#72 - Direct from Horrorwood, Karloffornia
1927 - 2008
When I decided to split my 2008 In Memoriam tribute into two columns, little did I realize that the year would continue to take its toll right up to the bitter end. Sure, I assumed a few more names would be added to the roster but Death stayed busy even through the final days of the year. With so many names to get through, let’s roll on with the conclusion of In Memoriam 2008. If I’ve omitted anyone who was particularly important to you, my apologies. As always, these columns are highly subjective and no oversight was intended.
Thomas M. Disch
I learned about the deaths of most of the people I’ve paid tribute to right away, thanks to the information age. But the death of Thomas M. Disch went sadly underreported and I only stumbled upon the news of his suicide weeks after the fact. Disch was a prolific writer of both science fiction and horror, with novels like Camp Concentration and The M.D. being particular favorites of mine. His best known work was most likely his delightful children’s book The Brave Little Toaster, later the basis for one of Disney’s more underrated animated films. Fame seemed to elude Disch during his lifetime but I hope that his books will one day be rediscovered. He’s one of the best writers you’ve never heard of.
Charles H. Joffe
If you’re a Woody Allen fan, you know the name Charles H. Joffe. Beginning in 1969, Joffe was the Woodman’s producer, quietly working behind-the-scenes to match Allen’s prolific movie-a-year schedule. Joffe was the man who launched Woody’s film career. Without him, we wouldn’t have such classics as Bananas, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Annie Hall, which won Joffe an Oscar for Best Picture.
An eye for talent can be as much of a gift as talent itself and Bernie Brillstein had one of the best eyes in show business. In his long and storied career, Brillstein helped shepherd the likes of Jim Henson, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and many, many others. He executive produced such films as The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters and TV series like Mr. Show, NewsRadio and Primetime Glick. In a town where producers, managers and agents are often viewed as the enemy, Brillstein commanded respect throughout the industry. As Nikki Finke said in her Deadline Hollywood tribute to Brillstein, he understood the use of power in Hollywood as opposed to the abuse of it.
I was dimly aware of Bernie Mac for a number of years before I decided on a whim to rent The Original Kings of Comedy. I generally enjoyed the movie but was surprised at just how funny Mac really was in his natural element. Mac provided some of the best moments in the Ocean’s series and was a highlight of Bad Santa, one of my favorite holiday movies. And while his on-screen persona was probably best captured on The Bernie Mac Show, the place to really see him at his peak remains The Original Kings of Comedy.
There a lot of reasons to miss Isaac Hayes. There’s his memorable, charismatic performance as The Duke of New York in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. There’s Chef and his Chocolate Salty Balls, source of some of the best moments from South Park. But above all, there’s the hot buttered soul sound of Hayes’ music. Whether it was his rich, Oscar-winning music for Shaft or on his own albums, nobody made music quite like Isaac Hayes. Effortlessly cool and dripping with soul, Hayes is now and forever one bad mutha…shut your mouth!
Bringing Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters to life couldn’t have been easy but Bill Melendez made it seem like the most natural thing in the world. Over the course of dozens of TV specials and a handful of feature films including A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy Come Home, Melendez and Schulz collaborated one of the most successful animated adaptations of a comic strip ever produced. Melendez also gave voice to the voiceless, providing the vocal performances of Snoopy and Woodstock for many years. All kids love cartoons and Bill Melendez’s work was as much a part of my childhood as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Walt Disney.
Chevy Chase owes one of the most memorable roles of his career, that of investigative reporter Irwin Fletcher, to mystery novelist Gregory Mcdonald. The fact that the 1985 movie Fletch didn’t spawn an entire series of films isn’t for lack of source material. Mcdonald penned nine Fletch novels, not to mention four spin-offs featuring a supporting character, Flynn. He also wrote The Brave, which became the source for one of the most mysterious and intriguing unreleased movies ever made, the 1997 directorial debut of Johnny Depp. Mcdonald’s prequel novel Fletch Won has been in development as a movie for years now, so there’s still hope that one day Fletch will return to the screen.
Roger Waters, David Gilmour and original frontman Syd Barrett got most of the spotlight but Pink Floyd wouldn’t have been Pink Floyd without Rick Wright on keyboards. Wright was less interested in songwriting than in composition and his contributions helped define Pink Floyd’s epic, swirling soundscapes. On albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, Wright’s music shines through the densely layered songs like a crazy diamond.
It’s easy to admire movie stars for their performances. It’s much rarer to respect them for their life’s work. Paul Newman was one of the few. His film career spanned decades with great, iconic work every few years dating all the way back to 1958’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Movies like The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid firmly established him as one of the great movie stars of all time. He aged more gracefully than most anybody has a right to, transitioning from career-best star turns in The Verdict and The Color Of Money to richly textured supporting roles in movies like Road To Perdition. Off screen, Newman seemed like a genuinely wonderful and down-to-earth human being, a loving husband to Joanne Woodward for 50 years, a devoted father and an activist and humanitarian who truly believed in the causes he fought for. The passing of Paul Newman leaves an enormous hole in not just American movies but also the landscape of the country. He was a giant and I’m not sure we’ll ever see his like again.
A first-rate jazz trumpeter and arranger during the big band era, Neal Hefti transitioned to film and TV scoring in the 1960s, composing not one but two of the best TV theme songs ever: Batman and The Odd Couple. I can almost guarantee you’ve had Hefti’s music stuck in your head at least a few times in your life.
Rudy Ray Moore
I try to keep the Electric Theatre relatively clean, honest I do. But if I tried to do that with Rudy Ray Moore, I know Dolemite himself would say I was a rat-soup-eatin’, born-insecure, no-account honky motha-FUCKA! Sure, there were more polished movies than The Human Tornado and Petey Wheatstraw to come out of the 70s, but few that were anywhere near as much fun. Rudy Ray Moore was one-of-a-kind, a rhymin’, signifyin’, I-ain’t-lyin’ raconteur whose act turned the air blue for miles around whatever nightclub he was performing at. I’ve seen a lot of movies with Q&A sessions after the show but the best one is hands down seeing Rudy Ray Moore live and in person presenting Dolemite at the American Cinematheque. Meeting a celebrity is one thing. That night, I got to meet Dolemite and shake the hand that wielded the pimp cane. It was every bit as bad-ass as I had hoped.
Say what you will about Gerard Damiano’s 1972 porno movie Deep Throat and its relative merits as cinema (personally, I don’t think it’s that great). There’s no denying that it’s one of the most culturally significant films of the past 40 years. Whether through skill or by chance, Damiano brought porn, however briefly, into the mainstream. Damiano’s 1973 The Devil in Miss Jones is actually a better movie than its predecessor but it’s Deep Throat for which he’ll be remembered, no doubt for both good and ill.
The oral history is a much-abused form of non-fiction, too often used to hide laziness on the part of the author. Studs Terkel was the exception. In books like Working and Hard Times, Terkel interviewed ordinary people, prodding them for their thoughts and remembrances on seemingly mundane subjects like their jobs, as well as their perspective on momentous events like the Great Depression. He brought them to life vividly, preserving countless distinctively American voices that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. Terkel’s work was as compelling as it was important and our history is richer for it.
You can listen to music twenty-four hours a day for the rest of your life and you won’t come across too many voices quite like Yma Sumac’s. I first learned about her amazing four-octave voice thanks to the invaluable RE/Search book and CD, Incredibly Strange Music. Once I heard her sing, I instantly understood where “exotica” music got its name. Grab a copy of her album Voice of the Xtabay and be transported to another world.
Pop culture is never the best place to educate oneself but at his best, no one was better at mixing science with page-turning thrills than Michael Crichton. In novels like The Andromeda Strain, Rising Sun and Jurassic Park, Crichton hit upon a winning combination of suspense and technology, expertly blending science fact with fiction to make you believe that we actually might be able to clone dinosaurs within the very near future. His influence could be felt heavily during the first season of ER (based loosely upon his own experiences as a medical student). And while movies like Congo and Sphere failed to live up to the promise of Crichton’s novels, his own work as a director and screenwriter was pretty darn impressive, particularly the 1973 sci-fi adventure Westworld. Michael Crichton may not have been the most polished literary stylist but his best books were crackling good reads and I never gave up hoping that he had at least one more Jurassic Park left in him.
Forever known as Mr. Bentley on The Jeffersons, Paul Benedict was one of those character actors with the rare gift of making a big impression with just a few lines. In The Man With Two Brains, he was hilarious as David Warner’s German butler. He had arguably the best line in This Is Spinal Tap as the hotel clerk who was “just as God made me”. As Matthew Broderick’s pretentious film professor in The Freshman, he memorably analyzed The Godfather saga. As the not-title-character in Waiting For Guffman, he got laughs just by showing up. As a character actor, Paul Benedict’s appearance in a movie was never publicized and I’ll miss the happy surprise I’d feel whenever he turned up.
Forrest J. Ackerman
Every sci-fi, fantasy and horror fan on the planet felt more than just a little sadness when we lost our beloved Uncle Forry this past December, even those born too late to pick up an issue of his hugely influential magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. My own interest in the genre was picking up just as the magazine was winding down in the early 1980s, so I was more of a child of Cinefantastique, Starlog and Fangoria myself (every one of which owed its existence to FM). Even so, I picked up a few issues and treasure the memories of poring over them. I remember my first glimpse of a new movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark was in the back of FM. A true fan’s fan, Dr. Acula devoted his life to amassing the most impressive collection of sci-fi ephemera imaginable and sharing it with anybody who asked to see it, personally giving tours through the Ackermansion for as long as his health permitted. By all accounts a warm, thoughtful and unflaggingly generous person, Forry cast an enormous shadow over the fan community. Although it’s difficult to imagine the world without him, The Ackermonster’s influence will be felt for generations.
I always try to include familiar character actors in my In Memoriam columns, since they almost never receive the applause they deserve. Robert Prosky was a familiar face on TV and in movies for decades, perhaps most recognized for his role on Hill Street Blues. He also turned up in Dead Man Walking, John Carpenter’s Christine, David Mamet’s Things Change, and countless others. But my favorite of his roles is as Grandpa Fred in Gremlins 2: The New Batch. As a former news anchor reduced to hosting a soon-to-be cancelled horror movie show for kids, Prosky brings a whole lot of soul into Joe Dante’s madcap world.
The 1950s were a golden age for beautiful, glamorous women but nobody came close to the raw, naked sexiness of Bettie Page. For millions, she was far more than just a model. She was an icon in every sense of the word, embodying freedom, sexuality and lust for life. No trends are more short-lived than fashion trends but the Bettie Page look has remained popular for decades. The fact that her personal life always remained shrouded in mystery only added to her allure. Bettie Page was sexy, vivacious, enigmatic and always very much her own woman.
He may not have been a household name but I was nevertheless surprised at how little media coverage the death of Sam Bottoms generated. From his film debut in The Last Picture Show, Bottoms was a reliable, charismatic screen presence. He appeared in two of Clint Eastwood’s best, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Bronco Billy, but was best remembered as Lance, the acid-dropping soldier in Apocalypse Now.
The peak of my Star Trek fandom is long past me but even so, the death of Majel Barrett Roddenberry struck me as a sad end of an era. She was the thread that linked the various incarnations of the franchise together, even after the passing of her husband, Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. It’s fitting that her final work will be to once again provide the voice of the Enterprise Computer, as she has done for years, in the upcoming reboot of Star Trek. If J.J. Abrams’ version works, it’ll be a fond passing of the torch.
A proficient if hardly flashy filmmaker, Mulligan emerged from live TV in the 50s to direct such films as Fear Strikes Out and Up The Down Staircase. Of course, his best film will always be To Kill A Mockingbird, an adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel so simple and effective that it cements itself in the memory of all who see it. Mulligan made other good movies, including The Man In The Moon and Summer of ’42, but To Kill A Mockingbird is his enduring masterpiece.
In the 80s, my mother took me to see a revival of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. I’d never seen a play like it before and was utterly captivated. Pinter’s language was uniquely his own and while his work can be difficult, the rewards they offer are huge. Plays like The Homecoming and Betrayal are cryptic, innovative and dense and his screenplays for such movies as The Handmaid’s Tale and The French Lieutenant’s Woman adapt difficult novels into artful, intelligent films. I think it can be difficult to judge a playwright’s work unless you see it performed and even then, there’s no guarantee that you’re seeing what the writer intended. But one good production of a Pinter play will make you a believer.
Thanks to her rendition of Santa Baby, I’ll bet a lot of people had just been listening to Eartha Kitt’s voice within hours of hearing the news of her death on Christmas Day. One of the most seductive actresses to snuggle up to Batman as Catwoman, Miss Kitt purred her way through such songs as Monotonous and Je Cherche Un Homme. A one-of-a-kind voice, it takes a talent like hers to make a song as silly as C’est Si Bon sound sexy.
Donald E. Westlake
Even the busiest writer has to look at the vast output of Donald E. Westlake and feel like they’re standing still. Westlake’s contributions to crime fiction are immeasurable, starting with the fast and funny Dortmunder novels, including The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. Of Westlake’s army of pseudonyms, the best known and best loved was Richard Stark, creator of the hard-as-nails Parker novels. Books like The Hunter (later the basis for the great John Boorman movie Point Blank with Lee Marvin and the flawed but still fabulous Payback with Mel Gibson) and Slayground represent pulp fiction at its finest. Westlake also wrote the screenplay for the underrated 1987 horror movie The Stepfather and The Grifters, the best adaptation to date of pulp godfather Jim Thompson’s work. It’s grimly appropriate that 2008, a year that claimed so many great talents, closed with the death of Donald Westlake. Instead of losing just one great writer, we’ve lost several in one fell swoop.
That’ll do it for this year. Thank you again for indulging me as we give these amazing artists one last curtain call. I’ll be back next week with my last nervous glance over the shoulder at 2008, the annual best ‘n’ worst of compilation. Until then, may the new year bring you much happiness. And always remember to enjoy every sandwich.