Great acting can be a healing thing, perhaps even more so when it draws from a well of personal heartache. Considering the enduring stage and screen career of Lloyd Nolan (1902-1985), who would have marked his 115th birthday today, there are a couple of doctor roles that loom large on a colossal five-decade-long resume that includes determined noir cops and detectives, tough military men (especially his The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial Captain Queeg on stage and TV, for which he won an Emmy®), and parental authority figures. One M.D. part (which garnered him an Emmy® nomination) was a key component of the groundbreaking three-season series Julia (1968-1971), which starred Diahann Carroll as a nurse in the Los Angeles general practice office of Nolan’s gruff, demanding but ultimately good-hearted Dr. Morton Chegley, and depicted humorously and humanely on the home screen for the first time, the workplace and home life of an African-American professional single mother raising a young son. Always a generous team player, Nolan was a great exemplar of a set-in-its-ornery-ways older generation navigating through changing times and brought a nimble comedic energy that fueled the show’s cross-cultural appeal. An earlier town doctor turn – in “seamier” circumstances – was darker in tone but no less decently compassionate, with Nolan fourth-billed as Dr. Matthew Swain in the all-star, New England-set melodrama Peyton Place (1957), who knows first-hand the “wholesome, idyllic” community’s scandalous secrets – which include a brutal rape and a self-defense killing – and, welled up with self-disgust in an atmosphere of cover-ups which he abetted, compellingly confronts his fellow townspeople when taking the witness stand in the murder trial of the victimized Selena Cross (Hope Lange). “She couldn’t trust us with the truth,” he bitterly declares under questioning. “We’re all prisoners of each other’s gossip. Our best young people leave as soon as they’re old enough to pay for the price of a bus ticket.” Though it was significantly altered to downplay the more lurid aspects of Grace Metalious’ original 1956 novel, the film of Peyton Place, directed by Mark Robson, still packs a considerable punch in the performances of Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Arthur Kennedy, Russ Tamblyn and the reliable Nolan, all of which make it a still compelling time capsule of an innocent era giving way to a harder and truer reality.
A year before Peyton Place, Nolan had to confront a heartbreaking personal dilemma of his own: that his developmentally disabled 13-year-old son Jay, diagnosed as one of the earliest cases classified as autism, had to be sent away to a special school in Philadelphia. Nolan and his first wife Mell would visit as often as they could. As recounted in the A Thoughtful and Deliberate Actor: Lloyd Nolan essay on film historian Karen Burroughs Hannsberry’s Shadows and Satin website circa 2011: “‘But I was never sure that he knew me,’ Nolan recalled. ‘He’d look right through me as if I wasn’t there. [Or] we’d be liable to get into Philadelphia and have the school people say, ‘If you don’t mind, you’d better not come out. He’s emotionally upset today.’ After Jay’s death [in 1969], Nolan resolved to raise awareness about autism. He was named honorary chairman of the National Society for Autistic Children, and in 1977 hosted the first of eight annual telethons. Funds from the Autistic Children’s Telethon, which Nolan chaired for the next several years, were used to establish a residential research center in Mission Hills, California. Originally known as the Jay Nolan Center for Autism, the center was since renamed Jay Nolan Community Services, and today serves more than 1,300 families through a variety of programs.” The September 26, 1985 Los Angeles Times obituary by Burt A. Folkart has a lovely and fitting coda: “Back in 1945, when Nolan was portraying another detective in yet another routine melodrama (Two Smart People), a visitor to the set asked why Nolan sat quietly on a seat while his fellow actors, Lucille Ball and John Hodiak, clowned around. ‘Doesn't he have any temperament?’ the visitor asked. ‘No temperament?,’ said director Jules Dassin. ‘Why, he’s the most temperamental actor in Hollywood. He’s an actor’s actor, a complete master of his art. But he doesn’t waste his temperament throwing fits. He puts it into his work.’” And out of his work came a healing art. Watch Nolan practice it in the terrific Cinemascope dramatics of Peyton Place on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.