How the 'Psychological Drama' Taught Peter Lorre How to Act

11/10/2014 10:52 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Even if you don't know his name, and even if you were born 30 years after he died, chances are you recognize the actor who played the creepy guy in the 1942 film Casablanca.

Peter Lorre 's life ended 50 years ago this year. A few weeks ago the British Film Institute concluded a month-long celebration of his work.

One of the great movie actors of all time, Lorre got his start in the years following World War I as a student of "psychological drama," in an experimental theater company in Vienna founded by my dad J.L. Moreno, later known as the father of psychodrama. The tale of Peter Lorre is an important episode in my book, Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network.

Just eighteen and impoverished, the future star (born Laszlow Lowenstein) was discovered while he begged for change in the Viennese cafes, claiming he was cast out of his home for impregnating the family maid. It was a good story, but in fact Laszlo's father reluctantly approved of his attempt to break into theater. "He was cross-eyed and had a dimple in his cheek," my dad remembered. "There was something very appealing about him... "

After testing young Laszlow for his ability to respond to an impromptu scenario, my father gave him the stage name Peter Lorre and recruited him to the cast of his new Theater of Spontaneity, a theater of free will unrestrained by a script other than the one written by the players themselves. The Theater of Spontaneity was a response to the traditional theater that many believed had grown old and tired. In some respects the theater functioned as a stand-in for his generation's contempt for what had become of their society. Young Laszlo's later mentor, Bertolt Brecht, was another theater revolutionary. But my dad's response to the deterioration of central European drama was more radical than Brecht's: a total rejection of scripted theater.

A decade before his astonishing performance in Fritz Lang's film M, Lorre was the star of my dad's psychological theater. He had a special talent for mimicry. One of his routines was "How to Catch a Louse." As the audience was getting settled into the spontaneity theater Peter would warm them up to the action. "He used to go into the audience and look for lice infesting the heads of affluent Viennese intellectuals," my father recalled. "He made all sorts of grabbing motions, to the delight of everyone. It was a big drama. Suddenly he would get his louse!"
Lorre said that the spontaneity theater was the perfect training ground. "Years later," his biographer Stephen Youngkin writes in The Lost One, "Lorre remembered it as an 'ideal school of acting.' Instead of focusing on linear time, the actors discovered a collection of moments that 'aroused the subject to an adequate reenactment of the lived and unlived out dimensions' of their private worlds. In this way, he [Lorre] pointed out, they could commit 'dramatic suicide,' if they were so inclined, and rid themselves of psychic complexes at the same time."

Unfortunately for Lorre, as an acting school the Theater of Spontaneity was too perfect. Lorre's biographer says that "[a]fter watching him repeat his best lines and movements -- he had already developed the 'peculiar grin' he later trademarked in Hollywood -- Moreno cautioned him to 'de-conserve' his 'mimic behavior.'" Sadly for Lorre, my father was right. The creepy character Lorre developed ultimately trapped him as the paradigmatic victim of typecasting. By the 1950s the Lorre persona was so stereotyped that as a cartoon character he "performed" with Bugs Bunny.

Peter Lorre's fate is a lesson for all of us. Old roles are hard to give up, even for great actors.