He was a man who was full of stories and full of life. That’s how “St. Elsewhere” showrunner Tom Fontana remembered his dear friend Norman Lloyd, the legendary actor who died Tuesday at the age of 106.
Lloyd, who died at his home in Los Angeles, was a raconteur who loved to regale listeners with amusing anecdotes about his decades in the industry. For years, whenever Fontana would visit Los Angeles, he made a point of having dinner with his former star.
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“He was one of the great storytellers I’ve ever known,” Fontana told Variety. “He just had great stories about Chaplin and (Orson) Welles and Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton. He worked with everybody.”
Lloyd was a cornerstone of “St. Elsewhere” in the role of the wise physician Dr. Donald Auschlander, who battled cancer from the 1982 pilot episode on. Originally, the character was to have died in episode six of Season 1, but Lloyd proved so good in the role and became such an integral part of the MTM Productions show that producers could not let him go. He remained with the series for its six-season run that ended in 1988.
“He had enormous spunk,” Fontana said. “He knew how to reserve his energy. When the director said ‘action’ he was ready to go. And whatever he did, he’d give it the old Norman twist that made what we’d written better for his performance.”
Working with Lloyd was a gift for the show’s writers and producers. “St. Elsewhere,” which followed the lives of staffers at a run-down hospital in Boston, was a major departure in dramatic storytelling for its day. Lloyd’s endorsement of their unconventional approach spoke volumes to the rest of the ensemble cast, which included William Daniels, Ed Flanders, Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, Ed Begley Jr., Christina Pickles and David Morse.
“He was completely open to any new adventure. Here’s a guy who had worked with Hitchcock and Welles and yet here he was with us doing this crazy show and breaking all the rules,” Fontana recalled. “He totally embraced it. He was the biggest cheerleader for the writers. He was totally game for the serious stuff and the crazy funny stuff.”
In one memorable scene in the final season, Lloyd’s character flies around the hospital in a Superman-esque costume dreaming of saving the place from a wrecking ball. He was in his mid-70s by that time, “but as you can imagine, he was ready to get in that harness” to achieve the flying effect, Fontana recalled.
Lloyd’s presence on set had a way of keeping everyone at the top of their game. When it was time to work, the actor whose career began in the 1920s was the consummate pro.
“There was always a sense of when he came to the set he was there to work even though he was playful. He wanted everybody else to know their lines and hit their marks,” Fontana said.
Fontana often brought other friends along to his dinners with Lloyd, as a means of “sharing the joy of knowing Norman.” After Lloyd’s wife, actor Peggy Lloyd, died in 2011 at the age of 98, Fontana recalled a dinner in which Lloyd spent most of the time flirting shamelessly with an actress.
“He was so charming. He still had the magic,” Fontana said. At one of their last meetings, Lloyd was energized by having recently completed a role in the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck.”
“He was so excited that he was still acting,” Fontana said. The last time Fontana saw Lloyd in 2019, his hearing had deteriorated but he was otherwise sharp and funny as ever. Lloyd’s attitude toward his advancing years was summed up for Fontana by a joke he once shared about his love of tennis.
When Fontana asked Lloyd how he managed to keep playing into his mid-90s, Lloyd replied, “I’m No. 1 in my age group.”
(Pictured: Norman Lloyd as Dr. Daniel Auschlander in “St. Elsewhere”)
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