“You’ve put that thing on, haven’t you?” asks Norman Lloyd, the 100-year-old national treasure of film and stage who makes his latest film appearance—after an eight-decade career working with the likes of Welles, Kazan, and Hitchcock—in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck.
The spry centenarian’s referring to my recorder, which I have indeed turned on. “I’m ready,” he booms, a twinkle in his eye. “Are YOU ready?”
We’re tucked away inside the five-star Fairmont Miramar hotel in Santa Monica, steps from the Pacific and ten minutes from the Brentwood neighborhood Lloyd calls home. It’s there that the mostly-retired actor spends his days now, reading the paper each morning and tracking his favorite hometown obsession, the Dodgers.
“I watch the ballgames,” he says. “You see, a ballgame is very real. The movies, well…”
If the Golden Age of Hollywood has a living historian equally versed in firsthand accounts of the booming Broadway days, it’s Lloyd, who’s seen it all. The Jersey-born onetime child entertainer got his start on the New York stage during the Great Depression and made his biggest splash in the 1937 debut opener of the famed Mercury Theater, dying as Cinna in the Fascist-themed staging of Julius Caesar for none other than Orson Welles.
He made his first Hollywood splash in 1942’s Saboteur for Hitchcock, playing the titular domestic terrorist and dying, once again, in spectacularly memorable fashion: falling from the Statue of Liberty. Fast forward 70-plus years, through reunions with Hitch on Spellbound and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which he directed and produced; a villainous turn on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery; a stint on St. Elsewhere; roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Wiseguy, Murder, She Wrote, Seven Days, The Practice, and dozens of other shows, including a 2010 guest appearance on Modern Family. Generations of film audiences, meanwhile, saw Lloyd pop up in everything from Dead Poets Society to The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to In Her Shoes.
I ask Lloyd what he makes of the day’s big news, the Supreme Court’s decision to support gay marriage once and for all. His eyes light up, impassioned.
“It’s wonderful. What a noble day, and a historic day for America,” he says with high admiration for President Obama. “I think Obama is going to go down as one of our greatest Presidents, because what this guy has done and has tried to do, and over the kind of opposition that I don’t know if Lincoln had, except he had to go to war. This speaks so brilliantly of Obama, and the way he conducts himself. I think he is already one of our greatest Presidents.”
Lloyd’s own wife of 75 years, actress Peggy Craven Lloyd, died in 2011 at the age of 98. They’d met in their early 20s while co-starring onstage in Crime, directed by a young Elia Kazan. The secret to staying married for three-quarters of a century? “Acceptance,” Lloyd says with a smile. “That is the secret to any long relationship: the ability to accept.”
He looks back with great affection on those early days, when he struggled to keep the lights on even while collecting a Broadway salary as a lead in 1938’s lauded drama Everywhere I Roam. Before he made his eventual way out West, the distant siren call of Hollywood beckoned with money, a lot of money, to a young actor.
“We in New York were very poor, in the depths of the Depression—but I must say, that was the best time of my life,” he said. “The Depression was remarkable because you had nothing, and the salaries, when you got a job, were very small. But you could do anything. You see, a donut was ten cents. A cup of coffee was a nickel. That was lunch, with an apple. And I would be playing a lead on a Broadway show on that kind of diet.”
Film was the everyman’s escape, a quarter for a double feature. But the stage was where Lloyd lived and breathed. “Out of the paucity of things, we made theater. It was the founding of the Group Theater, the Federal Theater—one of the great theater stories in dramatic history going back to the Greeks, it’s been pointed out by some writers—and in any case, the country was full of it. It’s all very romantic and fun when you look back from this vantage point, but on the other hand, the things we did, the theaters that were formed… there was, what in my view is now nonexistent: Broadway.”
In conversation, Lloyd can’t help but lilt now and again, emphasizing his words with great heft as if delivering a monologue from center stage. “And, if I may say so, we had wonderful stars,” he added. “I don’t think we have them today.”
The “bad taste” of contemporary acting rubs Lloyd the wrong way, he explained. He hasn’t been to see a Broadway production in years, although “I hear there’s a very good musical based on Shakespeare.” The last movie he watched was Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, at home on TCM, which is just about all he watches these days.
“I know I sound like an old fogey, but there is something that happened to our whole psyche that is essentially negative,” he lamented. “The plays are negative. The stories are negative. The pictures are negative. The New Yorker has a list of the movies and their synopses, and they’re so negative, so down, so full of death.”
It’s not surprising that a man about to turn 101 in three months’ time doesn’t want to be inundated with downer after downer about mortality. He’s also got beef with the Broadway of today, particularly in the Kimye age of reality TV stars and TMZ-created “celebrities”: The world is woefully lacking in major talents.
“Fame, back then came from great performances,” Lloyd declared, looking into the distance. “I can still hear Claude Rains playing the lawyer in They Shall Not Die, which was about Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were condemned to death for an assassination. I still hear him—I still see him, saying, “These men—they shall not die.”
He waxes nostalgic over the greats and peers of his time, all long gone. “George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein. The Lunts—ah!—magic. Paul Muni. Edward Robinson. Walter Huston, A lot of guys who went out to the coast, eventually. But they came from the theater.”
Until Trainwreck, Lloyd hadn’t made a film in a decade. Before he got the call to co-star as a daffy retirement home denizen with a penchant for blue-haired grandmas, he’d certainly never heard of Judd Apatow and his R-rated comedies, let alone raunch queen Amy Schumer.
“I knew nothing about Judd Apatow,” he admitted. “His name, of course, is well-known. But I didn’t know what kind of work he did. I knew he was very successful, and I knew that it was generally comedic. What it was about, I did not know.”
What tempted Lloyd out of retirement and into the R-rated rom-com was the lure of trying something new, adding a trick to his toolbox he’d never learned in eight decades of acting: Improvisation.
“When Judd asked me to be in the picture, I thought, ‘What a grand experiment for me, after 80 years, to work this way!’” Lloyd laughed. “With Hitchcock, you work with a script and you stick to it. The same with Chaplin, Renoir… with Orson, he’s already altered the script considerably. If it’s Shakespeare, he’s rearranged it. I was very curious to see, and so I did. And I loved working with him. He’s a beautiful guy. He’s the real thing.”
Apatow’s methods, and his knack for dick jokes, gave Lloyd quite the generational culture shock. I ask which improvised lines Apatow threw at him during filming that made him blush.
Lloyd leans in. “I don’t wish to offend you,” he says, with gentlemanly concern. I assure him such a thing is not possible. He describes shooting a scene with Colin Quinn as Schumer’s irascible father, his buddy at the old folks’ home, when Apatow gave him a suggestible line to deliver.
“Judd shouted out to me, ‘And you were inside Josephine Baker!’ I thought for a moment, and I didn’t want to say that,” he said. “[Colin’s] next question was, ‘How did it feel being inside Josephine Baker?’ And I realized that we’re in the world of today. This is par for the course. So I said, ‘Comfortable.’ There’s no point in elaborating on it, that’s how you’d feel.”
Perhaps only Norman Lloyd would mention George Bernard Shaw in the same breath as Judd Apatow. Re-reading a collection of theater criticism recently, he was reminded of Apatow and Schumer in Shaw’s assessment of the great turn of the century Italian actress Eleanora Duse.
“She played Hedda Gabler, who was in her 20s, but she was in her 60s,” he said. “Shaw said her gray hair, her lines, were the ‘aspects of her mortality.’ The Duse went out there and let you see her face as she told the story of this young lady.”
Lloyd chuckled to himself remembering his first reaction to Trainwreck’s opening scene, in which Schumer takes one look at her one-night stand’s enormous penis and recoils in fear.
“The first shot is on the guy’s bare behind and Amy is studying his… frontage, while she comments on his male appendage,” he exclaimed. “Utterly of another world. This is another world, among other scenes in the picture I won’t go into which are extreme, and things people don’t mention in polite society. But this is what Judd represents. It seems natural, in this world.”
“That,” he marveled, “is modern.”