Born Laszlo Lowenstein, 26 June, 1904. Died 23 March, 1964. In between, there was a whole lotta living.
Born in Austria-Hungary, he began acting at age seventeen. He first found success onstage, working with Bertolt Brecht
. His breakout role
came in 1931 when Fritz Lang
cast him as the child killer in M
. Against all odds Lorre made the character quite sympathetic (if not admirable), marking the first of many sad monsters he would play throughout his career. Lorre appeared in several more German movies, mostly comedies, before fleeing Germany after Adolf Hitler
took power in 1933.
Lorre initially relocated to Paris, then London. He faked his way through an interview with Alfred Hitchcock
by watching him closely, and laughing hysterically whenever he thought that Hitch had told the punchline of a joke, as Peter didn't speak English yet. He was then cast in The Man Who Knew Too Much
, and learned his part phonetically. Lorre soon moved to Hollywood, where despite his initially limited English, he became widely respected for both his talent and playful sense of humor.
Throughout his career, Lorre battled typecasting. Hollywood predictably wanted him to play villains and varying shades of Woobie
, epitomized not only by Lorre's best-known films like The Maltese Falcon
but many lesser works. Lorre especially disliked appearing in horror movies, a genre he had little respect for. That said, Lorre did have a sense of humor
about his typecasting: he once quipped that "with occasional interruptions, I've been killing my way through life." Filming Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
, Lorre expressed surprise that a mechanical squid played the role usually reserved for him!
Lorre did however occasionally play heroic roles, notably in the Mr. Moto
films and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
, comedic characters in Arsenic and Old Lace
and Silk Stockings
, even a romantic lead in Three Strangers
(1946). In 1951 he made his only directorial effort, Der Verlorene
or The Lost One
, produced in West Germany. Though Lorre's performance (as a guilt-ridden Nazi scientist) received acclaim, the film drew mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
Sadly, Lorre spent much of his life battling a morphine addiction, which he never kicked despite repeated attempts to quit. In the late '50s he gained a huge amount of weight and suffered a massive decline in health. Onscreen, Lorre was reduced to television appearances and self-lampooning roles in B movies, though his collaborations with Roger Corman
and Vincent Price
on Tales of Terror
(1962) and The Raven
(1963) became well-regarded. In 1964 he died of a stroke.
He was married three times. His first wife, and lifelong best friend, was Celia Lovsky, a classically trained actress who is probably best remembered as T'Pau in the Star Trek: The Original Series
episode "Amok Time". She had worked with Fritz Lang on several projects, and brought Lorre to Lang's attention for M
He was close friends and occasionally co-starred with Vincent Price
, who read the eulogy at his funeral. Counseled Humphrey Bogart
to marry Lauren Bacall
, despite their age difference, by telling him "five good years are better than none!"
The speech pattern of Ren C. Hoek from The Ren & Stimpy Show
is a Shout-Out
to Lorre, as is The Firesign Theatre
's Rocky Rococo, likewise Agent X Two Zero in Gerry Anderson
's Stingray (1964)
, and the Genie
briefly impersonates him when he transforms into a zombie
. The Woody Allen Gag Dub
spy movie What's Up, Tiger Lily?
gives a Lorre voice to a villain, who at one point complains that "this Peter Lorre impression is keeeeling
my throat!" Spike Jones
's spoof version of the song "My Old Flame" features a vocal parody that Jones wanted to call "Peter Gory" until the record company vetoed the idea. The Quest for Glory
series of computer games has Ugarte, Lorre's character in Casablanca
, as a minor recurring character alongside Sydney Greenstreet
's Signor Ferrari. Lorre's life and career are the subject of Addicted to Bad Ideas
, a musical by The World/Inferno Friendship Society
. Al Stewart
mentions him in the first verse of "Year of the Cat." Lastly, Tom Smith
has a song dedicated to him named "I Want to Be Peter Lorre".
In Kim Newman
, an eerie actor cast to play the eponymous villain is named... Laszlo Lowenstein.
Starred in (among other movies):
Peter Lorre displays examples of:
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!; Never played Igor, but for some reason modern depictions of the character often make him distinctly Lorre-esque.
- Creator Backlash: Regretted his role on M because it typecast him as a creepy character.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: He was typecast as this, after his breakout performance in M.
- Fake Nationality/Not Even Bothering with the Accent : He played "creepy foreigners" from all different countries: German (M and Arsenic and Old Lace), Greek (The Maltese Falcon), Italian (Casablanca), French (Passage To Marseille), and Dutch (The Mask Of Dimitrios). He never bothered changing his accent for any of these roles.
- Although Lorre technically was born in Hungary (in a town that is now part of Slovakia), German was his primary language. He attended a German-speaking school and his family moved to Vienna when he was 9 years old. His stage career began in Vienna, and he also worked in Breslau, Hamburg and Zurich before he came to Berlin.
- Not to mention his playing a Japanese agent, Mr. Moto, who occasionally impersonates a German. With surprising success.
- Though he does do a nice American accent in the '50s Casino Royale film, sounding similar to Humphrey Bogart.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: A Trope Codifier. Onscreen Lorre almost invariably played creepy villains. Off-screen he was warm, witty and respected by all of his collaborators.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Cartoons today are still parodying him.
- Playing Against Type: His role in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was this, where he played the roly-poly Conseil, instead of any of the villains. And he makes it work.
- In Jean Negulesco's 1946 noir Three Strangers, he even played the romantic lead.
- Tom Hanks Syndrome: Lorre was a comedian before M.
- The Woobie: He was typecast as this, probably due to his "sad eyes." Usually a Villain Woobie, or a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds.