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Match Points: NORMAN LLOYD (4th Set): Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

By Sam Sweet

At 94, actor Norman Lloyd is one of the last surviving links to Old Hollywood. With a career that spans the 20th century and includes collaborations with Hitchcock, Chaplin, Welles and Renoir, among others, Lloyd’s memories form a living history that extends to the present day.

In 2008, each issue of STOP SMILING featured a different recollection from Lloyd. Here, he sits courtside with Billy Wilder and ponders what makes us laugh.

Is it true that comedy is harder than drama?

Well, there’s the great story of Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. He was dying and someone said, “Oh, this is very difficult, isn’t it Teddy?” And he said, “Not as difficult as comedy.” I wouldn’t say that. He had a right to say that — he was a superb actor — but it depends on the writing, on a combination of circumstances. Sometimes comedy seems easier than drama. Drama can become incredibly laborious.

Within your circle of actors, who told the best jokes? Who was the funniest in person?

I was always amused by Huntz Hall, one of the Dead End Kids. I guess he was the most dead-end of the kids. He was a rascal. His jokes were mostly off-color. He would go up to a girl and say, “What are you doing tonight honey?” [coughs behind dollar bills]. That was Huntz. He used to make me laugh amongst my friends. I’d see a lot of Chaplin, but Charlie didn’t make you laugh. He was a very serious man.

I’ve sat at dinner with Groucho Marx and you don’t laugh. I’ve sat at tennis matches with Billy Wilder and he makes amusing remarks — sort of funny but not uproarious. I remember sitting with Wilder at the tennis matches and he said, “The women at these matches get worse looking every year — as a matter of fact, we have next year’s women this year.” Sort of amusing, but you don’t laugh.

You were in The Age Of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis. He is an actor that truly possesses the screen.

He’s terrific. I’ll tell you a funny thing about him. Years ago I produced an hour show for Hitchcock with Robert Redford and an actress named Zora Lampert. It was from a story by Nicholas Blake. Nicholas Blake was the nom de plume of a poet named C. Day-Lewis, who was the father of Daniel Day-Lewis. On Age of Innocence, Daniel was very closed when I first came in — not snobbish, but he was very concentrated. Then one morning in makeup, I said, “You know I once produced a Nicholas Blake show, which your father wrote — the book, he didn’t do the screenplay.” And we got into the whole C. Day-Lewis thing and Daniel opened up and was very friendly. So when I saw him at Telluride [in 2007], he was the soul of warmth and joy and was wonderful. We had a marvelous time together. He’s a marvelous guy. And what an actor. Terrific.

You worked with Jacques Tourneur on The Flame and the Arrow, which starred Burt Lancaster. What was Tourneur’s directing style?

He was a strange guy. Very quiet, taciturn. Smoked a pipe. He was a very good director, but he wouldn’t talk to the actors at all, he would just stage the scene. I had a scene with Robert Douglas, and Tourneur put us on a cart, a 15th-century two-wheel cart [run by a horse]. Now, this cart is about the size of a coffee table. And Tourneur insisted that Robert Douglas and I sit on the back of it, tied, with our legs dangling over. There wasn’t much room to sit. So I said to Tourneur, “Couldn’t a double do this?” And he said, “No. I want to start from a close shot, and see you pull away and run away.” We did a couple takes, and we knew that we were close to death. I looked at Tourneur and I think I saw something of the sadist in him. There have been directors like that — most notoriously James Whale, who actually had a guy killed. But Tourneur made a very good picture, though he didn’t get along with Burt. Nick Cravat, the little guy who did all the stunts with Burt, used to, as he left the set, bump Tourneur, as if accidentally, but deliberately. They just didn’t like him.

What did you make of TV when it first came on the scene?

I pooh-poohed it. The reason I pooh-poohed it is because as an actor in those days I was a snob and felt it was either the theater or pictures. I mean, what is all this home stuff? It’s just a gimmick. It was a new thing, and a new way of making a buck. Because radio was what you used to try to sustain yourself through theater jobs. But here was another thing that could pull you through.

At what point did you start to see that there was artistic potential?

When a guy like Milton Berle became a guy who, when you walked along the street, particularly in summer, you could follow one of his sentences all along the block, because every TV was playing his show. At that point you thought, “Well, this is something.” When it began to catch on with the audiences, with the people, then you got interested.

What is it that film can accomplish that theater can’t?

For one thing it’s the record of a performance. The theater is ephemeral, it’s gotham. And films can reach many, many more people than a theater performance can reach by distribution. In a major sense, films are a record that the theater cannot keep.


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