Orson Welles’ World, and We’re Just Living in It: A Conversation with Norman Lloyd

by Ryan Lattanzio

Near-centenarian Norman Lloyd‘s career has spanned over eight decades in film, television and theater.  He has worked with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock—for whom he produced and directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents—Elia Kazan, Joseph Cotton, Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin and, perhaps most notably of all, Orson Welles. 

Norman Lloyd. Photo by Jay L. Clendenin.

Norman Lloyd. Photo by Jay L. Clendenin.

In tandem with the Stanford Repertory Theatre‘s current revival of Orson’s stage and film work, I met with Lloyd at his home on a quaint, rural street in Los Angeles—perhaps one of the only quaint, rural streets I’ve encountered in the city—where the warm, erudite man shared stories of his early encounters with Orson Welles, for whom he starred in various Mercury Theatre productions in the mid-1930s. “He was a total talent,” Lloyd says of Welles, who, when he last saw Lloyd at the Directors Guild Theater of America Theater in the early 1980s, shook his hand and whispered in his ear, “You son of a bitch.”


Q: Norman, you’ve lived many lives, but how did you begin working in theater?

A: It was 1932 down at the Pacific Repertory Theatre in New York. I was an apprentice. That turned out to be their last season. Then in 1935 I made my first appearance on Broadway in a beautiful play called Noah , with one of the great French actors of the time Pierre Fernoux, who played Noah. There, I played his son. I was 17 when I went into Eva Le Gallienne’s theater and when I went finally, about two or three years later, I was 19-20 when I did Noah .

In the course of that time we were booked into a theater in Boston. We were doing several of our plays there and in one of the plays, a young director out of Dartmouth who was just starting named Joseph Losey saw this play in which I was appearing.

Q: Joseph Losey, the film director?

A: Then he hadn’t started yet but now he is considered one of the important ones. Later on, at the end of his career, he teamed up with Harold Pinter and did a few Pinter plays. At this point, Losey was just beginning to direct, and he was directing a play with the Harvard Dramatic Club, even though he was a Dartmouth graduate, and they couldn’t cast the lead. It was too complicated a part for anyone in the Harvard Dramatic Club to perform so he saw me in this play and asked me to be in it. And that started a theater relationship with Losey of acting in four plays for him.

Now these plays were all on the Federal Theatre; Losey got me onto the Federal Theater which, historically, remains one of the great theaters of all time. This was a time of great ferment in the American theater. Wonderful stuff. The Group Theatre, The Federal Theatre, we have nothing like it today. The 1930s were tremendous.

At that point, John Houseman and Orson Welles were also on the Federal Theatre, so they asked me to join them, and I did, at their Mercury Theater, which started in 1937. I left after one full season. I did two plays: Julius Caesar, which was the first play, and Orson’s arrival—he turned New York on its ear with that production—and The Shoemaker’s Holiday. I left and went my way, though when I left, he did ask me when I was coming back into his company. But then he got an offer to make a picture at RKO.

heart of darkness poster

Q: Heart of Darkness?

A: Exactly. So he united both companies—the theater company, and the radio company—and he brought this mass of actors out to California to do Heart of Darkness , and we were here six weeks when the studio gave its final decision that they were not going to make it.

Q: This is a difficult text to adapt.

A: He had adapted it. People think it had never been adapted, but there was a script, I remember it. He was the camera going up the river. Maybe he was going to turn up as Kurtz. So we were there for six weeks and Orson gathered the companies in his office to inform us that they refused to make the picture. But he asked the companies to stay while he put together another deal. And the deal he wanted to put together was a book called The Smiler With The Knife , by Nicholas Blake, which was the nom-de-plume of Cecil Day-Lewis, who was the father of Daniel Day-Lewis. Cecil Day-Lewis was the foremost poet in England—though there was certainly Spender, Auden and Isherwood and all.

So Orson asked the company to stay. I was out there at that time with my wife and after about three days I said, “You know, we’re not being paid for this. He’s trying to put this deal together. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We should go back to New York.” So we did.

Q: Did any actors stay with Orson, and why?

A: One of the actors at the time called me and said, “We shouldn’t stay. We’re not being paid. We should go back to New York.” I said, “You’re right.” So we went back to New York, and that actor stayed, and he remained to be in Citizen Kane. It was a Machiavellian plot to get me out of the way so that he might get the part.

Q: I’d like to know about your first impressions of Welles. What did this unpaid troupe of actors think of him, and why were they so loyal?

A: Working with him was always exciting. I think he was the greatest directorial talent we’ve ever had in the theater. In films, he is among the greatest. There were a few other good guys, like Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Charlie Chaplin, the ultimate genius of films. You can’t say that Orson was the greatest talent. Although, you know that Welles gave Chaplin the idea for Monsieur Verdoux .

Q: Yes, Chaplin bought the idea from Welles, with whom he didn’t want to work, and rewrote most of the film at the behest of Welles, who at that time needed the money. So what was so special about Welles in the theater?

A: We had, in America, very good craftsmen. Guys who knew how to stage plays very well. Every line was properly projected, every laugh was obtained, it was just completely professional. We had not had, until Orson, a director who totally encompassed you as audience in a totality of production, which Europe had had in Max Reinhardt and Stanislavsky and his people. When you saw a Welles production, you saw the text had been affected, the staging was remarkable, the sets were unusual, music, sound, lighting, a totality of everything. We had not had such a man in our theater. He was the first and remains the greatest. Orson came from a visual and sonic perspective. When he put all those things together, you as audience in the theater were encompassed, and thrilled, and taken in by what you saw.

Q: Welles’ 1937 Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, in which you played Cinna the Poet, shocked New York theatergoers. Why?

A: It was very interesting. It was modern dress. Orson had the brick walls of the theater all painted blood red, and the set was open wall-to-wall in the theater. On the stage itself was a series of risers, and one had squares cut in it and lights put in the squares that shot straight up. They were known as the Nuremberg lights because they were an imitation of the lights Hitler used at the Nuremberg Conference, a famous 1934 visual conference done by Leni Riefenstahl.

julius caesar_nuremberg lights
He then cut the script so it was streamlined. He staged it like a political melodrama that happened the night before. We come to a scene which, many people feel, and I know it’s immodest of me to say, was the fulcrum of the show. Cinna the Poet, who has only eight lines in the original Shakespeare, had a scene in which he is walking along the street and citizens accost him.

So Orson asked me to play the Poet, and I remember our sitting in the theater, just the two of us, talking about what we would do with this character and Orson had the idea that the guy had a beret, a smock that an “artiste” from Paris wore, and a generally arty look. I saw something else: I saw an immaculate, modest fellow in a plain blue suit with a stiff collar and tie, and that was it.

In 1937, Hitler was in power and the Germans were killing people on the street. If your name was Jewish, you were gone. I wanted that, so I said to Orson, “This is just a guy who gives the wrong name, his name,” and I concocted a whole plot, which Orson aided and abetted brilliantly. I had the character thinking when people approached him that they wanted to buy his poems, and as a result of that he gets killed. When we first started to rehearse it, I walked up this ramp, and we didn’t know where we were going with the scene, but I had stuffed in my pockets all these poems and Orson had from either side of the stage this crowd moving like a scissors in on this solo figure. And he thinks it’s because of his popularity as a poet.


Q: What did Orson bring to this moment?

A: What Orson brought in was the movement of that crowd. I suddenly realize that I am in danger, and I decide to move faster away. I remember distinctly Orson saying, “Grab the poems. Throw them at him. Hit him with the poems.” So he staged this in a most threatening and brilliant way until finally they surround me and kill me, which they do sort of crushing in on me. This was the most immediate scene to the audience because they understood immediately what was happening in the world and they understood what the play was about actually. Because it was done as an anti-fascist play. Everything had an immediacy, it was of today, now. This was a play just written yesterday. And that scene dramatized it to its fullest extent.

When we did the first preview it was a disaster, and then Orson recognized what was wrong. He made the show move faster and cleaner by taking out a lot of effects. And it was an extraordinary scene; I don’t know if I’ve conveyed any of it to you but it gripped the audience in a way that the show stopped for about three minutes. The audience stopped it with applause. It showed the audience what fascism was; rather than an intellectual approach, you saw a physical one.

Q: Why did Welles have a particularly fondness for Shakespeare?

A: Well, where are you going to get better theater?

Q: What was he like as a person?

A: He was very amusing, full of laughter, full of venom. Now I don’t mean serious venom. He and John Houseman used to scream at each other. We, the actors, would sit and read the newspaper and wait for it to be over. Sometimes he screamed at actors. He pretended it was serious, but you knew it wasn’t. He had a sense of fun about theater, and he, himself, participated. For example, in Shoemaker’s Holiday, there was an actress named Marion Waring-Manley. She weighed 300 pounds and Orson nicknamed her Marion Whoring Boring Manley because he always had a sense of fun at rehearsals except when they went for 24 hours and kept the company up without letting them eat. But Marion Whoring Boring Manley used to have an entrance with Joe Cotten and myself down a ramp. She, in her Elizabethan costume, was given to chewing Dentyne gum.

Q: I don’t take Orson Welles for a gum chewer.

A: He didn’t say anything. We come up to make this entrance. She takes the gum and slaps it on the back of the set, and we go on with the scene and after awhile, this gum piles up on the back of the set. Disgusting. So Joe Cotten and I make it known to Marion Whoring Boring Manley that unless she stops with the gum she’ll never get along in the show. Every last line she had we were going to sweep like mad on this ground cloth, which was made of rope, so we did. And the noise it made, the audience couldn’t hear the laugh-line. We said, “We’ll stop if you stop the gum.” She didn’t, so she finally talked to Orson. She said, “He’s got to discipline the actors.” So Orson came down to discipline the actors. We go down, stage right, and suddenly we be splashed with booze. We just smelled of liquor. It was Orson in the wings with a bottle of Ballantine’s. He’d take the booze and he’d throw it on you so you’d scoot to the other side of the stage, where he’d appear and throw booze on you there. This was the discipline. He had fun.

Q: Was he arrogant?

A: He thought well of himself. He had a great ego. He was full of laughter all the time. He had a stylized laugh. There was an Orson laugh. He was gargantuan. Even at the Mercury when he was in his slim stage, he was big. He had a great sense of humor. It was nothing for him to eat during rehearsal while he kept the actors from eating.

Q: And in the theater, he could have complete creative control, which is hard to do with a studio. As we saw with Heart of Darkness.

A: Yes. For example, Robert Wise, who cut Citizen Kane , finished shooting The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles never finished it. There is criticism of what Wise did. There are people who think there are passages of greater aesthetic value than Kane. But he never finished it. John Houseman, who knew him better than anybody, said this was a failing of Orson of not finishing things.

Q: Why?

A: This is in the very nature of the man. He finished Kane all right, but Ambersons ? Unfinished work. Too Much Johnson ? Unfinished. Either he got bored or he felt he had made a mistake. It was in the nature of the beast. Then there was a picture he made with Jeanne Moreau. She would have been good with Orson. They probably had an affair.

Q: Really?

A: It’s a natural. He was one of a kind. We haven’t seen his like since. He was a total talent.

In World War II, a great meeting was called in New York at Carnegie Hall—it seats about 2,000—for the opening of the Second Front. It was packed to the rafters, and various celebrities were called upon to speak, and early on, right up front, Orson appears. Everyone appearing is appearing for the Second Front. Orson makes a speech, the content of which is, “I am not for the second front.” The 2,000 people are startled. What the hell is he talking about? He was afraid of being dubbed a red? He said, “I’m not for the Second Front. They’re doing what they have to do and we shouldn’t interfere.” And he goes off. Behind him comes Charlie Chaplin. He comes out, he looks at the audience, and he says “Comrades!” The place went crazy. It was like throwing cold water over the audience.

Q: Or throwing liquor on your actors.

A: It showed up Orson as having been opportunistic, whatever he was, he didn’t really fulfill what the meeting was about. The meeting was about a Second Front. What the hell was he doing there if he wasn’t for the Second Front? Who the hell cared if he was not for it? This adversity, I always thought, and I am absolutely an admirer of Orson’s, and I always thought that incident was positively shocking and it did not become him. It was not worthy of his stature. There was something in Orson that did that.

John Houseman said that Orson always felt, when he went to sleep at night, that he would never wake up again. He never made real money. Whatever he’d get, he’d put in pictures. But he was a great catch for the theater. If he opened a show, you wanted to go and see it.




Ryan Lattanzio has written film reviews for myriad publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian and is a staff critic for Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood.  He lives in LA.  Follow him on Twitter.

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