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Herbert Lom, ‘Pink Panther’ films star, dies at 95

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Herbert Lom, a Czech-born actor of dynamic range who excelled in menacing roles but was best remembered for playing the long-suffering Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus in the “Pink Panther” films opposite Peter Sellers, died Sept. 27 at his home in London. He was 95.

His son, Alec Lom, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Lom’s career spanned eight decades and more than 100 films, and he was frequently cast as a heavy. “I was a foreigner, and in English eyes, all foreigners are villains,” he once said.

He had settled in England during World War II, and his good looks, forceful stare and cultured Eastern European accent convinced casting directors that he could pass credibly as an Italian, Greek, Frenchman, Arab and even the King of Siam.

Mr. Lom played a Moorish warlord who battled Charlton Heston’s noble Spaniard in “El Cid” (1961), Captain Nemo in “Mysterious Island” (1961) and the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1962). He twice played Napoleon Bonaparte, in Carol Reed’s “The Young Mr. Pitt” (1942) and King Vidor’s “War and Peace” (1956), and was a vicious gangster in the first-rate thriller “Night and the City” (1950) and the celebrated dark comedy “The Ladykillers” (1955) with Sellers and Alec Guinness.

Fearing he had been typecast in villainous parts, Mr. Lom said he was grateful when “Pink Panther” director Blake Edwards hired him as Dreyfus in “A Shot in the Dark” (1964). Mr. Lom said he got the role because Edwards “did not want a comic actor who would play Dreyfus for laughs.”

Mr. Lom reprised Dreyfus six more times, portraying the supervisor to the clumsy, inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau who stumbles haplessly to glory. Clouseau was played for many years by the British actor Sellers, with a ludicrous French accent.

The success of the “Panther” films largely relied on the comedic tension between the two main actors. In a 1976 review of one of the “Panther” movies, critic Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, “I'm not sure why Mr. Sellers and Mr. Lom are such a hilarious team, though it may be because each is a fine comic actor with a special talent for portraying the sort of all-consuming, epic self-absorption that makes slapstick farce initially acceptable — instead of alarming — and finally so funny.”

In playing Dreyfus, Mr. Lom developed a signature facial twitch for the character that usually erupted the minute Clouseau walked into view. The tick was not in the original script, but it was added when Mr. Lom began doing it involuntarily out of nervousness during filming. The director told him to keep it in.

The quality of the “Pink Panther” films sank over the years, Mr. Lom said. “I made those films for 20 years, and after 10 years they ran out of good scripts,” he told the London Independent in 2004. “They used to say to me, ‘Herbert, wink here, wink.’ And I said, ‘I'm not going to wink. You write a good scene, and I won’t have to wink.’ ”

Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru was born in Prague on Sept. 11, 1917. He attended college and acting school in the Czech capital before moving to England in 1939, shortly before Germany marched into his homeland. In London, he won a scholarship to study at the Embassy Theatre acting school despite performing his entire audition in Czech, a testament to his skill.

He appeared in popular movie fare, including “The Seventh Veil” (1945) as a psychiatrist who treats a pianist (Ann Todd) who suddenly finds herself unable to perform.

He had a rare romantic leading role in “Hell Is Sold Out” (1951) with the starlet Mai Zetterling and played a gentle Italian truck driver in the thriller “Hell Drivers” (1957) with Stanley Baker. He had supporting roles as a prosecutor in Jose Ferrer's “I Accuse!” (1958), based on the treason trial of French military officer Alfred Dreyfus, and as a Sicilian pirate in Stanley Kubrick's “Spartacus” (1960).

In 1953, songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II informed Mr. Lom that they wanted him to audition for the role of the King of Siam in the London production of their hit musical “The King and I”; Yul Brynner had become a Broadway star in the role.

Mr. Lom performed it for two years, opposite Valerie Hobson as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens.

Theater critic Kenneth Tynan called Mr. Lom “practically an act of God” in the role.

Crime, spy and horror movies make up a large part of Mr. Lom’s later screen credits. He made several films for England’s Hammer Films, which he once called a “cheap little outfit.”

“For one of my scenes, the Hammer people wanted me to smash my head against a stone pillar because they said they couldn’t afford one made of rubber,” Mr. Lom told the horror film Web site Horror-wood.com. “I refused to beat my head against stone, of course. This caused a ‘big crisis,’ because it took them half a day to make a rubber pillar that looked like stone. And of course, it cost a few pennies more. Horror indeed!”

Mr. Lom was married and divorced twice, including once to beauty cream businesswoman Eve Lom. Survivors include three children.

Mr. Lom, who wrote two historical novels, was regarded as a gifted raconteur. As a young actor in London, he once said, he was invited to join the prestigious Old Vic theater group about the same time a job offer came from the Czech and German department of the BBC.

“I didn’t know which to take, so I wrote to a friend, asking him to cable me with his advice,” Mr. Lom told the Independent. “I was sitting in the bath when the landlady knocked and said, ‘There’s a gentleman to see you, Mr. Lom.’ It was a policeman holding a telegram. He said, ‘Can you explain this, sir?’ I looked at the telegram and it said simply: TAKE BBC. It was simple career advice from my friend, but the police thought it must be something terribly sinister.”

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