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Lloyd Nolan, the Actor's Actor, Dies

September 28, 1985|BURT A. FOLKART | 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

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