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Boston Globe (14/Apr/1987) - Fame catches up with Norman Lloyd



Fame catches up with Norman Lloyd

LOS ANGELES — For most actors, a starring role on "St. Elsewhere" would mark the high point of a career. With Broadway growing increasingly commercial, with most movies geared to teeny-boppers, and with television rarely aimed above the lowbrow, what self-respecting actor wouldn't consider the sharp-edged, intelligently written hospital drama a haven from uncertain opportunities elsewhere?

But for Norman Lloyd, the role of Dr. Daniel Auschlander is just another step in a distinguished career both in front of and behind the camera, a career that has high-stepped from Eva Le Gallienne to Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. He has directed or produced three television classics, "Omnibus," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Hollywood Television Theater."

Before "St. Elsewhere," Lloyd was best known as the Nazi archvillain of Hitchcock's "Saboteur," particularly for the scene in which he literally hangs by a thread, dangling from the Statue of Liberty as his coat sleeve starts to unravel.

At 73, the native New Yorker — well, New Jerseyan — reflects with a mixture of professorial erudition and wistfulness on his career in theater, film and television. Beginning at the beginning, Lloyd is asked if it had been a conscious decision to take the high road:

"I started with Le Gallienne. She had a permanent repertory theater, perhaps the best this country ever had as a professional repertory, it was down on 14th Street and 6th Avenue in New York, in a wonderful old 19th-century theater."

Lloyd was one of 700 who auditioned for her and one of 50 who made the final cut. "Now this is my first experience. I had been in vaudeville, but this is my first experience in professional theater, and Eva was a woman who did Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and so on. So I was inoculated at the start by a theater of a very high standard. And when I went into that theater my ambition was not to be a Hollywood actor, but to be a member of that company and play those parts . . . So the answer is that I started out with that idea, or that inoculation if you will, that this is what the theater is about. I tried my hand at doing a couple of commercial Broadway shows, but I never had a long-running play. So that it was a natural when I met Orson and I got to know Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir — these guys are on a level that doesn't exist today, I mean they were geniuses — and it just was a natural thing that he gravitated toward them. So it wasn't a conscious decision. As one went along, that was the kind of work one was doing. Another element, from the Mercury Theater on, I remained very good friends with John Houseman and he was always involved in some Shakespeare piece."

Lloyd is also quick to add that in the early days not all his acting was so high-minded. He married his wife Peggy in 1936. "In desperation, after our children were born, sometimes you had to take a helluva job to meet the rent and I've done my share of old-time Universal pictures — with Yvonne De Carlo in 'Buccaneer's Girl' and 'Calamity Jane and Sam Bass' and so forth. I'd forgotten about a picture I did which was absolutely the old Columbia, real B picture called 'The Flame of Stamboul.' But you had to eat and that was it."

Lloyd has prouder memories of his days with Welles, Houseman and the Mercury Theater ("We turned New York on its ear."). What was the guiding spirit of the Mercury Theater?

"Whatever Orson's vision was. And that's the way to have a theater by the way. Some actors have come to me, they want to start a theater here. These are all very well-known actors. They've got Richard Dreyfuss in it, they've got Julie Harris and so on. I think they've got 28 actors lined up. I said, 'Who's running it?' They said, 'Oh, we're going to do it together.' I said, 'Count me out.' "

Lloyd followed Welles' vision from New York to California, but wasn't on hand for his crowning achievement. "Here's what happened with the Welles thing. After the Mercury, my first trip out here was in 1939. Orson got a deal. He wanted to do 'Heart of Darkness,' Conrad's story. The device of the film was the narrator as the camera going up the river. Orson was Marlowe. He took the original theater company and merged it with the radio company. You see, people like Agnes Moorehead and Ray Collins and Everett Sloane were not in the original Mercury Theater company. The theater company was, of course, Orson, Martin, Gable, Joe Cotton.

"So I came out and we were here six weeks, at the end of which time RKO said, 'No, we don't want to make the picture.' I've never forgotten the meeting we had in Orson's office. He asked us to stay while he tried to work out another deal with RKO. I was already married, my wife was pregnant and I couldn't sit around Hollywood waiting for Orson to make a deal. I suppose in looking back on it, I must have panicked because I said, 'I'm going back to New York and try to get a Broadway show.' Which I did. But some of the guys stayed on and they ended up in 'Citizen Kane.' "

For all of Lloyd's fondness for Welles, he takes the opposite view from many cineastes about whether Welles or Hitchcock was the better filmmaker. Asked the question, he immediately replies, "Hitchcock. Why? Because Orson was a great technician, but he never really had a story to tell. Hitch, like Charlie and Jean, had a story to tell. In Hitch's case, it was the almost Kafkaesque anxiety of modern society."

Lloyd remained friendly with Hitchcock after the TV series went off the air, spending Hitchcock's last days with him. "At the end of his life, he was really declining, but he was supposed to do this picture called 'The Short Night,' and he was having trouble with it. Just as the script was finished, Hitch sent out a call. He said, 'I want Norman back.' " Lloyd said he went out to select locations "and at one point, Hitch, feeling that he couldn't shoot the picture, he tried to get the studio to OK me as the director and him the producer. They said, 'We can't do that because it's not an Alfred Hitchcock picture and that's what we want.' "

Hitchcock contrived to do it anyway, but "it never got to that because of Hitchcock's failing health. I sat with him and held his hand because he was having a terrible time."

And Renoir? "I'll tell you one great story about him. As he was in his declining years, he said, 'You know, when I started as a filmmaker as a young man, there was one thing I didn't want people to say — Oh, Pierre Auguste Renoir's son. And so I did everything possible to avoid having my work compared to my father's. I didn't want them to say — look, he lines up a shot like an imitation of one of his father's paintings. I avoided that all my life.' And then he said, 'Now I look at the pictures I've made over 50 years and I realize that what I was doing all my life was trying to be as much like my father as I could.' "

Lloyd appeared in Chaplin's "Limelight" and he convinced the comedian to buy "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," which Chaplin would produce and Lloyd would direct. "But what happened was he got into that trouble where they wouldn't let him back into the country."

He speaks of these disappointments without bitterness. In fact, these memories seem to have more positive associations than negative ones. Although Lloyd is less well known as a producer and director than as an actor, he should best be remembered as executive producer for "Hollywood Television Theater," which he produced for public television and which was a much headier mix of televised plays than precursors like "Playhouse 90" or subsequent theater-and-film series like "American Playhouse."

Jack MacGowran's one-man portrayal of Samuel Beckett's characters, "Beginning to End," set in the Mojave Desert, remains one of the most stunning televised plays in the medium's history for its fusion of theatrical and video values.

That fusion, said Lloyd, "was the aesthetic problem . . . You cannot shoot plays as if the television audience is in the theater as they did with 'Sweeney Todd.' It does not work; it is a different aesthetic . . . There is an in-between where you have a visual thing going that makes the camera valid and yet you have certain qualities that you get out of the theater, emanating mostly from the actors. Because unlike 'St. Elsewhere,' where we do a two-minute take and someone says, 'Cut,' we did 'Shadow of a Gunman' an act at a time, 30 minutes at a time. So the actors loved it because you get a run at it, it builds up a head of steam.

"Now we did 'Incident at Vichy.' Arthur Miller said that was the best adaptation of the play ever. And do you know why? I mean the actors were very good and it was very well directed by Stacy Keach. All of that was first class. But what Arthur realized was that when he had it done in the theater initially, it was like a Greek chorus, all these people who were sort of condemned and there they were. It was slow and ponderous. Visually, we had a warehouse; it looked like the interior of an abandoned railroad station. By having four cameras and then cutting, and an office over to the side and so forth, it gave it speed and movement and a dynamic that it didn't have with the proscenium arch."

Lloyd plans to produce and direct more when "St. Elsewhere" runs its course, but Dr. Auschlander is holding his interest at the moment. "It's a beautiful role. I love the character, I really love him. He's not a character who compels, you know. Structurally, he's more an ornament. But what is interesting is that his predicament — he was only supposed to be in the first four episodes and then die — well, now we're in the fifth year and part of it is due to the fact that his predicament interested the audience. I'm asked to speak places, at commencements, as a doctor. They want the image rather than the real doctor. The other fellas actors have the same experience.

"The boys, meaning the writers, have worked out things beautifully . . . You have the Craig character who is what he is. Auschlander is a very interesting color in the show. He is quite unique in his sense of balance and compassion. Westphall has compassion, but he's tortured. He's a tortured character, but he sort of represents the soul of the hospital. But Auschlander, although he has felt at times that he has mismanaged things due to his illness, like the nurses' strike, he's a more objective and compassionate soul than almost anyone in the hospital. And he's the most poetic soul."

It is fitting that Lloyd should finally find fame late in life after toiling so prolifically and anonymously in film, theater and television.