Lloyd Nolan, the Actor’s Actor, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Nolan, whose dramatic skills enabled him to overcome the secondary gangster and tough cop roles he was given in minor Hollywood sagas of the 1930s and ‘40s and go on to become Broadway’s and television’s sympathetically despicable Capt. Queeg, died Friday at his home in Brentwood.

He was 83 and had been battling lung cancer.

Nolan was to both critics and audiences the veteran actor who works often and well regardless of his material. From his film debut in the long-forgotten “Stolen Harmony” in 1934 to his warm portrayal of the neighborhood cop in 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Nolan came to symbolize the journeyman artist plying his trade.

Co-Star of ‘Julia’

The actor who was generally credited with “A” performances in a decade-long series of “B” films became so good, in fact, that he permitted himself the luxury of turning down work, a privilege that ordinarily falls to far better known stars.


He was lured out of “retirement” many times, perhaps most notably when he agreed to become the white co-star of television’s first black-oriented vehicle “Julia.” From 1968 to 1971 he was Dr. Morton Chegley, playing almost a secondary role to his nurse, black actress Diahann Carroll.

But he said in a 1968 Times interview that the script was as equally appealing as the racial motif, adding that the black-white angle “has been overstated.”

“After we were 10 minutes into the filming of the pilot I forgot she was colored.”

Ironically, it was to TV that he owed his most singular honor. For despite the dozens of film credits he had acquired at his death, he won but one national accolade--a 1955 Emmy for his now firmly established portrayal of the crazed Philip Queeg in a television adaptation of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.”

But all this was years later--years after his dramatic studies in the late 1920s at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he kept one eye peeled toward Gower Gulch in Hollywood, where pictures were being made for little more reason than they could now make noise while the other was on Broadway, where he soon was to find work, not as an actor but as a chorus boy.

Nolan had attended Santa Clara Preparatory School and Stanford University when he came south to study in Pasadena. The brash, nasal lilt to his voice convinced three generations of film and playgoers that he must have evolved from some Brooklyn playground. But in fact he was born in San Francisco, the son of James Nolan, a shoe manufacturer, and Margaret Nolan, who told him of her own frustrated theatrical ambitions.

Tan Brought Him Part

He left Stanford in his senior year to study Shakespeare and Ibsen in Pasadena and then joined a touring company of “The Front Page.” Nolan ended up in New England, where he took a nighttime job as a stagehand on Cape Cod while awaiting a role that might get him back in front of the curtain.


That opportunity came, he recalled, because he was spending most of his days on the beach.

The resultant tan brought him the role of a pirate in “Cape Cod Follies,” which eventually went to Broadway with Nolan in the chorus.

He toured briefly in a series of unremarkable plays before returning to New York in 1931 as an office boy in “Sweet Stranger.” He said the only memorable thing about the show was that he and an actress named Mell Efird “were in the first and third acts of the show. That give us the whole second act for romance.”

They married in 1933, the same year he became a critics’ favorite as Biff Grimes in “One Sunday Afternoon,” a pleasant comedy about a dentist who fears he has married the wrong woman. The play, which ran for 322 performances, was made into a film three times (with Gary Cooper, James Cagney and Dennis Morgan) but, as Nolan observed in 1957, “never with me in it.”

Got Film Contract

It was a mark of Nolan’s professional placidity that he smiled as he made the comment.

“Sunday” was a hit but the two New York shows that followed (“Ragged Army” and “Gentlewoman”) were not, and Nolan came back to Los Angeles with a Paramount Pictures contract in hand.

From 1934 to 1954 he appeared in about 70 films, but only a few are remembered today: “Michael Shane: Private Detective,” “Johnny Apollo” and during the war “Bataan” and “Guadalcanal Diary.” The rest found him as a gangster, a prisoner or as the guy wearing the black hat in a series of Westerns.

He was making $50,000 a film and living well within his means. He owned a working ranch near Camarillo, apartment houses in Beverly Hills and lived comfortably in Brentwood with his wife and two children. Then in 1945 he was offered two responsive film roles: the FBI agent in the pseudo-documentary spy drama “The House on 92nd Street” and the Irish cop who brings love and stability to a family after the death of the drunken father in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”


With these interpretations he became more than a character actor. He was now an actor with individual character.

Spell of Bad Films

His early contract to Paramount had run its course, and he now was working for most of the major film studios. Unfortunately for Nolan, they still were not all major films.

“Captain Eddie,” “Bad Boy” and “The Sun Comes Up” were all that the titles imply while “The Street With No Name” was seen by critics as a mundane and repetitive attempt at the documentary realism that made “The House on 92nd Street” a success.

“The Lemon Drop Kid,” a 1951 Bob Hope picture in which Nolan portrayed a Runyonesque hood, was one of the brighter spots in his film career during those days. But a year earlier he had returned to the stage in the Theatre Guild’s comedy “The Silver Whistle,” a whimsical drama set in an old folks’ home. Paul Gregory, the producer who was dramatizing Herman Wouk’s novel about the rebellion of a band of officers aboard a Navy mine sweeper during World War II, saw him and cast him as Queeg, the play’s anti-hero.

The “Caine” drama wended from California to New York, where drama critic Brooks Atkinson found “Nolan’s portrait of fear, desperation and panic a stunning piece of work.”

Another drama dean, Walter Kerr, pointed out that Nolan “has tried to salvage nothing of himself, nothing of his prior work” in which moviegoers had known him only as a “pleasant but casual acquaintance.”


Felt Personally Responsible

The normally modest Nolan, who once said the other “Caine Mutiny” actors (including Henry Fonda) “were doing my acting for me,” this time said he felt personally responsible for his triumph as the crazed Navy captain.

In the original script, he said in a 1962 interview, Queeg was to have been portrayed as haughty and self-righteous even as the curtain dropped. Nolan decided that Queeg should gradually fall apart while being cross-examined at the court martial. It was the gradual disintegration of his testimony during the play’s third act that stole the show. Kerr said that although Nolan’s “character is wildly out of control, the actor continues to shape--and make meaningful--all his exhausting effects.”

Nolan won the New York Drama Critics Award as the outstanding actor of the 1953-54 season but when it came time to put Queeg’s insanity on film in 1954 it was Humphrey Bogart who was given the coveted part.

Meantime, Nolan had gone from Broadway stardom back to Hollywood mediocrity and was earning his $50,000 per picture, three pictures a year, in “The Last Hunt,” “Abandon Ship” and one fairly fulfilling (he said) film, “Toward the Unknown,” in which he and William Holden played Air Force pilots on the fringes of space.

In 1957 he was chosen with Lana Turner, Arthur Kennedy and Hope Lange to bring Grace Metalious’ scandalous novel “Peyton Place” to the screen, and again critics found his performance generally superior to the script. In the early 1960s he did “Susan Slade,” “Never Too Late” and “Ice Station Zebra.” He ended the decade with “Airport,” a hair-raising melodrama with an all-star cast in which a bomb-damaged plane is talked to the ground.

In 1972 Nolan finally revealed a tragic secret he had carried with him for years. His son, Jay, who died in 1969, had been diagnosed as autistic--one of the first children in the United States known to be afflicted with the little-understood malady.


Nolan, encouraged by other parents who shared the emotional trauma of raising children whose minds were agile and inquisitive but who were the victims of their emotions, told how he and Mell thought at first that their son was deaf because he would not respond to those around him. Then as he grew they waited for him to speak.

Consulted Dr. Spock

“Mell was always saying, ‘He’ll talk tomorrow,’ ” Nolan told The Times in 1973. “But he never did.”

Nolan recalled how the boy would hum to music and “we got a piano and he took lessons . . . but then he lost interest.”

The Nolans even consulted Benjamin Spock, the famed baby doctor.

Nolan quoted Spock as saying: “He’s probably brilliant but he won’t let you know it.”

In 1956, when Nolan was at his peak as an actor in “Caine Mutiny,” he and his wife had to accept the defeat they had battled. They placed him in a special school where he died 13 years later. Much of Nolan’s later earnings went to establish a Jay Nolan Autistic Center in Saugus.

What Nolan described as a “perfect marriage” survived the strain of the child and ended only with his wife’s death in 1981. He remarried in 1983 and is survived by his second wife, Virginia, a daughter and two grandchildren.

Back in 1945, when Nolan was portraying another detective in yet another routine melodrama (“Time for Two”), a visitor to the set asked why Nolan sat quietly on a seat while his fellow actors, Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, clowned around.


“Doesn’t he have any temperament?” the visitor asked.

“No temperament?,” said director Jules Dassin. “Why he’s the most temperamental actor in Hollywood. He’s an actor’s actor, a complete master of his art. But he doesn’t waste his temperament throwing fits. He puts it into his work.”