Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Norman Lloyd got his start in the theater decades ago before making the move to motion pictures, working along the way with such iconic figures as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Charlie Chaplin. Lloyd also made his mark on television, as producer, director, and occasional actor on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He’s likely best known to most TV viewers for the six seasons he spent playing Dr. Daniel Auschlander on NBC’s St. Elsewhere.
This year, Lloyd became Hollywood’s oldest working actor when he appeared in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, which is now available on home video. Given that he was less than a month away from his 101st birthday when he spoke to The A.V. Club, it seems fair to say that Lloyd is also the oldest actor ever interviewed for Random Roles. Thankfully, his advanced age has not dampened his enthusiasm: When called at his home, Lloyd offered a cheery “How do you do?”; when asked the same question of himself, he instantly replied, “We’re going to find out!”
Norman Lloyd: I’d been familiar with Judd Apatow’s reputation, but I hadn’t seen his work before he asked me to be in the film. I enjoyed it enormously, I must say. Someone complimented Judd Apatow on the picture and said how much they liked it, and—if I might say so—they liked what I did very much. And Judd Apatow said, “Yeah, but he was too young!” [Laughs.] I enjoyed working with Apatow very much. He was terrific.
A.V. Club: What did you think of your role when you first got it? My understanding is that your dialogue was more ad-libbed than not.
NL: Well, there was no script. Certainly not for me. There may have been for others, but I never noticed a script. So I had no thoughts about the role, except that it developed as we went along. As the scenes developed, Judd Apatow shaped them. I would improvise into those directions, so to speak, of Judd Apatow.
AVC: Did you have much improv background going into the film?
NL: Well, not on a broad basis. But I like improvising. I liked doing it for Trainwreck. Way back, before your parents were born, I was doing improvisations. Because back in the mid-1930s, the big thing in the American theater—particularly in New York, around Broadway and all that—was the Stanislavsky method, and absolutely an essential part of the Stanislavsky method is improvisation. And I was fortunate enough to be asked to do some of those things when I was asked to be in a play for The Group Theatre, which developed improvisation.
In 1931, The Group Theatre came along, and they changed acting in America. And by the mid ’30s, we youngsters coming into the theater were engaged in improvisation. Those of us who were asked to perform with The Group Theatre, that is, which I was fortunate enough to be asked to do. Improvisation in those days was of a very serious nature and applied to the development of characters. The improvisation I did for Judd Apatow was comic in nature, so the improvisation was not as—shall we say—meaningful. [Hesitates.] Well, it was meaningful: it developed the character. Whatever that character is up on the screen when you see Trainwreck, that developed out of improvisation.
I’m very fond of Amy Schumer. I think she’s terrific, an enormous talent. You know, I was brought up in classical theater, so I was rather startled when doing the improvisation at one point with Amy and she turned to another actor and said, “Well, fuck you!” And I thought, “Well, my goodness: I’ve really made it into modern society!” [Laughs.] Oh, but she’s divine. I mean, these things come out of her, and they just knock you for a loop, because you don’t ever expect it. It’s great!
AVC: How did you enjoy working with Colin Quinn?
NL: I had the greatest time with him. I loved his attitude, which was that the world was not very good…and he wants everyone to believe the same way! I thought he was wonderful. Absolutely great. And I had marvelous improvisations with him! For example, when I said something about Babe Ruth, and then he said, “Babe Ruth was black!” I said, “No, you’re wrong! He was only half-black!” And so we were into an improvisation of insanity right away! I, by the way, used to see Babe Ruth play back in the ’30s. So I may have had it over Colin, who I would guess is nearing 60. I will be, as you know, 101 on the 8th of November.
AVC: You must come from good stock.
NL: Oh, it’s good, it’s good. My grandfather always had some whiskey before dinner, and I’ve tried to follow that example. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
NL: You know, as I approach this age of 101, I do a lot of thinking about the long story of my life, and some of it astounds me. I was clearly brought into the whole thing about acting by my mother. She loved the theater. She had a very pleasant singing voice, which she used to sing for her ladies’ club.
In those days—when I was about 9 or 10 up to when I was about 14 or so—you took what were called elocution lessons. You went to an elocution teacher, and he taught you elocution, so you learned to speak with elocution. And that led to my volunteering, when I would be in an early grammar school class. They couldn’t keep me from standing up and practicing my elocution, and as a consequence, it drifted into acting. Which was, of course, a very bad turn of events, but what the hell: It happened. [Laughs.]
AVC: You worked for several years in the theater before ever setting foot in front of the camera, including a few plays directed by Elia Kazan.
NL: Yes, I was in a couple of plays that Kazan directed. The Crime was the first. It was with an outfit called The Theater Of Action, which was a young theater that was very much influenced by The Group Theatre. We did The Crime, and in it were some good guys, like Nick Ray, who became a prominent director, and Marty Ritt, who became a prominent director, and so forth. The main thing I did with Kazan was an Irwin Shaw play for The Group Theatre, because we had hit it off when we worked together on The Crime. It was a play called… [Chuckles.] Quiet City. You know, occasionally I forget! But I usually tend to remember.
Quiet City was written by Irwin Shaw, directed by Kazan, and Frances Farmer and Sanford Meisner and myself, we played the leads in it. It was not a successful play. Irwin Shaw gave up on it after awhile. He felt he couldn’t really lick it. What has remained from it is the music. Since the character I played in the piece was a kid—since I was little more than a kid—I played a guy who wanted to be a trumpeter like Bix Beiderbecke. Does that name mean anything to you?
AVC: Only the name.
NL: Well, he was one of the most influential trumpeters. Hot jazz. Jazz was the big thing in our lives in those days. Not the kind of music you hear today, but jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and all those people. In any case… The incidental music was by Aaron Copland, and after the show folded, he took that music and developed it into a piece for symphony orchestra called The Quiet City Suite. It’s really a toccata and fugue for trumpet and orchestra. The trumpet represents the character I play, who wanted to be a great hot trumpeter, and Aaron did a beautiful, beautiful score. The play should’ve been so good.
AVC: Quiet City also featured Karl Malden in its cast. Was that the first time you crossed paths with him?
NL: Karl Malden! A dear, dear, dear friend. I loved Karl. He was great. That was the first time I worked with him, and he had a consistent approach to me as a fellow actor, which consisted of him fracturing my ribs. [Laughs.] That is to say, I played this young fella with a trumpet and all that kind of thing, and he represented some neighborhood bum or something, and in the course of an improvisation—speaking of improvisation!—he swatted me in the ribs on the right side.
Now, Karl was about 6’2”; he was an all-state high school basketball player in Indiana, the home of basketball. And I was about 5’9”, rather sensitive, and the best you could say for me was that I was… Well, actually, I was pretty good at tennis. And I was a good third-baseman in baseball, although they used to say about me, “Good field, no hit.” [Laughs.] But I managed to hold my own. Karl, though, was a hell of a basketball player. And very good at fracturing ribs. So he fractured my ribs in that play, and I got workman’s compensation.
Then that summer, because we were good boys in the play, the group invited Karl and myself and a couple of other guys to go to the country with them to prepare for the fall season. And in the course of the time, we got around to a basketball court, which was in the school that we were renting and staying at. So we were playing basketball, and here I am against this 6’2” guy, all-state, and I was a pretty good basketball player, but I had to be left alone. [Laughs.] Because Karl fractured my other rib! We both went up for a ball, naturally I came down first, and he came down second with his knees in my other rib.
I never let Karl forget this, because it was too powerful a hold to have over him. He was a lovely fellow, sweet personality, and I am the contrary. So I used that to kind of lord it over him and say, “Karl, please: Today, no rib-breaking.” Thankfully, he was very kind. He didn’t anymore. [Laughs.] But I loved Karl. He was a beautiful guy. And his wife is 98 years old, she’s still alive, and very short. As he was 6’2”, she was very short. But she used to push Karl around pretty good! I would point that out to him. I’d say, “You’d better look out, Karl. You’re going to end up flat on your back!” But she’s 98, and I continually insist that she’s only 18, because she only looks that tall. But that was Karl: a beautiful guy, and a hell of an actor.
AVC: You were a charter member of The Mercury Theater, and your first play was the Mercury production of Julius Caesar. How did you first cross paths with Orson Welles and John Houseman?
NL: Crossing paths with Orson. That’s a good way to put it. [Laughs.] Nothing detrimental here! Nothing detrimental!
I was on the Federal Theater, the Living Newspaper, which was a very important theater in the history of theater, actually. It was developed by Joe Losey and a writer named Arthur Aaron. We did The Living Newspaper in 1936, and Joe had been to Moscow and seen a very advanced experimental theater of [Yevgeny] Vakhtangov, and he brought these ideas back and implemented them in this play, which was the history of labor in the courts. It was called Injunction Granted. Also, he did one before that called Triple-A Plowed Under, which was about the terrible drought of 1935. Out of that, I began to play the leads in those plays.
But on the Federal Theater at that time, there were various different projects, so we were known as The Living Newspaper, and there was one called 891, and that was Orson Welles and John Houseman. Houseman was the producer, Welles was the director and actor, and they were into Elizabethan, more classical theater. They were doing Faustus with Orson, and then they did Horse Eats Hat, which was a French farce from the 19th century, that starred Joe Cotten. So with Orson and Joe Cotten and John Houseman as the producer, they developed their theater. Now at the end of the year, there was trouble. That is to say, Orson had developed a play called The Cradle Will Rock, and the government wouldn’t let him do it. You probably know the story of how they marched down Broadway.
Well, with that, Orson and John Houseman—John who, incidentally, in the course of time started seven theaters, the last of which was the Phoenix—they decided to start their own theater. And they started the Mercury. At that point, I was thinking of leaving the Federal Theater, and John Houseman asked me to come over and have a meeting with him and Orson at the Empire Theater, where they had their offices, so I went over there had a meeting with Orson and John.
That was the first time I had met both of them, but John had seen me act and—if I may say so—he was approving. So he asked me to be in the company, and the part they offered me was this very small part of Cinna The Poet. Now, according to the books, if you’ve read them—not that you should, but if you are so disposed—this Cinna The Poet scene, which was about eight or 10 lines in the play, became the most famous scene in the play. And I think that’s why probably I was never warmly embraced by Orson. [Laughs.]
Although time went on, and years later we appeared together on a tribute to Orson. Each night of five weeknights was a tribute to a different phase of his career, and I was asked to speak of what he brought to the theater and to film. And after that evening, all of us who were involved in the evening, like Kenneth Tynan, the critic, and so forth—we gathered on the stage to say hello and goodbye, at which point Orson embraced me in this tremendous embrace and whispered in my ear, “You son of a bitch.” And that was the last time I saw him! [Laughs.] I took it as a mark of affection.
AVC: Either way, it’s a great last line.
NL: Yeah! But I think he just was saying, “You’re impossible, and I love you.” And that was true. [Laughs.] So that’s how I met Orson. But it was Houseman who arranged all that and brought me into the Mercury Theater.
AVC: Do you have any thoughts on the film Me And Orson Welles?
NL: Hated it. Did I make myself clear? [Laughs.] It was just stupid. It’s no good. That’s the one that Christian McKay is in, I believe, and now I must tell you that I should qualify my answer—or maybe not!—and say that he is very good at playing Orson. It’s the best rendition of him I’ve ever seen. So McKay is very good. The picture is no good. I’m in that picture as a character. It’s terrible! I loathed myself. It has nothing to do with me. Have I made myself clear? [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it just because they take license with history?
NL: No, they take license with my personality! And about George Coulouris, that they had him as neurotic and afraid to do his scene. George Coulouris you couldn’t stop from acting, for Christ’s sake! It was all just crazy. It’s all just made up. Who shot that? [Richard] Linklater, didn’t he? It’s terrible! It bears no relation to truth, or to what happened when you worked with Orson and so forth. I thought McKay was very good, but the rest of the characters are just ridiculous. They’re all made up! I didn’t even recognize myself… and then I thought, “Well, thank goodness I can’t!”
AVC: To say that your first TV appearance took place in the early days of television doesn’t really do it justice: It’s reportedly the oldest television footage in the possession of the Paley Center.
NL: Yes! It is a remarkable piece. It’s about five minutes of a scene that I do with George Couloris and Johnny Call, who was an actor of the time. I am here to tell you on the phone… I hope you’re recording this!
AVC: Oh, I am.
NL: It is the worst piece of acting known to man. I mean, I am so bad in it that I’m good! [Laughs.] You look at it with disbelief, as I do, and say, “Now, listen, you have the right to be terrible on occasion, even—rarely—good, but what the hell were you doing there? You’re insane!” So that is the piece of film you’re referring to.
AVC: Yes. And based on your remarks, it’s apparently historic in more than one way.
NL: I am not recommending it to people, because they’ll want me put away! [Laughs.] But it was a long time ago. In those days, we did a lot of acting live. It was just a job. I did several pieces for NBC, I think it was, and they kept them, unfortunately!
AVC: Your first film would have been Orson Welles’ adaptation of Heart Of Darkness, correct?
NL: If it had been made, yes. That was 1939, I think, and at that time Orson brought us all out to California. And when I say “all,” I mean the entire [Mercury] theater company and radio company, which was separate. There were a couple of actors who overlapped into both. But he brought everybody out—with wives!—and it was then that we were going to do Heart Of Darkness. But after we were there for six weeks, we were told that the studio didn’t want to do it. There was a script, because I know we had a reading, and too bad it wasn’t made, but that’s it. He would’ve done a great job with it. It was his kind of story. But then later on he made his first picture, which was Citizen Kane, of course.
AVC: Which—based on most reports—you ostensibly would’ve been in, had you stuck around.
NL: Well, yeah. I mean, when the studio told Orson that they weren’t going to make Heart of Darkness, he gathered us all in his office—I’ve never forgotten the meeting: we were all bunched in this small office, both companies—and he broke the news that they weren’t going to do it. And then he asked us to stay until he could put a deal together.
He had an idea for [an adaptation of] a book called The Smiler With A Knife, and this book was written by a writer called Nicholas Blake, which was the pseudonym of Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate of England, whose son was Daniel Day-Lewis. And when I got to do The Age Of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis, once I told him I almost did The Smiler With A Knife, we became great friends. And then there was another Nicholas Blake story that I actually produced, with Robert Redford and Zohra Lampert, and I’ve forgotten the name of it, but I may have even directed it. I’ve directed a lot of things, and I’ve forgotten a lot of them. [Laughs.]
[The Blake story in question was A Tangled Web, a.k.a. Death And Daisy Bland, and Lloyd produced it—but did not direct it—as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. –Ed.]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957-62)—associate producer, director, actor
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65)—executive producer, director, actor
NL: Now, some of the things I directed I thought were quite brilliant. I don’t want you to think I’m overly modest! [Laughs.] I directed quite a bit on the Hitchcock shows, and there was a show I did called “Man From The South.” It was a Roald Dahl story, with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. A more perfect cast you cannot imagine. Those two guys were so great. And I had a great secret of directing: I kept my mouth shut. [Laughs.] I just watched these guys. I said to myself, “Norman, don’t interfere: this is perfection.” Peter Lorre… I mean, just amazing.
I knew Roald. We did many of his stories on Hitchcock. He was brilliantly talented and a pain in the ass. [Laughs.] But he was okay. I mean, what the hell, with the ability to write those stories, let him be what he is! He was married to a dear friend of mine, Pat Neal. She was terrific. If her health had maintained… She got ill—she had a stroke—but if her health had held on, she would’ve been one of the great actresses in the Cornell tradition. The Katharine Cornell tradition. She was wonderful.
AVC: Because of the way things went down with Heart Of Darkness, your feature film debut ended up being Saboteur.
NL: Yes, where was I with that? [Laughs.] So we were waiting for Orson to put together a deal, and I hung around for about three days, and in the course of those three days, one of the actors called me and said, “Norman, you know, this is ridiculous. We shouldn’t be hanging around here with no money,” by which I mean he wasn’t paying us anymore, “and we should go back to New York!” I said, “Well, I’ll think about it, yeah.” So I waited about four days or so, and no sign of money or anything, and my wife and I went back to New York. And as a consequence, I was not in Citizen Kane…although the guy who called me was! [Laughs.] But that’s all right. I got a break! But, you know, I wasn’t excited about doing the picture with him. But I would’ve done it, obviously, if I’d been offered it.
In that period of time, just slightly after it, Hitchcock asked John Houseman—both of whom were under contract to David O. Selznick at the time—if he knew of a young, unknown actor who could play a saboteur. And, you know, Houseman didn’t even have to think. I was a natural. [Laughs.] And he suggested that I go up to see Hitchcock, which I did at about eight o’clock in the morning at the St. Regis, and we hit it off immediately, like ham and eggs. It was just great. And my life changed! Hitch changed my life. I mean, I worked on and off with him over a period of 38 years. Not all the time, of course, but first with the picture Saboteur, and then I did Spellbound. Then I laid off for awhile, and then he’s the one who put me back on the television show.
AVC: And that gave you the opportunity to both produce and direct, right?
NL: Yeah. I first went on as an associate producer to Joan Harrison, who was absolutely a wonder. She was marvelous. Not only was she a great producer, but she was beautiful, so it made the job very easy! [Laughs.] Although I was very happily married, and I remained so for 75 years. But I was not immune to—shall we say—exterior beauty?
But she was wonderful. But I really learned how to produce from Joan Harrison. I learned much from her of how to produce. And then eventually she asked me to act in a couple of them, which I did. Incidentally, one of them [“The Little Man Who Was There”] was directed by George Stevens Jr., who runs the Kennedy Center Honors. He’s never honored me… and I gave him a job as a director! I mean, what the hell? Ingratitude… [Laughs.] A great guy, George. I’m very fond of him.
What happened on the television show was that Joan Harrison married in the course of the time we were doing it. Her husband was Eric Ambler, who—along with Graham Greene—reshaped the whole thriller genre. Joan wanted to ease off a bit and be domestic, so I sort of stepped up into that position. I did the show for eight years. It was a wonderful experience, working with Hitch and all of that.
AVC: And you and he maintained your friendship throughout those years?
NL: With Hitch? Oh, yeah. God, we remained friends.
AVC: Did he ever try to sway you into any of his other films over the years?
NL: No, I can’t think of any. He kept me behind the camera. But in an interview with [Francois] Truffaut, when Truffaut, referring to Saboteur, said [Adopts a French accent.] “Norman Lloyd is a good actor,” Hitch said, “Yes. Yes, he is a good actor.” Which I took as the compliment of the century.
AVC: You were good friends with John Garfield.
NL: Oh, yes! Julie was a good friend.
AVC: Was He Ran All The Way the only time you worked with him?
NL: That was the only thing I did with him, but I knew him from around. You know, from show business. And also just as a guy. But, yeah, I knew him from the theater.
AVC: What was your reaction when he was black-listed?
NL: I felt very badly. I thought it was unfair. I thought it was wrong! Julie was a beautiful actor, a great guy, had a tremendous record as an actor, and suddenly they say, “You can’t work anymore.” My reaction was, “This is stupid!” [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s also been written—although I’ve never actually seen where you personally discussed it—that you were “grey-listed,” if that’s the term.
NL: Well, yeah, I think that’s it. It meant that I was associated with various—shall we say—progressive theater movements, like the Theater Of Action, The Group Theatre, which Julie had been in, and maybe something else. I can’t remember. But in general at that time, which was the depths of the Depression, if you weren’t progressive, you were stupid. [Laughs.] I mean, my God, how could you not be with the condition that work was in? There was no work. It was terrible. And yet it was great, because it was a time when you felt free to do anything.
AVC: You were in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, but you’d known him for some years prior to working with him on the film. How did you come to meet him?
NL: Oh, Charlie… You’re talking about a genius. That’s enough: a genius. How I met Charlie Chaplin is as follows. First of all, when I was 1 or 2 years old, sitting in a high chair, Charlie Chaplin was the most famous man in the world. Not the most famous actor. The most famous man. That figure of the derby and the shoes and the mustache and the cane, the whole thing, was known as the most famous figure in the world! So I used to have a little Charlie Chaplin that you wound up and put on the tray of the high chair, and instead of drinking your milk, you’d play with Charlie Chaplin. [Laughs.] So he made an impression on me when I was a lad. I hadn’t even grown into being a lad yet. I was still a baby! But Charlie Chaplin was already an image that was inscribed on my soul.
Well, the years go on, in the course of which I become a good tennis player, and one day I’m out here in California, and I’m visiting my friend Joe Cotten, who was with me at the Mercury. We shared a dressing room together at one point. And Joe invited me out to his house on a Sunday to play some tennis. He had a lot of people there to play. Amongst the people there was a man named Tim Durant, a superb tennis player, absolutely tremendous. He was a great gentleman with great style, really a figure out of the ’20s, but a hell of a tennis player. So we were playing, and when we finished, Tim said, “Are you free next Saturday?” I said, “It so happens I am, yes.” He said, “I would be very happy to take you over to Charlie Chaplin’s to play some tennis.” Well, I almost fell down. I mean, I was going to meet Chaplin! Overwhelming. I mean, as I say, he was a genius, what he did for motion pictures.
Tim picked me up on a Saturday, and we went up to Charlie’s house and court. I sat waiting in the tennis house, and Charlie finally walked in with his racket, all dressed for tennis. I was speechless. And Tim introduced me, and Charlie was charming, welcomed me very warmly, with a minimum of conversation. We then went on to the tennis court. We played doubles. There was a fourth, but I don’t know who it was. So I played. I was in awe of Charlie. I didn’t say a word, I just played—at Tim’s direction—and Charlie played. And what I found out was that he was passionate about tennis. Absolutely mad for tennis. So that day went well, but I didn’t really speak with Charlie. I was on the court with him, and that’s it. In the middle of the week, Tim calls me and says, “Can you make it again next Saturday?” I said, “Oh, yes, I’ll be happy to.” Which I did. This time, I chatted just a little bit with Charlie. But I’m so naturally bashful, you know.
AVC: But of course you are.
NL: [Laughs.] Did I hear you fall down laughing? So, yes, the second week we played, I was a little more overt. That is, I did say, “Nice shot, Charlie!”Or, “I think it’s my serve now,” or things like that. Again, I played with somebody—I’ve forgotten who—although Bill Tilden eventually came and played with us as our fourth. But I watched Charlie, and I observed his passion for the game. He was so involved. He loved it. But we chatted a little more. He asked what I did. I said I was an actor. He ignored that. [Laughs.]
In the middle of the next week, I get a call from Charlie’s butler, Watson. Watson was the snob of all time. He had wooden teeth, he looked like the butler in the mystery The Butler Did It, and he acted very superior to the Chaplins. Charlie at the time was married to Oona—that’s one of the great love stories, by the way—and Watson always looked down on Charlie and Oona because he had worked for Lady Mendel before he came to them, and she, in Watson’s opinion, gave much better parties than the Chaplins. So she was #1 on Watson’s list, and Charlie was put in the background. Anyway, Watson calls me, and he said [Affects pretentious voice.] “Yessssss, Mr. Lloyd, Mr. Chaplin would like to know if you would like to play tennis this afternoon.” This was the middle of the week. This was Wednesday! But sometimes there’s a virtue to being an actor: You’re out of work a lot! [Laughs.]
As a consequence, when Charlie asked if I’d come over on Wednesday—through Watson, of course—I said “Yes.” So I went over, and this time it was just Charlie and me. And we played, and as I indicated, he was passionate about the game, and we had a wonderful time playing. And then we sat down, and he asked if I’d like to have a drink, and I said, “Well, yes!” So we went up to the house, and we had Scotch Old Fashioned, which Charlie liked, and in the course of it he asked questions about me, and I refrained from lying for the first time in a long time. [Laughs.] And we had a wonderful talk about what I did, where I’d acted, my work with Orson, and so on and so forth. That was the beginning, and it got to be a very warm and great friendship. It got to a point where my wife and I would be invited over to dinner, just the four of us, with Oona and Charlie. And then he invited us out on the boat. So we were really friends.
And then finally one day he said to me, “What are you planning? What have you to do?” I said, “At the moment, nothing.” He said, “Well, if you have any ideas, I’d happy to share with them. We can go into them 50/50.” And as a consequence, I told him I had an idea about a book called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Charlie said, “Well, go and see if you can buy it. But don’t tell them that I’m putting up the money, because the price will go up.” So I went to see the agent, who I knew personally, anyway, and I bought the book for $3,000—all the rights except live television, which hadn’t yet really gotten anywhere—and Charlie and I owned this property for 16 years. But we never got to make it, between his making [Monsieur] Verdoux and going back to London with his family, because he wanted them to see where he was born and all that. By that time, he had five kids with Oona. He said about Oona one day when we were walking up from the tennis court, “I never knew what love was ’til I knew this woman.” And, you know, Charlie had known a lot of women! [Laughs.] But when he was going over to England, the government said that he wasn’t able to come back unless he passed a moral turpitude test, and Charlie said, “Well, the hell with that. I will never go back!” So he went on to London, and then to Switzerland. He did come back once, for an Academy Award. I didn’t think he’d come back for that. It was an honorary award. But here this was the greatest actor in the world, when he was in his prime.
When Charlie did Limelight, he was beautiful, but it wasn’t Charlie. For one thing, he knew wasn’t physically the same man: his neck was thicker, his body was thicker—it wasn’t that slim reed, like his cane—and he wasn’t the same kind of actor. But it’s a beautiful, beautiful picture, and he’s beautiful in it as an old actor who no longer can really do it anymore. That’s what’s beautiful about that picture: it’s a love story.
AVC: Limelight is particularly notable because it featured Chaplin and Buster Keaton sharing the screen together.
NL: Oh, God, that was beautiful. I remember when that was shot.
AVC: You were there?
NL: Yeah. I wasn’t in the scene, but I watched them shooting it, and I’ll tell you: That was when they were in the dressing room and they were making up, but when they finally did that routine, with Charlie singing, “Love! / It’s love! / It’s love, love, love, love, love!” And Buster Keaton is trying to play it at the piano, and Charlie’s leg keeps getting shorter and shorter and shorter, disappearing up his trousers… [Starts to laugh.] And Buster Keaton is so nearsighted with these glasses he’s put on that he can’t follow the music, and the sheet music goes all over the place. Well, the two of them, here they are at the end of their lives, and they are so brilliant! It’s a fantastic routine! My God, Buster was remarkable. And he was very quiet, very respectful of Charlie. I think he needed a job. Also, in the last scene, when Charlie collapses, dead, and he’s moved onto this kind of dolly and he’s carried offstage, the camera’s on Charlie, and we’re moving back with him. That is, Buster Keaton, Nigel Bruce, Sidney Chaplin (Charlie’s son), and myself. We’re moving back with the camera, and I suddenly hear… I couldn’t believe it at first, but I look over, and it’s Buster. He was talking during the shot, and you can’t see his lips move and you can’t hear him—but Charlie could, I think—and Buster was saying, “You’re right in the center of the shot, Charlie. Yeah, the camera’s right on you. Don’t move, Charlie. Keep it that way. Yeah, don’t move. Yeah, Charlie.” [Chuckles.] That was quite a moment: Buster directing Charlie. “Stay right in the center, Charlie. Don’t move. You’re right in the shot. The camera’s right on you. That’s fine.” That was something to be remembered.
NL: I did that with Robert Wise, and it was very good. It was a very good picture, and I loved working with Bobby Wise. He was a master! You know, he doesn’t receive the credit he should receive. He really knew film. As you know, I’m sure, he started as a cutter working for Orson, along with Mark Robson. But Bobby… Robert Wise was a master of film and directed some beautiful pictures, and the one I did with him was a good one. Marsha Mason was in it, and John Beck and one other very prominent actor I can’t remember! But it was beautifully done by Bobby Wise.
AVC: The other actor was Anthony Hopkins.
NL: Oh, yes, of course: that’s the first time I met Tony! And he is one of the very best actors in the business. He’s terrific! So, yes, I enjoyed the picture. I don’t think it was a big hit, because it has that strange ending with the child still a victim, and I think that mitigated against a commercial success. But it was beautifully done.
AVC: With the caveat that a few readers actually requested that we ask about this…
NL: [Horrified.] Oh, God. What a God-awful film! How do people watch… That was with Don Adams, wasn’t it? Oh, my God. Next question, please! [Laughs.] God almighty, have I made mistakes in my career. You know, you have to make a dishonest pup once in awhile. How would they ever, in all the work that I’ve done… Walk In The Sun, with Lewis Milestone, is a beautiful film. Or The Southerner, with Jean Renoir! God, what pictures. And then Hitch and Orson and all that… And then The Nude Bomb? You see, this is what I mean: the world is coming to an end. There’s no question.
NL: You know, Orson once said that if a decree went forth that all films should be destroyed, there’s only one that should be saved, and that’s Grand Illusion. It’s a picture that, if you look at it, you think, “We can’t make pictures like that anymore. We don’t know how!” I don’t know if you feel that way about it, but I do. It’s extraordinary, the way Renoir got those performances out of those people, the humanity, their behavior. It’s incredible.
I loved working with Renoir on The Southerner. Oh, I loved it! I particularly loved when he had a scene with a cow going through a garden, and he wanted a little dog to come and bark at it and chase it out. And we did this about four or five times, but every time he put the dog in the shot, the little dog was scared to death and would run out of the shot. Finally, on the fifth take, as the cow paid no attention to this dog, Jean puts the dog in and says, “Act, idiot!” [Laughs.] That was his most violent direction. But I loved doing that film, and Jean is remarkable. There was something about him that gives forth. You get from him something wonderful as a director, as a person, that emanates, so to speak, and puts you on a major level. I got that from Renoir. He was great.
A Walk In The Sun (1945)—“Pvt. Archimbeau”
Arch Of Triumph (1948)—production assistant (uncredited)
No Minor Vices (1948)—“Dr. Sturdivant” / production assistant (uncredited)
The Red Pony (1948)—assistant to the producer
AVC: You worked with Lewis Milestone on several occasions, but how did you first come into contact with him?
NL: The picture was A Walk In The Sun, and he was interviewing actors. I went down for an interview for a role in the picture, and it so happened that he had already hired—not for the same part, but to write the music—Earl Robinson. And I knew Earl. And Earl saw me coming down to meet Milestone and whispered in Milestone’s ear that I was just the man for the part. And so I played part. [Laughs.] And thus started a very strong relationship with Milestone, not only on A Walk In The Sun, but as his assistant on The Red Pony and No Minor Vices. Oh, and of course Arch Of Triumph. I went through that whole picture with him.
When we were doing A Walk in the Sun, I would often between takes talk with Milestone, and he felt that I had a certain tendency toward directorial and producing ability. And out of that, he just decided to encourage that, and one day he said, “I’m going to put you on as my assistant.” So I got a credit on The Red Pony as “Assistant To Producer.” I didn’t get a credit on Arch of Triumph because it wasn’t available. [Laughs.] Because the producer, David Lewis, resisted my getting an “Assistant To Producer” credit because he felt that would minimize his credit and would look as if he didn’t do as much as he should! It didn’t matter: I worked with Milly, and it was a dream.
We had all of our kids in it. One of my kids was in the film. The other one wasn’t born yet. Or maybe he was, but he would’ve been much too young. But, Beau Bridges was the little brat in the film. He was okay. Very pretty, very handsome. He would’ve been about 6 years old, I think!
NL: I was producing a series called Tales Of The Unexpected, and I was coming to the end of that series when Bruce Paltrow was doing St. Elsewhere. He was just putting it together—he hadn’t started the series yet—when we were at his home for dinner, and he started talking about the series, and he looks at me rather appraisingly. And I get the look, and I said, “Make me an offer!” [Laughs.] At the dinner table! Which was, of course, not polite, but who cares? So he said, “Yeah, there is a part in this series that you can do!”
And lo and behold, when he started with a pilot, he asked me to come and do it, by which time Tales Of The Unexpected was over. So it was through Bruce that I got this offer, which turned out to be wonderful, because we did it for six years. And it changed in the course of time even from that original offer that he had in mind. Initially they wanted me to play the part with a German accent. My German accent was so much like a vaudeville show that they decided that I’d better talk English. [Laughs.] “Vas ist das, Fritz? What do you want, Fritz?” No, that wasn’t any good.
So he changed the concept. In fact, he changed directors. We started the pilot, he recast, he changed a lot and rewrote, and he got it into shape. And he incorporated me into the piece with Billy Daniels and Ed Flanders, who was supreme. Ed Flanders unfortunately did away with himself, but there was no finer actor in America. He truly was supreme. He was so good. But he had these things burning at him, eating at him, whatever they were, and he did it. I never thought he would. It was like with Robin Williams, who I knew from doing Dead Poets Society with him. Never in the wildest speculation would I ever think that Robin would do what he did. You just never know with guys.
But as far as St. Elsewhere goes, I just loved that show. You know, even with all the pictures I’ve done—and there were some good ones, some of which I’ve just mentioned—that show is right up there with them in quality.
AVC: It would be wonderful if they’d release a complete series box set. Presumably it’s the music rights that’ve kept such a thing from happening.
NL: Oh, they should, because there were stories that were incredible. They went at material that no one had touched. The whole thing of AIDS, they went into that, with the assemblyman who was trying to hide the fact that he had AIDS, and he knew the guy and put him in the hospital to hide it and all that. Amazing stuff. How certain illnesses were so expensive that people couldn’t get treatment, we went into that. And so on. It was wonderful. A wonderful series.
AVC: The relationship between Dr. Auschlander and Dr. Craig, William Daniels’ character, was a particularly strong piece of characterization.
NL: That was lovely. And I was also fond of the relationship with Ed Flanders. The writing that Tom Fontana, who was the chief writer on the show, there was so much that came out of him, and the writing that he did for Ed Flanders and myself—where we would discuss our lives, really—was absolutely superior. There weren’t features with stuff like that. Yeah, I had a good time on it.
AVC: What did you think of the series finale?
NL: You mean that it was all a kid’s dream? I didn’t like it. And I told them that! I said, “What the hell are you guys doing?” [Laughs.] But it was too late.
NL: Well, yeah, that was amusing. I went in and played the mentor to Patrick Stewart. But it was just an appearance. What I’ve been surprised by is that people remember as an important appearance. To me, it was just a one-shot, and then he dies, I think. So it wasn’t that important to me, anyway!
AVC: The only other occasion that you’ve been a series regular was on Seven Days.
NL: Oh, yeah, I was in Seven Days. But Seven Days never really—in my view—came off. It was a good idea, but it just didn’t happen. The people were good in it, but it was in the writing. I just didn’t think it was a good show.
NL: Oh, well, that was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. In the first place, you had Peter Weir, and this guy is a great director. I mean, I have worked with Chaplin as a director, Hitchcock, Milestone, Renoir. But Peter Weir is remarkable. He can do anything. And I just loved making that picture with him, and with Robin and the kids. They’re not kids anymore! [Laughs.] But it was a great experience doing that with Peter. He’s a real director.
AVC: This is the last of the ridiculous roles, I promise you.
NL: Oh, God. Yeah, I was in that. You know, sometimes I get greedy. [Laughs.] I should say all the time! But I did it. And it was ridiculous!
NL: Oh, I loved that! I loved Modern Family! It was sort of the precursor to Trainwreck, to that character. But I loved it. I had a great time doing it. I had dialogue—there was no improvisation on that—but I was able to improvise a lot of movement and reactions and so forth, and I enjoyed it very much. But it paid off, really, when I did Trainwreck. That was the beginning. By the time I got to Trainwreck, I really had a full slate to improvise on, and that’s where I did it. I enjoyed that.
NL: I also did a picture with Curtis Hanson, who I believe is ill now and can’t work, but it was called In Her Shoes, and I enjoyed working with Curtis very much. And, of course, I had a scene in a bed, and on the bed was Cameron Diaz, and, oh, it stirred my romantic sensibilities. They had to restrain me! [Laughs.] I tried to rewrite right on the set, if you know what I mean! No, but she was a doll. She was lovely.
AVC: In the mid-’80s, you did an episode of The Paper Chase, which gave you the opportunity to reunite with John Houseman.
NL: Oh, well, John Houseman was one of my closest friends. I mean, we were family. At one point, I went back to New York with my wife and children, and John gave us his house… for three years! It was wonderful. And he was generous: As I told you earlier, he recommended me to Hitchcock. I worked for John, I played the fool to the King Lear he directed with Lou Calhern, and I worked with John in other shows. We were very close, and he was a wonderful man. He did remarkable things in his life. During the war, he was an important figure in the Office Of War Information. There were a couple of very important figures who were working with him on that, and they did a hell of a job. Terrific. So I can’t say enough about John. He wasn’t just a colleague; he really was like a relative. And I don’t think he ever got the recognition for what he did in theater. Orson did his best work with John. I mean, even before they did the Mercury, when they did the black Macbeth [Voodoo Macbeth].
By the way, the day after it opened, he went up to the box office to find out how they were doing at the box office, and he could hear coming up from the basement of the theater some voodoo. There were two voodoo troupes in the piece, but in real life they were enemies. And he could hear, “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom!” This was while he was at the box office! And he asked the guy, “Where’s that coming from?” “The basement!”
Now, when the Macbeth opened, it got sensational notices—Orson directed it—but there was one critic who panned it: Percy Hammond, the critic of the New York Herald Tribune, and highly respected. So John follows this “boom, boom, boom, boom” down to the basement, and these two voodoo troupes are going at each other, going, “Boom, boom, boom, boom, Per-cy Ham-mond! / Boom, boom, boom, boom / Per-cy Hammond!”
Percy Hammond died the next day. [Laughs.] So you be careful what you write!