me.”
Lloyd describes the productions as “three guys and a carpenter”: “I was working there when these Syracuse guys issued this dictum. And someone came and said, ‘Lew Wasserman has said we can’t use you.’ ”
Wasserman, Hollywood’s longtime Cardinal Richelieu, was just being careful. There was nothing to nail Lloyd to—no subpoenas, no hearings, no charges. But Wasserman’s caution meant six years in exile, until Hitchcock hired him to work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was a gutsy move.
“Fabulously so,” Lloyd agrees. “Because they’d told him, ‘There’s a problem.’ He didn’t care. Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo for Exodus, and Kirk Douglas hired him again on Spartacus, but Hitch in ’57 was out in front. He saved me.”
Lloyd has outlived many of the luminaries whom he counted among his colleagues and friends; a large vase made by Jean Renoir (for whom he appeared in The Southerner) occupies a corner of Lloyd’s living room. He played the stage manager in Limelight for Chaplin, whom he’d met on the tennis court (Lloyd still plays two or even three times a week), and who confided to Lloyd that he’d buried his first million somewhere in Hollywood. “When he was in England,” Lloyd says, “before he went up to Switzerland, his wife Oona made a very quick trip into town. I’m sure it was to dig up that million.”
He and Chaplin were going to make They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but Chaplin’s expulsion from the United States embittered Lloyd and the project fell apart. It’s a small miracle that Lloyd isn’t more bitter—though he does, during the documentary, flash with anger at his recollection of the blacklist. “I lost all those years,” he says. “That’s part of the answer as to why one is not better known.”