CHARLIE CONNELLY on the remarkable Czech backstory of cinema great Herbert Lom.
In the early months of the Second World War Herbert Lom answered a knock at the door of his London home to find a burly policeman standing on the doorstep eyeing him warily. “Care to explain this, sir?” the officer said, holding out a telegram.
A few days earlier Lom had written to a friend seeking advice. He’d been offered a job as an announcer at the German and Czech section of the BBC in the same week he’d secured an acting scholarship at the Old Vic and wasn’t sure which opportunity he should take. The friend, sensing the urgency, had replied by telegram, despatching the two-word communication now being brandished in Lom’s face by the constable. “TAKE BBC,” it read.
It was one of Lom’s favourite anecdotes, how as a Czech who had only been in London for a few months the timing and perceived ambiguity of the message was enough to flag him as a potential conspirator warranting further investigation. This outsider status would, despite Lom going on to spend more than six decades living in England, mark much of his acting career, with his film roles dominated by swarthy hoodlums and menacing heavies. As he reminded an interviewer in 1991: “In English eyes all foreigners are sinister.”
Yet the character with whom he became most identified was far from a malevolent enigma. In Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus of the Sûreté in the Pink Panther series, Lom and director Blake Edwards between them created one of film comedy’s greatest ever supporting roles. “When Blake called me for the first time he said, ‘you’ve been the heavy so often but I think you’re a funny man’,” Lom recalled. Edwards was spot on.
Driven increasingly insane by the incompetence of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, Dreyfus is quickly reduced from respected high-ranking police officer to a man whose face was alive with a series of facial tics, giggling maniacally while guillotining his own thumb with a cigar cutter. It was to Lom’s credit he made what could have been a one-dimensional caricature into a role of genuine pathos without ever diminishing the comedy, even as the series descended over three decades from sharply-observed character farce into hammy formulaic slapstick.
The Pink Panther films afforded Lom the opportunity to work again with Sellers. His first appearance in the series, in 1964’s A Shot In The Dark, came almost a decade after both men had appeared in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers as part of an ensemble cast that included Alec Guinness and Katie Johnson. Of the gang of hapless crooks lodging in the home of a sweet old lady, Lom’s Louis was the most plausible criminal, sharply dressed in a suit and dark coat, collar permanently up and a black fedora on his head, ever more exasperated by the incompetence of his fellow gang members, including Sellers as the young, naïve Harry. During a break in filming Sellers had shyly approached Lom, who by then had clocked up a considerable number of screen credits, and asked his advice on how to make it in the film world.
“I don’t think you’ll need me, chum,” he replied, instigating a friendship that would endure until Sellers’ death in 1980. “Peter was always a mixed-up guy; a childish fellow,” said Lom. “But if you’re fond of children you’re also fond of childish men.”
The fedora was a necessary accessory for Louis in the The Ladykillers because at the time Lom was appearing as the King of Siam in The King And I in the West End, a role for which his head had to be shaved.
“I was in my second year [in The King And I] and was desperately looking for something to get me away from playing the King eight times a week,” he said of his part in the film. Weary of his nightly theatre duties he might have been, but somewhere between Siam and the King’s Cross setting of The Ladykillers Lom established himself as one of the leading stage and screen actors of the day.
“He brings the art of real acting back to Drury Lane and is in the true descent and tradition of Edmund Kean and David Garrick,” gushed renowned theatre historian W. J. MacQueen-Pope, while in the years following The Ladykillers Lom appeared in such screen classics as War and Peace, Spartacus and El Cid. In most of these roles his Czech accent served also as French, Turkish, Spanish and Arabic, simply foreign enough to satisfy the ears of British audiences.
He took out British citizenship in 1948, changing his name by deed poll to the one he’d been using since his days in student theatre. Lom, a Czech word meaning ‘quarry’, was far less of a mouthful than Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru, the name under which he was born in Prague in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a throwback to his ancestors’ aristocratic heritage.
The son of a Prague printer, Lom studied philosophy at the city university where he became involved with – and eventually ran – the university theatre. Between the stage and his studies Lom also found time to work part-time at a film studio where he made his first screen appearances as an extra before progressing to more significant parts. His first credited role was in Žena pod krížem (Woman Under A Cross), in 1937, a film that also earned Lom his first bad review when one critic decided that, “a newcomer, Herbert Lom, is no asset to our screens”.
The rise of neighbouring Nazi Germany in the late 1930s prompted Lom and his girlfriend Didi to seek pastures new and in January 1939 the couple walked down the gangplank of a ship at Dover seeking a new life in England. Only one of them made it through the immigration shed, however, as Didi did not have the right papers and was turned away. She returned to Prague intending to rejoin Lom once her documents were in order but weeks later Germany invaded, the borders closed and Didi would later starve to death in a concentration camp.
“I had no idea she was Jewish,” Lom recalled later. “Back then all I was interested in was philosophy and acting.”
Having quickly smoothed out the misunderstanding over the telegram Lom took the job at the BBC, his mellifluous tones reading news and propaganda relayed across Europe, as well as taking what acting jobs he could. In 1941 he played Napoleon in Carol Reed’s The Young Mr Pitt (a role he would reprise twice more during his career, in King Vidor’s War And Peace in 1956 and for a triumphant 1975 return to the West End stage after an absence of 20 years in Betzi), a performance that impressed 20th Century Fox so much that after the war the studio offered him a seven-year Hollywood contract. “I was delighted, thrilled,” Lom recalled in 2004, “but when I went to the US embassy to collect my visa I had my passport thrown back at me. America would not let me in as being a Czech I was suspected of having communist sympathies.”
Yet such were his criticisms of the post-war regime in Czechoslovakia that he was barred from entering his homeland, returning for the first time since 1939 only after the implosion of communist rule in the early 1990s. Lom never forgot where he came from, writing several times to British newspapers even at the height of his fame during the 1970s to remind people of the continued oppression of the Czech people.
There was much more to Lom than a malleable accent, malevolent glower and manic comic twitch. When he played the Harley Street psychiatrist Dr Robert Corder in the 1963 ITV series The Human Jungle his performance was so convincing the television network would receive hundreds of letters every week seeking his advice. He was an accomplished painter, pianist, art collector and the author of two well-received novels, Enter A Spy based on the life of Christopher Marlowe and Dr Guillotine, an account of the French Revolution through the eyes of the man who invented the world’s most efficient execution machine.
Like many of those displaced by the tumultuous events of 20th century Europe Lom knew what it was like to be an outsider.
He became a British citizen and worked hard to earn a place at the heart of British popular culture, but away from the stage and the studio he remained perpetually in transit somehow, barred from his homeland, making films that rarely satisfied him and progressing through three marriages as if part of him always remained at the end of that gangplank in Dover, cardboard suitcase in hand, watching Didi walk back onto the ship as dark clouds formed over Europe beyond, clouds that would define and dictate the rest of his life.