June 26, 1904, is the birthdate of Peter Lorre, the Jewish-Austrian actor whose early stardom from portraying a child-murderer in the German film “M” led to a lifetime of “creepy” roles, a typecasting that he could never really shake.
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Lorre was born Laszlo Lowenstein in the Austrio-Hungarian town of Rozsahegy, today called Ruzomberok, in Slovakia. He was the first of three sons born to Alajos Lowenstein and the former Elvira Freischberger. Freischberger died when Laszlo was 4, probably of food poisoning, and Lowenstein, the chief bookkeeper for a textile mill who also served as a reserve lieutenant in the Austrian army, married her closest friend. The couple had two more sons.
Lowenstein moved his family to Vienna before the start of World War I, which is where his oldest son began acting. The father was said to be a supporter of Theodor Herzl and an early Zionist, who began each day with Hebrew prayers, but Laszlo Lowenstein always defined himself as a non-observant Jew.
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Although Lowenstein, after graduating from business school, took a job at his uncle’s bank, where he demonstrated commercial talent, he had no interest in a business career. Instead, he was consistently drawn to the stage, a calling his father did not approve of. This, combined with a long-standing antipathy for his stepmother, led to a break with his family. Sometimes, his financial situation was so dire that he slept nights on park benches.
In 1922, he was invited by experimental psychologist-director Jacob Moreno to join his troupe, the Stegreiftheater (theater of spontaneity). It was Moreno who, in 1925, suggested Lowenstein change his name to Peter Lorre. In Vienna, Lorre hung out at the Café Herrenhof, together with Moreno, Franz Werfel and a young Billy Wilder.
In the late 1920s, Lorre moved to Berlin, where he began working with Bertolt Brecht, which then brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang, who cast him in “M,” in 1931. As Lorre biographer Stephen Youngkin has noted, although his performance brought the young actor international fame, by gaining him the image of a “psychotic type,” it also “was as much the end as the beginning of his film career.” (The scene in which Lorre’s character is trapped by the citizenry later made its way into the 1940 Nazi propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”)
Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Lorre moved to Paris and then London, where Alfred Hitchcock cast him as the lead villain in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934). By the next year, he was in Hollywood, where his American debut was in the horror film “Mad Love.” He played Japanese detective Mr. Moto in a series of eight films, and, in 1941 and 1942, respectively, two of his most well-known roles, Joel Cairo, in “The Maltese Falcon,” and Ugarte, in “Casablanca.”
Lorre’s film career dropped off after World War II and his return to Germany, in 1951, to direct and star in the movie “The Lost One,” which he also co-wrote. The film was not a commercial success, either in Europe or in the United States, despite, or perhaps because of, its serious look at the insidiousness of the Nazi regime.
Lorre suffered from persistent medical problems and was addicted for some time to morphine, which he had been prescribed for pain. He continued acting until the end of his life, in both movies and TV, but the roles became increasingly embarrassing: His final role was as a stooge in the Jerry Lewis vehicle “The Patsy,” made the year he died.
Peter Lorre died on March 23, 1964, after suffering a stroke. He had been married three times and was survived by his wife Anne Marie Brenning and their daughter, Caroline.