“When I grow up, I want to be Peter Lorre,
I want to snivel and sneer in a nasal whine.
I want to cringe and curse, and maybe threaten worse…”
– from “I Want To Be Peter Lorre,” words and music © 1988 by Tom Smith (used by permission)
Peter Lorre (1904-1964) was born Laszlo (Ladislav) Löwenstein in Rosenberg*, a small town in Austria-Hungary about 150 miles northeast of Vienna. He grew up and was educated in Vienna.* To satisfy his father, he became an unhappy bank clerk before starting his acting career. Despite his father’s disapproval, Lorre was drawn to the German-speaking stages of Breslau, Zurich, Vienna, and finally Berlin, to which he moved at the age of 21. It was on the stage in the German capital that Lorre drew the praise and attention of German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956). After years of relative obscurity, Lorre finally made it big with his masterful role as the psychopathic child molester/murderer in Fritz Lang’s first sound film in 1931, the still enjoyable M. (See photo below.)
*Some biographers and websites insist on labeling Peter Lorre as Hungarian, despite the fact that he grew up in Austria and spoke German, not Hungarian. Lorre was a German-speaking Austrian Jew born in Rózsahegy, Austria-Hungary (today Ružomberok, Slovakia).
“The World’s Greatest Actor”
Following Lorre’s departure from Germany in 1933, his bulging eyes, round face, and nasal voice became familiar to millions of moviegoers in a Hollywood film career that spanned 33 years and ranged from classics like the two great film noir works The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), or Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) to the respectable if bizarre “Mr. Moto” series (1937-1939), in which the Austrian Lorre played a Japanese detective modeled after the successful Chinese film detective, Charlie Chan. (More about Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto.) For a short time during his early years in Hollywood, Lorre shared a room with fellow Austrian Billy Wilder, who would later also become fairly well-known in the film world.
Lorre married his first wife, Celia Lovsky (with whom he had lived earlier in Berlin), in London while working on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). (Lovsky, who was known as Cäcilie Lvovsky in Europe, had a long career of her own in American movies and television.) He met wife number two, the German actress Karen Verne, while filming All Through the Night (1942) and married her in 1945 shortly after divorcing Celia. After Hollywood success in the 1930s and ’40s, Lorre became unhappy as good roles were harder to come by. He had become typecast and his talents were, in fact, underutilized and underappreciated. Following the war, he starred in bombs like The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). In the early 1950s, a disillusioned Lorre went to Germany, trying to return to his classic “M” days, both as a director and actor. But his 1951 German film, Der Verlorene (“The Lost One”), which he directed and co-wrote, was too depressing even for German audiences and a commercial failure. He had little choice but to return to Hollywood and try to make a living there.
While in Germany, Lorre had met and fallen for Anne Marie Brenning. She bore him a daughter after he returned to the US without her and before they were married in 1953. By 1962 they were divorced, but Lorre remained good friends with her as well as ex-wives Celia and Karen until his death. Anne Marie’s ashes rest with Lorre’s in a Los Angeles cemetery. (See photo above.)
Ever since a serious operation as a young man in Switzerland, for which he had been given morphine, Lorre had struggled with a drug problem. His ongoing morphine addiction helped break up his marriages. In fact, he had met Anne Marie while in a German sanitarium for his drug problem. Billy Wilder complained about Lorre’s drug use when they roomed together in Los Angeles back in the late 1930s.
In the last decade of his career, Lorre—whom Charlie Chaplin and others had once called the “world’s greatest actor”—was reduced to playing character parts or cameo roles, as in Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, along with Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, and what seems to be hundreds of other film stars of the day!). He also played some comedy roles, as in Comedy of Terrors (1964) with Boris Karloff, and he enjoyed doing radio mysteries, for which his distinct nasal voice was well suited. He was featured in many television productions of the 1950s and early ’60s, including an early version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and other teleplays for Climax, Lux Video Theater, and Playhouse of the Stars. He even played roles in popular TV series such as “77 Sunset Strip,” “Route 66,” and “Disneyland.” He made a few decent movies in the ’50s and ’60s, but his last really good role had been in the John Huston satire Beat the Devil (1953). In 1964, just four days after completing Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy, a film that Lorre really did not want to do, the unique actor who had long before become a household word died of heart failure.
See more about Lorre’s films on the next page.
Next | Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto
- Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto
- Peter Lorre Filmography
- Berlin City Guide – The sights and history of the German capital, where Ballhaus was born
- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
- Mini Bios A-Z – Brief biographies of people from the German-speaking world
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
- Notable Women from Austria, Germany, Switzerland
- Famous Graves in Germany – Where are they buried?
PETER LORRE BOOKS
- The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre – A 2005 biography by Stephen D. Youngkin. Hardcover, 680 pages.
- Peter Lorre (Midnight Marquee Actors Series) – Gary J. Svehla, editor. A survey of Lorre’s films. Paperback, 320 pages.
- The Complete Mr. Moto Film Phile: A Casebook by Howard M. Berlin. Paperback, 240 pages, 2005.
ON THE WEB
- Peter Lorre – IMDb
- Peter Lorre – Wikipedia
- Filker Tom – Tom Smith wrote the lyrics to “I Want to be Peter Lorre”
- Peter Lorre – Hollywood’s Sinister Star – A site by Teresa and Tracy Murray
- The Peter Lorre News Blog by Cheryl Morris
- Peter Lorre at Reel Classics – Information, photos and links
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