While still in Prague, Herbert Lom made his film debut in a supporting role in the Czech romantic drama ‘Zena pod krízem’ (‘Woman Below the Cross’) in 1937. The next year, he appeared in a couple more small roles in the films ‘Bozí mlýny’ and ‘Karel Hynek Mácha’. After emigrating to Britain at the start of the second world war, he had an uncredited role portraying young Adolf Hitler in the English documentary-drama ‘After Mein Kampf?: The Story of Adolph Hitler’ (1940). However, his first proper screen role was as Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1942 British biographical film ‘The Young Mr. Pitt’. The role that gave him greater recognition was that of psychiatrist Dr. Larsen in the popular and acclaimed melodrama film ‘The Seventh Veil’ in 1945. He also starred in the lead as twin trapeze artists in the 1947 drama film ‘Dual Alibi’.
During the early 1950s, Lom obtained many foreign roles in several films thanks to his distinct Czech accent – for instance, a Greek racketeer in ‘Night and the City’ (1950), a flamboyant Polish officer in ‘Rough Shoot’ (1953), and a French count in ‘Star of India’ (1954) – and the trend would continue throughout his career, but he avoided being typecast by portraying diverse character roles. He starred as the malevolent butler Ford in the comedy film ‘Two on the Tiles’ (1951) and the despicable solicitor Maurice Meister in the crime comedy ‘The Ringer’ (1952). In 1953, he portrayed the King of Siam in the original London production of the musical ‘The King and I’ at the Drury Lane Theatre, for which role he had his head shaved, requiring him to wear a hat throughout the filming of the 1955 black comedy ‘The Ladykillers’, which saw him work with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. He again portrayed Napoleon in King Vidor’s epic historical drama ‘War and Peace’, based on Leo Tolstoy's 1869 novel, in 1956. In the following year, he appeared alongside Robert Mitchum, Jack Lemmon and Rita Hayworth in the British-American adventure drama ‘Fire Down Below’.
Lom further achieved success in roles such as a pirate envoy in ‘Spartacus’ (1960), General Ben Yusuf of the Almoravid dynasty in ‘El Cid’ (1961), Captain Nemo in ‘Mysterious Island’ (1961), the titular character in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1962) – regarding which he stated “at least I wasn't the villain, for a change” – as well as rich Arab man Ahmad Shahbandar in ‘Gambit’ (1966). Lom, who debuted on television with ‘BBC Sunday-Night Theatre’ in 1951 and had small appearances on the series ‘The Errol Flynn Theatre’ (1956) and ‘The Magical World of Disney’ (1963), starred in his only regular role as a Harley Street psychiatrist in the British drama ‘The Human Jungle’ (1963–64), which ran for two series.
Despite playing dark and sinister roles in a large number of his films, Lom is now best recognized for his portrayal of Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, the twitchy boss of Peter Sellers’ character, Inspector Clouseau, in the American comedy-mystery films of the ‘Pink Panther’ series, directed by Blake Edwards. He first appeared in the second film of the series, ‘A Shot in the Dark’ (1964), and while the character was not a major one at first, his performance as the “blabbering lunatic” driven mad by Clouseau’s antics was so endearing that he returned to reprise the role in six more films until ‘Son of the Pink Panther’ in 1993, which was also his final big screen appearance, and often stole the show from Sellers when they appeared on screen together.
At the start of the next decade, Lom started to appear in a number of horror films including ‘Count Dracula’ (1970), in which he played Dr. Van Helsing opposite Sir Christopher Lee’s Dracula, even though they reportedly never met during the filming and shot their scenes separately. He appeared in ‘Mark of the Devil’ and ‘Dorian Gray’ the same year, followed by more horror movies like ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1971), ‘Asylum’ (1972), ‘Dark Places’ (1972) and ‘And Now the Screaming Starts!’ (1973). He played Dr. Armstrong in the 1974 adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel ‘And Then There Were None’ and later appeared as General Romensky in the 1989 adaptation titled ‘Ten Little Indians’. He had another villainous role in the British comedy mystery ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (1979), following which his notable performances were in the American spy comedy ‘Hopscotch’ (1980) and the American sci-fi thriller ‘The Dead Zone’ (1983), apart from the ‘Pink Panther’ movies. He also played a corrupt South American dictator in ‘Whoops Apocalypse’ (1988) and a Vatican mafioso in ‘The Pope Must Die’ (1991). His final acting role was as suspicious French professor Augustin Dufosse in the episode ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ of the television series ‘Agatha Christie's Marple’ in 2002.