Wed 1 Feb 2017
by Francis M. Nevins
If you looked for a January column and couldn’t find one, the reason is very simple. There wasn’t any.
Early in the morning of the day before Christmas I went into the hospital for something relatively minor and was told that I had suffered a silent heart attack and needed bypass surgery. As you can imagine, the news hit me like a ton of bricks. The operation was performed on January 3. I was told afterwards that I came very close to death. I was discharged from the hospital on the 16th of the month and since then have been recuperating at home. I’m getting stronger by the day but am still nowhere near 100%.
Before my medical adventures began I had written much of what I thought would be my January column. A month later, here it is.
It was more than half a century ago, either 1962 or 1963, an early Sunday morning around 1:00 or 1:30 A.M. I returned home from a date with the first love of my life to find my brothers still up and the TV tuned to the Late Show, or maybe the Late Late Show. The movie looked interesting so I sat down to watch the last 20 minutes. It was about a Nazi spy ring based in a Manhattan skyscraper.
The spies are holding a young woman prisoner but she manages to get a message out. Feds raid the building. A couple of spies escape into a nearby movie theater. The gun battle with the Feds coincides with a gun battle on the screen. An unlucky moviegoer falls over dead. One spy gets out and into a cab and heads for the Battery, followed by the hero whom I recognized as Robert Cummings.
They both wind up at the Statue of Liberty. The spy tries to escape again, crawls out onto one of the statue’s arms. Cummings reaches for him, grabs his coat sleeve. The spy starts to fall as Cummings tries to haul him in to safety. Then we get a close-up of the stitches at the shoulder of the spy’s jacket starting to give way. An unearthly scream. The End.
Recognize the picture? It’s Hitchcock’s Saboteur, made in 1942, back when I was busy being a fetus, roughly twenty years before I caught the end of it on the small screen. Remember the name of the man who played the spy? It was a Broadway actor 27 or 28 years old named Norman Lloyd.
Now let’s time-travel in both directions at once, forward ten years or so from when Hitchcock made that movie, back a decade or so from when I watched its climax. The year was 1952, or maybe ’53. My parents had recently bought their first TV set and already I was an addict. One Sunday afternoon I happened to be watching the cultural program Omnibus, which was running a made-for-TV movie in five (I think) weekly installments.
The title was Mr. Lincoln. The voice of the actor playing young Abe was one of the most distinctive I’ve heard in my life: biblical, prophetic, patriarchal. At the end credits I learned his name: Royal Dano. An unusual name, easy to remember. (Trivia question: Anyone know who played Ann Rutledge? It was Joanne Woodward.) I don’t remember noticing who directed the film and the name wouldn’t have meant anything to me at age 9 but, as if you haven’t guessed, it was Norman Lloyd. A cut version is now available on DVD.
Lloyd was born in 1914, when my parents were small children. His career began in the early 1930s with the left-wing Group Theater. Later he joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater and went to Hollywood with the company but returned to New York when the movie Welles was planning got cancelled. Had he stayed awhile longer, he would have had a part in Citizen Kane. As it was, his film debut was in Saboteur, and later he appeared in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).
His first television role was in one of the earliest TV dramas ever broadcast, an experimental program that dates back to 1939. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he served as associate producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65). He also directed several episodes, usually based on short stories by John Collier, Ray Bradbury, Stanley Ellin, or literary figures like John Cheever and Philip Roth. But he never stopped being an actor, and among today’s audiences he’s perhaps best known for his role as Dr. Auschlander in St. Elsewhere (1982-88) and for playing opposite Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989).
I bet you thought I’d next give you the year of his death. I can’t. He’s still alive today. At age 102 he’s the oldest working actor in the U.S. and probably in the world. For 75 years he was married to the same woman, who died in 2011, the same year my own wife died. Until recently he played tennis, the game which was his passion for generations. In the 1950s he played regularly with Charlie Chaplin and usually beat him, mainly because Chaplin was too vain to wear his glasses and often lost sight of the ball. His memory remains sharp as ever, and the Internet is full of reminiscences of him by himself and others. If ever there was a person with an awesomely long life and creative career, it’s Norman Lloyd. In the first months of this new year, let’s celebrate him.
I can’t guarantee a March column but my health is improving so nicely that it’s far more likely than not that there will be one. They may never see the column you’re now reading, but my deepest thanks to all the people — doctors, nurses, family, friends – who helped me through this crisis.