Born May 24, 1914 in Posen, Prussia, now Poznan, Poland, Lilli Marie Peiser, known professionally as Lilli Palmer, was the middle daughter of a German Jewish surgeon and his Austrian stage actress wife.
When the future actress was four, her family moved to Berlin where she became a table tennis champion as a young girl. She studied drama in Berlin and was given a two-year contract to the Frankfurt Playhouse but that was cancelled when Hitler came to power in 1933. She and her sisters fled to Paris, but her father died in Berlin in 1934 at 57. Their mother would die in 1959 in England.
In Paris, Palmer appeared in an operetta at the Moulin Rouge before moving to London where she was given a contract by the Gaumont Film Company. Making her British film debut in 1935, she appeared in a number of films throughout the decade, the best known of which was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film, Secret Agent in support of Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud and Robert Young.
By the early 1940s, her roles had increased, most notably in 1942’s Thunder Rock in which she was fourth billed behind Michael Redgrave, Barbara Mullen and James Mason. In January 1943, she married actor Rex Harrison. Their son Carey was born the following year.
Palmer’s Hollywood career got off to a strong start with 1946’s Cloak and Dagger opposite Gary Cooper and 1947’s Body and Soul opposite John Garfield. In 1949, she starred opposite Cedric Hardwicke in a Broadway revival of Caesar and Cleopatra and returned the following year opposite Harrison in Bell, Book, and Candle. Much on TV in the early 1950s, she even had her own anthology series, The Lilli Palmer Show in 1953.
Palmer amicably divorced Harrison in early 1957 so that he could marry actress Kay Kendall, who unbeknownst to herself, was dying. Later that year, she married actor Carols Thompson.
Alternating between German, British and Hollywood films in the 1960s, Palmer was outstanding in such films as But Not for Me opposite Clark Gable for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe, Conspiracy of Hearts opposite Sylvia Syms, The Pleasure of His Company opposite Fred Astaire, The Counterfeit Traitor opposite William Holden, The Miracle of the White Stallions opposite Robert Taylor and Operation Crossbow opposite Sophia Loren, George Peppard and Tom Courtenay. She later starred as Mrs. Frank opposite Max von Sydow in an acclaimed 1967 TV production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
The actress’s last major big screen performance was in 1978’s The Boys from Brazil as Laurence Olivier’ aide.
Lilli Palmer died on January 27, 1986 at 71. She was posthumously nominated for a Golden Globe for her supporting performance in that year’s TV mini-series, Peter the Great.
BODY AND SOUL (1947), directed by Robert Rossen
Nominated for Oscars for Best Actor (John Garfield), Original Screenplay (Abraham Polsonsky) and Film Editing, this highly acclaimed film noir won for the latter, though why James Wong Howe’s equally superb cinematography was ignored is beyond comprehension. Garfield is at his best as the brooding boxer who rebels when asked to throw a fight and Palmer is every bit his equal as his thoughtful, prudent girlfriend. The superb supporting cast includes Canada Lee as a critically ill boxer and Anne Revere as Garfield’s the mother the same year she played Gregory Peck’s mother in Gentleman’s Agreement to her third Oscar nomination.
CONSPIRACY OF HEARTS (1960), directed by Ralph Thomas
Curiously never released on home video in the U.S., this powerful British film about a group of Catholic nuns who risk their lives to save Jewish children from a Nazi reception camp in Italy features one of Palmer’s greatest performances as the Mother Superior. Rightfully compared to both Black Narcissus and The Sound of Music, it features equally memorable performances from Sylvia Sims and Yvonne Mitchell as other nuns and Ronald Lewis as a sympathetic Italian major, Albert Lieven as the Nazi commandant and Peter Arne as his sadistic assistant.
THE COUNTERFEIT TRAITOR (1962), directed by George Seaton
Based on Alexander Klein’s 1958 book about American born, Swedish business turned British spy Eric Erickson’s World War II maneuvering in and out of Nazi Germany, William Holden had one of his best Everyman roles as Erickson. Palmer, in one of her best roles as well, as his German contact. Her haunting performance once seen, is never to be forgotten. The real-life Erickson was on set during much of the film’s location filming in West Berlin, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Stockholm. Palmer’s final scene was reportedly filmed on the exact location where the scene played out in real life.
OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965), created by Michael Anderson
A film very much in the mode of the 1961 Oscar nominee, The Guns of Navarone, this one features an all-star cast involved in the eventual blow-up of the Nazis’ rocket research site. Sophia Loren received top billing despite her role being little more than a cameo because of
her husband Carlo Ponti’s influence as the film’s producer. George Peppard and Tom Courtenay have the film’s most prominent roles and Palmer has the film’s strongest female role. The cast also includes Trevor Howard, Richard Johnson, John Mills, Jeremy Kemp, Anthony Quayle, Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine, Richard Todd, Sylvia Sims, and John Fraser.
THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Ira Levin’s best-selling novel was the basis for this popular thriller that combined two popular themes in films of the 1970s – Nazi conspiracies as in The Odessa File and Marathon Man and sci-fi, horror films involving children as in The Exorcist and The Omen. Nominated for Oscars for Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Film Editing and Score, this was Olivier’s tenth and final Oscar nomination. He played an elderly Nazi hunter, who with Palmer’s help, sets out to capture Joseph Mengele (an against-type Gregory Peck) and a group of children who may be clones of Adolph Hitler.
LILLI PALMER AND OSCAR
- No nominations, no wins.