#71 - Thy First Lord Is Dead
1927 - 2008
Hello all and welcome back to your Electric Theatre, after too long an absence. There are plenty of reasons why there were so few JETs in 2008, some of which I’ll go into in my Best ‘N’ Worst of 2008 column in just a few weeks. I hope all that matters is that the lights of the Electric Theatre have been turned on once again.
To kick things off, I thought I’d return to a theme that I haven’t explored for awhile and pay tribute to some of the artistic talents who left us this past year. I’ve always been fond of these In Memoriam columns and judging from the response I get, some of you enjoy them as well. At first, I assumed this would simply be one column. But as my list grew longer and longer, I realized I’d need to break it into two parts. Every year sees its share of death but 2008 seemed to be especially harsh. Both legendary talents and artists in the prime of their lives passed away in seemingly equal numbers. So many of them made an impact on my life, I felt it necessary to give them one final round of applause. And speaking of applause, both of these In Memoriam columns are dedicated with the utmost love to my grandmother, Pearl, who passed away this past November. All of the filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and artists profiled over the next two columns helped shape my life but none as profoundly as her. Thank you, Grandma. We miss you.
With that, let’s begin our look back with some of the talents we lost during the first six months of 2008, featured here in order of disappearance.
George MacDonald Fraser
I was introduced to Fraser’s Flashman series of novels a few years back and immediately became a fan. These are some of the most wickedly funny historical novels you’ll ever read. Flashman is a drunk, a liar and a coward yet somehow manages to emerge looking like a hero. Fraser also dabbled in screenplays, writing Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and co-writing the James Bond adventure Octopussy, a silly movie to be sure but one I’m rather fond of. But it’s the 12-book Flashman series for which Fraser will be remembered and deservedly so. These are historical adventures for people who hate historical adventure novels.
She was better known to the world as Vampira, the iconic horror hostess immortalized, for better or worse, by Ed Wood in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Virtually all of her TV work is now lost to the ages, so those of us born too late can only imagine her on-screen persona, which really only adds to her allure. Cooler and more mysterious than Elvira, Maila Nurmi helped define the look of what Jonathan Richman would one day call “vampire girls”. Beyond the wig and impossibly tiny waist, Nurmi led a fascinating life, associating with the likes of Orson Welles and James Dean, hanging out with the beat generation and famously taking Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson to court for copyright infringement. I can’t imagine any monster-loving teenage boy wanting to live in a world where Vampira never existed, this one included.
After making his film debut in The Client, Brad Renfro never really got the role-of-a-lifetime that would have made him a huge star. A lot of that may well have been his own fault as he spiraled into the drug addiction that claimed his life. But take a look at Renfro again in movies like Apt Pupil, Bully and Ghost World. This was a talented young actor who sadly never gave himself a chance.
I paid tribute to Ledger back in February, pre-Dark Knight. Now that his performance has been justly acclaimed and an Oscar nomination seems a shoo-in, I hope that the Academy votes Ledger in for his performance and not for the sad fact of his death. Ledger created a truly indelible screen villain in The Dark Knight. It’s not exactly the Joker from the comics and I’m fine with that. Ledger’s Joker is a movie icon, not a print one, and it will certainly be remembered for a long time, posthumous awards or no.
An actor of such quiet, understated authority, Scheider was easy to take for granted. But from leading roles in the likes of Jaws, Sorcerer and All That Jazz to later supporting parts in movies like Naked Lunch and The Russia House, Scheider held the screen and riveted your attention. Scheider was also a part of my February tribute but certainly deserves to be remembered once again.
One of the most unique voices to emerge from Marvel’s House of Ideas in the 1970s, Steve Gerber melded underground comix attitude with mainstream superhero storytelling like no one else. Gerber also fought for creator’s rights in the comics industry, fighting with Marvel over ownership of his Howard the Duck character. The third part of my February tribute, Steve Gerber’s death is a major loss for comics fans everywhere.
Great illustrators don’t always make great comic book artists. It’s not enough to simply draw well. You have to be able to use those images to tell a story. Dave Stevens could do both. His artwork was lush and gorgeous. His storytelling skills, as evidenced by The Rocketeer, were equally sharp. He focused most of his energy on painting and illustration in his later years, providing us with some breathtaking images but sadly too few Dave Stevens stories.
An Oscar-winner for The English Patient and nominee for The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella would no doubt have continued to rack up awards were it not for his sudden and surprising death. His large-scale prestige films were not particular favorites of mine, however. To me, his best work will always be Truly, Madly, Deeply, a small, funny and heartbreaking movie he made wrote and directed in 1990. It came along shortly after my mother passed away and Minghella’s meditation on the grieving process struck a chord with both my stepfather and I. If this were the only film Anthony Minghella had ever made, it would have been enough to make me mourn his passing.
Arthur C. Clarke
I think it’s fair to say you cannot call yourself a science fiction fan unless you’ve read some Arthur C. Clarke. With novels like Rendezvous With Rama and Childhood’s End, Clarke wrote some of the most fascinating works of SF around, equally interested in philosophy as in technology. And then of course there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably the best science fiction film ever made. Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s best work challenged, provoked and inspired. Between his science fiction and his contributions to science fact, Clarke helped shape our world in ways big and small.
Few screen villains have as much impact as Richard Widmark as giggling psycho Tommy Udo in the 1947 film noir Kiss of Death. In this and other movies from the era, Widmark embodied the pulp ethos of crime fiction. From Pickup on South Street to Panic in the Streets, Widmark helped define film noir. It’s impossible to imagine the genre without him.
Even in an era when movie stars were regularly considered larger than life, few have ever been quite as towering as Charlton Heston. His most famous roles in movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and El Cid were anchors in giant, sprawling epics. Even when seemingly miscast as in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, I always felt his innate charisma overshadowed any awkwardness. Of course, movie fans of my generation revered Heston for his work in 70s sci-fi movies like Soylent Green, The Omega Man and the one-and-only original Planet of the Apes. Of his latter-day roles, Kenneth Branagh used him best when he cast Heston as the Player King in his epic 1996 version of Hamlet. Heston commands the stage (and screen) in his few scenes with his booming voice and authoritative presence. It’s a warm, welcome reminder that this enormous, often controversial figure was first and foremost an actor.
The death of Ollie Johnston officially marked the end of an era in animation. The last of Disney’s Nine Old Men, Johnston had a hand in the studio’s best-loved films going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Anyone who loves animation owes a debt of gratitude to Johnston. He helped create an art form from the ground up.
The organ might not be the first instrument you associate with Bruce Springsteen but keyboardist Danny Federici was a vital part of the E Street Band from day one. Phantom Dan didn’t grab the spotlight very often but when he did, as on such classics as Hungry Heart or his accordion work on 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), you never forgot it. The E Street Band was such an organic unit that it’s hard to imagine them without Federici. Now you see him, now you don’t…
Without Bebe Barron, movies would sound a lot different. With Forbidden Planet, Bebe and her then-husband Louis Barron created the first entirely electronic film score. The Barrons work was so unconventional, the musicians’ union at the time wouldn’t even allow it to be called music, instead calling it “Electronic Tonalities”. Bebe Barron was a pioneer in avant-garde composition and everyone from John Cage and Wendy Carlos to Trent Reznor owe her a debt.
I was a MAD Magazine junkie when I was a kid and loved it when the magazine would occasionally reprint stories from the early, comic book issues. But of all the great artists whose work appeared in MAD back then, my favorite was Will Elder. His drawings were insanely detailed and I’d stare at them for minutes on end, absorbing all the background jokes. Later on, I’d steal peeks at my dad’s Playboys, partly to…y’know, read the articles…but also for Little Annie Fanny, Elder and Harvey Kurtzman’s comic strip that occasionally appeared in the back pages. I recognized Elder’s style immediately even if I didn’t yet know the name. MAD gave Elder the perfect forum for his style and sense of humor and with it, he warped the minds of generations of kids. Thank god he did.
Alexander Courage and Earle Hagen
It must be strange to work for decades in your field but be most remembered for approximately 30 to 90 seconds worth of music. That’s exactly the position composers for television find themselves in, although the art of the TV theme song seems to be fading away. Courage gave the world the memorable Star Trek theme while Hagen made an even more indelible mark with his unforgettable whistling theme for The Andy Griffith Show. With these short, perfect bursts of music, both Courage and Hagen ensured themselves a legacy that will live on for years.
Despite making some of the best-loved films of the past thirty years, Sydney Pollack never seemed to enjoy the same level of recognition as other directors who emerged in the late 1960s and early 70s. Pollack was not a flashy director but he was a solid one capable of greatness, as in Tootsie and Three Days of the Condor. He may have been a better producer than a director, helping to bring such films as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Searching For Bobby Fischer to the screen. And while he may have been a reluctant actor, only taking the role of Dustin Hoffman’s agent in Tootsie after Hoffman insisted on it, he was a naturally good one, appearing memorably in Eyes Wide Shut, Michael Clayton and my personal favorite, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. Sydney Pollack was a dependable presence in American film for over forty years and he will most assuredly be missed.
That’s Hed-LEY! I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show, so Harvey Korman was a huge part of my childhood. Even if the sketches themselves were corny, you could depend on laughs just from watching Korman and Tim Conway crack each other up. Beyond that, Korman also provided the voice of The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones as well as appearing on the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special. But it was his work with Mel Brooks in movies like Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety where Korman truly shined. Korman was like a great vaudeville star born too late.
I don’t know if Bo Diddley ever did catch a bear cat to make his pretty baby a Sunday hat but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Bo straddled the line between the old bluesmen of his youth and the new sound of rock and roll, revving up the old sounds and letting them loose. His sound was simple, straight-forward and as essential to rock music as whiskey to a thirsty man. Virtually every rock act since that’s worth talking about has relied on the Bo Diddley beat at one time or another, from The Beatles to The Clash to U2 to The White Stripes. Bo Diddley was a giant, deserving every one of the many accolades he received over the years. Go, Bo Diddley, go!
In an era when most of us get our news from television, it’s interesting that there are so few TV journalists that command the respect that say, Walter Cronkite did. Tim Russert was an exception. An intelligent, opinionated moderator of Meet The Press for over a decade, Russert asked hard questions and rarely allowed guests to get off with easy answers. Moreover, Russert appeared to genuinely love his work. His enthusiasm for politics was infectious. Tim Russert was the consummate professional journalist and television could use a lot more like him.
Directors, writers, actors and composers are all great but visual effects and makeup artists are the real magicians of the movies. They’re the ones who make the impossible a reality. Among that group, Stan Winston was a titan. Without him, The Terminator would have been a cheesy B-movie chase flick. Aliens would have been an utterly unnecessary cash-in sequel. Jurassic Park would have been Land of the Lost. Stan Winston turned them and many others into events. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Winston just a year and a half ago at Comic-Con thanks to the one-and-only Todd Doogan. Stan was gracious and signed a copy of his beautiful coffee table book The Winston Effect for me. Little did I know how soon it would become one of my most treasured possessions. Stan Winston was one of the best and without him, movies seem a little more ordinary.
Stand-up comedy is a rough gig and my hat’s off to anybody brave enough to give it a go. The best stand-ups develop a voice distinctly their own with material that must tread a fine line between topical and timeless. By any definition, George Carlin was one of the best of the best. Carlin’s love-hate relationship with the English language provided fodder for decades of side-splitting material that holds up to this day. Sure, he dabbled in movies but he was first, last and always a comedian, railing against society and shaking his head at the idiocy of humanity.
Just about every actor who passed through Twin Peaks garnered some sort of cult following but few were as loyal as that of Major Garland Briggs. Davis played the part brilliantly, taking what could have been a military caricature and making him a very real, integral part of the show. I liked the character from the beginning and was glad to see him gradually become more important, always carrying an air of mystery around him. Chris Carter must have been giving a tip of the hat to Twin Peaks when he cast Davis as Scully’s army dad in an early episode of The X-Files. Twin Peaks has been off the air for ages now and I never really entertained the idea of a reunion but with the passing of Don Davis, I truly felt the series was over.
Wow, and that’s just the first six months of the year. I’ll be back shortly after the holidays to wrap up my tribute to the greats of 2008. Until then, happy holidays and enjoy every sandwich.