Who Is Norman Lloyd? is a fascinating documentary and a darn good question.
At 93, Lloyd is old enough to have played tennis daily with Charlie Chaplin and young enough at heart to have charmed Cameron Diaz in 2005's In Her Shoes.
Lloyd performed onstage with Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, made movies with a portly legend he still calls "Hitch," oversaw TV's St. Elsewhere and couldn't prevent the end of the world that George Clooney produced in a remake of Fail-Safe.
If Kevin Bacon can be connected to anyone in Hollywood in six degrees, Norman Lloyd could probably do it in four.
Who Is Norman Lloyd? is director Matthew Sussman's answer to that question, a brisk chronicle of an extraordinary Hollywood life. Lloyd will introduce the film at two screenings, today (5:15 p.m.) and Friday (7:15), and probably top it during after-show discussions of places he has been and celebrities he has known.
"It is true that this business is based on relationships," Lloyd said Monday from his Los Angeles home. "I'm very proud of the people with whom I've worked. It's an amazing collection that just by happenstance happened. Chaplin, Hitchcock, (Jean) Renoir, Welles, even in more modern times Scorsese.
"Am I lucky or good? I would say both, because as the great baseball owner Branch Rickey said: 'The residue of luck is a plan.' "
Pick any famous name and Lloyd can spin an astounding true story. For our brief conversation, I chose Chaplin, which led him to these memories:
"Charlie and I would play tennis four times a week, especially in the summers. I can still see him saying to me one day: 'If you ever want to do (a film project), let me know and I'm in for half (of the financing).' "
Lloyd had just the project in mind, a movie based on Horace McCoy's novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, spun around Depression-era dance marathons where desperate souls struggled to survive.
"Charlie knew about marathons from A to Z," Lloyd said. "He would pretend he knew nothing about them, but he was a magnificent smokescreen. He pretended not to know much about them until we got talking, then he knew everything about them."
Lloyd purchased the rights from McCoy for $3,000. Chaplin wanted to produce the movie in the early 1950s, with Lloyd directing. It was to be a starring vehicle for Chaplin's son Sydney and a newcomer named Marilyn Monroe, who was having an affair with both Sydney and his brother Charlie Jr., according to Lloyd.
While the deal came together, Chaplin took his family on a European trip. During the vacation, Chaplin learned that he wouldn't be allowed back into the United States unless he faced a Mann Act charge related to a previous lover, compounded by accusations of Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era.
"Charlie said he would never make another movie in America. And he never did."
Sixteen years later, McCoy died and the rights reverted to his survivors, who refused to renew the deal with Lloyd since nothing had been accomplished. The project eventually fell into the hands of director Sydney Pollack, whose 1969 version starred Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in the roles Monroe and Sydney Chaplin would have played.
As often happens with Lloyd's anecdotes, the story twists into itself with another layer of Hollywood serendipity:
"There was a bookstore with an owner I knew quite well," Lloyd said. "He told me about a girl who always came in to buy books by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, saying I should meet her. I told him: 'I don't want to meet that kind of girl.' "
"He insisted and gave me her phone number, writing down the name 'Marilyn Monroe.' I'm here to tell you — and this may be the most important information for your interview — I never called her."
Steve Persall can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.