A Thoughtful and Deliberate Actor: Lloyd Nolan
With appearances in nearly 100 films, most of which are scarcely remembered today, Lloyd Nolan was known as the actor who gave “A” performances in “B” films. However, the respected character actor was not only seen in such notable features as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Peyton Place (1957), he also appeared in the popular, groundbreaking television series, Julia, and won an Emmy for his portrayal of Captain Queeg in the televised drama, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Still, the actor’s energies were not strictly focused on his prolific career; late in his life, the father of two turned a secret family tragedy into outspoken advocacy after revealing that his son was one of the nation’s first children to be diagnosed with autism.
Unlike most noir actors, Nolan rarely played the heavy; he holds the distinction, in fact, of being the only actor from the period to portray an officer of the law in each of his noir appearances. But although he played a smart, unyielding, and dogged cop in three of his films noirs – The House on 92nd Street (1945), Somewhere in the Night (1946), and The Street with No Name (1948) – in the fourth, Lady in the Lake (1947), Nolan offered a memorable portrait of a deadly detective that was a dramatic departure from his more upstanding noir roles.
Once labeled “Hollywood’s most popular forgotten man,” Lloyd Benedict Nolan was born in San Francisco, California, on August 11, 1902, the son of a shoe manufacturer. The great San Francisco earthquake hit the city when Nolan was just four years old – “At that age, I thought it was fun,” he once recalled.
After five years at Santa Clara Preparatory School, Nolan enrolled at Stanford University, where he appeared in his first production, The Hottentot. According to most accounts, Nolan was more focused on college dramatics than he was on his school work – he eventually left Stanford and signed on with the Pasadena Playhouse, appearing during the next year alongside such seasoned performers as Victory Jory and Helen Brooks, then joined the road company of The Front Page for a 32-week engagement in Chicago. During the next few years, the actor honed his craft, from working as a stagehand at the Dennis Theater in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to appearing in stock productions in Cleveland with Helen Hayes and Pat O’Brien. He was also in the Broadway production of a drama entitled Sweet Stranger. While playing an office boy in this production, Nolan fell in love with Mary Mell Elfird, who portrayed a stenographer in the play.
“Mell and I were in the first and third acts of that show,” Nolan once said, “and it gave us the second act to romance in.” Nolan and Mell married two years later and went on to have a daughter, Mellinda Joyce, in November 1940, and a son, Jay Benedict, in 1943. The couple remained together for 47 years, until Mell’s 1981 death from cancer.
Meanwhile, after the close of Sweet Stranger, Nolan landed a role as a small-town bully in the long-running Broadway production of One Sunday Afternoon, but this success was followed by roles in such short-lived shows as Raggedy Army, which closed after two days; Gentlewoman, which lasted two weeks; and The Third Americana Revue, notable only for introducing the hit song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Finally, Nolan turned his sights to the west.
“I decided, what the hell, I had to eat, so I went to Hollywood,” Nolan later recalled.
Armed with his reputation from One Sunday Afternoon as “a rough guy no doll could resist,” the actor was quickly tapped by Warner Bros. in 1934 to play a gangster for a role in an upcoming film, Outrage. As luck would have it, however, the Production Code had just come into effect, which outlined a variety of restrictions on what could be shown on film. Among other items, explicit limits were set on the length and manner of kisses, no explicit violence or sexuality was allowed, criminals had to be punished, and religion and the church could not be criticized. Nolan’s would-be film debut was promptly cancelled – one can only guess what shocking elements the plot must have contained.
Instead, Nolan signed a contract with Paramount Studios and debuted the following year in Stolen Harmony (1935), a musical melodrama about an ex-convict (George Raft) who tours with a dance band and helps police capture a crime gang. Nolan portrayed a hood named Chesty Burrage, who kidnaps the entire band because he longs for a private concert. During the next two years, Nolan was kept busy playing a variety of villainous roles; in a rare non-heavy role, Nolan was seen during this period in Every Day’s a Holiday (1937), written by and starring Mae West, but years later the actor lamented the impact that the Production Code had on the film.
“As a switch, they let me play a police chief in Mae West’s first film after the clean-up. . . . It was widely hailed by the studio as good, clean fun, something for which Mae was not noted,” Nolan said in 1960. “Privately, I heard a studio executive tell her, ‘One off-color line from you, and we’ll close down the set.’ That’s how panicky Hollywood was. I remember one scene I had with Mae. She came into my office, leaned on the safe, and it popped open. That’s as risque as they’d let her be.”
Finally, after two years of primarily being typed as the villain, Nolan was seen as a newspaperman hero in King of Gamblers (1937), starring opposite Claire Trevor. After this film, he stayed busy throughout the remainder of the decade, playing featured roles in a variety of films, but he joked that it took a while for him to be recognized away from the studio.
“A woman finally did, at a bar, turning to her boyfriend to say, ‘Look, there’s Lloyd Nolan,’” the actor recalled. “His reply I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Yeah, he stinks.’”
When his Paramount contract expired, Nolan signed with 20th Century-Fox; during the next two years, he appeared in 17 films, including such audience-pleasers as Johnny Apollo (1940), a well-acted gangster film with Tyrone Power in the title role, and Blues in the Night (1940), a Warner Bros. musical starring Priscilla Lane and Betty Field. Nolan also starred in Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940), the first in a seven-episode series in which he portrayed a slick Irish-American sleuth. Then, in 1943, making a rare step up to the “A” picture category, Nolan was cast as a Marine sergeant in Guadalcanal Diary (1943), a hard-hitting war drama co-starring Preston Foster, William Bendix, Richard Conte, and Anthony Quinn.
Also in 1943, Nolan was seen in MGM’s Bataan, another harrowing wartime drama, this time starring Robert Taylor and Thomas Mitchell. Two years later, he starred in one of his finest films, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, based on Betty Smith’s novel of life in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in the early part of the century, followed by his initial foray into film noir, The House on 92nd Street (1945). Featuring actual F.B.I. personnel in non-lead roles, this film was based on agency files regarding a young college student, William Dietrich (William Eythe), who becomes an undercover agent to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. The plot focuses on the Germans’ efforts to acquired the United States’ secret formula for the atomic bomb and Dietrich’s quest to foil their plans. Ultimately, the Nazis are captured and the ringleader (Signe Hasso), mistaken by one of her co-conspirators as a federal agent, is shot and killed. Although Nolan’s role as a hard-nosed F.B.I. inspector paled in comparison with the showier roles played by Hasso and fellow villains Lydia St. Clair and Gene Lockhart, he was praised in Motion Picture Herald as “first-rate,” in Variety as a “standout,” and in the Los Angeles Examiner, where Dorothy Manners wrote: “Lloyd Nolan fits into the office of an F.B.I. inspector as though he were born there.”
By now, Nolan was finally beginning to make a name for himself, with peers and critics alike. In 1946, he starred with John Hodiak and Lucille Ball in Two Smart People (1946), an MGM crook-chase drama; during filming, Ball told a reporter that she and Hodiak were a “mutual admiration society when it comes to Lloyd.”
“He knows this movie business as few among us do,” Ball said. “He almost acts too well – without that flash that attracts attention. Yet he attracts attention anyway – just by good acting. He doesn’t need the flash. He knows his business from the ground up. That’s why John and I watch his every move.”
Following this film, Nolan was seen in three noirs in as many years: Somewhere in the Night (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and The Street With No Name (1948).
The first, Somewhere in the Night, centered on George Taylor (John Hodiak), an ex-Marine suffering from amnesia. Taylor’s search for his true identity brings him into contact with Lt. Donald Kendall (Nolan), a crafty detective who is the midst of his own search – for a hood named Larry Cravat, who disappeared after stealing $2 million. By the film’s end, Taylor discovers that he and Cravat are one and the same.
Nolan’s next noir, Lady in the Lake, was directed by Robert Montgomery (who also starred) in the unique “first person point-of-view,” where the camera served as the eyes of Montgomery’s character, detective Philip Marlowe. Focusing on Marlowe’s efforts to locate the missing wife of a pulp fiction publisher (Leon Ames), this complex and often confusing drama includes such characters as the publisher’s sexy editor (Audrey Totter), an unprincipled gigolo (Richard Simmons), and a deadly former nurse (Jayne Meadows). As Lt. DeGarmot, Nolan played a crooked cop who engages in such nefarious acts as attempting to frame Marlowe for drunk driving by pouring liquor over his semi-conscious body after forcing his car off the road. Worse still, at the film’s end, DeGarmot fatally shoots his lover, the neurotic nurse who was responsible for the death of the publisher’s wife, and is, in turn, shot by police seconds before he can turn his gun on Marlowe.
In Nolan’s final noir, The Street with No Name, he was seen in a reprisal of his Inspector Briggs role from The House on 92nd Street, earning him the distinction of the only actor to play the same character in two films noirs. In this feature, Briggs recruits agent Gene Cordell (Mark Stevens) to infiltrate a local gang whose leader (Richard Widmark) is suspected of murder. By the film’s end, Briggs has unearthed a corrupt cop within the police force, Cordell is exposed as an undercover agent, and the gangleader is gunned down by officers.
Nolan earned mostly good notices for his appearances in these three noirs; his performance in Somewhere in the Night was labeled “worth noting” by James O’Farrell of the Los Angeles Examiner. But in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther dismissed the film as “a large-sized slice of hokum,” and wrote: “Lloyd Nolan, Richard Conte, Josephine Hutchinson and several others are competent as varied pawns. Their performances are interesting; it’s only too bad that they have such turbid and inconclusive things to do.” Nolan fared better with his reviews for the dastardly role he portrayed in Lady in the Lake, although most critics focused more on the film’s unique technical aspects, and for his performance in The Street With No Name, the actor was singled out by the Los Angeles Times’ critic, who praised his “brief but satisfactory account of [the] F.B.I. chief.”
After following his film noir features such mediocre fare as The Sun Comes Up (1949), a three-hankie weeper starring Jeanette MacDonald, and Bad Boy (1949), with Jane Wyatt and Audie Murphy, Nolan decided it was time for a change.
“I went on year after year getting no place,” Nolan said. “Maybe it was because the right parts didn’t come along. Maybe I wasn’t ambitious enough. I’d never die for a part – never lick anybody’s boots. Maybe they didn’t give me good parts because I didn’t have a name that could help much at the box office. But I’ve got no crab. Life has been very good to me. Movie life is awfully well paid, even though boring.”
Leaving Hollywood behind, Nolan signed on for a six-week road tour of The Silver Whistle for the Theatre Guild, then appeared in a musical, Courtin’ Time, but left the cast when he lost his voice. A short time later, he was offered the starring role in the popular NBC-TV series, Martin Kane, Private Eye, when William Gargan left the series. He was only seen on the show for one season, however, labeling it “an unfortunate experience.”
“That was done live and it was no fun at all,” Nolan said in 1969. “Second-rate all the way.”
In the early 1950s, Nolan returned to the silver screen, then got the biggest break of his career when he was tapped by Broadway producer Paul Gregory to star in his new play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. In the play, Nolan played Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, a fastidious, exacting officer whose initial self-assurance disintegrates into neurotic paranoia. Before the play hit Broadway, it toured for 14 weeks in 67 cities.
“We played in everything from a theatre with a few hundred seats to a gymnasium with 8,200,” Nolan said. “If it was rough, I wasn’t aware of it. I was too happy being an actor again.”
The show was a smash-hit on Broadway, and Nolan was universally hailed by reviewers, including theater critic Walter Kerr, who wrote that, as Queeg, “Nolan holds back nothing. Yet there is no excess.” The actor played the part for more than a year before taking the show to London, where he also served as director. For his efforts, the actor won the New York Critics Award and the Donaldson Award for Best Actor, as well as an Emmy Award for the 1955 television presentation of the play on Ford Star Jubilee. He later received high praise for his performance from co-star Barry Sullivan.
“I thought I knew a lot about acting, but Lloyd’s so enormously good you can’t help absorbing something from his work,” Sullivan told TV Guide in 1969. “We both were nominated for the Emmy, and I voted for him. I’ll bet Lloyd was a unanimous choice.”
The film version of Caine Mutiny, starring Humphrey Bogart as Queeg, was released in 1954, but Nolan later cleared up the popular belief that he was turned down for the role on screen.
“Columbia made the movie of The Caine Mutiny before we did the play,” Nolan said in 1970. “But the studio had released From Here to Eternity and it was cleaning up, and they didn’t want to put out another war picture to compete with it. So they held their picture up, which gave Paul Gregory the chance to do the play. I thought I was too old to play Queeg – he should be about 31 and I was pushing 50 – but I figured if Bogie wasn’t too old to play it, neither was I!”
Returning to Hollywood, Nolan was seen in 1957 in two of his best films, A Hatful of Rain, which offered a harrowing look at heroin addiction, and Peyton Place, in which he played Dr. Matthew Swain, a compassionate and upstanding physician who, at the film’s end, exposes the hypocrisy running rampant through the small town of the title. The latter feature was a smash at the box office and went on to earn nine Academy Award nominations.
In 1959, Nolan enthusiastically announced plans to start his own company with New York writer-producer David Yellin, saying that he had “wanted to get into the production end for a number of years.” He revealed that the company had already purchased the rights to five novels, four of which were Pulitzer Prize winners. Two years later, however, the company was dissolved, and none of the properties were developed. Meanwhile, Nolan continued to divide his time between the theater, television, and the movies, including a stage production of One More River, which closed two weeks after it reached Broadway; guest appearances on such television series as Bonanza, Laramie, The Outer Limits, and The Virginian; and a number of films including Portrait in Black (1960), playing a man who is murdered by his wife’s lover; Susan Slade (1961), a glossy soaper starring Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens; Circus World (1964), a sprawling big-top epic with John Wayne and Rita Hayworth; An American Dream (1968), a thoroughly tawdy drama about a TV commentator who accidentally causes the death of his shrewish wife; and Ice Station Zebra (1968), a box-office hit featuring Rock Hudson, Jim Brown, and Ernest Borgnine.
Then, in 1968, Nolan was once again lured back to series television when he was offered the role of Dr. Morton Chegley in Julia, a groundbreaking program that was the first to star a black woman since Beulah aired in the early 1950s. While the character of Beulah was a maid with a heart of gold, however, Julia (played by Diahann Carroll) was a widowed nurse, raising a young son (Marc Copage). In order to consider the role, Nolan insisted on being paid “an awful lot of money and the absolute minimum of work,” his agent, Bill Robinson, told TV Guide. As a result, there were many episodes in which Nolan never appeared, and he was given a unique billing in the credits: “Frequently starring Lloyd Nolan.”
“The pilot script was fine, exciting. And I was intrigued with the idea,” Nolan said in 1968, adding that he hoped that the show’s “black and white angle” would diminish as the series progressed. “It’s been overstated. Diahann is a darling girl. She has great personality and it comes through in every scene. After we were 10 minutes into the filming of the pilot, I forgot she was colored.”
During the three-year run of the popular series, Nolan was also seen in the blockbuster disaster hit Airport (1970), in a cast that included such stars as Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Van Heflin, and Helen Hayes. After Julia ended in 1971, Nolan went on to guest on such television series as The F.B.I., McMillan and Wife, and The Waltons; appeared in several made-for-television movies; and appeared in the feature films Earthquake (1974), a star-studded hit from the disaster movie genre; The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), in which he played a minor role as an attorney; and My Boys are Good Boys (1978), a fairly forgettable crime drama co-starring Ida Lupino and Ralph Meeker.
But during this period, Nolan was in the news for more than his varied performing activities; in the early 1970s, he stunned moviegoers and friends alike when he shared a painful family secret about his son, Jay. Throughout Nolan’s career, numerous interviews mentioned his son in casual references, but the boy seldom appeared in photographs and a 1955 article written during the run of Caine Mutiny mentioned only that Nolan had received visits in New York from his wife and daughter. Later, articles that appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s noted Jay’s death at age 27, but no further information was provided; it wasn’t until 1973 that Nolan revealed that Jay had been diagnosed with autism and had been institutionalized since the age of 13. His death had been caused by choking on a piece of food.
“Jay was physically perfect, a beautiful child,” Nolan said in the Los Angeles Times. “I guess he was about two when we realized . . . We used to have a photographer come out and do both children – our daughter, Mellinda, is three years older. The photographer had different tricks; he’d get the children going up the steps, then say ‘Boo!’ and they’d turn around and he’d get a cute little surprised picture. Jay just ignored him as if he were deaf. That’s what I thought at first – that he was deaf.”
After consulting with a series of doctors during the next several years, the Nolans were finally told when Jay was six that he had autism, a complex developmental disability that affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. At the time, the late 1940s, little was known about the condition, and no effective treatment methods had been developed. Nolan stated that Jay’s behavior was characterized by day-long episodes of crying and shouting, and that he had to eventually be removed from his school. As he grew older, Jay’s increasingly unmanageable behavior began to take its toll on the family.
“Jay’s sister . . . was very sweet and understanding – for a while. As she got older, it began to take a toll on her – on all of us,” Nolan said. “You hesitate to bring people around because they think, ‘My God, that’s the most spoiled child in the world. Why don’t they clobber him?’ A lot of people don’t understand; you can’t blame them. But if you withdraw from people . . . before you know it you have no friends. And that isn’t good for you or the child, either.”
At the age of 13, while Nolan was performing in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Jay was placed in a special school in Philadelphia, where his parents frequently visited.
“But I was never sure that he knew me,” Nolan recalled. “He’d look right through me as if I wasn’t there. [Or] we’d be liable to get into Philadelphia and have the school people say, ‘If you don’t mind, you’d better not come out. He’s emotionally upset today.’”
After Jay’s death, Nolan resolved to raise awareness about autism. He was named honorary chairman of the National Society for Autistic Children, and in 1977 hosted the first of eight annual telethons. Funds from the Autistic Children’s Telethon, which Nolan chaired for the next several years, were used to establish a residential research center in Mission Hills, California. Originally known as the Jay Nolan Center for Autism, the center was since renamed Jay Nolan Community Services, and today serves more than 1,300 families through a variety of programs.
“When Jay was little, I don’t think we knew anybody with an autistic child. We have had friends with retarded children, but that didn’t help us at that time,” Nolan said in 1973. “I’m sure it would have helped to have known other parents with autistic children.”
Nolan suffered another blow in his personal life in 1981 when Mell, his wife of nearly 50 years, died of cancer. The actor would remarry two years later. Professionally, he continued to make sporadic appearances on television and feature films during the 1980s, including the Remington Steele and Murder, She Wrote television series, and Prince Jack (1984) on the big screen, a docudrama in which he portrayed the father of John F. Kennedy.
The following year, he was cast alongside Maureen O’Sullivan and her real-life daughter, Mia Farrow, in Woody Allen’s stellar comedy, Hannah and her Sisters (1986). Sadly, he would not live to see the film’s release. After being hospitalized at the Century City Hospital for treatment of lung cancer, Nolan died on September 27, 1985, in his Brentwood, California, home. He was 83 years old.
Although Lloyd Nolan languished throughout much of his film career in a spate of “B” movies, there was no denying his enormous talent, which was once fittingly described by columnist Hedda Hopper, who wrote that Nolan “is a thoughtful, deliberate actor. There are no happy accidents in his performances.”
But Nolan’s outstanding body of work is perhaps even more impressive in light of the personal pain with which he struggled because of his son’s condition. His courage in revealing the details of his family’s experience, as well as his commitment to educating the public and creating treatment programs leaves an admirable legacy. A letter written to the Los Angeles Times after the actor’s death provides a poignant illustration of Nolan’s impact in this area.
“Jay Nolan is a very familiar name in our family. Our handicapped daughter has been enrolled in a Jay Nolan program for the past three years,” wrote Sheila Troupe of Hermosa Beach. “Jay Nolan, as an autistic child, may have been a well-kept secret of his parents, but his community agency namesake has been a salvation to many of us parents of handicapped children. It is too bad that I did not know to thank Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Nolan before their deaths. But, to the family that remains, please know that the legacy left by Jay Nolan is very much appreciated.”