Born: June 26, 1904 - Rózsahegy, Austria-Hungary
Died: March 24, 1964 - Los Angeles, California (stroke)
Spouses: Celia Lovsky (1934 - 1945, divorced); Kaaren Verne (1945 - 1950, divorced); Annemarie Brenning (1953 - 1964). Had one daughter with Brenning.
Peter Lorre was born László Löwenstein into a Jewish family in Rózsahegy, Kingdom of Hungary, a part of Austria-Hungary. His parents were Alois and Elvira. When he was a child his family moved to Vienna, where Lorre attended school. During his youth, Lorre was a student of Sigmund Freud. He began acting on stage in Vienna, where he worked with Richard Teschner, then moved to Breslau and Zürich.
In the late 1920s, the young five-foot five-inch actor moved to Berlin, where he worked with German playwright Bertolt Brecht. He appeared as Dr. Nakamura in the infamous musical Happy End by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill, alongside Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel and other impressive co-stars such as Carola Neher, Oskar Homolka, and Kurt Gerron. The German-speaking actor became famous when Fritz Lang cast him as a child killer in the 1931 film M.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Lorre took refuge first in Paris and then London, where he played a charming villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). When he arrived in Great Britain, his first meeting was with Hitchcock and, by smiling and laughing as Hitchcock talked, he was able to bluff the director about his limited command of the English language. During filming, Lorre learned much of his part phonetically.
Eventually he went to Hollywood, where he specialized in playing wicked or wily foreigners, beginning with Mad Love (1935), directed by Karl Freund. He starred in a series of Mr. Moto movies, a parallel to the better known Charlie Chan series, in which he played the Japanese detective and spy created by John P. Marquand. He did not much enjoy these films, and twisted his shoulder during a stunt in Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation, but they were lucrative for the studio and gained Lorre many new fans. In 1939, he was picked to play the role that would eventually go to Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein. Lorre had to decline the part due to illness.
In 1941, Lorre became a naturalized citizen of the United States. During this period, he enjoyed considerable popularity as a featured player in Warner Brothers’ suspense and adventure films. In 1940, he co-starred with fellow horror actors Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the Kay Kyser movie You’ll Find Out. He played the roles of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Ugarte in Casablanca (1942). He demonstrated a gift for comedy in the role of Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace (filmed in 1941, released in 1944).
After World War II, Lorre’s acting career in Hollywood experienced a downturn, whereupon he began to concentrate on radio and stage work. In Germany he co-wrote, directed and starred in Der Verlorene (The Lost One) (1951), a critically acclaimed art film in the film noir style. He then returned to the United States, where he appeared as a character actor in television and feature films, often spoofing his former “creepy” image.
In 1954 Lorre became the first actor to play a James Bond villain, when he portrayed Le Chiffre in a television adaptation of Casino Royale. The same year, he starred alongside Kirk Douglas and James Mason in the scifi-adventure classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. In the early 1960s he worked with Roger Corman on several popular, tongue-in-cheek horror films, in which he was reunited with fellow horror stars such as Vincent Price and Boris Karloff.
In 1956, both Lorre and Price attended Bela Lugosi’s funeral. According to Price, Lorre asked him, “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?”
Overweight and never fully recovered from an addiction to morphine, Lorre suffered many personal and career disappointments in his later years. He died of a stroke in 1964, at the age of fifty-nine. His body was cremated, and his ashes were interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Vincent Price read the eulogy at his funeral.