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The Reeler Blog

Shooting with Hitch, Tennis with Chaplin

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Opening Friday at Film Forum, the documentary Who is Norman Lloyd? offers one of recent cinema's name-droppingest life chronicles; not even The Outsider's hyper-connected James Toback can compete with 93-year-old actor-producer-director Lloyd's stories of working alongside Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Elia Kazan. Bertolt Brecht and scores of other luminaries over a 75-year career.

Have you seen this man? Norman Lloyd as the tile character in Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur, screening this weekend with the doc Who is Norman Lloyd? (Photo: Film Forum)

A survivor of the Depression, the blacklist and, evidently, tennis duels with Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd is perhaps best known for his role as the elusive title character in Hitchcock's Saboteur -- which screens with Matthew Sussman's documentary through Nov. 29. Lloyd will be at Film Forum on Nov. 26 for a discussion of his career; he recently sat down with The Reeler for a preview of tales to come.

THE REELER: In the documentary's prologue, Karl Malden says, "Norman Lloyd is the history of show business in the 20th century." What do you think he meant by that?

NORMAN LLOYD: A couple of things. First, the longevity; I've been in show business for 75 years. It's even longer than I've been married, which is 71 years. In the course of those 75 years, I've done so many different kinds of work, not all of it good. There's been classical theater, Broadway theater, movies, television and radio. When I was a child, you know, I sang the song "Mama Get the Hammer (There's a Fly on Baby's Head)" -- there are some things you can't live down. But all of that jumbled together is why Karl said that. I've also had the extraordinary luck of working with the greatest people of their time.

R: I want to ask you about that in a moment, but first I'm interested in knowing your reaction when you were approached about the documentary.

NL: I felt good about that. All people who sort of perform want to know their message cam across. And as Karl says, I did feel -- and my wife harps on this, too -- that I might have achieved more recognition had I not gone behind the camera and instead stayed out there acting all the time. He has a point. But (director Lewis) Milestone made me an offer after A Walk in the Sun (1944), and I found that very interesting and rewarding. Since I had done so many things that lacked recognition -- I mean, you can produce Hitchcock's show, but it's Hitchcock's show -- I thought here was a chance to make my presence felt a little bit more. It's ego -- but we all operate on ego.

R: Saboteur is being paired up with Who is Norman Lloyd? this weekend. It's oddly contemporary in many ways; how did it hold up the last time you saw it?

NL: It held up really well. It was a political picture about the Fifth Column and also about a guy who was a sort of terrorist. The other thing was that some of the writing in it had become even more modern than when it was written.

R: Dorothy Parker's scenes still stand out 60 years later.

NL: Exactly. The stuff with the blind man?

R: Or the circus freaks?

NL: That was Parker. That's amazing, great writing.

R: You mentioned luck earlier, but obviously it takes a lot more than luck to last 75 years in this business.

NL: You know Branch Rickey, right?

R: Sure, the old Dodgers owner. He said, "Luck is the residue of design."

NL: Yes! I thought I was the only one who remembered that one.

R: No way -- those are words to live by. That said, what do you think was the luckiest break of your career?

NL: I guess in retrospect, looking over the whole thing, the one that looms largest is Saboteur. It's Hitchcock. While I adored working with Chaplin, it didn't have the effect on my career that Saboteur had. And I loved Renoir -- both Chaplin and Welles said he was number one, and he could very well be. Still, The Southerner didn't have that impact. Saboteur had that impact. I never did anything that had that impact again. Dead Poets Society had some impact, as did other parts like A Walk in the Sun. But Saboteur stil has that impact. People still see it.

R: Moreover, Hitchcock brought you back to the industry after your exile during the blacklist.

NL: Definitely. He had the courage; it was cowardice on the part of all these people that caused these terrible things that happened. Philip Loeb jumped out of a window; John Garfield's heart was bad. So many people. All they needed was the courage of someone to say, "No -- you can't do that."

R: And now Film Forum is exposing a New York audience to your work and your story; you'll be on hand next week for An Evening with Norman Lloyd.

NL: It's flattering. Once I was playing a set of tennis with Chaplin; he had the lead, but I began to come back. And the lead dropped to three, then to two, then to one. And on that one, I heard him muttering to himself as he went back to the baseline to pick up a ball: "Charlie, take all the success you can get." One loves these things.

Posted at November 21, 2007 2:12 PM

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