First things first: if you haven’t yet read my Random Roles interview with Norman Lloyd, then go read it right now…and, no, I’m not kidding. I’ve never felt more gratified by a piece I’ve done for the A.V. Club, and—hand on heart—I’ve never felt quite so moved while transcribing an interview. It truly is a must-read, which is why I don’t want this post to in any way undercut the interview proper. This is definitely just a (relatively) small bit that I set aside for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
While I was talking to Mr. Lloyd, I had a tendency to drift into moments of awe, as is only appropriate when someone is telling you their tales of working with Orson Welles, getting a career kick-start from Alfred Hitchcock, and watching Buster Keaton surreptitiously direct Charlie Chaplin, but as I was listening to the recording, I found myself getting a little emotional at the realization that I’m almost certainly never going to speak to anyone with a career as long and storied as that of Mr. Lloyd, who—as of this writing—is only a few days away from turning 101.
It’s because of this realization that, after I finished my transcription and realized that there were still a few moments from Lloyd’s career that I’d hoped to bring up but hadn’t managed to hit on, I decided that there really wasn’t anything preventing me from asking for a quick follow-up.
So I asked…and, boy, did I receive: I ended up chatting with him for another 30 minutes. Better yet, because of when it took place, the majority of the material from that second conversation actually ended up within Lloyd’s Random Roles piece. In fact, all but one role made the cut.
Why didn’t that particular role end up in the piece? Well, first of all, it would’ve added an additional 1,300 words to the piece, and it was already heading toward 9,000 words to begin with. More importantly, though, I just couldn’t find a spot to place it where it didn’t feel like it was dragging things down.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fascinating segment, particularly for film geeks. It’s just that I really like the way the piece flows as it stands right now, and this particular segment is—as you can tell from the word count, pretty freaking long, and the more I considered it, the more I thought it played better as its own entity, so that’s how I’ve decided to present it.
Oh, right, and one other thing: in this particular instance, Lloyd’s “role” had absolutely nothing to do with an acting performance. It was tied to his work as a director on the CBS series Omnibus. To be specific, it was about a five-episode production called Mr. Lincoln, starring Royal Dano as Abraham Lincoln. Actually, to be even more specific, it’s about one of the gentlemen who served as a second-unit director on the first of those five episodes.
Well, hell, let’s just put all the cards on table: it’s about Stanley Kubrick. But you already knew that from the title of this piece. What you don’t know, however, is what Kubrick did—or what he didn’t—that Lloyd wanted to make sure was clarified for history’s sake.
Confused enough yet? Read on. You’ll figure it all out soon enough.
A.V. Club: You directed a number of episodes of Omnibus, among them the five-part saga of Mr. Lincoln, on which Stanley Kubrick was—at least for the first installment, anyway—your second-unit director.
Norman Lloyd: Well, yeah, I mean, it didn’t come to anything. [Laughs.] But while I’ve got you on the phone, I have something that I’d like to talk about in that regard, about Kubrick. The piece was written by James Agee, it was produced by Richard de Rochemont, the brother of Louis de Rochemont, who started The March of Time, and our conversation may give me an opportunity to rectify something!
Now, when we made these pictures, there were five of them—five half-hours, about 34 minutes each—and I was put on as the director, I’m certain, because of James Agee. Because I knew Jim Agee, and I’d met him up at Chaplin’s. That’s Charlie Chaplin’s. [Laughs.] And I’m sure he recommended me for this job.
So we started shooting the first episode in New York, over on 10th Avenue, in a studio that belonged to one of the major studios. Maybe to Fox. Whatever it was, it was over on 10th Avenue. Now, as a consequence, after we shot that first one, the story called for Lincoln as a teenager—at maybe 17 or 18—to head for Indiana, and then he went to New Salem, where history really began. And we moved the entire production out to New Salem, Illinois, and did those remaining four pictures out there, on location, up until the point where he made his first entrance into politics. Actually, a village had been put together to reproduce the village as it was during Lincoln’s time.
Now, here’s the thing; Richard de Rochemont, who was a superb producer, said to me, “While you’re taking actors out there to work, we need some second-unit stuff done.” No scenes, really, but de Rochemont wanted shots of where Lincoln was born, the cabin he was born in, and all that area. That is to say, Kentucky. So de Rochemont suggested that I look at some film that this very young fellow named Stanley Kubrick, who was a photographer for Look Magazine, had made. And he said, “If you like what he’s shot—there’s a movie he made called Fear and Desire—then we’ll put him on to do the second-unit shooting of the cabins, people walking through the area where Lincoln had been born, and to show the very young baby Lincoln.” So I looked at this picture, Fear and Desire. I don’t want to speak ill of anyone, but I want to tell you that Stanley Kubrick tried to have the picture destroyed after he became a proper director. [Laughs.] This is true, what I tell you! The picture was in blank verse. Do I need to tell you anymore?
AVC: I don’t think so.
NL: Ah, but the camerawork was done by Stanley. And it was written by a guy named (Howard) Sackler who eventually wrote the Jack Johnson story. It was called The Great White Hope, and it was about a fighter. But I saw Fear and Desire, and I thought, “Well, the script is terrible.” And I’m not going to go into a judgment of that, but…he did operate the camera very well. He had an eye. It was clear that he had an eye. So I said to de Rochemont, “Hire him! Put him on!” I think Stanley was about 21. And he went on, and he shot the stuff around Kentucky, slaves going through in wagons and things of that nature, while I took the company with the written script and started to direct the rest of the show. Now, this is the thing which you can rectify in history.
AVC: I would be honored.
NL: Did you ever see the Lincoln films?
AVC: No, I have an Omnibus set, a best-of collection, but I don’t think they’re on that. I believe they released a collection that’s just those five episodes.
NL: Yes, they put together a version of them, and they’ve included one of the great sequences: the Lincoln funeral train. Now, de Rochemont, being a heads-up producer, had—before we ever shot any of the film—shot about 5,000 feet of film of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the train they had at the time of Lincoln’s death. He shot that under the direction of a very good documentarian called Palmer Williams.
When I came along, we were shooting script, and there was much more to shoot in regard to the train, particularly where I was doing the Walt Whitman poem, “When Lilac Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which Whitman wrote about Lincoln’s death. I recited the poem and I myself shot about another 5,000 feet on a branch line in Flemington, New Jersey, which included story and people. Palmer Williams’ work was just beautiful shots of the train, and then when I came on, we put people in the shots who were related to the story.
So that completed the train sequence of the movie, and the train turned out to be one of the most beautiful sequences you’ve ever seen. And it was edited by a guy named Maury Wiseman, who did a fantastic job of cutting the shots of the train moving through the Illinois fields slowly—chug, chug, chug—and my voice under it. It became an absolutely masterful and moving sequence. It’s a tremendous sequence.
Now, what I want to tell you is this. I just a moment ago recited to you that I agreed to Stanley Kubrick to be on as second-unit at the suggestion of de Rochemont, but he had absolutely nothing to do with this sequence. Zero! [Laughs.] But because in his lexicography—or whatever you call it—he had put in that he was a second-unit director on the Lincoln films, as a consequence of this, when the television company put out the Lincoln films as a package years after we shot it, they wrote about the greatness of this sequence…directed by Stanley Kubrick! They saw that he was second-unit, so they put that he directed it. He had zero to do with it! I have been trying to rectify this for years, to no avail.
AVC: I’ll make sure the word gets out at long last.
NL: You are the man who comes to the rescue…because I was intelligent enough to call you back! [Laughs.] But this is the true story I give you: that sequence was made by Palmer Williams, myself, and Maury Wiseman, the cutter. I mean, the way he put those trips of the train, the locomotive and the whole schmear is beautiful.
Now, Stanley… [Starts to laugh.] A couple of people from the company were sent down there to do a couple of shots that de Rochemont wanted, and Stanley was interviewed by the newspapers. And the actors all sent me clippings from the newspapers, and what was clear from the clippings was that Stanley was directing the picture! He made sure that that was the impression they got! So they sent me all this stuff, and I said, “Oh, well, the hell with it.” So we went on shooting the picture.
And they came off of the location and came back, and Stanley came back as well, and he was very personable, and we chatted and so on. And then he said, “Now, would you like me to stay around and work with you on this?” I said, “No, thank you, Stanley,” having seen the releases about how he’s directing the picture. So I let him go. But he was a good guy and a very fine talent and did wonderful work. I just want to straighten out that this sequence, the train, was not Stanley Kubrick! [Laughs.]