Norman Lloyd, actor who took the title role in Hitchcock’s Saboteur and played tennis with Chaplin – obituary

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Norman Lloyd aged 100 at a film festival in 2015 - Chris Pizzello/ Invision
Norman Lloyd aged 100 at a film festival in 2015 - Chris Pizzello/ Invision

Norman Lloyd, who has died aged 106, made his screen debut falling from the Statue of Liberty in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur; more than 70 years later his role in 2015’s Trainwreck made him the oldest working actor in Hollywood.

While casual cinema- and theatregoers might have struggled to put a face to the name, his CV boasted an impressive 70-odd roles, several of which brought him into the orbit of the industry’s most highly regarded figures. A friendship with Jean Renoir began when Lloyd appeared in The Southerner (1945), perhaps the director’s best-received American film.

He became friends with Lion Feuchtwanger and Bertolt Brecht; played tennis with Charlie Chaplin; was Cinna the Poet in a Broadway staging of Julius Caesar produced by Orson Welles, and gave a 22-year-old Stanley Kubrick one of his first jobs, on the set of the five-part television series Mr Lincoln (1952).

Equally happy behind the camera as in front of it, he capitalised on his early Hitchcock role by going on to work as an associate producer on the suspense maestro’s television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1957-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-64).

 Norman Lloyd as Dr Daniel Auschlander in St Elsewhere - Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Norman Lloyd as Dr Daniel Auschlander in St Elsewhere - Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Though the parts began to dry up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lloyd staged a return to form as a cast regular in St Elsewhere (1982-88), the long-running American medical drama whose “shock” finale would be talked about for years afterwards.

In Dead Poets Society (1989) he played the rigid headmaster out to overrule Robin Williams’s maverick English teacher, and in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993) he was the senior lawyer Mr Letterblair.

Norman Lloyd (right) with Martin Scorsese on the set of The Age of Innocence - Everett/REX Shutterstock
Norman Lloyd (right) with Martin Scorsese on the set of The Age of Innocence - Everett/REX Shutterstock

The fact that none of these parts could be called definitive played to his advantage, as he evaded typecasting and showed himself willing to adapt according to a director’s wishes.

For the semi-improvised Trainwreck he was cast, aged 100, as the lecherous inhabitant of a care home, having undergoing an unusual test of his abilities at the hands of director Judd Apatow. “When it was time to go, Judd said, ‘I’ll walk you to your car’,” Lloyd recalled. “And I got into it. And started to drive, and it hit me: he wanted to see if I could walk.”

He was born Norman Perlmutter in Jersey City, New Jersey, on November 8 1914, the son of Sadie, a Jewish bookkeeper and housewife, and her husband Max, a furniture salesman who saw business decline sharply during the Great Depression; he would eventually die young, aged 55.

For young Norman, however, the 1930s were a time of cultural and personal awakening. “There was a spirit in the country,” he recalled, “and theatre was about the nobility of the human race.” Moving to Brooklyn, he joined Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre Company, then considered one of the most innovative groups of the day.

Their 1937 modern-dress staging of Julius Caesar shifted the action to Fascist Italy, in an interpretation that Lloyd’s co-star Joseph Cotten declared “so vigorous [and] so contemporary that it set Broadway on its ear”.

When the company relocated to Los Angeles to work on a film adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lloyd went with them; but the project fell through and he left with his wife for New York. Welles went on to shoot Citizen Kane (1941), much to Lloyd’s subsequent regret: he had missed out on featuring in one of the most acclaimed films in history.

But the jobs kept coming in New York, and before long he had made the acquaintance of Alfred Hitchcock, landing the title role in the noir thriller Saboteur (1942).

The film’s climactic sequence required Lloyd to plunge to his “death” from the torch platform of the Statue of Liberty (in reality a life-size recreation of the statue’s elbow and torch on a Universal Studios stage). Rather than cut to a stuntman, Hitchcock wanted to do the scene in one take – so Lloyd gamely agreed to somersault over the rail himself, relying on several well-placed mattresses to cushion his fall.

Norman Lloyd (left) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound - Collection Christophel / ArenaPAL
Norman Lloyd (left) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound - Collection Christophel / ArenaPAL

Hitchcock went on to cast Lloyd again in a minor role in Spellbound (1945), and for the rest of the decade he was steadily – if not very spectacularly – employed. With the dawn of the 1950s came the era of the Hollywood blacklist, and Lloyd found himself judged guilty by his association with various radical and politically active theatre groups – among them the drama group of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

He was “greylisted” – held under suspicion – and work became scarce. Once more it was Hitchcock who helped to turn his luck around, this time by approaching him to work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Another friendship from this period began when Lloyd featured alongside Charlie Chaplin in the 1952 comedy-drama Limelight (though the film also fell victim to America’s anti-Communist panic, and was only distributed in a few US cinemas).

Soon the two actors were playing tennis together several times a week – Chaplin rather hampered, as Lloyd recalled, by a refusal to wear his glasses on court.

Lloyd also accompanied Chaplin and Chaplin’s then girlfriend – later fourth wife – Oona O’Neill on sailing weekends. When the couple settled in Switzerland following the revocation of Chaplin’s right to re-enter America, Lloyd visited him there.

Parties at the Chaplin house had brought Lloyd into a circle of émigrés that included Lion Feuchtwanger and the composer Hanns Eisler. Eisler – whom Lloyd recalled enjoyed eating salami and drinking sherry at the same time and occasionally to the point of excess – provided an introduction to the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

The atmosphere was intellectually lively if somewhat intimidating, and Lloyd enjoyed escaping to the tennis court with Ronald Schoenberg, one of the composer’s sons.

Lloyd continued to embrace new challenges well into old age, relishing the opportunity to work without a script while filming Trainwreck. In interviews looking back on a long and varied career, it was for Charlie Chaplin that he reserved his highest praise, considering him to be the greatest performer of the 20th century.

He credited his own remarkable longevity to an active lifestyle, a daily shot of whisky, and to his 75-year marriage, which only ended upon the death of his wife Peggy in 2011.

The couple had two children.

Norman Lloyd, born November 8 1914, died May 11 2021

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