Norman Lloyd: Hitchcock’s Saboteur Is a World-Class Raconteur

He worked and played with Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Elia Kazan, Bertolt Brecht — and at a vital 97, he gave the best show at Cannes 2012

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David Livingston / Getty Images

Actor Norman Lloyd on May 3, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.

Cannes has plenty of visiting stars: people everyone knows of but needn’t. Then there are people not so famous that anyone would benefit from knowing. One of these is Norman Lloyd, the actor, producer and director of movies, stage plays and TV shows, whom the Festival honored Thursday afternoon with a spotlight presentation in the Salle Buñuel. A vital, charming 97, Norman knew virtually every famous person whose name would be printed in boldface in eight decades of society and gossip columns. Because he also remembers everything, and is pleased to share it all, the 90-minute conversation sped by with the grace and propulsive force of a Kenyan marathoner.

Norman is so famously unfamous that the 2007 documentary on his life was called Who Is Norman Lloyd? But film buffs of a certain age know that he played Fry, the villain in Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1942 espionage thriller Saboteur. At the movie’s climax, his hand grasped by good-guy Robert Cummings, Fry dangles from the top of the Statue of Liberty before the seams of his jacket come undone and he falls to his death. (Norman recalls that when Hitchcock showed writer Ben Hecht the movie, Hecht said that Fry “should have had a better tailor.”) Viewers of ’80s prime-time drama remember Norman as the crusty Dr. Daniel Auschlander on seven seasons of St. Elsewhere.

(LIST: Find the two Hitchcock films on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)

Tom Fontana, the St. Elsewhere producer who later shepherded Homicide and Oz, has called Lloyd a combination of Peter Pan and Father Time. At the Thursday session, which was moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy and legendary Festival facilitator Pierre Rissient, Norman was more: a one-man data bank of film, theater and TV history, a veritable juke box of anecdotes who possesses the born raconteur’s gift of telling each story as if for the first time.

He mesmerized the crowd with tales of playing tennis and swigging Scotch Old Fashioneds with Charlie Chaplin; of working on Broadway with the young Elia Kazan, whose stage sorcery was evident to Norman from the start; and of directing the 1952 TV classic “Mr. Lincoln” on Alistair Cooke‘s Omnibus — a five-part drama written by ex-TIME Cinema critic James Agee, with second-unit shooting directed by the 24-year-old Stanley Kubrick. Norman recounted these stories in a clear, strong vocal timbre that is itself a relic of a more glamorous age. That “mid-Atlantic accent” of soft “r”s and melodic cadences was favored by pre-Brando stage actors; today it can be heard today only on black-and-white oldies on Turner Classic Movies. But if you were to ask what part of England this distinguished thespian is from, the answer would be Jersey City.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s tribute to Alistair Cooke and Omnibus)

Born there, and raised in Brooklyn, Norman Nathan Lloyd got his first break in 1932 at the Civic Repertory Theatre run by Eva La Gallienne. The London-born manager-star advised the young man that vocal versatility, especially for classical roles, would get him more work. From this advice emerged the Norman Lloyd we heard at Cannes. In 1935 he married the Broadway ingenue Margaret (Peggy) Craven, who the year before had appeared in a production of Romeo and Juliet, starring Basil Rathbone and Katherine Cornell, and featuring Orson Welles, then a precocious 19, as Tybalt. Norman and Peggy remained happy honeymooners for 75 years, until her death last August 31.

After acting in plays staged by “The Living Newspaper” unit of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, Norman joined the Mercury Theater run by Welles and John Houseman. Norman relates the adventure of their 1937 production of Julius Caesar — which changed the setting of the William Shakespeare assassination play from ancient Rome to Benito Mussolini‘s Fascist Italy — with such gusto that his listeners live in that thrilling theatrical moment as vividly as Lloyd does. “It had the effect,” he said, “of being a political melodrama that had been written the night before.” Norman played Cinna the Poet, “an intellectual liberal” mistaken for another Cinna by the Fascist mob. His death scene is still recalled as a thunderclap of theatrical magic.

Financed in part by playwright  Clare Boothe Luce, the wife of Time Inc. tycoon Henry Luce, Julius Caesar was the first production in a four-play Mercury Theater season that landed Welles, then 22, on the cover of TIME. The “Marvelous Boy” (the magazine’s cover line) got all the praise for Caesar’s sensational staging, but Lloyd credits Houseman for “an amazing editorial sense — this wonderful taste,” which the producer would later use working with Herman J. Mankiewicz on the script for the Boy Wonder’s first movie, Citizen Kane.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater)

Norman was scheduled to appear in the Mercury movie project Heart of Darkness, based on the Joseph Conrad novel; but that fell through, and before Kane was shot he returned to the New York theater for more work and steadier income. The role of Fry in Saboteur brought him back to Hollywood and launched a professional friendship with Hitchcock that spanned nearly four decades.

His next movie role, in 1945, was as the supporting villain Finley in The Southerner, co-written by William Faulkner and directed by Jean Renoir, the French auteur revered by critics and filmmakers alike. (Norman: “Both Chaplin and Welles said he was No.1.”) Renoir, son of the Impressionist master Pierre-Auguste Renoir, told Norman of his determination as a young director to cut his own distinctive path: “With every shot, I was determined to be as unlike my father as possible.” Toward the end of his life, Renoir rescreened his 50-plus features… “And I realized I was trying to imitate my father.”

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Jean Renoir)

Norman got into producing by the misjudgment of other smart people. Bertolt Brecht, Germany’s premier playwright, then working in Hollywood, had written the theater epic Galileo; when Welles, Kazan and producer Michael Todd (later Elizabeth Taylor‘s husband) all turned it down, Norman produced the play’s American premiere in Los Angeles. In 1948 he brought Brecht in to director Lewis Milestone‘s production company, then producing the film Arch of Triumph, a political parable of Eastern European refugees in prewar Paris starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. One of the lines Brecht contributed to the script — “Since the people are displeased by the government, the people must be replaced” — was so tart and telling that the film’s financiers cut it.

Political timidity was the order of the day. The House Committee on Unamerican Activities had hauled 10 Communist writers, producers and directors to Washington. When they declined to identify their Party affiliation, or to name other entertainment figures as current or former CPUSA members, HUAC sent “the Hollywood Ten” to jail for contempt of court. Since Norman’s name was on a list of the darkly suspected — “I was in a book called Red Channels with… everybody,” he recalled — he got gray-listed, returning to Broadway to direct the iconoclastic Greek-classic musical The Golden Apple, starring such young comers as Kaye Ballard, Portia Nelson and Jerry Stiller.

In Hollywood, Hitchcock wanted him to produce the 1957 thriller series Suspicion, but the NBC brass balked because of Norman’s gray-listing. Hitchcock was staunchly apolitical but knew his own power. He simply said, “I want him,” and Lloyd was approved. As Norman recalls: “Three words changed it all.” He worked with producer Joan Harrison on the half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 to 1962, and was in charge of its three-year successor, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: choosing the stories, writers and directors. Hitch rarely overruled them. One exception was when they managed to get a script by the young (later Nobel Prize-winning) playwright Harold Pinter. Hitch’s response after reading it: “I don’t do that sort of thing.”

(READ: Corliss’s obit on Harold Pinter)

Occasionally, Norman hired himself to direct the show. In fact, he directed more episodes than Hitchcock did of Presents (19 to 17) and of Hour (three to one). Among Norman’s assignments were perhaps the best remembered stories of each series. From Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “The Man from the South,” the Roald Dahl tale in which Steve McQueen makes a bet that his cigarette lighter can work 10 consecutive times, and Peter Lorre hovers over McQueen with a hatchet in case the lighter misfires. On The Hour: “The Jar,” Ray Bradbury‘s story about the mysterious contents of a jar that Pat Buttram buys at a carnival.

To any middle-aged lover of the popular arts, there’s no mystery to Norman’s charm (though the recipe for his vital longevity remains a family secret). He’s a unique, perhaps the last, link to a world of glamorous artistic achievement; and he is open, eager, avid to share his wisdom. His memoir Stage of Life in Theater, Film and Television (available in used copies or on Kindle for about $10) is mandatory, and delightful, reading for anyone who’s got this far into this story.

In person, he’s even better. Mary and I were lucky enough to meet him at a dinner 20 years ago at the Santa Monica home of perennial Manhattan baby Phyllis Jenkins and her husband George Jenkins, the eminent production designer of stage and screen. An evening with this group, or with Phyllis’s other friends Jane Wyatt, Dorothy McGuire in L.A. or, back in New York, Arlene Francis and Martin Gabel (both of whom worked with Norman at the Mercury Theater). was a command performance of show-business charisma and conviviality.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Phyllis Jenkins, fabulous friend of Norman Lloyd)

It happened that, while in Cannes, Norman was staying at the Hotel Splendid, Mary’s and my home for our 39 Festival sojourns. I peppered him with questions about the old days; he had a dazzling vignette for each. At the end of our chat, Norman gifted me with one last story. When I mentioned the Broadway producer Jed Harris, an invisible coin slipped into the Lloyd juke box and out came this fable, which I synopsize with none of Norman’s pearly precision:

On a scorching summer day at the old Empire Theater on Broadway, long before air conditioning, George S. Kaufman came to Harris’s office to vet a script. Opening the door, he found the great entrepreneur utterly naked. Kaufman said nothing about Harris’s lack of attire for the two hours they worked away. When he rose to leave, Harris said, “George, don’t you have anything else to say? “Yes,” replied Kaufman, “your fly’s open.”

The man who told that story — and so many others that, in sum, constitute an informal history of 20th century entertainment — deserves his name in boldface. Thank you, Norman Lloyd!

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