If only my father had been a serial killer. That’s what I thought, one afternoon, when I called the government office in charge of name changes. Regulations were so strict in Germany, the reason of doing away with your old moniker had to be something close to murder in the family. “We can only hope” is what I said to the bureaucrat on the other end of the line and, hanging up, gave up on the idea. I was just about to move to the United States and thought that it might be easier for me not to be “Harry Heuser” and face the prospect of being called “User,” as “Heuser” is so often mispronounced.
Now, I had no fancy alternative in mind; “Hauser” (as in Kaspar Hauser) would have done just nicely. I certainly did not try to free ride on someone else’s fame, faded or otherwise. That is what happened in the strange case of “Peter Lorre Vs. Peter Lorre,” a radio play by Michael Butts based on The Lost One by Stephen D. Youngkin; it premiered on BBC Radio Four this afternoon and was available here for listening until 7 September 2008. Having long had a fascination for the aforementioned Lorre, as well as onomastics, I was all ears.
“Peter Lorre Vs. Peter Lorre” is concerned with the final stage of the actor’s career, which coincided with those dark years in which aging Hollywood players found themselves crushed under the rubble of the old studio system that had cast them into stars. The 60s were cruel indeed; and many of the once highly paid players were reduced to accepting parts in low-budget horror films, about the only genre open to them. Sure, they could stop acting; but, for those who had made a living of it, this meant a kind of death; which is why many settled for gradual decay. In the case of Peter Lorre, who had been in the thriller business since his breakout role in Fritz Lang’s M, the decline had been more gradual still; he had been typecast so early in his career that he was soon reduced to caricatures. Just when Lorre was trying to push for a remake of M to restore the name he had made for himself, someone else was trying to claim it.
“Some fruitcake has filed a deposition,” his agent, Lester Salkow, informs Lorre, “He wants to use your name.” Determined to have this threat to his identity “stopped,” Lorre was puzzled nonetheless. “Why would anyone want to be me?” The “anyone” in question was Eugene Weingand, a Hollywood-based real estate salesman born in Germany in 1934.
“How would you feel,” the judge asks Weingand, “if your name was Peter Lorre and someone came in and wanted to use that same name after you developed it for a period of over thirty years?” To this Weingand made no reply; but, as Butts’s play has it, it got Lorre thinking and caused him to re-examine the worth of his name, not merely as a handle for salables but as a synecdoche of the self.
Weingand’s petition was rejected; yet, after Lorre’s death in 1964, he took the actor’s name for appearances in film and on television (in Get Smart, for instance), eventually settling for colourful parodies of Lorre’s ghoulish screen persona in cereal commercials. Weingand even claimed to be Lorre’s son, adding “Jr.” to his assumed name. Having just fast-forwarded through Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) and spotted him in the scene shown above, I cannot deny the resemblance.
Nor can I deny the resemblance of Lorre’s voice to that of British character actor Stephen Greif, who is remarkable in one of the two title roles. So torn and identity crisis tormented is the aging Hollywood star he portrays that you might as well say that Greif is heard in both of the title roles. “Strange,” Lorre comments on Weingand’s story, whose statements he reads, slipping into the role of the deluded man to whose ambitions his life in the public eye gave birth.
“I feel I know him,” Lorre tells his agent. Having so long played roles he would rather disown, Lorre could not bring himself to calling his namesake an impostor.