Herbert Lom: The odd fellow

Herbert Lom has packed a lot into his 87 years - from his childhood in Prague as an impoverished aristocrat to fame and friendship with Hollywood's biggest stars

Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru was wise to change his surname to Lom. It is one of many wise decisions he has made in his long life. Another was to emigrate to England, from his native Czechoslovakia, in January 1939. Two months later, Hitler ordered his troops into Prague,spelling disaster for Lom's Jewish girlfriend, Didi. She had accompanied him to England, by train and then boat, but was turned back at Dover because she didn't have the correct papers. She later starved to death in a concentration camp. "I'd had no idea she was Jewish," says Lom. "It didn't matter. All I was interested in was philosophy, and acting."

Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru was wise to change his surname to Lom. It is one of many wise decisions he has made in his long life. Another was to emigrate to England, from his native Czechoslovakia, in January 1939. Two months later, Hitler ordered his troops into Prague,spelling disaster for Lom's Jewish girlfriend, Didi. She had accompanied him to England, by train and then boat, but was turned back at Dover because she didn't have the correct papers. She later starved to death in a concentration camp. "I'd had no idea she was Jewish," says Lom. "It didn't matter. All I was interested in was philosophy, and acting."

Lom was 22 when he waved goodbye to Didi in Dover. He is 87 now, short and tubby with the high waistband and dicky knees of an old man, yet the lively brown eyes of the young idealist he used to be. He is still an idealist, and still acting; he plays a grudge-bearing Frenchman, Professor Dufosse, in tomorrow's episode of Agatha Christie's Marple. It is the latest in a lifetime of roles as "bloody foreigners", he says disdainfully.

We meet twice. The first time is at his elegant ground-floor flat in London. There, he pours me pink champagne and talks about his career, telling me in his Czech-accented basso profundo that the only reason he wanted to get into acting was to meet Greta Garbo. Which, happily, he eventually did.

"I was invited to a cocktail party in a Los Angeles hotel by a Swedish actress called Mai Zetterling. In the middle of the party she was called to the phone, talked to somebody in Swedish, then came back. She said, "Please don't get excited, but I have just had a call from Greta Garbo." She was staying in the same hotel and heard there was a Swedish party, so she invited herself. She sat at my feet, I remember. I was very thrilled. She had wonderful bone structure but unfortunately very big sandals, too big for my liking."

After a couple of hours I leave Lom's flat with a tape-cassette full of marvellous, quirkily detailed reminiscences such as this. His stories certainly feature some great names, among them Rodgers, Hammerstein, Henry Fonda and Peter Sellers, whom Lom got to know well during the making of the Pink Panther films, in which, unforgettably, he played twitching Chief Inspector Dreyfus, literally driven mad by Inspector Clouseau's cheerful ineptitude. Lom was close enough to Sellers to be privy to his infatuation with Sophia Loren, although to hear Sellers telling it, he recalls, she was the one infatuated.

Anyway, a day or two later, Lom calls me asking if we can meet again, explaining that there are some more things he wishes to say. So this time I meet him at the Reform Club on Pall Mall. He gestures me to a chair and eyes me gravely.

"I have spent my life learning other people's lines," he says. "Now I want to say some of my own." He then reads the following from his own scrawled notes. "We are constantly told that our prime minister is a charlatan, a liar, a cheat, a poodle. Not once but 15 times a day. I have lived in Czechoslovakia, France and England and I have never known anything like it." He looks up from his note pad. "You know," he adds, "I am as scared of Clare Short as I am of Saddam Hussein. She can bring this Government down, I think. As a woman I find her very attractive, but she is a pain in the arse. Tony Blair is a brilliant and brave prime minister. It must distress him that chopping off heads, which has become fashionable among those villains in the desert, is not considered as wicked as failing to find the so-called weapons of mass destruction."

Whether I concur or not, there is something splendid about Lom, at 87, delivering this rant. It might be dismissed as empty rhetoric from a delusional old actor, except that Lom has had a closer encounter than most of us with state-sponsored terrorism. He remembers Didi well. And he also, by the by, knows more than most of us about decapitation, having written a well-received novel called Dr Guillotine.

"It was based on fact. He lived during the French Revolution and was so sickened by the way people were executed that he devised a quicker way, to save people's suffering. But he didn't realise that this would speed up the rate of killings, which it did from 10 per week to 300 per week. I suppose Einstein felt the same when he realised that his atomic energy was being used to make bombs."

Lom is currently trying to raise funds to make Dr Guillotine into a movie. There is something hugely heartening about a man of such advanced years still pursuing professional ambitions, although even he would accept that he has more past than he does future. It is, at least, a fascinating past. f

He was born in 1917, the son of a genteelly impoverished count, whose title dated from 1601. He studied acting in Prague but thought there would be more opportunity in England, so, having left his parents and sister behind, he arrived in London where he auditioned, at the Embassy School of Acting, for the principal, Eileen Thorndike, sister of the fêted actress Sybil Thorndike. "I auditioned in Czech," he recalls. "She couldn't understand a word. But I was admitted anyway."

There then came an offer to join the company at the Old Vic, but the War had started, and he had another job offer: to join the BBC's Czech and German section, as an announcer. "I didn't know which to take, so I wrote to a friend, asking him to cable me with his advice. I was sitting in the bath when the landlady knocked and said, 'There's a gentleman to see you, Mr Lom.' It was a policeman holding a telegram. He said, 'Can you explain this, sir?' I looked at the telegram and it said simply: TAKE BBC. It was simple career advice from my friend, but the police thought it must be something terribly sinister."

We both have a good chuckle about this. Then he grows serious again, recalling the pain of not knowing how his parents, back in Prague, were faring under the Nazi occupation; especially as there were Jewish antecedents on his mother's side. As it turned out, his folks survived the War and he later brought them to England. "They heard my voice almost every evening, on the radio." He remembers his announcements: "Tonight there are 20,000 Allied aeroplanes over Dresden."

The day after the War ended, Lom became a British citizen. He had by then returned to drama school and picked up a few small film roles, including the part of Napoleon in Carol Reed's film The Young Mr Pitt. His on-screen charisma attracted the attention of 20th Century Fox. The studio bosses saw enough in this diminutive but handsome, versatile actor, with the mineshaft-deep voice and behind-the-Iron-Curtain vowels, to offer him a seven-year Hollywood contract.

"I was delighted, thrilled, but when I went to the US embassy to collect my visa, my passport was thrown back at me. America would not let me in. I was suspected of being a fellow traveller, a Communist sympathiser." Was he? "Everybody had Communist leanings. But I was not a lover of Communist regimes. And I admired America greatly, yet for many years I was not allowed in."

In 1953 came his big break, although it almost eluded him. Rodgers and Hammerstein invited him to New York to audition for the part of the King of Siam in The King And I. Yul Brynner was playing the part on Broadway; they wanted Lom for the West End.

"I had to compose a telegram, saying,'So sorry cannot accept kind offer, cannot get visa'. But Rodgers and Hammerstein sent a telegram back saying, 'No problem, will meet you in Canada'. They sent me a ticket, and I met them in a hotel in Toronto. A piano was pushed into the room, I sang the first verse of "A puzzlement" and Oscar [Hammerstein] said, 'Stop... welcome aboard.' I had taken singing lessons, but they didn't want a singer. They wanted him to sell the song across the footlights in a barbaric kind of way, which I did. Oscar, a gentle, professorial man, often used to pull me up during rehearsals and say, 'Herb, don't sing it, sell it'."

With Valerie Hobson as his schoolteacher, he played the part for more than two years and to rave reviews. His dark eyes glistening with pride even now, he pushes some of the reviews towards me. "The show took Drury Lane by typhoon last night and Mr Lom is practically an act of God," enthused Kenneth Tynan in The Daily Sketch on 8 October 1953.

During his Drury Lane run, Lom landed a part in The Ladykillers with the young Peter Sellers. Then he was invited to play Napoleon again, in the film of War and Peace, with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. "On my first day on War and Peace I remember Henry Fonda saying to the director, King Vidor, 'Gee King, I can't say this line, it doesn't sound real.' And Vidor said, 'Of course it isn't real, Hank, it's a movie, get on with it.' That was my introduction to Hollywood film-making."

Having played Napoleon, the King of Siam, even Attila the Hun, Lom enjoys the irony that the character who made him the most money was not a king or emperor or warlord, but a terminally harrassed Parisian policeman. Whose twitch, he adds, was his conception.

"I had a scene with Peter in my office. He said something like, 'Don't worry chief, I'll settle it,' and gave me an encouraging wink. So I started winking out of nervousness, and couldn't stop. It wasn't in the script but Blake Edwards [the director] loved it. But it became a problem. I made those films for 20 years, and after 10 years they ran out of good scripts. They used to say to me, 'Herbert, wink here, wink.' And I said, 'I'm not going to wink. You write a good scene and I won't have to wink.'"

He has seen the recent Sellers biopic and admired it. Not so the remake of The Ladykillers, starring Tom Hanks. "I thought Tom Hanks was good but the film was terrible. The other [The Life and Death of Peter Sellers] I liked very much. Peter was always a mixed-up guy, a childish fellow. But if you're fond of children, you're also fond of childish men. He was always very helpful to me. After he was famous, and when I was still in trouble with the US embassy, he wrote a letter in support of me which was magnificent. But it is true that he was very cruel to his children. He was so hurt by the way children treat you when you're their father. I have been hurt by my children. But he was not in possession of a proper brain when it came to these things."

If by no means as disastrous as Sellers's, Lom's own domestic life has not been entirely straightforward. There have been three marriages, and he has three children and seven grandchildren. He is unattached again now, although it wouldn't surprise me, such is his zest for the future, if the man who gave the wink which became the most famous twitch in the movies didn't, at 87, still have half an eye on romantic adventure.

'Agatha Christie's Marple: The Murder in the Vicarage' is showing Sunday at 9pm on ITV

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