Norman Lloyd, the actor-writer-director-producer who worked with some of the most notable names in Hollywood history, and is best-known for co-starring on the acclaimed TV drama “St. Elsewhere,” passed away yesterday at the age of 106. Yes, 106 is certainly an attention-getting number, but it still doesn’t fully encompass just how far back Lloyd’s work stretched.
Here is a man who worked with the likes of Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, and Elia Kazan when they were still up-and-comers, making names for themselves in the theater. Here is a man whose screen career began with appearances in films from Alfred Hitchcock (“Saboteur”) and Charles Chaplin (“Limelight”) — Lloyd and Tippi Hedren are the only two actors who can make that claim — and would end with one directed by Judd Apatow (“Trainwreck”). Here is a man who had not just one of the longest-running careers in motion picture history but—going by the fact that he first began working professionally at the age of nine, and did the aforementioned Apatow film as he was turning 100—perhaps the longest professional career, period.
In a number of his performances, Lloyd demonstrated a refined and patrician air that suggested he had the bluest of blood coursing through his veins. In fact, he was born Norman Perlmutter on November 8, 1914, to a working-class family in Jersey City, New Jersey. The Perlmutters relocated to Brooklyn when Lloyd was a young child. He took singing and dancing lessons, and by age nine was working professionally. During the Great Depression, Lloyd graduated high school at 15 and began attending New York University, but left after his sophomore year to ease the financial burden on his family.
Lloyd auditioned for Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City, becoming the youngest of the company’s apprentices. He worked under the direction of noted author May Sarton and later joined her Apprentice Theatre in New Hampshire. While performing scenes with the group in Boston, Lloyd was noticed by members of the Harvard Dramatic Club and was offered the chance to take the lead role in a play being directed by Joseph Losey (future director of such films as “The Servant,” “The Prowler” and “The Go-Between”). At the time, Lloyd stayed with Sarton, but after she was forced to give up the company, he reconnected with Losey and made his Broadway debut in a 1935 production of Noah.” This indirectly led to Lloyd’s involvement with socially committed theatre projects of that era, notably the Federal Theater Project, a government-funded arts program that utilized the talents of such future cultural giants as Orson Welles, John Houseman (“The Paper Chase”), Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”) and Martin Ritt (“Hud,” “Sounder”). When Welles and Houseman left to form their own company, Mercury Theater, Lloyd was invited to become a charter member. He appeared in a key role in their first stage production, 1937’s “Caesar,” a boldly anti-fascist take on “Julius Caesar.” Lloyd played Cinna the Poet, who dies at the hands of a secret police force. Stage magazine named the production “one of the most exciting dramatic events of our time” and put Lloyd on its cover.
Lloyd would work with the Mercury Theatre over the next few years. In 1939, he joined other Mercury members in Hollywood for what was meant to be the group’s first cinematic endeavor, a screen adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” that Welles was scheduled to direct for RKO Pictures. After a long pre-production process that generated many complicated and ultimately abandoned ideas—including presenting the entire thing from a first-person perspective—the project fell apart for budgetary reasons. Welles asked the players to stick around for a few more weeks while he put an alternate film project together. By that point Lloyd had married fellow actor Peggy Craven, so he elected go back to New York and work in radio instead. Craven and Lloyd stayed married for 75 years, until Peggy Lloyd’s death in 2011 at 98.
The alternate project, of course, was “Citizen Kane” (1941), a missed opportunity that Lloyd would always speak of with regret.
“Kane” would have been a notable screen debut for Lloyd, but when he did finally make his first appearance in a film, it felt like a lateral promotion: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 hit “Saboteur.” Lloyd played the title role of the villain who leads Robert Cummings, an ordinary man wrongly accused of the acts of sabotage that he himself has perpetrated, on a cross-country chase climaxing atop the Statue of Liberty. Lloyd’s plunge was one of the most memorable demises in screen history, an influence on the death of Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” as well as innumerable subsequent Hitchcock films, including “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” Lloyd’s “Saboteur” performance began a long association with Hitchcock that would also include an appearance three years later in “Spellbound” (1945).
During this time, Lloyd appeared in a number of other films, most notably as one of the bad guys in the 1945 drama “The Southerner,” one of six films that famed French director Jean Renoir made in the United States during the 1940s. During this time, Lloyd also continued to work steadily in radio and in theater, including a turn as The Fool in a production of “King Lear” staged by Houseman. In 1948, Lloyd moved behind the camera for the first time when he served as an assistant on the wartime romantic drama “Arch of Triumph.” He also appeared opposite his friend John Garfield in “He Ran All the Way” (1951), a film noir that would proved to be the last film Garfield made before his career was ended by the Hollywood blacklist, a grim period that adversely affected Lloyd’s career as well.
Following a role in Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” (1953), Lloyd stayed out of feature film work for nearly a quarter-century. At first, his absence was involuntary: an outspoken liberal, Lloyd ran afoul of right-wing politicians and studio bosses who were obsessed with the idea of Communists infiltrating every institution and industry in the United States, including entertainment. He found it increasingly hard to get work. In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock decided to hire him as an associate producer, director and occasional actor for his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” a weekly anthology in the vein of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” The network warned Hitchcock, “We have a problem with Lloyd.” But by that point Hitchcock was as powerful as Steven Spielberg would become by the late 1980s, and once he made it clear that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, Lloyd was hired. Lloyd racked up credits on hundreds of episodes stretching through 1965, by which point the show had changed its title to “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”
Lloyd appeared in theatrical movies during during this period, notably the supernatural thrillers “Audrey Rose” and “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home,” the raucous comedy “FM,” and “The Nude Bomb,” a deeply forgettable 1980 attempt to bring the classic 1960s spy sitcom “Get Smart” to the big screen. But his work on the Hitchcock program in the 1950s and ‘60s cemented his shift from film and theater to television, mostly working off-camera. In addition to his production and directorial capacities on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Lloyd worked on episodes of “Alcoa Playhouse,” “Journey to the Unknown,” “Columbo” and “Tales of the Unexpected,” as well as such made-for-TV movies as “The Smugglers” (1968), “Companions in Nightmare” (1968) and “Carola” (1972). Lloyd also appeared as an actor on episodes of “Night Gallery,” “Kojak” and “Quincy, M.E,” among other 1960s and ‘70s programs.
TV was the venue for the most fondly remembered role of his career: NBC’s “St. Elsewhere,” a genre-redefining comedy-drama with Brechtian and magical realist touches, set at an enormous Boston hospital best by urban decay and staffed by stubborn eccentrics. When Lloyd signed on to play the wise and approachable Dr. Auschlander during the show’s inaugural 1982-83 season, he thought it was for a four-episode arc, as Auschlander had been diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer and was supposed to die by episode four. Lloyd took the gig because the show’s writing was exceptional, and because he wanted to get in good with its then-sought-after executive producers, who were simultaneously running the groundbreaking NBC cop show “Hill St. Blues.” The series’ writers and producers were so enamored with Lloyd’s talents and likability, and so awed by him generally, that they had Auschlander embark on a new course of treatment, staving off death and keeping Lloyd on staff for six more years. “St. Elsewhere” aired 137 episodes. Lloyd acted in 132 of them.
During the second half of his life, Lloyd mainly stuck to television, the medium that had made the most wide-ranging use of his gifts. He appeared in episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Wiseguy,” the 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” “Wings,” and “Modern Family,” and also appeared such TV movies as “Amityville: The Evil Escapes” and a live production of “Fail Safe,” starring and overseen by George Clooney. Lloyd was also a regular on “Seven Days,” a time-travel show that ran for three seasons on UPN between 1998-2001.
During and after the “St. Elsewhere” years, his feature film work was sporadic. In Martin Scorsese’s brilliant 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” he played the blue-blooded boss of Daniel Day-Lewis’ emotionally tortured hero Newland Archer. The character served as one of the pillars of a high society cabal that would prove as heartless as any of the street gangs in Scorsese’s canon. He appeared as the strictest headmaster imaginable in the 1989 prep school drama “Dead Poets Society.” And he played another representative of higher education when he essayed the role of the president of fabled Wossamotta University in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” But his most beloved film during this era was in “In Her Shoes”; his performance as a blind professor who befriends free spirit Cameron Diaz earned some of the best reviews of his career. Lloyd’s final feature would be “Trainwreck,” the raunchy Judd Apatow comedy in which he found himself improvising scenes with Amy Schumer. He was 99.
Although his name would never become as famous as that of many of the people that he worked with, the longevity of his career ensured that he would become one of the elder statesmen of the industry, and one of the few remaining connections to an otherwise vanished era. Lloyd participated in a number of documentaries that took advantage of his prodigious memory, including “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin” (2003), “Magician: the Amazing Life and Work of Orson Welles” (2014); and, of course, “Who is Norman Lloyd?,” a 2007 film that helped illustrated the extensive reach of his career to viewers too young to recognize his name. In 2010, he presented the one-man show “An Evening with Norman Lloyd,” in which he looked back on his career. He would also appear on between-film segments on Turner Classic Movies and on DVD bonus features, offering entertaining observations about the history he’d lived through.
Would Lloyd have had a different and ultimately more high-profile career if he had stayed in California all those years ago and taken part in “Citizen Kane”? It is a possibility. But when all is said and done, what Lloyd achieved was nothing to sneeze at. He worked with a number of the most highly acclaimed filmmakers in the history of the industry. His screen debut found him taking part in one of the most influential, still-imitated action scenes. He co-starred in one of the most significant TV dramas of its era. He lasted so long in the business that his final job would be a role in the TV series “Fly,” shot in 2020.
When a well-known person passes away after living to what most would consider a ripe old age, it is customary to say that their passing “marks the end of an era.” In many cases, that can be a bit of meaningless flattery. But in the case of Norman Lloyd, the phrase is both an accurate and inadequate way of summing up his life and legacy.