Herbert Lom (1917–2012)

Herbert Lom (Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru), the Czech performer who became a star character actor in a long acting career which lasted from the 1930s to 2004, died in London on 27th September at the age of 95. Fans of Gerry Anderson’s work will know Lom from his eye-popping role as the charming but treasonous Doctor Hassler in the 1969 film Doppelgänger. One hesitates to assign the term ‘typical’ to any one part from such a long and varied career, but this part traded on the twin currents of his British acting career: likeability and subtle villainy.

The first of these was witnessed in parts such as his two great portrayals of psychiatrists; Dr Larsen in the melodrama The Seventh Veil, a huge success in 1945, and Dr Roger Corder, star of the 1963-4 television series The Human Jungle. The second was his ability to play subtle villainy (“In English eyes”, he was quoted as saying, “all foreigners are sinister”), thus he was one of the most effective elements in the title role of Hammer’s slightly disappointing 1962 adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera. His range was much wider, and while Lom remained a welcome scene-stealing presence in a huge number of films it remained something of a shame that no producer ever bothered to find a vehicle for him to become the leading man he had the bearing and authority to become.

Lom’s acting career began in his native Czechoslovakia, appearing in films there before fleeing the country in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion along with his Jewish girlfriend. She was turned back by the British authorities at Dover as she didn’t have the correct papers and subsequently died in a Nazi concentration camp. Alone in England Lom picked up his acting career again, while also becoming one of the most famous voices across Europe, his linguistic skills having gained him work in the BBC’s European Service. His first English Language film role was as Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1942 film The Young Mr Pitt, his first attempt at a part he was cast in twice more over the years. He very rarely gained leading roles, but was often cast in character roles in major productions such as Spartacus and El Cid, allowing him to steal scenes from the nominal star.

Being multi-lingual Lom also worked in European films, being seen in Italian horror movies and action comedies and German horror films (the notoriously bloody 1970 production Mark Of The Devil) and westerns. In the latter he gave a full-blooded performance as the villain in The Treasure Of Silver Lake, the 1962 Yugoslavian-shot film that virtually invented the European western. He also appeared in a whole host of international co-productions filmed all over the world thanks to his association with the infamous producer Harry Alan Towers.

Lom’s film parts were not always so serious, and he had great success in comedic roles, his portrayal of Louis in the 1955 Ealing comedy The Ladykillers being one of his own personal favourites. His most famous role was as Charles Dreyfus, the boss of inept detective Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, a part he eventually played six times, the part becoming larger and more eccentric as the series progressed. He went into semi-retirement in the mid 1990s, returning to the screen only once more, for the 2004 Agatha Christie TV movie Marple: Murder at the Vicarage.

Originally published in FAB 73.