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Remembering Welles: A Conversation with Norman Lloyd

By Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette is a staff writer for The Film Journal. His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema and Bright Lights Film Journal. You can visit Peter Tonguette's personal review site here.




In the course of his astonishing career as actor, producer, and director, Norman Lloyd has worked alongside some of the most exceptional men in modern stage and screen. He appeared as an actor in films by (among others) Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Anthony Mann, Joseph Losey, and Jules Dassin. His relationship with Alfred Hitchcock began when he appeared as an actor in Hitchcock's great Saboteur and resumed years later when he became a longtime producer/director on Hitchcock's television programs, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. This is an incredible resume by any standard. But somehow, even among this roll call of cinematic gods, the name which stands above the rest is Orson Welles. Lloyd was a member of Welles' Mercury Theatre, appeared in productions of Julius Caesar and The Shoemaker's Holiday, followed the master to Hollywood to make Heart of Darkness (cancelled by RKO due to budgetary considerations), and only remained in sporadic touch with him thereafter. But he never forgot his time with Welles; who could? It represents one of the summits of a staggering life in the performing arts.

My conversation with Mr. Lloyd, now 89, took place over the phone on May 6, 2004. The following piece is edited from that conversation. I realized only afterward that, by pure coincidence, it happened that our interview occurred on what would have been Orson Welles' 89th birthday. For this writer, one who regards Welles as the singular titan of the American cinema, there couldn't have been a more appropriate or more edifying way to commemorate Welles' birthday than to listen to the memories of someone who knew him so well and remembers him with such fondness.

Norman Lloyd: I'd been on the Federal Theatre in The Living Newspaper and I played prominent roles in the first three Living Newspapers. So when Orson and John Houseman left the Federal Theatre to form the Mercury, they asked me to go with them because of my work on The Living Newspaper.

Peter Tonguette: I see. And this would be 1937?

NL: That's correct.

PT: What productions did you act in at the Mercury Theatre?

NL: Julius Caesar and Shoemaker's Holiday.

The Mercury's very first production-and the first Lloyd acted in as a member of the Mercury-- was a modern dress version of Julius Caesar, in which Lloyd played Cinna the Poet. In his marvelous autobiography, "Stages of Life in Theatre, Film, and Television," Lloyd remembers the staging of the terrifying, almost surreal (according to various accounts) scene in which Cinna is mobbed. Lloyd writes, "I think it is fair to say-and I have heard Orson say it publicly-that in this version, Cinna's scene became 'the' scene of the play: the fulcrum around which the rest of the play swung." (1) Frank Brady, one of the best Welles biographers, concurs. "In many ways," Brady wrote in "Citizen Welles," "the sinister attack on Cinna had more immediacy than any other scene in the play."(2)

I asked Lloyd about Welles' innovative lighting design in Caesar.

PT: About Julius Caesar, I understand that Welles lit it to resemble the Nuremberg Rally. Is that correct?

NL: His lighting at one point in the production-I believe it was towards the end-his lighting was called "The Nuremberg Lights." There were a series of platforms on the set. It was a bare stage except for the platforms. And there were holes cut in the top platform, squares running along the width of the stage. Lights were put in each one of those squares and they shot upward. And those were reminiscent of the Nuremberg lights; at Nuremberg, whoever lit that-Hitler-that was the technique that they used. Of course, it was much more powerful than we had in our theatre.

PT: This is a rather expansive question, but what was Welles like as a director?

NL: Orson was, in my view, the most talented director that our theatre ever had. He was the first American director to bring a totality to a production. That had been done in Europe, I believe, by Reinhardt and Otto Brahm and those people. But in America, the men who directed were very professional, very good, but it was more or less staging of fairly simple physical productions. And they were very good, these men. George Kaufman was superb. And George M. Cohan: superb. They knew how to do that kind of play very well.

But when Orson came along, he brought together all the elements of theatrical staging. That is to say the actors and of course the script, which he would affect considerably because he would re-cut it and change the continuity and so forth, sometimes for the better-of course, he was dealing with classics in my experience with him, so you could do that. There was no author around to scream bloody murder. But he would then involve lighting, staging, set design, music, sound, all blended together with the actors and you have a totality of production that absolutely overwhelmed the audience.

Even when it got to a comedy like Shoemaker's Holiday, you had a kind of theatricality which was unique to Orson and, in my view, made him the most talented of all our directors.

PT: Was he easy to act for?

NL: Yes, very.

Welles loved to tell stories at rehearsal. Rehearsals never started right on time. They started with stories. But that was part of the whole process. It was part of sort of warming up, if you will, part of thawing out. You know, instead of just coming in and, "All right, Act 1, Scene 1," he would sit down and tell stories. There'd be a lot of laughs and people would get to moving around and then doing the rehearsal.

PT: Do you remember Welles' chauffeur from this time?

NL: Shorty?

PT: Yes, Shorty! Do you have any memories or stories about him?

NL: I don't have any except that I remember that he wasn't a dwarf, but he wasn't much taller than one. He was very short. And very, very strong. He could sort of push you over with his finger.

George "Shorty" Chirello was a figure so memorable in Welles' life that the director was still reminiscing about him on his final television interview, given the day before he died, on Merv Griffin's talk show.

PT: Did you participate in any of the Mercury Theatre On the Air productions?

NL: None. Now, at that particular time, he had two separate companies. He had the theatre company and he had the radio company. Now, one or two of the actors lapped over and were in both-Jo Cotten and sometimes George Coulouris. But for the most part, they were kept separate. Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, Everett Sloane, and Agnes Moorehead were all in the radio company.

Lloyd did, however, play Launcelot Gobbo to Welles' Shylock in a recording of The Merchant of Venice made in 1938.

NL: When he made his first journey out to Hollywood to do Heart of Darkness, he blended both companies. He joined the two companies together. And both companies arrived as one company in California.

PT: And that included you, of course.

NL: Yes.

PT: So you were going to act in Heart of Darkness?

NL: Yes.

PT: What role were you going to play?

NL: You know, I can't remember. It was one of the guys going up the river. The only character's name I remember is Marlow, which Orson was going to do and Orson was going to be the camera. You were just going to hear his voice.

Welles planned to stage Heart of Darkness with a subjective camera whose point-of-view is Marlow's; several years later, a film was made utilizing this technique, Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, with rather mixed artistic results.

NL: And it was a very good script, but somehow the studio, RKO, suddenly said, after we were there six weeks, "We're not going to make it."

PT: Did you have any rehearsals during those six weeks?

NL: We had one reading of the script. And that was it. We hung around while they discussed whether to make it or not and finally the answer came, "No."

PT: But you stayed in Hollywood because just a few years later you were in Hitchcock's Saboteur?

NL: Well, I didn't stay in Hollywood. That's part of the story. That is to say, Orson asked us at the end of the six weeks when they ruled that they were not going to make the picture, he asked us to stay while he worked out another deal. He had another idea. There was a book called "The Smiler With a Knife" and that was written by Nicholas Blake, I believe. Nicholas Blake was the pen name of C. Day Lewis, the poet, who is the father of Daniel Day Lewis, the actor. But the studio wouldn't make that.

Orson asked us to stay around. Well, I elected not to because we weren't going to get paid. Some of the other actors were better off financially than I was at the time, particularly the radio actors. The radio actors had done very well economically. But those of us who were strictly from the theatre, we were not very rich, let's put it that way. So my wife and I went back to New York. And when I came back in 1942, that was at the behest of Alfred Hitchcock. Orson had nothing to do with that.

PT: Did you and Orson ever discuss collaborating on film projects again?

NL: No. I did go backstage to see him after Danton's Death. He said to me, "When are you coming back?" He spoke to me very briefly, just sort of casually, that in doing what eventually became The Five Kings, he had in mind that I might do Jack Cade, which is a wonderful part in Henry VI.

Initially, Chimes at Midnight was a production in the theatre called The Five Kings. That closed out of town. The Theatre Guild was producing it and it closed. It never came into New York. Orson was in it and Burgess Meredith and quite a few familiar names.

PT: And Burgess Meredith played Hal in the play?

NL: Yes. But that eventually became Chimes at Midnight, which is one of his better pictures.

PT: I think it's his best actually.

NL: It's a wonderful picture. There's no question about Orson's gifts. He was the best. I mean, he was the most talented that we've had. The tragedy, as far as Hollywood is concerned, is that they thought he was too rich for their blood. It's unfortunate.

PT: Why do you think he had such popular success in the theatre and radio, but he couldn't achieve comparable success in Hollywood?

NL: It's based on economics. You know, we did the Mercury on $6,000, I believe. True, it was the depths of the depression, 1937, so $6,000 represented a lot of money. But still it wasn't a lot of money-even as far as productions on Broadway went. When you get into pictures, the phrase I gave you-"Too rich for my blood"-came from the head of a studio who said that to me. I was going in to see Ben Kahane, who headed RKO, and we were talking about the possibility of my producing there. And he said, "I see you worked with Orson Welles-well, that's too rich for my blood." And I knew I was a goner right there.

They had this fear that he would in financial ways get them into a bind, which is a laugh when you consider what's happening today. But he did have trouble in the theatre when he did Around the World in 80 Days. He got himself into a bind for a tremendous amount of money-I think about $300,000, I could be proved wrong. And as a result, because he was set up wrong-he wasn't set up as a company, he was set up as an individual-he had to really go to Europe for about eleven years because of tax problems.

PT: Were you in touch with Welles after this period?

NL: I saw him twice subsequent to that. Once was the night the AFI honored him. We were invited-not by Orson, but by MCA, my agency at that time. They had a table and they knew I had worked with Orson, so they invited me. And we had a little chat, very nice, and that was it.

Then the next time I saw him was at a panel at the Director's Guild near the end of his life where they devoted an entire week to Orson Welles. These panels were in the evening. On the second evening, there was a panel devoted to what Orson brought from the theatre into film. And on that panel was Kenneth Tynan, Roger Hill, who was his teacher and The Hill School, and Orson appeared, and there were a couple of other people. I've forgotten who chaired the panel, but maybe Bob Wise, who had been the cutter for Citizen Kane, appeared. Orson came and it was a surprise because everyone thought that he wouldn't show up, although he had been invited. But he did show up. And then after it, I went over to greet him and he embraced me in an enormous bear hug and whispered in my ear, "You son of a bitch." [Laughs] And that was the last time I saw him.

PT: That's not a bad good-bye.

NL: Not a bad good-bye. You see, Orson was a jolly fellow when he had humor. He was a temperamental fellow. He was difficult to discipline. I always regretted that my relationship with him always had a kind of tension in it. Now part of that is due to the fact that we were very young at the time. We were 22, then became 23 during that period. There was this enormous success and there were jealousies involved, maybe not on his part, but I think on my part I was cocky-not jealous so much as I had a chip on my shoulder. I always regretted that I didn't have a warmer relationship with him. But I have been told by many people, many people-and John Houseman was very close to us, we were a family with John-that it was impossible to have a warm relationship with Orson. And that's unfortunate. His best friend, I guess, was Jo Cotten. Jo was a wonderful man, really a rare and beautiful person, and if anyone couldn't get on with Jo, then they couldn't get on with anybody. But he did get on with Jo, they were dear friends.

PT: Actually the subject of that panel is an interesting question, which I'll ask you. What do you feel Welles brought to his film work from the theatre?

NL: Well, mainly in staging. Maybe others did it before him, maybe it came through the influence of the great cameraman who worked with him on Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland, but deep focus, the staging of people in depth. Curiously much of the staging could have been in the theatre--although Orson had great sense of camera, I mean, remarkable. He staged it in such a way that it was cinematic.

I think that that was the main thing he brought and he brought a certain theatricality. You know, if you say, What was Chaplin about? You'd say, Well, he really brought the immigrant into the world. Jean Renoir brought France, if you want to know what France was, and a certain humanitarianism. Orson's story was theatricality. It was about a great theatricality. And he brought that from theatre. It was bigger and broader than a lot of picture work.

Listening to Lloyd discuss the respective contributions of Welles, Chaplin, and Renoir to the cinema spurred me to ask him a little bit about his memories of some of the other men he worked with over the course of his illustrious career.

PT: You've worked with so many wonderful directors. I just loved hearing you just now talk about Chaplin brought and what Renoir brought and so forth. You worked also with Joseph Losey.

NL: I worked with Hitchcock.

PT: Hitchcock, of course.

NL: Milestone, and Joe Losey, yes. Joe Losey I first worked with in the theatre, particularly on The Living Newspapers.

PT: And you appeared in his remake of Fritz Lang's M.

NL: Yes, they're running it here this Saturday night, as a matter of fact. I'm going to go because I remember nothing about it. I remember Fritz Lang's M., and that is one of the all-time masterpieces and had in it the extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary performance of Peter Lorre. David Wayne's very good in [Losey's] M., as I remember, but I can't remember the picture. So I'm going to go to refresh my memory.

PT: You also worked with Anthony Mann.

NL: Tony Mann, yes. I first worked with him in live television in 1939, before there was television! [Laughs] NBC started it and then dropped it because of the war. And in that short period of something new called live television, I was with Tony. And then later on, I did The Black Book with him. Wonderful director.

Alfred Hitchcock is the man I worked with most over the years, as an actor, producer, and director. Jean Renoir I worked with as an actor and then I directed one of his pieces when he was too ill. (3) Chaplin… well, an overwhelming genius. In modern times, with Scorsese and Peter Weir.

I never directed a theatrical feature, although there were two moments with Hitchcock where be became ill and it looked like I might. But for various reasons, I didn't and in one instance he got well and continued directing-and that was on Marnie-and on the very last property, which was never made, we just never made it anyway. (4)

Lloyd directed some twenty-two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

NL: My favorite for him-and Hitch really loved it-is called The Jar. It was an original story by Ray Bradbury and screenplay by James Bridges. Extraordinary performances, one by Pat Buttram, who had been a country comic, and Collin Wilcox, a brilliant, brilliant actress who just too quickly gave up the whole profession. She was one of our very best actresses. And it's a marvelous piece.

PT: Do you have any favorite memories of Welles?

NL: Well, my memory of Orson-at this instance, which is sixty-seven years later-my memory of him is of a very vital, enormous gift to the theatre. The rehearsals and so forth. The richness of his personality. The energy, the vitality, the bigness, full of ideas, and laughing all the time. I remember him laughing all the time, except when he and Houseman were screaming at each other. They screamed a lot! They screamed so much that you didn't hear it. You know what I mean? You can hear people screaming and it just goes over your head. We would just sit, reading the newspapers. [Laughs]

But, as you indicated a moment ago, I've been privileged to work with some great guys. Each quite different from the other, by the way. For example, Orson and Chaplin, who knew each other, thought that Jean Renoir was the great man. And that's very possible. But I remember that Orson was what theatre was about. The vitality, the theatricality, the ideas, even the terrible accidents, such as Orson stabbing Joe Holland when we did Caesar-these things happened with Orson. (5) He was that kind of person. So I remember him as a tremendous, big theatrical force. When you were working with him, you were working in the theatre at its best, the theatre that you loved, the theatre that you went into.

By the time our interview was nearly over, Lloyd and I were simply chatting about Welles' many films (released and unreleased.) His final thought about the great director is haunting indeed.

NL: Only one comes along at a time. We don't have a guy like that now. Of course, he had a terrible time in Hollywood in the long run.

PT: But his resiliency was amazing. When he couldn't make films in Hollywood, he'd go make them himself in Europe.

NL: That's right. You'll be interested to know that Gary Graver-does that name mean anything to you? (6)

PT: I've interviewed Gary several times.

NL: He's now making a documentary of me. He has probably revealed to you that there sits in a vault in Paris Orson's last picture.

PT: The Other Side of the Wind.

NL: And they need a million and a half dollars to get it out because it's in hoc to the Shah's family. So there again, Orson ended up with misfortune.

PT: Nearly twenty years after his death, for that film still not to be released is unbelievable.

NL: Exactly. I don't know anything about the picture. I've seen a little footage of it. I saw some scenes with John Huston. But I'm sure it's brilliant. He made brilliant films. Even the ones that weren't very good! I mean, Mr. Arkadin and The Trial, I found them boring, but they're wonderful to watch! [Laughs] Because anything he touched always had some unique quality to it.

PT: Have you ever seen The Immortal Story?

NL: No. Isn't that the one with Jeanne Moreau?

PT: Yes, and it's based on the short story by Isak Dinesen.

NL: Yes. But that has always been put down.

PT: Well, I love it.

NL: Ah, good.

PT: I think it's one of his best films.

NL: Did he ever get it released?

PT: I think it was released briefly in the United States, but it was more successful in Europe.

NL: Well, that's unfortunate. He died and he's buried in Spain. I mean, he's like a permanent exile. After all, he's a Midwestern boy! [Laughs]

PT: He's from Wisconsin!

NL: Exactly. Wisconsin is where Losey's from too. Joe was very American. I did four plays in the theatre with him and knew him very well. Joe could never really get going in this country at all. He was a very Midwestern guy and finally ended up with a real career only after he was exiled, blacklisted. You have Jules Dassin, who was also exiled. He made some wonderful pictures in Europe: Rififi, Topkapi, Never on Sunday, although he had made Naked City and Brute Force here.

Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915; Frank Brady tells us that his ashes are buried in Ronda, Spain, on bullfighter Antonio Ordonez's farm.

Very special thanks to Vincent LoBrutto.


Notes:

(1) See "Stages of Life in Theatre, Film, and Television," by Norman Lloyd, Limelight Editions, 1993

(2) See "Citizen Welles," by Frank Brady, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989

(3) Lloyd filmed Renoir's play "Carola" for a PBS telecast which aired in 1973. The program is available on DVD.

(4) This project, "The Short Night," occupied most of Hitchcock's time in the years after Family Plot, which was to become his final picture. Details can be found in Lloyd's "Stages," as well as David Freeman's "The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock," Patrick McGilligan's "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life of Darkness and Light," and others.

(5) During one performance of Caesar, Welles, as Brutus, accidentally stabbed Joseph Holland, playing Caesar, with a real knife during the assassination scene in the play. Welles had come to the idea of using a real knife during a dress rehearsal; the company was out of plastic knives, so Welles temporarily used a real one. Deciding he liked the way it stuck to the floor after Brutus drops it, and that a spotlight focused on the glimmering knife would add a particular dramatic touch, he kept it in. Full details are in Brady's "Citizen Welles."

(6) Welles' cinematographer from 1970-85.


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