An imposing character actor in American and European features since the 1940s, Herbert Lom played imperious, often villainous continental and ethnic types in "Night and the City" (1950), "The Ladykillers" (1955) and "Spartacus" (1960) before displaying an unexpected gift for physical comedy in the "Pink Panther" films. Lom's trademark was a rich, plummy voice with only a hint of his Czech origins, which allowed him to play everything from a Muslim chieftain in "El Cid" (1961) to Captain Nemo in "The Mysterious Island" (1961) to Napoleon on two separate occasions. His turn as the apoplectic Chief Inspector Dreyfus, whose frustration with Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau literally drove him insane, gave him international fame, though Lom could be found more frequently in international productions than in Hollywood projects. His career wound down in the early 1990s, but the lasting appeal of the "Panther" franchise made him a favorite among film fans until his death in 2012. Herbert Lom's rich and varied career underscored his status as one of the most versatile character players of the late 20th century.
Born Herbert Karol Angelo Kuchacevic ze Schluderpacheru on Sept. 11, 1917 in Prague, Czech Republic, Herbert Lom was reportedly descended from a line of Czech nobility that dated back to the 17th century. He made his screen debut in the Czech film "Zena pod krizem" ("A Woman Under Cross") (1937), but soon realized that acting roles in his native country were few and far between. Lom headed for London in 1938 to study at the Embassy School of Acting. He received an offer to join the Old Vic Theater, but the outbreak of World War II spurred him to take an announcing job with the BBC's Czech and German section. After the war, Lom became a British citizen and returned to drama school before making his U.K. screen debut in Carol Reed's "The Young Mr. Pitt" (1942) as Napoleon Bonaparte, a role he reprised in 1956's "War and Peace." He soon settled into a steady diet of supporting turns as mysterious foreigners, often with unseemly intent, which were given dramatic weight by his sonorous voice and intensely staring eyes. A sympathetic turn as a psychiatrist who came to the aid of a suicidal patient (Ann Todd) in "The Seventh Veil" (1945) led to a seven-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, but his U.S. visa was refused upon his arrival at the embassy. Lom would later state that he believed that anti-Communist sentiment contributed to his unwarranted blacklisting.
Though he worked steadily in British features and television, most notably as a vicious gangster in Jules Dassin's "Night and the City" (1950), Lom's big break did not come until 1953, when he was cast as the King of Siam in the West End production of "The King and I." He received stellar performances for his turn in the show, which ran for over 900 performances. Lom's film career soon began to gain traction as well, following turns as a malevolent gangster in the classic Ealing Studios comedy "The Ladykillers" (1955), which co-starred a young Peter Sellers. Lom was soon a familiar face to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, playing supporting turns in major productions like "Spartacus" (1960) and "El Cid" (1961). There were also occasional leads, most notably as the sympathetic title role in Hammer Films' overripe version of "The Phantom of the Opera" (1962) and as an imposing Captain Nemo in "The Mysterious Island" (1961), which featured special effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. During this period, Lom also starred in his only weekly television series, playing a psychiatrist on "The Human Jungle" (ITV, 1963-64).
Lom began his long association with the "Pink Panther" films with its second entry, "A Shot in the Dark" (1964). As Commissioner (later Chief Inspector) Charles Dreyfus, Lom fumed with volcanic fury over the bungling of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, whose penchant for physical mayhem often resulted in injury to Dreyfus. The series would remain inactive for the next decade, during which Lom divided his time between Hollywood efforts like "Return from the Ashes" (1965) and "Gambit" (1966) and low-budget international pictures like "Mark of the Devil" (1970) and "Count Dracula" (1970), which cast him as Professor Van Helsing opposite Christopher Lee's vampire king. His association with these films led to regular work in the genre, including the portmanteau film "Asylum" (1972), in which he was menaced by a doll-sized version of himself, and "And Now the Screaming Stars" (1973), with Peter Cushing.
Lom returned to the "Panther" series with "The Return of the Pink Panther" (1975), which promoted his character from supporting status to one of its leads. Dreyfus also enjoyed a substantial character arc that saw him finally break down after years of frustration with Clouseau, resulting in his commitment to an asylum. Lom's manic fits, highlighted by an uncontrollable giggle and an eye tic improvised by the actor himself, were among the film's most uproarious moments. Dreyfus would escape his confinement in the next "Panther" film, "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" (1976), which saw him create a doomsday weapon to defeat the seemingly indestructible Clouseau. Lom would play Dreyfus again in the decidedly lesser "Revenge of the Pink Panther" (1978) and again in "Trail of the Pink Panther" (1982) and "Curse of the Pink Panther" (1983), both of which were constructed by new segments built around unused footage of Peter Sellers, who had died in 1980.
Lom significantly reduced his screen time in the 1980s, though his roles during this period were often in quality projects. He was a sardonic KGB agent in pursuit of Walter Matthau's rogue CIA operative in Ronald Neame's "Hopscotch" (1980) and a kindly neurologist in David Cronenberg's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's "The Dead Zone." But as the decade wore on, he was frequently the best thing about a string of dreadful low-budget efforts, including "King Solomon's Mines" (1985) with Richard Chamberlain, and the ill-fated "The Pope Must Die(t)" (1991). He would reprise Dreyfus one last time in "Son of the Pink Panther" (1993), which starred Roberto Begnini as Clouseau's illegitimate offspring, before making his final screen appearance in "Marple: Murder at the Vicarage" (ITV/WGBH, 2004). Lom died in his sleep at the age of 95 on Sept. 27, 2012. In addition to his acting career, he penned two historical novels, Enter a Spy: The Double Life of Christopher Marlowe (1971) and Dr. Guillotin: The Eccentric Exploits of an Early Scientist (1992).
By Paul Gaita