Life Is What Happens
There’s nothing like having lunch with a guy who is 103 years old to put you in a philosophical frame of mind.
I have known and been friends with an actor named Norman Lloyd for several decades. For many of those years, we played tennis together, sometimes as doubles partners, sometimes opponents. Age finally placed him on the sidelines; surgery on my wrist put me right next to him.
If his name fails to ring any bells, he is perhaps best known for falling off the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s “Saboteur.” I first noticed him in the World War II drama “A Walk in the Sun,” where he portrayed the sardonic Pvt. Archimbeau, the soldier who kept insisting that the next war would take place in Tibet.
Others may recall him as Bodalink in Chaplin’s tribute to his wife Oona, “Limelight,” or as Dr. Auschlander in the long-running TV hospital series “St. Elsewhere.”
At lunch, I asked him, since he had known and befriended Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin and me, if there was anyone he had wanted to meet but had not. He said there wasn’t and I believed him.
Born in Brooklyn, when he joined Eva LaGallienne’s Repertory Company, he was told that in order to play classical roles, he would have to lose the accent. He lost it so completely that my wife assumed he was English.
He speaks with what has become known as a mid-Atlantic accent. I suspect that means that Americans assume he’s English, and the English know he’s an American, but give him points for trying. Actually, what makes his voice so distinctive is his delivery. Even in casual conversation, assuming that what this erudite man engages in can ever be called casual conversation, he is as droll as if he were on stage, appearing in a play written by Noel Coward, delivering his lines in a voice as dry as a vodka martini.
The reason I am telling you all this is because the title of this piece refers to a line I either heard or made up a very long time ago: Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.
When I used to be invited to address writing groups, someone would invariably ask me how to break into TV. The best I could do was to suggest they get a job writing movie reviews for Los Angeles magazine and then begin writing a humor column for the LA Times. At least that’s what I was doing when I was called first by Jack Webb to try my hand with “Dragnet” and then by Leonard Stern to take a crack at a sitcom, “The Governor & J.J.”
In Norman Lloyd’s case, he got his big break when he wasn’t cast in “Citizen Kane.” Now, normally, missing out on a feature role in a classic film might lead an actor to consider committing suicide. But, as some wise old bird pointed out, that’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
What happened is that after Norman left Le Gallienne’s company, he joined the Mercury Theatre, the group founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman.
When RKO came bidding for the talents of young Orson Welles, he brought his company west with him. It was his plan to make his directorial film debut with an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
But when the studio decided it would be too expensive to produce, Welles asked all the actors to stick around even though they would no longer be on salary because he had another movie in mind.
At that point, one of the other actors in the company that included the likes of Joseph Cotton, Paul Stewart, Ray Collins, Ruth Warrick and Agnes Moorehead phoned Norman. It was Everett Sloane. Sloane told him that he and his wife couldn’t afford to just hang around; they were going back to New York.
When Norman discussed it with his wife, they decided to go back, too. Which they did. Everett Sloane didn’t. As a result, he wound up getting to play Bernstein in “Citizen Kane.”
To this day, Norman doesn’t know if Sloane was slyly getting rid of the competition or if he just had a sincere change of heart.
But the result is that when Hitchcock called John Houseman to say he was having trouble finding someone to play the title role in “Saboteur,” Houseman immediately suggested the very available Norman Lloyd.
Hitchcock next cast Norman in “Spellbound.” But that was the least of it. The two men became close friends. So when Norman fell victim to the Hollywood Blacklist a few years later, Hitchcock hired him to co-produce his hour-long TV series.
When the network balked at hiring a blacklisted actor in any capacity, Hitchcock delivered an ultimatum. They would either accept Norman Lloyd or Hitch would take his show away.
And that is how you differentiate between men and worms in Hollywood, and, for that matter, everywhere else.
Something else that Hitchcock and Lloyd had in common was the remarkable lengths of their only marriages. Hitchcock and Alma Reville were married for 53 years, Norman and Peggy for an astonishing 75.
Of course, length isn’t always the best measure of a marriage. Bill and Hillary Clinton will have been married for 43 years when October rolls around. On the other hand, I’m not sure they’d be able to pick each other out of a police lineup, considering how little time they’ve spent together since her loss to Trump meant that a return to the White House was no longer in the cards.
But I must confess that reference to a police lineup is music to my ears.
Speaking of Bill Clinton, he recently said “Norms have really changed in terms of what you can do to somebody against their will.”
I guess we all have our own way of being nostalgic for the good old days. For some of us, the longing is for the summery days of our childhood, when the only thing we had to worry about was getting a sunburn while swimming or fishing or bicycling with our friends. For others, it consists of yearning for those golden days when sexual harassment was casually dismissed as boys just being boys.
I’ll close with a tip of the hat to Peter Wick, of Woodbridge, California, who passed along a list of Yiddish one-liners:
As the night nurse checks in on Mr. Nussbaum, she asks him if he’s comfortable. He replies: “I make a nice living.”
“I’ve been in love with the same woman for 41 years. If my wife ever finds out, she’ll murder me.”
“Someone stole all my credit cards, but I’m not reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife.”
The doctor gave a man six months to live, but when the man let him know he couldn’t pay his bill, the doc gave him another six months.
The doctor called Mrs. Cohen to report: “Your check just came back.” She reported: “So did my arthritis.”
Doctor: “You’ll live to be 80.” “I am 80!” “See! What did I tell you?”
A drunk stood in front of a judge. The judge said: “You’ve been brought here for drinking.” “Great, let’s get started!”
A Jewish man said that when he was growing up, they had two choices for dinner: Take it or leave it.
A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the class play. She asks: “What’s the role?” The boy tells her he’s to play a Jewish husband. The mother frowns and tells him: “Go back and tell your teacher you want a speaking part.”
T-t-t-th-th-that’s all, folks!
Or nearly all. During the week of July 13-19, the movie I wrote and co-produced, “Angels on Tap,” starring Ed Asner, Jamie Farr, Marion Ross, Ron Mazak and Alan Rachins, will be showing at an LA screening room. If you’re going to be in LA and think you’d be interested in seeing a comedy about a bunch of disgruntled angels, write to me at [email protected] and I’ll provide details.