Norman Lloyd, who has died aged 106, had the privilege of working as an actor, director and producer with such towering figures as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and Charlie Chaplin; they were also his close friends.
Though Lloyd never made a film with Welles, he took part in two of the revolutionary stage productions by the “boy wonder”. Welles was a mere 21 when he and John Houseman formed the Mercury theatre in New York in 1937, and Lloyd was part of that famous company.
“We used to joke about Hollywood,” Lloyd said. “We swore we would never make movies. Orson and the others were very vocal, so I thought they meant it.” But, in 1939, Lloyd was cast in Heart Of Darkness, which was to have been Welles’s first film until the project was aborted after six weeks. Three years later, Lloyd was brought to Hollywood to play the title role (albeit a small part) in Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).
The most memorable sequence in this archetypal Hitchcock movie was the climactic scene atop the Statue of Liberty where the hero (Robert Cummings), after a picaresque pursuit, catches up with Lloyd, a snivelling and slithery Nazi agent. They struggle on Liberty’s outstretched arm, when Lloyd slips and is about to fall from the statue. Cummings catches him by his coat sleeve, but the sleeve starts to tear at the shoulder, and he plunges to his death. “Hitchcock told me I should have had a better tailor,” Lloyd recalled.
The Mercury theatre’s first production in 1937 was a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, directed by Welles, who played Brutus, evoking the brutal pageantry of European fascism. One of the most striking scenes was when the slightly built Lloyd, as Cinna the Poet, enters whistling a carefree tune, handing out his verses in the streets, when suddenly three or four men emerge from the shadows and encircle him. Further men come out of the darkness and block his way. They tear up his poems and throw them in his face. He pleads for mercy, but, with daggers flashing, the jaws of the mob come together and he is swallowed up screaming. “To use good old show-business terms, it stopped the show. The applause lasted, some nights, for three minutes,” Lloyd said.
The Mercury’s second production was Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemakers’ Holiday, in which Elizabethan London was evoked by the most minimal of sets. Performed without an interval, the play was directed by Welles as a homage to the working man, embodied by Hodge, the industrious and kind foreman of the cobbler’s shop, played by Lloyd.
Born Norman Perlmutter in Jersey City, New Jersey, to Max Perlmutter, an accountant who later ran a furniture store, and Sadie (nee Horowitz), a bookkeeper, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He had performed as a child, but began his acting career in earnest, aged 17, as an apprentice with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory in the city. It was there, in a series of classic plays, that he acquired his sonorous voice and excellent diction. He made an impressive Broadway debut in 1935 as Japhet in André Obey’s Noah, with the great French actor Pierre Fresnay in the title role. After the two Welles productions, he took part in one of the radical Living Newspaper series called Power (1937), a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created by the New Deal.
Following Saboteur, Lloyd began a long association and friendship with “Hitch”. He acted in five films in 1945 for various studios, including Hitchcock’s Spellbound, in which he was a psychiatric patient. Among the others were Lewis Milestone’s second world war drama A Walk In the Sun, in which Lloyd portrayed a cynical private soldier who feels that the war will last for ever with or without him, and Renoir’s The Southerner, in which he played a vindictive neighbour of a farmer.
Lloyd’s talent was mostly wasted in numerous supporting parts in the 1940s and early 50s: as a nuclear scientist in The Beginning Or the End (1947), a psychiatrist in No Minor Vices (1948), a pirate in Buccaneer’s Girl (1950), and a troubadour in The Flame and the Arrow (1950).
However, at the end of 1950, Lloyd had a rare chance to reveal his acting ability playing the Fool to Louis Calhern’s King Lear on Broadway, directed by Houseman.
Returning to films, he played the short-lived gangster pal of John Garfield in John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951); a lowlife in M (1951), Joseph Losey’s Americanised remake of the 30s Fritz Lang classic, and a stage manager (with an English accent) in Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).
Unfortunately, because of his close association with a number of victims of the McCarthy witchhunts, such as Chaplin, Losey, Berry, Garfield and Jules Dassin (for whom he acted on Broadway in Medicine Show and the film A Letter for Evie), Lloyd was placed on a notional blacklist and no longer hired by Hollywood executives.
It was Hitchcock who rescued him in 1955 by making him associate producer and a director on the long-running TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In the course of his eight years on the series, Lloyd became a co-producer (with Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s “right arm”) and then executive producer.
He continued directing and producing TV series, including Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, while also appearing in dozens of TV dramas. His longest-running performance was in the 80s hospital series St Elsewhere, as the genial Dr Daniel Auschlander, terminally cancer stricken, but still dedicated to his profession.
Lloyd’s reincarnation in films after more than 20 years was appropriately in Robert Wise’s Audrey Rose (1977), an unlikely tale of the reincarnation of a young girl. Other roles included the stern headteacher in Dead Poets Society (1989) and a wealthy patriarch in Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence (1993). More recently, he appeared in In Her Shoes (2005), starring Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine, and, aged 100, Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck (2015).
He married Peggy Craven in 1936 and they had two children. Peggy died in 2011.
• Norman Lloyd, actor, director and producer, born 8 November 1914; died 11 May 2021
• Ronald Bergan died in 2020
• This article was amended on 18 May 2021. A 1937 reference was meant to cite the Works Progress Administration rather than the body’s later name, the Work Projects Administration.