Actor Peter Lorre, the Carpathian mountain boy who became a professional ogre, sleepy-voiced comedian, and bon vivant, died Monday of an apparent stroke in his tiny Hollywood apartment.
The 59-year-old stocky actor with the bulging eyes succumbed about 10 a.m., according to his physician, Dr. Joe Golenternak, a half hour after a scheduled divorce hearing for his estranged wife, the former Anna Marie Stoldt, 37.
Superior Judge Burnett Wolfson postponed the hearing at the last minute until April 6 when informed by attorneys that the Lorres had not completed a property settlement.
Lester Salkow, Lorre’s agent, said the veteran actor, dressed in night clothes, was found lying beside his bed in his apartment at 7655 Hollywood Blvd. by his maid, Beatrice Lane, when she arrived there about noon for her daily chores.
The maid immediately called Dr. Golenternak. He arrived 15 minutes later and pronounced Lorre dead.
“Peter had not been feeling too well for a couple of days,” said Salkow.
Mrs. Lorre, of 201 N. Oakhurst Dr., Beverly Hills, a former publicity agent, was called to the apartment. She left shortly before Lorre’s body was taken to Pierce Bros. Mortuary, Hollywood, to inform the couple’s only child, Kathryn, 10, of her father’s death.
Services will be conducted Thursday at 1 p.m. at Pierce Bros. Burial arrangements have not been completed.
Actor Vincent Price, who made his last five movies, most of them horror tales, with Lorre called his death a “tragedy.”
“I am just crushed,” Price said. “Peter was the most inventive actor I’ve ever known. He was a great scholar, an accomplished dramatic actor and a masterful comedian.
“Peter liked to make pictures which entertained people, not critics. He didn’t have any pretensions about conveying messages to the world.”
The cause of death was based on Lorre’s medical history. He had suffered from high blood pressure for years. In 1959, while on location in Spain, a doctor applied the medieval remedy of blood-letting by leeches to bring down the actor’s blood pressure during an attack.
Vilest of Villains
Lorre portrayed his film roles of villain, sleuth and maniac with suave understatement in tones tinged with the accents of his native Hungary.
He was the vilest of villains on screen: the little man of gigantic crimes.
In 1949 the British Broadcasting Corp., advised parents to send their children to bed before Lorre’s image appeared on their television screens in a horror role.
“Mr. Lorre will be seen contorting his face in close-up and we fear that children watching the performance in a darkened room would find it too alarming,” the BBC said.
Speaking figuratively to a reporter, Lorre once said of his horror roles: “You know I can get away with murder. The audience loves me.”
But he wasn’t always the bad guy. For years he portrayed “Mr. Moto” the inscrutable—and invincible—Japanese detective.
Often Played for Laughs
“If I had wanted to remain one character,” he once said, “I could still be playing Mr. Moto.”
Lorre’s villainous characterizations were often played for laughs. His last film was a Jerry Lewis comedy, “The Patsy.”
Director John Huston once described Lorre as one of the finest actors in Hollywood.
“He was so good as a menace that the movie moguls tended to waste him in horror films,” Huston said. “He could do anything well—except play romantic leads.”
Off screen, Lorre was a well-read raconteur who, during his prime, had a powerful thirst which he usually quenched at meetings of the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack.”
This highly informal organization, headed by the late Humphrey Bogart, usually met at the cocktail hour each evening. The meetings would sometimes last for days.
First Film Role
Lorre was born in the Hungarian village of Rosenberg and grew up in Vienna. At 17 he became stage-struck and ran away from home.
For 10 years the aspiring actor played bit parts in amateur productions. In 1931, Lorre obtained his first film role—the psychopathic child killer in the German film classic “M.”
The portrayal made him famous, and other roles followed. His first English-speaking film was the early Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which Lorre spoke the lines without understanding them.
Next came Hollywood and a distinguished 30-year career. He continued portraying psychopaths until Huston cast him in a quasi-comic role in the “The Maltese Falcon” with Bogart and the late Sidney Greenstreet.
Lorre and Greenstreet appeared in numerous films together, but later decided to end their collaboration.
“We broke up the team ourselves,” Lorre said. “We didn’t want to become a dramatic Abbott and Costello.” Lorre usually began one film as soon as he ended one—without prolonged vacations between.
“For a lazy man I work awfully hard,” he said. “I couldn’t live without acting. In fact anybody who can live without that feeling is a complete idiot.”
Married Three Times
Lorre was married three times, first to Russian actress, Celia Lovsky, then to Karen Verne, a Viennese actress. He married his third wife in 1952.
Mrs. Lorre filed for divorce last October, accusing the actor of cruelty. Lorre, his wife charged in her divorce complaint was “utterly irresponsible. He rarely earned less that $70,000 a year, all of which he irresponsibly wasted and squandered.”