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Scott R. Larson





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Building façade in Cannes, France

Gone but not forgotten VII

Has there been another year in living memory like 2003 for deaths of movie legends? At times it seemed as though I would have to change the name of my website to Scott’s Movie Obituaries. For four years now, I have been doing these annual roll calls of important movie people who have passed away during the previous year, but when the name is important enough to me, I devote one of my weekly columns to the man or woman in question. This past year I have penned no fewer than 13 such tributes. Reviewing the names, the mind boggles. Please linger over each of the following names and reflect on their contribution to our appreciation and/or enjoyment of art and entertainment:

  • Tough guy acting icon Charles Bronson
  • Veteran actor and TV legend Art Carney
  • Durable stage and screen actor Hume Cronyn
  • Hollywood movie immortal Katharine Hepburn
  • British acting stalwart Wendy Hiller
  • Dancer, actor and film director Gregory Hines
  • American entertainment powerhouse Bob Hope
  • Brilliant but controversial film director Elia Kazan
  • Actor and hoofer Donald O’Connor
  • Screen immortal Gregory Peck
  • Gifted but conscience-challenged German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl
  • Talented British director John Schlesinger
  • Iconic television actor Robert Stack
  • TV and film actor Lynne Thigpen

    It is not meant as a slight to the ones that I mention this week and next week that I have waited until now to pay my public respects. There are a lot of names deserving of our esteem and memory below (and next week).

  • Alan Bates: Excuse me. Sir Alan Bates. You had a distinguished acting career that spanned The Entertainer, Georgy Girl and Far from the Madding Crowd in the 1960s to such recent films as Gosford Park and Evelyn. But I will always remember you for a 1978 film, in which you became the gold standard for men who were dating divorced women. Jill Clayburgh was too independent for you in An Unmarried Woman, but in Private Benjamin, Goldie Hawn said she would have married you in a minute.

  • Fred Berry: Appropriately, your swan song was in an ensemble cameo in Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. Your first break was a 1970s sitcom called What’s Happening, playing Rerun. Your second break was a rebirth of the series (thanks, appropriately, to the popularity of its reruns) in the 1980s called What’s Happening Now. You were plagued by alcohol, drugs, diabetes, and weight gain. And all those wives! Six marriages? Dude, what were you thinking?

  • Jonathan Brandis: What is there about the age of 27 for rock stars and actors? You had a great career as a kid, with parts in the sequel to The NeverEnding Story and the TV mini-series It. You even had starring roles opposite Rodney Dangerfield in Ladybugs and Chuck Norris in Sidekicks. Your career peaked with a featured role on Seaquest DSV in what was basically the Wesley Crusher role. Your face was inescapable on the newsstands, dominating the teen idol magazines—until your shelf life expired. Still, you continued to work into your 20s, with a role in Hart’s War and The Year That Trembled. We can only speculate on what drove you to hang yourself. Chalk it up to the child actor curse?

  • Nell Carter: You weren’t really known for your film roles, which included 1979’s Hair and 1981’s Modern Problems. Apart from the stage, your claim to fame was television, mainly the 1980s sitcom Gimme a Break! Other series included a part on The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo and in the 1990s You Take the Kids and Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. I know it’s not your fault, but somehow I hold you responsible for thrusting Joey Lawrence on us.

  • Johnny Cash: Hey, man in black, you were quite a singer and songwriter, and some of the talent found its way into movies. You appeared onscreen in several TV movies (Johnny Laredo in Night Rider, the title character in The Pride of Jesse Hallam, Frank in The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James, the marshal in the 1986 remake of Stagecoach, and the title role in Davy Crockett: Rainbow in the Thunder). As an icon yourself, you were particularly appropriate to play the icon John Brown in the miniseries North and South. Your singing voice graced a huge array of movies, from The Sons of Katie Elder to Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead to Grumpier Old Men to Dead Man Walking to The Apostle to Jackie Brown to One Night at McCool’s. Thanks for walking the line.

  • Joe Connelly: In hindsight, it is a little creepy and more than a little appropriate that you produced and wrote for both Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters. Which was the real parody? No, that’s too cynical. The Beaver and his family may seem impossibly idyllic today, but it was all actually real. I know. I lived it. You also wrote for Amos ‘n’ Andy, and it’s too bad it’s so difficult to see that program now. It was classic comedy.

  • Richard Crenna: For those who grew up with television, it seemed as though you were always there. And you were. Before I can remember, you where that kid with the high-pitched voice on Our Miss Brooks. Then you were Luke on The Real McCoys and then the lead on Slattery’s People. The list goes on and on: the Norman Lear comedy All’s Fair, Look at Us, It Takes Two, Pros and Cons, the Janek movies, Judging Amy. Yet you were in a fair few films as well: everything from The Pride of St. Louis to The Sand Pebbles to Star! to Breakheart Pass to Body Heat to the remake of Sabrina. You were particularly scary in Wait Until Dark and very good in The Flamingo Kid. It was particularly nice how you lampooned your role in (all of) the Rambo movies in Hot Shots! Part Deux and how your character’s name was a reversal of your Our Miss Brooks character, Walter Denton. Well done, man.

  • Charles Douglas: I know nothing about you, and so I have no idea if you have gone to heaven or hell. But I do know that my idea of hell has long been a place where you have to listen constantly to disembodied people laughing. To the extent that you are remembered at all, you are the father of the “laugh track,” that insult to our intelligence that lets us know when something on TV is funny and that we should be chuckling (later refined as “filmed before a live studio audience.”) I still remember the corny gags on Ozzy and Harriet where the laughter seemed to start and end in mid-chuckle, like, well, like a tape recorder being turned off and on. And who was that lady who always went “Uh-oh” just before Lucy and Ethel were about to get into big trouble?

  • Buddy Ebsen: Come listen to my story ‘bout a man named Christian Rudolph Ebsen. No wonder you preferred “Buddy”! You will be remembered forever for playing an Ozark hick who struck it rich and moved to snooty southern California. In a strange way, The Beverly Hillbillies actually foretold the cultural rift between America’s media centers and fly-over country. Beyond that, you will be remembered for playing a golden age private eye. My dad remembered you as a young hoofer who danced with his sister and then appeared in movies with titles like Born to Dance, Banjo on My Knee, Sing Your Worries Away and Under Mexicali Stars. Baby boomers will also remember you for being Davy Crockett’s buddy, George Russel. If I had to pick your shining moment on the big screen, I think it would be Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where you got to be Audrey Hepburn’s estranged husband. Whoo doggies.

  • Jack Elam: If anyone was ever destined to play the menacing bad guy, it was you, with that face and that eye. You were in a heck of a lot of westerns, usually playing characters with names (when they had names) like Gimp, Tioga, Horseface, Trapper, Rattlesnake, and Big Mac. You were a fixture on TV westerns for years, including playing a host of characters during Gunsmoke’s long run, as well as a couple of Bonanza reprises in the 1990s. Your films range from the obscure to the classic: Rawhide, High Noon, The Man from Laramie, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Rio Lobo, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, etc. But you stand out for me for one of the most marvelous cameos ever on the silver screen. In the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West, you and Woody Strode and some other guy lie in wait for Charles Bronson at a train station. I heard a story that Sergio Leone had actually approached Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach to play the three gang members who bite it in the first reel. That would have been a good joke, but it was better with you and Woody. Adios, hombre.

  • Stanley Fafara: I have distant memories of you, as though you were a childhood friend. And I suppose, to a lot of us, you were. And that made it sad to hear how your life turned out and that it ended when you were only in your 50s. Your acting career was pretty brief, but we will all remember Beaver’s friend Whitey. Sounds like you were finally getting your life in order in Portland when the Hep C got you. I guess there’s no going back to Mayfield.

  • Howard Fast: You did a bit of television writing (The Defenders, the 1978 miniseries How the West Was Won) and you get a trivia footnote for being Erica Jong’s father-in-law. But you are, of course, best known for your many, many novels. For film buffs, one stands above all others in terms of being the source for a truly classic movie. You wrote Spartacus.

  • Herb Gardner: Trivia note: you appeared in the infamous Ishtar as a rabbi. But we certainly won’t remember you for that. In fact, we probably won’t even remember that. You also wrote and directed two films based on your plays, The Goodbye People and I’m Not Rappaport and took over direction from John Berry on your adaptation of your play Thieves. None of these projects exactly get you into film fandom immortality either. I’m afraid your place in movie history rests almost entirely Fred Coe’s movie that you adapted from your play, A Thousand Clowns. I don’t know if it was Coe’s direction or the cast (Jason Robards, Barbara Harris, Martin Balsam) or the humor or maybe just the timing of the story’s theme (in 1965) of independence and non-conformity. Anyway, it was a winner.

  • David Greene: You made a heck of a lot of TV movies. Many were superfluous remakes of big screen movies. Some had titles like Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story. But you also did episodes of respectable miniseries like Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. Your main credit in your obituaries, however, was the big-screen adaptation of the stage musical Godspell, in which Victor Garber played Jesus (many years before he designed the Titanic). In a way, you put the freak in Jesus freak.

  • Buddy Hackett: If Jack Elam had a face made for movie villainy, you had a face made for comedy. If you didn’t exist, then you would have to be created through claymation. To look at you and to listen to you was to laugh. In 1950s minor comedies, you played characters with names like Blimp Edwards and Pluto Swint. In the 1960s you were the most cartoonish of characters in such cartoon-like movies as It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Muscle Beach Party. More recently, in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and its sequel, you were the voice of a sea bird. If you had a sweet role, it was as your predecessor in the comedy world, Lou Costello, in the TV movie Bud and Lou.

  • Conrad L. Hall: Your dad wrote the book Mutiny on the Bounty. You were the most legendary of cinematographers. If Paul Newman looked good in films, your light probably had a lot to do with it. You shot him in everything from Harper, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Road to Perdition. And you could work in black and white as well as in color, as In Cold Blood showed. Your were nominated many times for the Oscar and, given the span of your work, it’s fitting that you got it at the end of the 1960s (for Butch and Sundance) and at the turn of the millenium (for American Beauty and then for Road to Perdition).

  • David Hemmings: Young, cute and talented (you were a professional singer by 9, an exhibited painter at 15), you personified in many ways Britain’s swinging sixties. Your name was made when you played the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (opposite Vanessa Redgrave). Other quintessentially 1960s roles included Mordred in Camelot and someone named, um, Dildano in Barbarella. Yours was a face we wanted to keep young forever, but every time we looked around, there you were, getting older, often in supporting roles—even taking a part on TV’s Airwolf. Hey, you even directed episodes of Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Quantum Leap and Murder, She Wrote. Still working away, you gave us our last glimpses of you in such movies as Gladiator, Spy Game, Gangs of New York and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And for what it’s worth, the likes of Russell, Brad and Leo aren’t as nearly pretty as you were.

  • Earl Hindman: Your career spanned three decades, and you had small roles in films like The Parallax View, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Taps, Silverado, Three Men and a Baby and The Ballad of Sad Cafe. But no one will remember you for any of that. Or your various TV movies. You entered TV immortality playing that timeless sitcom staple, the chatty next-door neighbor. The irony is that, in your most visible role, you were virtually invisible. In a nod to those numerous sitcom characters who were never seen onscreen (Norm’s wife on Cheers comes to mind), your face was always obscured as you imparted pearls of wisdom to Tim Allen on Home Improvement. Thanks for the talk, Wilson.

  • Walter M. Jeffries: As a TV art director you went where no man has gone before. Back before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, before the shuttles, before the space stations, before little robot things took photos on Mars, you designed the seminal fictional spaceship. When Gene Roddenberry asked you to design the starship Enterprise, he must have known your flight experience (B-17 co-pilot in Europe and Africa in WWII) would come in handy. And that gets you into science fiction history forever. As long as Star Trek is playing anywhere, we will hear your name every time someone has to scramble through the ship’s narrow, little crawl spaces, which are called in your honor “Jeffries tubes.” Beam us up, Matt.

    To be continued…

    -S.L., 8 January 2004


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