Karen Black 1939-2013

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Born Karen Blanche Ziegler in Park Ridge Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago, her mother Elsie was an award winning writer of children’s books, her grandfather Arthur, was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first chair violinist. She attended Northwestern University for 2 years before turning her attention to acting and moving to NYC to study under Lee Strasberg where she worked in a number of off-Broadway productions. Karen took the name of Black after her first husband, Charles Black before embarking on a film career in 1959 which like many other actors, including Clint Eastwood and much later, George Clooney, began on television. Her appearances on television included roles in The F.B.I., The Big Valley and Mannix to name a few.

Karen Black emerged at the time when the disintegration of the old Hollywood studio system was almost complete and the onset of American independent filmmaking without studio restrictions was on the rise. Her first film, You’re a Big Boy Now 1966, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Geraldine Page and Julie Harris, was an early example of counterculture sensibilities that would become commonplace on the American film landscape from the late 60s until the mid 70s. She played a prostitute in Easy Rider 1969, an iconic film that totally defined the term counterculture, directed by Dennis Hopper, starring Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.

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Black teamed with Nicholson for a second time the next year in Five Easy Pieces 1970 playing his waitress girlfriend with dreams of country music stardom and earned herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her participation in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces made her a counterculture goddess of imperfect beauty with a crazy eye, Black spent the better part of the 70s giving vivid characterizations in a broad spectrum of film fare including The Great Gatsby 1974, Airport 75, the fabulous Trilogy of Terror (a made for TV movie where she played the lead in all 3 storylines). It was in Robert Altman’s Nashville 1975, that starred everybody, where Black brought forth her talent for singing and songwriting by writing and performing  her own material. It was during this time that she gained and maintained a strong cult following.

Karen Black seemingly found fulfillment in brassy, attention grabbing roles in films with mostly male main characters. By the time the 1970s moved into the ’80s, her career had taken a sideways turn. She never stopped working and her list of credits, largely in independent films, is extensive, but her roles in ambitious, groundbreaking films were largely behind her.

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Her best-known later title was Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean 1982, about the reunion of a James Dean fan club in a small Texas town 20 years after his death. The film starred Sandy Dennis, Cher and Black, who played a transsexual. During the 90s she seemed at home in low budget horror films with great titles…Children of the Night 1991, Children of the Corn IV, The Gathering 1996, Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses 2003 and My Suicidal Sweetheart 2005.

Karen Black was married and divorced three times before marrying Stephen Eckelberry in 1987. In addition to him, survivors include a son, Hunter, two daughters, Celine and Diane, four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. She battled with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic and in the end this disease claimed another vibrant life. Karen Black was truly an original. She was also a Scientologist.

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Jean Stapleton 1923-2013

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Born in NYC whose father was an advertising salesman and mother an opera singer, Jean Stapleton, who graduated with a degree from Hunter College, worked as a secretary until deciding to do summer stock in Peaks Island, Maine in 1941 which would change her life. She eventually made her Broadway debut in 1948 in Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical work, The Corn is Green.

Stapleton, with her larger than life talent became well-known around Broadway and never lacked work, was an original cast member of three landmark musicals,  Damn Yankees, 1955 and Bells Are Ringing, 1956, where she reprised her roles for the film versions, as well as Funny Girl,1964, where her distinctive voice can be heard on the original cast recording.

During the 50s and 60s she did her share in the new medium of television appearing in classic anthology programs such as Lux Radio Theatre and Philco-Goodyear Playhouse which featured live performances of plays as well as in sitcoms including My 3 Sons, Car 54, Where Are You?, Dennis the Menace, Naked City and the Defenders where she co-starred with Carroll O’Connor who would become her future television husband.

Her film career included Klute with Jane Fonda and Cold Turkey directed by Norman Lear, both in 1971. Michael in 1996 with John Travolta directed by Nora Ephron and You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, also directed by Ephron. It was her collaboration with Lear in Cold Turkey that led her to become a household name when he cast her in the role of Edith Bunker, Archie’s wife, in his groundbreaking television sitcom All in the Family that was modeled after the hit British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part.

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The character of Edith was sweet, understanding and naïve which stood in sharp contrast to Archie (portrayed by Carroll O’Connor) who was bigoted, stubborn and ignorant. On the few occasions when Edith did take a stand she proved herself the wisest of all the characters in the show which included their feminist daughter Gloria played by Sally Struthers and her husband Mike played by Rob Reiner. The series tackled subjects that had previously been taboo on American television including  racism, abortion, death, homosexuality, women’s liberation, breast cancer, the Vietnam war, impotence and menopause. Despite the differences between Edith and Archie it was made clear that they loved each other deeply and in spite of Archie’s up front and in your face bigotry, he was portrayed as a lovable and decent man who constantly struggled to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

All in the Family ran from 1971 until 1979 and won Stapleton 3 Emmy’s and 2 Golden Globes. She also received an honorary degree from Wilson College and has a scholarship named after her.

In 1977 she was one the commissioners who helped put together the National Women’s Conference in Houston, a gathering of 2000 delegates from every U.S. state–part of International Women’s Year–to assist in the formulation of national policy on women’s issues.

In 1979 Stapleton played the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in a one woman show for television afterward taking the show on the road to play before live audiences. Her later television work included Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Murphy Brown, Touched By An Angel and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Jean Stapleton was married 30 years to William Putch, a director of summer stock theatre until his death in 1983. They had 2 children, John Putch an actor and filmmaker and Pamela Putch, a producer. She was surrounded by family and close friends when she died of natural causes in New York City on May 31st.

Jean Stapleton was not related (as popularly believed) to Maureen Stapleton.

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Annette Funicello 1942-2013

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What can one say about the first girl who stole your heart. The girl who inspired Paul Anka to write the song “Puppy Love” to commemorate their sweet and chaste romance when they budding teenagers? The girl who was able to forge deep and lasting friendships with some of the biggest names in teenage entertainment of the 60s: Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Shelley Fabares, Paul Anka and Tommy Kirk.

Annette Funicello was put through the Disney star making machine and came out unscathed, despite her extreme popularity and the demands made of her time, probably because she received guidance from a set of caring parents and an over protective Walt Disney, who took the time to keep her grounded through love, understanding and a genuine interest in her well-being. Those are the very qualities she exhibited throughout her life. Everyone who knew her loved her, even those who didn’t did.

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One of the original Mouseketeer’s, Annette and the others blended very well together as a team but it wasn’t difficult to note that she had that extra something special. She appeared in a few of the serials within the show including all the Spin and Marty sequels and Walt Disney Presents: Annette, with Richard Deacon (Mel Cooley from The Dick Van Dyke Show) as her co-star. It was during a hayride scene where Annette sang the song “How Will I Know My Love” that launched her singing career. The Disney Studio got so much mail from that one song that they released it as a single and gave Annette her singing career, much to her chagrin. She knew she wasn’t the greatest singer in the world but went with the flow anyway. She credited “the Annette sound” to her record producer, Tutti Camarata, who worked for Disney. Camarata had her double-track her vocals, matching her first track as closely as possible on the second recording to achieve a fuller sound than her voice would otherwise produce. A teen idol was born.

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Annette moved on from Disney starring in a series of Beach Party movies with Frankie Avalon for American International Pictures. These included Beach Party 1963, Muscle Beach Party 64, Bikini Beach 64, Pajama Party 64, Beach Blanket Bingo 65 and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini 65. Although all the plots of these films were essentially the same nobody cared because the movies were so much fun. Full of energy, surfing, singing and dancing on the beach, the films glorified the teenage southern California culture. In 1979 Annette became the national spokesperson for Skippy Peanut Butter and did a series of television commercials.annette at the beach

In 1987 Annette and Frankie teamed again for the Paramount parody of their earlier sand and surf films, Back to the Beach. It was during filming that Annette began to notice strange things happening with her body. She later learned that it was the onset of Multiple Sclerosis. She kept that secret from her friends and family and finally announced her condition in 1992 to combat vile rumors that her impaired ability to walk was the result of alcoholism. She lost the ability to walk in 2004 and the ability to speak in 2009. She lost the battle with MS yesterday April 8, she was 70 years old.

Disney Studio’s issued this statement:

“Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer, and a true Disney Legend. She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent. Annette was well-known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life.”

And celebrate I will: did I mention how good she looked in clothes?

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Roger Ebert 1942-2013

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“I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” Roger Ebert.

It’s apt that this titan of journalistic excellence thought of his entire life as a movie, considering that movies were his life. He also said “We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.”

Born in Urbana, Illinois, an only child, Ebert’s interest in journalism began when he was a student (a classmate of David Ogden Stiers) at Urbana High School,  as a sports writer, covering state-wide high school sports for The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois. He began taking classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an early entrance student, completing his high school courses while also taking his first university class. After graduating from Urbana High School in 1960, Ebert then attended and received his undergraduate degree. While at the University of Illinois, he worked as a reporter for the The Daily Illini and then served as its editor during his senior year while continuing to work as a reporter for the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana. After completing a semester at the University of Cape Town on a Rotary fellowship, Ebert returned to the U.S. and was accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. Needing a job to support himself, he  applied to the Chicago Daily News, hoping that, as he had already sold freelance pieces to them, he would be hired by editor Herman Kogan. Instead Kogan referred him to the city editor Jim Hodge at the Chicago Sun-Times, who hired him as a reporter/feature writer in 1966. The following year, Eleanor Keane, the film critic for Sun-Times left the paper and her job was given to Ebert and the rest, as they say, is history. He was 24 years old.

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Roger Ebert would become the most influential, powerful and respected film critic in history whose knowledge of the technical aspects of film making made listening, reading or watching his breezy reviews an entertaining learning experience. He considered film a relevant art form that could have a positive or negative influence on society and critiqued them as such. Opinions about the qualities of any film is purely subjective and as he grew older and his taste evolved, his reviews encompassed so much more than just giving reasons why a film was good or bad. Ebert became keen on the relationship between a film and its intended audience, how a director applied his/her craft to any given project, the ability of actors to nuance a role, how the score and cinematography work together as a cohesive unit to be a major contributing factor to a film’s success and a movies ability to withstand the test of time. It was obvious that Ebert loved movies but unlike his peers Pauline Kael, Rex Reed and Judith Christ, Ebert held a very healthy respect for the genre and I think that’s what set him apart from all the others…that and his undeniable eloquence and passion when discussing film with his across town rival: Gene Siskel, film critic for the Chicago Tribune on their popular PBS television show At the Movies.

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He and Siskel were accessible and entertaining, forgoing both celebrity flash and brain-busting film theory in favor of simplicity: two guys sitting in the balcony of a fake theater, talking about summer blockbusters and indie films with a passion that occasionally spilled over into personal insults.“We were very close and friendly,” Roger once said of his relationship with Siskel. “Except when we were fighting.”  The show became one of my favorites because of all the bantering back and forth with both sides firmly entrenched in their own opposite opinions. Those were the films I always made sure to see.  Gene Siskel died in 1999 and the show continued with rotating co-hosts until Richard Roeper permanently took the vacant chair in September 2000, but the show was not the same without Siskel’s presence.

As a critic Ebert also had thoughts on the current movie industry and was an outspoken opponent of the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system, repeatedly criticizing its decisions regarding which movies are suitable for children. He also frequently lamented that cinemas outside major cities are “booked by computer from Hollywood with no regard for local tastes”, making high-quality independent and foreign films virtually unavailable to most American moviegoers. He also advocated for the salvaging of the once majestic and opulent movie houses that once thrived in major metropolitan areas as well as small towns across the country that made going to the movies a memorable experience as opposed to the sterile, utilitarian boxes of multiplexes that show movies today.

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Roger Ebert was also a prolific writer publishing 20 books. Most were about movies: The Great Movies that consists of 3 volumes, Roger Ebert’s Book of Film, A Horrible Experience of Unbearable Length about some of the worst movies ever made, a cookbook The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker. a memoir Life Itself and The Perfect London Walk a walking tour of Ebert’s favorite city outside of Chicago.

He was the first film critic to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize, just one of many awards collected by Ebert during his long, illustrious career including recognition from the American Society of Cinematographers with a Special Achievement Award, the Directors Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award as did CINE. He was even recognized for his contribution for best audio commentary for Citizen Kane…I wish he would’ve done more of those. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (but he had to pay for that).

He teamed with Russ Meyer to co-write a few screenplays which did poorly at the box office but eventually became cult classics: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls 1970, Up! 1976 and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens 1979.

During his career as a film critic he estimated he saw in excess of 10,000 films. Ebert named Ingrid Bergman and Robert Mitchum as his favorite actors of all time and deeply admired Martin Scorsese. He also stated that if he was stuck on a desert island with only one movie to watch it would be Citizen Kane 1941.

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At age 50, he married trial attorney Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith in 1992. He explained in his memoir, Life Itself, that he “would never marry before [his] mother died,” as he was afraid of displeasing her. In his July 2012 blog entry, “Roger loves Chaz”, of his love for his wife, he wrote, “She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading”. Chaz Ebert is now vice president of the Ebert Company and has acted as emcee at Ebertfest, his annual film festival.

He was also a recovering alcoholic having quit drinking in 1979. He was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and had written some blog entries on the subject. He was a longtime friend of, and briefly dated, Oprah Winfrey, who credited him with persuading her to syndicate The Oprah Winfrey Show, which became the highest-rated talk show in American television history. He was also good friends with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin and considered the book Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide to be the standard of film guide books.

In 2002 Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer that greatly altered his appearance and left him literally speechless. With the help of his devoted wife Chaz and new technology that turns text into speech, Ebert could still make public appearances and continue to churn out reviews for the paper while making daily multiple entries in a variety of social media sites as well as his blog. He finally lost his battle on April 4, 2013 and his absence will be hard to get used to.

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Richard Griffiths 1947-2013

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An exceptional character actor, Richard Griffiths may be best known to younger movie goers as Harry Potter’s cruel uncle Vernon Dursley and by older audiences as the charismatic teacher Hector from The History Boys 2006.

Griffiths was born on Thronaby-on-Tees, North Riding of Yorkshire, to deaf parents and learned sign language at an early age to communicate with them. In doing so he developed a talent for dialects that would serve him well in later life, enabling him to show off in a number of ethnic portrayals on radio, stage and film. In his childhood he attempted to run away from home many times. He dropped out of Our Lady & St Bede School at age 15 and briefly worked as a porter, but his boss eventually convinced him to go back to school. He decided to attend drama classes at Stockton & Billingham College and continued his education in drama at Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama.

Griffiths developed an early reputation as a  Shakespearean clown, with larger-than-life portrayals of Henry VIII, Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company, just a few of his standout stage credits.

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He embarked on a prolific film career in the mid 70s and really took off by the early 80s with roles in Ragtime, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chariots of Fire in 1981 and Gandhi 1982 all of which were either nominated or awarded Academy Awards, BAFTA’s and Golden Globes. He appeared in Gorky Park 1983 then Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes 1984. He also appeared in the cult film classic Withnail and I 1987.

Griffiths appeared in the very funny Naked Gun 2 1/2, The Smell of Fear 1991, Guarding Tess 1994 and the atmospheric and creepy Sleepy Hollow in 1999 but it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that his career got its second wind with his participation in the Harry Potter franchise as uncle Vernon Darsley. He was in 5 of the Potter films beginning with The Sorcerer’s Stone and reprised the role in The Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, The Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows between 2001 and 2010. In 2006 Griffiths appeared on the London stage in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, a story about a group of high achieving yet streetwise students who prepare to take the entrance exams in hopes of getting into Oxford or Cambridge where Griffiths played the role of their beloved teacher and mentor Hector, who was the emotional heart of the story. The play was a smashing success and toured the world finally making it to Broadway where Griffiths was awarded a Tony for his portrayal. The History Boys 2006 made a very good film and the entire original London cast participated in making it. Griffiths received a host of awards for his performance as Hector, these included the Laurence Olivier Award for best actor, the Drama Desk  Award for outstanding actor in a play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for best  featured actor in a play.

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In 2008 he was awarded the coveted Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

Griffiths was also well-known as an actor who took a strong line against members  of theatre audiences whose mobile telephones rang out during performances. At  least twice, he was known to have stopped a show to order people out of the  theatre after their phones had persistently rung.

Griffiths married Heather Gibson in 1980. They remained married until his death today at age 65 from complications following heart surgery.

Ruth Gordon 1896-1985

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There are only a handful of actors with personalities so unique they’re remembered long after the rest of the cast is forgotten. Thelma Ritter was one, Marjorie Main another. These women brought to the screen elements of themselves whether it be a plain speaking tower of common sense or a boisterous, good-natured, fun-loving matron, the fact that audiences sensed the realness of their performances not only endeared them in the public eye, but established them in a class by themselves. Ruth Gordon was one of these specialists that created memorable characterizations and like the others, developed a strong cult following.

Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, the daughter of a sea-captain, young Ruth witnessed a performance by Hazel Dawn in a stage production of The Pink Lady, was bitten by the show-biz bug and began to aspire for a life on the stage. She convinced her father to take her to New York in 1914 where she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, appearing later that year in Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up as Nibs, one of the lost boys, to a very favorable review by Alexander Woolcott, an influential critic who became one of Ruth’s close friends and mentor.

By 1916 she began appearing as an extra in silent films in Ft. Lee N.J., never straying far from New York where she continued working on stage in a variety of Broadway productions. It was in one of these shows where she met and married actor Gregory Kelly in 1921. Gordon was typecast in “beautiful but dumb” roles in the early 20s and it was not until her husband’s death in 1927 from heart disease did she start to get offers for roles with more substance. She grew as an artist tremendously in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the restoration comedy The Country Wife at London’s Old Vic that eventually made it to Broadway, and in Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House during the 1930s.

She began appearing in supporting roles on film in the very early 40s beginning with Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet with Edward G. Robinson and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (as Mary Todd Lincoln) with Raymond Massey both in 1940. She appeared alongside Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Two Faced Woman 1941 and the following year with Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic, then Errol Flynn in Edge of Darkness. It was in 1942 that Ruth married her second husband Garson Kanin, a writer, 16 years her junior. Together they collaborated on screenplays for the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films Adams Rib 1949 and Pat and Mike 1952, both directed by George Cukor. They were nominated for Academy Awards in the category of Best Original Screenplay for both films as well as for A Double Life in 1947 with Ronald Coleman and Shelley Winters.  Hepburn, Tracy, the Kanin’s and George Cukor became close friends during this period and remained so for the rest of their lives.

The Actress 1953 was Ruth’s film adaptation of her own autobiographical play that featured Jean Simmons portraying Ruth and Spencer Tracy in the role of her father. It was also directed by Cukor. During the 1950s Ruth returned to the Broadway stage where she was nominated for a Tony for Best Leading Actress as Dolly Levi in Thornton Wilder’s classic The Matchmaker (that would later become Hello Dolly!) a role she reprised in the U.K., Scotland and Germany.

It wasn’t until 1965 that Ruth found herself in front of the cameras again playing Natalie Wood’s deliciously confused mother, “the dealer”, in Inside Daisy Clover, with Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford and Roddy McDowell.  The film, developed from a book by Gavin Lambert was supposed to be an exposé on Hollywood’s dirty secrets regarding mental health, power brokering and homosexuality, bombed at the box office despite its capable cast but later gained a cult following from TV and home video sales. Never-the-less Gordon won a Golden Globe for her supporting role and was nominated for an Academy Award. Also the film is generally recognized for one of the early depictions of a gay or bisexual character in American cinema who is not ashamed of his sexuality and who does not commit suicide.

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In Rosemary’s Baby 1968, a psychological horror film about witchcraft and sorcery in modern-day Manhattan, written and directed by Roman Polanski, was based on the bestselling 1967 novel by Ira Levin. The cast included Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ralph Bellamy and Charles Grodin. As Minnie Castevet, Gordon’s role as a neighbor who has more on her mind than caring for Mia Farrow’s character during her first pregnancy won Ruth her first Academy Award at age 72.

In 1969 Gordon appeared in Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice, the third in a trilogy of psychological thrillers produced by Robert Aldrich, the first being What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the second Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. In 1970 she appeared in Where’s Poppa?, a comedy directed by Carl Reiner that starred George Segal.

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In 1971 Gordon appeared with Bud Cort in what I consider her greatest, most nuanced and heartfelt performance. Harold and Maude is black comedy at its finest. Its existential elements combined with the strong performance of the young lead and Gordon’s free wheeling personality make it hard to resist. The plot concerns a young man Harold (Cort) who is obsessed with death, drives a hearse and attends funerals of strangers much to the chagrin of his socialite mother.  He meets 79-year-old Maude who shares Harold’s hobby of attending funerals.  He is entranced by her quirky outlook on life, which is bright and excessively carefree in contrast with his own morbidity. The pair form a bond, and Maude slowly shows Harold the pleasures of art and music (Harold is taught to play banjo), and teaches him how to “make the most of his time on earth”. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother determines, much against Harold’s wishes, to find him a wife to settle down with. One by one, Harold frightens and horrifies each of his appointed dates by appearing to commit gruesome acts such as self-immolation, self-mutilation, and seppuku. As his relationship with Maude deepens he overcomes many obstacles to keep the light supplied by Maude burning bright. Panned by the critics upon release, Harold and Maude eventually found a cult following like many of Ruth Gordon’s films and in 1983 started to turn a profit. Harold and Maude and Adams Rib were 2 of her films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the United States Library of Congress.

ruth smilingHer film career began to wind down but not before she made two films with Clint Eastwood, Every Which Way but Loose 1978 and Any Which Way You Can 1980. She was no stranger to television. Throughout the 70s and 80s she appeared in Rhoda, Love Boat, Kojak, Newhart and Taxi (where she received an Emmy) and also hosted Saturday Night Live.

Ruth Gordon was also a prolific writer, authoring numerous plays, movie scripts and penning 2 autobiographies titled My Side; An Autobiography and Ruth Gordon; An Open Book.

Her aspirations for a career on the stage developed into a life she never could have imagined. Ruth Gordon was a woman of substance whose excellence of work helped expand the role of women in the entertainment industry.  She died after suffering a stroke in Edgartown, Massachusetts and left behind a legacy of memorable roles and writings to be cherished by future generations.

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Charles Durning 1923-2012

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This titan of character actors was born in Highland Falls, NY., one of 10 children of Louise and James Durning who were Irish immigrants. The son of an Army officer, Charles Durning left home at 15, supporting himself with an odd assortment of menial jobs including boxing, ironwork and construction. Durning got his first taste of acting as an usher at a burlesque theater in Buffalo, NY when he was asked to take the place of one of the comedians who showed up too drunk to perform. He recalled years later that he was hooked as soon as he heard the audience laughing.

A decorated war hero, Durning served in the Infantry Division in World War 2 and landed at Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944 (D-Day) and was one of the few who survived. He was awarded a Combat Infantry Badge, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and 3 Purple Hearts. After serving his country he returned to New York attending Columbia and NYU to study acting under the G.I. Bill.

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After working in the industry during the 1960s in small television roles and stage work, Durning’s breakout performance occurred on Broadway in 1972 having the starring role in That Championship Season where he was noticed by George Roy Hill who cast him his multi award-winning film The Sting 1973 with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.  Durning was equally entertaining in the Billy Wilder production of The Front Page 1974 whose cast included Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon and Carol Burnett. He supported screen tough guy Charles Bronson in the suspenseful western Breakheart Pass 1975. He appeared in Dog Day Afternoon 1975 with Al Pacino and featured as “Spermwhale Whalen” in the story of unorthodox police behavior in The Choirboys 1977 with Louis Gossett Jr and Perry King.

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The versatile Durning was equally adept at comedic roles and demonstrated his skills as “Doc Hopper” in The Muppet Movie 1979, a feisty football coach in North Dallas Forty 1979 with Nick Nolte and a highly strung police officer berating maverick cop Burt Reynolds in Sharkey’s Machine 1981. He played the love interest in Tootsie 1982 with Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Teri Garr, and a light-footed, dancing Governor (alongside Burt Reynolds once more) in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Dolly Parton and Dom DeLuise the same year. In 1983 he did To Be or Not to Be with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft and Dick Tracy 1990 with Warren Beatty and Al Pacino.  Durning continued a regular on-screen association with Burt Reynolds appearing in several more feature films together and as “Dr. Harlan Eldridge” in the highly popular TV series Evening Shade. On par with his multitude of feature film roles, Durning was always in high demand on television and guest starred in Everybody Loves Raymond,  Monk and Rescue Me. He also played Santa Claus 5 times in TV movies.

On the craft of acting, Durning shared these dark yet fascinating thoughts, “There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting”. He offered this lighthearted view of seldom being the lead character ” Of course, I’m not often the top dog, but sometimes it’s better not to be top dog, because you last longer. If a movie or play flops, you always blame the lead. They say: “He couldn’t carry it.” They always blame him. But they rarely blame the second or third banana”.

A beefy character actor, often in tough dominant roles, Charles Durning’s career spanned more than 50 years where he appeared in well over 200 film, television and theatre roles. He earned 9 Emmy Award nominations, 2 Oscar nominations, won a Tony for the role of Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway in 1990, was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Screen Actors Guild in 2008 and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next to his idol James Cagney the same year.  Well respected and loved by everyone who knew and worked with him, Durning passed away on Christmas Eve of natural causes in Manhattan.

durning santa

Jack Klugman 1922-2012

lead klugman

This wonderful character actor was born in Philadelphia the son of Rose, a hat maker and Max Klugman, a house painter both of Russian Jewish ancestry, Jack Klugman grew up a regular guy and served in the U.S.Army during World War 2. Returning to civilian life he graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) and as he worked a series of menial jobs while training for the stage at the American Theatre Wing in New York, Klugman was roommates with Charles Bronson. He made his stage debut in 1949 in the Equity Library Theatre production of Stevedore. 

Klugman said the greatest thrill of his career was appearing alongside Humphrey Bogart and Henry Fonda in a live television production (ahh, those were the days…) of The Petrified Forest in 1955.

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His film debut was in Time Table 1956 a forgettable film with second-tier talent. However, his next film role proved much more substantial as one of 12 male jurors who deliberate the guilt or acquittal of a defendant on the basis of reasonable doubt in 12 Angry Men 1957, directed by Sidney Lumet with a formidable cast that included Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall and Martin Balsam. In the thriller Cry Terror! 1958, he was cast alongside James Mason, the lovely Inger Stevens, and Rod Steiger. Klugman outlived the casts of all these films.

In 1960 Klugman returned to Broadway as Herbie,  Mama Rose’s love interest in the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim production of Gypsy directed by Jerome Robbins and starring the sensational Ethel Merman and Sandra Church getting to sing a couple of complicated Sondheim songs and did a pretty nice job. So nice that he was nominated for a Tony.

days of wine and roses

Returning to film he had a pivotal role in the classic The Days of Wine and Roses 1962 directed by Blake Edwards with cast mates Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. He played the manager of an emotionally shattered world famous singer in I Could Go On Singing 1963 with the great Judy Garland which proved, sadly, to be her last film appearance. Klugman appeared in Goodbye Columbus 1969 with Richard Benjamin and Ali MacGraw which was the highest grossing picture of the year.

oddcouple

It was television where Klugman found his greatest rewards and fame by winning an Emmy for the “Blacklist” segment of the classic The Defenders in 1964 and starred in 4 of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone anthology series, tying with Burgess Meredith for the most starring roles. He won 2 more Emmys for the role of Oscar Madison in the wonderful TV adaptation of the Neil Simon stage ( Klugman replaced Walter Matthau during the shows original run on Broadway in 1965) and film hit The Odd Couple 1970-75, starring alongside his best friend Tony Randall.  The relationship between the 2 men radiated with a special warmth that was not lost on a young gay man (such as myself), which took the simple premise of this show to a whole different level. Klugman and Randall re-united on Broadway in 1998 in another Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys. When Randall died in 2004 Jack Klugman issued this statement “A world without Tony Randall is a world I cannot recognize”. He also said of Randall ” The best friend a man could ever have. I loved him dearly. He was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. I will miss him for the rest of my days. In 2005 he wrote the book, Tony and Me: A Story of Friendship.

quincy

The following year Klugman began another successful series Quincy M.E. about a medical examiner who worked closely with police to solve murders. Quincy M.E. was the very first CSI program on TV. About all the CSI programs that followed Quincy, he was quoted saying, “All these other shows just took what we did and made it bloodier and sexier. Our show was actually about something, we had a message and a moral. You can’t compare gold to tin foil. I was a one man CSI”. That series lasted until 1983. Klugman ended up suing NBC over missing profits from Quincy M.E. in 2008. They settled out of court in 2010 for an undisclosed amount.   In 1987 he was diagnosed with throat cancer and lost his ability to speak for several years. He retrained himself to speak though his voice was raspy and extremely rough.

He was a no-baloney actor who conveyed straightforward, simply defined emotion, whether it was anger, heartbreak, lust or sympathy. That forthrightness, in both comedy and drama, was the source of his power and  popularity. Never remote or haughty, he was a regular guy, an audience-pleaser who proved well-suited for series television and motion pictures.

Jack Klugman married Brett Somers (of Match Game fame) in 1953 and they had 2 sons David and Adam. They legally separated in 1974 but never divorced and remained married until her death in 2007. He began living with girlfriend Peggy Crosby in 1998 and they married in 2008 and remained so until his death at 90 years of age. Upon Klugman’s death last night on Christmas Eve, his son Adam issued this statement, “He had a great life and we love him very much. We will carry on in his spirit”… ”

klugman christmas

Larry Hagman 1931-2012

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of Ben Hagman an attorney and future Broadway icon Mary Martin, Larry Hagman’s parents divorced in 1936 when he was 5. His mother took off for New York to pursue her dream of acting, leaving Larry behind to live with his grandmother in California. He was 12 when his grandmother died and Larry joined his mother in New York, who had established herself on the Broadway stage.

After a year at Bard College in New York, Hagman decided to follow in his mothers footsteps and his first professional stage appearance was with the Margo Jones Theatre-In-The-Round in Dallas. He then appeared in the New York City Center production of Taming of the Shrew followed by a year of regional theatre. He then moved to the U.K. as a member of the cast of his mother’s hit musical show South Pacific and stayed for 5 years. During that time he joined the U.S. Air Force where he entertained U.S. troops in the U.K. and at bases all over Europe.  After his discharge he returned to the U.S. with his new wife Maj (pronounced “my”) and continued his acting career on Broadway and Off-Broadway.

Hagman decided to pack up his family (by then he had 2 children, Heidi and Preston) and move to California where he appeared in many television shows, most produced live, in the latter half of the 1950s. In 1961 he joined the cast of the popular daytime drama Edge of Night as Ed Gibson, a role that would continue for 2 years. In 1965 he became known to prime time audiences by playing the role of Major Anthony Nelson an astronaut and befuddled master of a genie in the comedy I Dream of Jeannie on NBC, with the gorgeous Barbara Eden. Jeannie was created to compete with other “magical” TV series of the era like Bewitched on ABC and My Favorite Martian on CBS. The series was successful and continued for 5 seasons.

In 1977 Hagman signed on to play the role of J.R. Ewing, a conniving, womanizing, blackmailing very rich Texas oilman and cattle baron who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted on the night time soap Dallas. With the role of J.R., Hagman became one of the best known stars on television as well as a counter-culture hero and a figure everyone else loved to hate. In the 1980 cliff hanger season finale, J.R. was shot by an unknown assailant and the question “Who shot J.R.?” was on everyone’s lips and it was during this hysteria that Hagman decided to re-negotiate his contract. After much deliberation networks caved into his demands and with that, Hagman became the one of the highest paid actors on television. He loved playing J.R. saying that playing a villain was infinitely more interesting that playing a nice guy and he was the only cast member to appear in all 357 episodes. Never content to be just an actor, Hagman directed several Dallas episodes as well as some of I Dream of Jeannie.  Dallas lasted 13 seasons.

Larry Hagman’s directorial debut for a feature film happened with Beware, the Blob 1972, a comedic low budget homage to the classic horror film The Blob 1958. Beware, the Blob was re-released in 1982 with the tag-line “The film that J.R. shot” in a effort to capitalize on his success in Dallas. In the 70s between I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Hagman appeared on the big screen working in films with some of Hollywood’s top talent; Harry and Tonto 1974 with the great Art Carney, Mother Jugs and Speed 1976 with Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel and Superman 1978 with Marlon Brando and Christopher Reeve. In the 90s he appeared in Nixon 1995 with Anthony Hopkins and Primary Colors 1998 with John Travolta.

Never shy about talking politics, Hagman, since the 1960s was a member of the radical Peace and Freedom Party that grew out of the extreme Left Wing and has strong support in California. This year they nominated Rosanne Barr and Cindy Sheehan on its Presidential ticket. He is quoted saying “My definition of redundancy is an air bag in a politicians car.”

Hagman was a heavy drinker and his friend Jack Nicholson introduced him to marijuana as a safer alternative to consuming so much booze. He became an advocate for legalization. Following a liver transplant in 1995, Hagman worked on behalf of the National Kidney Foundation and as a reformed smoker, worked tirelessly as chairman of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke Out for many years. Hagman also was an advocate for alternative energy sources and lived a green lifestyle, installing a $750,000 solar panel system at his Ojai estate.

With a career that spanned more than 60 years and covered stage, television and film, Larry Hagman died from complications of throat cancer at Medical City Dallas Hospital at 4:20pm, surrounded by family and friends including Linda Gray and Patrick Duffy from the original Dallas. He was 81.

Judy and Barbra: A comparison of legends

Coming up with an intro to this was driving me crazy until I remembered the elegant and exclusive fur purveyor Blackglama’s ongoing ad campaign that asks the question “What Becomes A Legend Most?” My answer to that is to compare one legend to another. In the world of entertainment finding people with talent is easy as everyone in the field has something to offer (no matter how miniscule) but very few possess the intangible characteristics that set them apart from all the others, whose attributes are so intrinsic and infallible that they literally become legendary during their lifetimes.

Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Judy Garland (1922-1969) and Barbra Streisand may seem an exercise in futility because the two are from different eras and have very different voices and performing styles. Yet they both enjoy broad fan bases that slice across all cultural barriers and have inseparable ties to the gay community who love a good tragic figure or someone who is able to overcome adversity.

They were born only 20 years apart which doesn’t sound like very much but made a world of difference in how they were able to handle their careers. After Judy was forced to leave from under the umbrella of MGM, she hired a never-ending parade of agents who unfortunately didn’t have her best interests at heart. Judy relied on other people to manage her career where she had little, if any say, in her progression as an artist. Barbra on the other hand, had her long time manager (40+ years)  Martin Erlichman negotiating all her recording, motion picture, television, theatre, merchandising/licensing and concert contracts even going as far as producing a couple of her films himself. He handled Barbra like a business, with mutual admiration and trust while Judy was handled like a commodity (or whore, if you will) being sold to the highest bidder with no regard for her wants, needs, health or well-being.

Judy’s beloved father died when she was 14 and with him went the sense of unrestrained love and protection he had previously showered her with. After his death she said she felt that “no one was on her side ” and in a brave and lonely quest, spent the rest of her life looking for someone to replace him. Barbra’s father died suddenly when she was 15 months old, throwing her and remaining family in to near poverty. Both women were raised by domineering mothers. Judy’s always pushing her to work so she could maintain the lifestyle that Judy provided her no matter how thin she spread her daughter. Barbra’s offered no support in her daughter’s aspirations to be an actor, telling her over and over she wasn’t pretty enough and would never make it in show business.

The way they looked was problematic for both women. Judy was constantly berated by her mother and Louis B. Mayer about her natural tendency to put on weight to the point where they provided her “diet pills” to curtail her calorie intake. Mayer referred to her as his “little hunchback” and at the tender age of 12, Judy began to compare herself unfavorably against some of the most beautiful women in the world who were also under contract at MGM that she saw everyday…Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner. Even though Judy herself said that “talking to Lana Turner is like talking to an exquisite vase” she evidently realized the superficiality of being beautiful, however it did not diminish her longing to look like the others.

Barbra’s insecurities about her looks probably stemmed from everyone telling her to have her nose fixed and teeth capped during her early years in the business because she defied the prevailing 1950/60s conventional idea of beauty. When Barbra went to Hollywood to make films she said ” I arrived in Hollywood without having my nose fixed, my teeth capped or my name changed. That was very gratifying to me.” This statement speaks volumes about Barbra’s self-esteem but doesn’t really wash well when you take a look at her film work. Almost every one has an underlying theme related to dissatisfaction concerning her unconventional looks.

As singers, Judy and Barbra are as different from each other as night and day. Judy, a furious and excessive talent, loved doing live concerts and fed her soul off of the love and energy her audiences generously supplied describing the applause, hysteria and verbal accolades as “great waves of love washing over me.” Judy’s marvelous contralto voice could warm the coldest of hearts and light the darkest souls and she, as well as her audiences, knew it. In 1951, after a string of mental breakdowns and suicide attempts where she was vilified in the press, Judy’s then husband Sid Luft arranged for her to do a concert at the Palace Theatre in New York City. Keeping in step with the themes of Judy’s early musicals at MGM where performers dreamed of playing the Palace, the concert turned out to be one of the greatest personal triumphs in show business history. The show ran for 19 weeks and broke all box office records. She continued performing live for the rest of her career all over the world and for the most part gave her audiences everything she had until they both were exhausted and wringing wet with sweat from mutual adoration.

Barbra on the other hand who was noticeably absent from the live concert stage for 30 years (explaining she had developed a fear of performing live) returned on New Years Eve in 1993 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Hotel to give two concerts, both of which sold out as soon as the tickets became available.  Barbra’s style of performing is very different from Judy’s. Restrained yet mesmerizing and very much along the lines of the less-is-more strategy, Streisand takes her audience on an unforgettable musical journey, thrilling them with her technical vocal skills while never breaking a sweat. Another difference between the two is when Judy performed it was for love of singing, when Barbra performs, she strives for perfection. Which is not a bad thing. Barbra has said that she feels a lot of pressure when performing in front of thousands of people who have paid big bucks to watch her perform and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. Everyone should be able understand that. Judy’s catalogue of songs told the history of her life, the good, the bad and the profane. Barbra’s tells the history of her career which is long, distinguished and memorable. Garland demonstrated spot on musical instincts as well as Streisand and both women create a powerful magic when they sing.

  I’ve always had a problem with people in the entertainment field who complain about being famous. Judy and Barbra are no exceptions as both have talked about fame. Barbra, when asked about what fame meant to her said “fame is not being left alone” and when Judy was asked the same question some 30 years earlier she replied with her usual candor “I’ve never looked through a keyhole without finding someone looking back.”

 Fame prevents celebrities from living intensely personal lives and is (at the risk of sounding cliché) a double-edged sword. More than once Judy experienced tremendous backlash as her personal demons surfaced at different stages of her life and Barbra has always been scrutinized, criticized and vilified at every turn.  Such is the price of fame. The media loves to shine light in the darkest corners and fans should remember that celebrities are just people and not perfect.  Only a fool would believe otherwise.

In the world of film, both Barbra and Judy have enjoyed massive success.  After a string of mediocre films made great because of her participation, Judy finally hit it big with The Wizard of Oz 1939 where she was awarded a special juvenile Oscar© for her performance as Dorothy. During production of Oz when Judy filmed what was to become her signature song, Over the Rainbow, the director Victor Fleming was so overwhelmed by the sincerity and longing in her voice that he wondered aloud if she would ever be happy.

Judy’s film career spanned 35 years and included memorable gems such as Babes in Arms 1939, Meet Me in St. Louis 1944, Easter Parade 1948 A Star is Born 1954 (where Judy gave the performance of a lifetime) and Judgement at Nuremberg 1961, netting MGM tens of millions of dollars (billions by today’s standard) and she was one of only two people who could see studio head Louis B. Mayer without an appointment…the other one was Katharine Hepburn.

Barbra hit the ground running making her first film, Funny Girl 1968, a recreation of the Broadway show of the same name in which she portrayed the legendary comedienne/songstress Fanny Brice. Garland knew Brice. Funny Girl was bad as a biography but first-rate as a musical and Streisand won an Oscar© for her performance in a rare tie for Best Actress that she shared with Katharine Hepburn for her performance in The Lion in Winter. In On a Clear Day You Can See Forever 1970, a lush costume musical, Barbra was directed by Vincente Minnelli who was one of Judy’s 5 husbands and father of Liza, Judy’s first-born. Barbra tried her hand at screwball comedy in the hilarious What’s Up Doc? 1972 and graced the film not only with a fine performance but by singing You’re the Top by Cole Porter over the opening credits.

 

In the romantic tear jerker The Way We Were 1973, Streisand was a sensation as a quirky looking girl who captures the heart of handsome all American boy, Robert Redford through sheer force of personality and wit. In 1976 Barbra did the third remake of A Star is Born (the 2nd was a Garland classic) with a rock music score. Definitely not one of my favorites but she won an Oscar© for writing the featured song in the film Evergreen.

Barbra’s talents took her into areas that were previously dominated by men and when she took on the roles of actor, producer, writer and director, her results were stunning.  Beginning with Yentl 1983, she called all the shots and produced not only a decent film but showed Hollywood that a woman could indeed, do it all and do it all well. Hollywood got its nose out of joint and all but ignored Yentl in nominations for an Oscar© that year. She also produced and directed The Prince of Tides 1991 and The Mirror Has Two Faces 1996.

Judy and Barbra crossed paths in the early 1960s when Judy had her own musical/variety television show. Barbra was a guest and the two used the opportunity to duet twice and Barbra sang Down With Love solo. The show ended up with a surprise visit from Ethel Merman and ended with the three of them belting out There’s No Business Like Show Business where Judy and Ethel pretty much pushed young Barbra to the side. That show became historic television.

As you can probably guess by now I am an ardent fan of both women. I just read a biography of Judy by Gerald Clarke titled “Get Happy” which contained vile stories that had no way to be verified because everyone concerned has been dead for years. After I finished the book I was overcome by saddness and wondered why people continue to write such trash about one of the world’s most exceptional talents. I wanted to write about Judy to be one of the few to treat her with dignity.

Barbra’s life and work are not over yet and I eagerly await her new comedy film The Guilt Trip, with Seth Rogan that is supposed to come out on Christmas day. Thanks for reading.

Here is a terrific photo of Judy by Avedon

Here are pics of Garland and Streisand modeling Blackglama furs…