My friend Tom, who hosts our insufficiently frequent Movie Nights, has a legendary antipathy for the work of writer-director Blake Edwards, but while no big fan myself, I always make an exception for his first four Pink Panther films. I mention them today because for 30 years, the steadily deteriorating series gave Czech-born, British-based actor Herbert Lom, who passed away in his sleep on September 27 at the venerable age of 95, a rare chance to show his comedic side as Charles Dreyfus, the long-suffering and increasingly deranged superior of Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Like Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s seemingly indestructible manservant, Dreyfus was one of the supporting characters introduced in the second entry, A Shot in the Dark (1964), which was written by Edwards and sometime collaborator William Peter Blatty (yes, that one).
Lom starred in the original London production of The King and I in 1953, and appeared with Sellers and Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955); his film credits also include the original Night and the City (1950), Fire Down Below (1957), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961). Hell Drivers (1957) featured the actors later known for portraying agents James Bond (Sean Connery), John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), while I Accuse! (1958) was an account of the real-life Dreyfus Case directed by its star, José Ferrer, and scripted by the late Gore Vidal. But in later years, Lom was increasingly typecast in genre movies, e.g., Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), the infamous Mark of the Devil (1970), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), Asylum (1972), —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), The Dead Zone (1983).
From Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) to Masque of the Red Death (1989), Lom made a dozen films with writer-producer Harry Alan Towers, often featuring the latter’s wife and producing partner, then known as Maria Rohm. Most notable were Jesus Franco’s 99 Women (1969) and Count Dracula (1970), two versions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1974 and ’89), and adaptations of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970) and Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989). Count Dracula added Professor Van Helsing to Lom’s literary and historical roles: Napoleon (The Young Mr. Pitt, 1942 and War and Peace, 1956), Herod Antipas (The Big Fisherman, 1959), Captain Nemo (Mysterious Island, 1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Simon Legree (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1965), General Huerta (Villa Rides, 1968), and the apostle Barnabas (Peter and Paul, 1981).
“Herbert’s death really affected me,” Maria told me. “I liked him very, very much. I loved him in all his roles, he had a great screen presence, and he was a true gentleman of the old school. We used to talk for hours about the world, aristocracy, and the terrors of WWII, which had affected him so sadly. When Herbert went to London at the beginning of the war [fleeing the Nazis], he took his then girlfriend with him, whose papers were not in order, and she was sent back and died. I don’t have any anecdotes as Herbert was not a man of antics. Even in Isfahan [where the ’74 Indians was shot at the remote Shah Abbas Hotel in the Iranian desert], where all kinds of trouble went down, Herbert always managed to keep out of any unpleasantness. He was so very proper and genteel, cultured and most enjoyable to be around. He had studied philosophy before he left for London.”