Todd McCarthy: Norman Lloyd Knows From Epidemics

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If anyone in Hollywood knows what it takes to get through epidemics, it’s Norman Lloyd. This protean actor was 3 in New York when the Spanish flu erupted in February 1918 and infected some 500 million people, about one-third of the world’s population. It came in four waves, and finally subsided in April 1920.

Norman has no particular memories of that plague, as he was kept indoors by his parents. And indoors he remains now, at the cozy, quiet, tree-enshrouded house on the far west side of Los Angeles that he’s owned since 1948. His wife Peggy died in 2011, but he has no shortage of friends (his annual November birthday party attracts up to 100 people) and keeps to a regular schedule under the supervision of a nurse and assistant who look after his daily needs. And, no, he isn’t working anymore; the last film he acted in was Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck five years ago. Still acting into triple digits — I don’t know anyone else who can lay claim to that.

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Norman is, to be precise, one hundred five and three-quarters years old — we
should all be so lucky — and, like many of the rest of us, is trying to stay safe and keep up with people and matters of the mind as best he can — reading, watching films and, now, beginning to receive visitors. He’s worked out a great and safe system: While he remains in his kitchen, guests are invited to sit, about 10 feet away and wearing masks, in a little patio outside a sliding door in back. Given Norman’s still exceptional, sometimes even booming, vocal projection, hearing him is no problem at all.

What’s Norman up to? My son Nick and I were delighted to be asked to come over the other day and find out for ourselves. We kept our masks on and, once we were seated, Norman launched into a discussion of the books he’s now reading. One is Bernard Malamud’s third novel, A New Life, from 1961. Then someone gave him a copy of Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye, about the making of Chinatown, and he became hooked on that. But soon Norman became transfixed by yet a third book, Dark Money, about the financing behind the extreme right, by one of his favorite New Yorker writers Jane Mayer.

Always a lefty liberal and political junky (he was quasi-blacklisted in the early 1950s and returned to New York, only to be rescued by Alfred Hitchcock, who insisted upon him for his TV show), Norman remains very keen to know what shenanigans are going on in the world, from Hollywood to Washington. In the summer of 2015, just as Donald Trump was announcing his candidacy, Norman said, “That man is a charlatan and he’s dangerous. He’s guilty of the deepest demagoguery.”

Nearly every day now, from roughly 5-9 p.m., Norman watches a double-bill on Turner Classics Movies, during which he also has dinner. He went on and on about how much he liked a film he hadn’t seen in ages, Sweet Smell of Success, and especially the performance of Burt Lancaster as the nasty Broadway gossip columnist. “Lancaster was great, a terrific actor,” Norman enthused, and I was surprised because he’d never mentioned him to me before.

But Norman had relished working with him on Jacques Tourneur’s larky adventure romp The Flame and the Arrow in 1950, and it echoed my own great esteem for the late actor, which was further intensified many years ago when I chanced to be seated next to him on a flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City. The actor had disguised himself in peasanty-style garb, an outsized sombrero, a big moustache and even bigger dark sunglasses in an attempt to avoid being recognized. But I broke the ice by mentioning that The Leopard is one of my favorite films of all time and we carried on for hours until we landed. His curiosity and intelligence were acute, and when I related this to Norman, he could only concur with my estimation of the man.

Norman also holds great regard for the subject of the fourth book he is not only currently reading but in which he also plays a significant part: Phantom Lady: Hollywood Producer Joan Harrison, The Forgotten Woman Behind Hitchcock, by
Christina Lane. Norman made his screen debut in 1942 as the villain who falls to his death from the top of the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur, which Harrison co-wrote. In the 1950s they reunited as producers on the long-running anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Seemingly everyone who ever worked with her was exceedingly impressed, the consensus being that, if Harrison had lived more recently, she would have become far more eminent and powerful than women were permitted to be in the big studio era.

Ranging a bit further afield, Norman recalled one of his favorite roles, that of the Fool in King Lear, and how he adored playing him opposite Louis Calhern in New York in 1951. “He had no fear, he was wonderful,” Norman proclaimed. “He was at least 6’4”, he had grandeur as a person. He WAS a king.”

By contrast, Norman was no fan of some other Lears he saw. Orson Welles, for whom Norman had played Cinna the Poet in the legendary Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theater in 1937, was “not very good” in the role in New York in 1956. Nor did he (nor I) much care for three others, variously on stage and in films: Paul Scofield, Laurence Olivier and Lee J. Cobb. But Norman did quite like Kurosawa’s 1986 film adaptation of it, Ran.

My son Nick, who just graduated from college and has known and adored Norman for years, asked for some life advice in this troubled time. Norman recalled when, as a young actor in New York in the 1920s, he had the opportunity to ask the same question of Alfred Lunt, the then-king of Broadway. Lunt promptly responded: “Mean what you say. And say every line as if you’re saying it for the first time.” Norman said on Sunday that, “I tried to follow that advice in acting and in life. It isn’t easy. But all you have to offer is yourself. Just be yourself.”

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