On Norman Lloyd’s birthday last November, his friends set up a Zoom chat. About 25 of us, from Los Angeles, New York, and Paris. Even if they’d heard them before, his friends were always eager to listen to his stories about “Orson” or “Hitch” or the regular weekend tennis games with Charlie Chaplin. And Norman never tired of telling them because he told them well, accents included (Hitchcock’s). He had developed a voice as a young actor, one without regionality—it was educated but an actor’s voice, with bass as well as treble. He sat in his chair, wearing the off-white flat cap that Jean Renoir had given him, and entertained for an hour or so, talking about new movies, too—“pretty good,” “piece of shit”—and quipping zingers.
One of his friends had a striped baseball jersey specially made. On the front it said, Brooklyn, where Norman grew up, and on the back, Lloyd, arched across the shoulders, and below his name, the number 106, which was Norman’s age.
The obituaries telling of Norman’s death, on May 11, gave some of the facts. Actor, director, producer. Film, theater, and television. Ninety years of work. How, at the age of 23, his five-minute scene as Cinna the Poet stunned the audience and almost stole Julius Caesar from another young stage actor, Orson Welles.
His first movie was Hitchcock’s Saboteur, where his villainous character is cornered at the top of the Statue of Liberty, falls over the guardrail, and struggles to hold on. The scene was breathtakingly directed and acted and began a long collaborative and affectionate relationship between the two men. Judd Apatow came to Norman’s 101st-birthday party, and Norman’s final role, in Trainwreck with Amy Schumer, was released that year.
Orson Welles, John Houseman, Norman and my mother, Geraldine FitzGerald—all were at the Mercury Theatre in the late 1930s. My mother had enduring friendships with all three men. When I was 16, Norman gave me my first part in the theater, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, which at the time was run by John Houseman, who hired Norman in 1956 to act and direct—willfully ignoring the handwringers who warned him that hiring a blacklisted actor might be bad for the theater, and the fat cats who funded it.
I stayed that summer with Norman and his wife, Peggy, their 17-year-old actress daughter, Susanna and young son, Michael. Young Peggy Craven (née Margaret Hirsdansky) and Norman (né Norman Perlmutter) had met as actors in a play directed by the equally young Elia Kazan (né Elia Kazanjoglous). Peggy was a real stunner, slim with lustrous dark eyes and shimmering black hair. She and Norman were married for 75 years.
My part was a servant of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and I had one line which was either “Yes” or “Aye,” and when I said it, it got a laugh, which was thought to be a good thing.
His first movie was Hitchcock’s Saboteur, where his villainous character is cornered at the top of the Statue of Liberty and falls over the guardrail.
As the summer went on, I was practicing makeup in the dressing room. Colored Leichner sticks, eyeliner, brushes, shading, and within a few weeks I’d managed to turn a plump young face into that of a grizzled, dark-circle-eyed old codger, and thought my “character” had deepened, although my voice barely had.
One evening after a performance Norman gave notes to the cast. One was for me.
“Michael, you’re still 16, right?”
“So if I’d wanted a 70-year-old actor to play your part, don’t you think I’d have found one?”
“I suppose so.”
“So what am I saying?”
“You’re saying … ”
“I’m saying, ‘Stop with the makeup!’”
The blacklist 1950s, where one mendacious egotistical fraud, Senator Joseph McCarthy, gulled a large number of citizens into believing his lies—with the implication that if they didn’t, they were unpatriotic and suspect—were not so unlike now.
Norman, like many young artists who’d grown up in the Depression, was left-wing but, when the time came, refused to talk about his friends, and suffered for it.
It wasn’t until he was having success on the television show St. Elsewhere many years later that he told my mother this story …
One Christmas there was no money for even small gifts for his children or a simple dinner. He was proud and had already borrowed money from friends, so, in the recklessness which can come when in extremis, he decided to commit a robbery. He was lean and agile and felt he could get in a window, take what he could find, and get out again.
Night had come and outside it was cold with snow turning to rain. Norman put on a dark coat and hat and left the apartment. He peered into windows, guessing what rooms might be empty. He decided on one, but just before he acted, he looked down and saw in the slush at his feet a wet $10 bill. Enough, in those days, for a simple Christmas.
“Chance may do anything,” said Dostoyevsky.
R.I.P., dear Norman Lloyd.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg is a renowned New York–based writer, filmmaker, and painter. He is the author of the memoir Luck and Circumstance