Category Archives: obit

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.

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Jack Klugman 1922-2012

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”… ”

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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.

Marvin Hamlisch 1944-2012

Marvin Hamlisch understood the power and global nature of music, believing it to be the one universal language that everyone on earth was able to understand. He demonstrated this understanding and intimacy with music by composing memorable songs, film scores and Broadway musicals that examined the human condition with reverence and hope. An American composer and conductor, Hamlisch was one of eleven people belonging to an exclusive club whose members had won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony and one of two in that group to also win a Pulitzer Prize, the other was Richard Rodgers.

Hamlisch was accepted at Juilliard at age seven. His first paying job after finishing his studies there was that of rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl, a Broadway musical that was destined to become legendary and catapult him along with the shows mesmerizing and talented star Barbra Streisand (they became lifelong friends) on the road to international fame.  Hamlisch changed the face of Broadway with A Chorus Line 1975 a story of dancers hoping to get into the chorus of a new Broadway show that spotlighted their dreams, fears and imperfections. A Chorus Line ran for 15 years and won 9 Tony’s. He also wrote They’re Playing Our Song 1978, Smile 1986, The Goodbye Girl 1993 and The Sweet Smell of Success; The Musical in 2002, bringing the world such indelible tunes as One, What I Did For Love, How Can I WinAt the Ballet and I Still Believe in Love.

In between writing shows for Broadway, Hamlisch also scored over 40 films including Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run 1969 and Bananas 1971. He scored The Way We Were 1974 writing the lovely and haunting anthem to love of the same name for old friend Streisand that since has become one of her many and best-loved signature tunes. Nobody Does it Better, sung by Carly Simon for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me 1977, Looking Through the Eyes of Love, Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows (a pop song he wrote for Lesley Gore), The Entertainer from The Sting 1973 are just some of the memorable tunes from Hamlisch. Some of the other films he scored include: Save the Tiger 1973, Ordinary People 1980, Sophie’s Choice 1982, Shirley Valentine 1989, The Mirror Has Two Faces 1996, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days 2003, The Informant 2009.

Marvin Hamlisch was also a much sought after symphony conductor and held positions of Principal Pops Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra Pops and Pasadena Symphony and Pops as well as conducting the symphony orchestra’s in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee ,San Diego, Seattle, Dallas and Buffalo. In 1994 he accompanied Barbra Streisand as her musical director and arranger on her first live concert tour in 30 years in the U.S and U.K. He conducted several tours with Linda Ronstadt. He also wrote the theme music for Good Morning America, Late Night with David Letterman and Politically Incorrect.

Marvin Hamlisch was 68 when he died following a short illness and with him goes a spectacular era in American music.

Judith Crist 1922-2012

Raised in luxury and style, she was 7 years old when the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out her fathers fortune and forced the family to move from an estate into a small, cramped one bedroom apartment in New York City. Despite this Dickensian up bringing, Judith Crist grew up to become one of the most feared and influential film critics in America, whose famous “poison pen” dripped venom so strong that many directors, studios and actors cringed at the thought of her reviewing their films. Director Billy Wilder once quipped that having Crist review a film was “like asking the Boston Strangler for a neck massage”.

After attending Hunter College and obtaining her masters from Columbia University’s journalism school, Crist became one of the first women to become a full-time critic at large for a major newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune. She was founding critic at New York Magazine and also critic in residence at TV Guide, whose circulation at the time was over 20 million, in addition to her teaching journalism at Columbia, a position she held for over 50 years.

She fell in love with film while watching Charlie Chaplin in Gold Rush 1925 saying it was “the first and to this day the most vivid film experience” of her entire life and indeed, her discourse on film suggested she was always seeking to repeat that memorable experience and over time, Crist’s enthusiasm for film cut across all genres. She worshipped Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Frederico Fellini, Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa, David Lean, John Cassavettes and Robert Altman. Her scathing opinions on other directors and actors was sometimes a little heavy-handed and unfair but it made for entertaining reading that raised more than a few eyebrows.

Crist passed over in her Manhattan home of undisclosed causes at 90 years of age. Her husband William B. Crist died in 1993 and she is survived by her son Steven, a thoroughbred handicapper and publisher emeritus of The Daily Racing Form.

Celeste Holm 1917-2012

This terrific actress was born the only child of an American mother who was a portrait artist/author and Norwegian business man father who worked for Lloyd’s of London, Celeste Holm was reared in an international setting attending schools in Holland, France and the U.S. She studied drama at the University of Chicago before becoming a stage actress in the late 1930s, performing on Broadway in a string of 9 different plays before finally hitting it big as an original cast member in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943 playing Ado Annie who sang “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No”, a song as it turns out that did not reflect, in any way, her true personality.

Signed to a contract by 20th Century Fox in 1946, Holm’s first film appearance was in the forgettable Three Little Girls in Blue the same year. In 1947 she played a fashion editor in Gentleman’s Agreement, a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and a Golden Globe. Holm was now in the enviable position to pick and choose what projects she would do and said “NO” to many offers, only considering roles that had top-notch directors, casts and crews. She appeared with Olivia DeHavilland in The Snake Pit 1948, a film classic that examined psychotherapy and conditions of state-run mental hospitals, then lent her voice to narration as Addie Ross, the main character who was never seen on-screen in the wonderful A Letter to Three Wives 1949.

In 1950, Holm was one of the main characters in All About Eve, the only film in history to receive 4 Oscar nominations for the female leads; Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress, Holm and the fabulous Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting. It set a record by being nominated for an astonishing 14 Oscars that remained unbroken until Titanic in 1997.  The definitive film of bitches and vipers that inhabited the elite theatre world in New York City, All About Eve is a conglomerate of talent that holds up well despite its age. The cast included George Sanders, Gary Merrill ( future husband of Bette Davis), Hugh Marlowe, Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Bates. Celeste Holm was the last surviving cast member, the rest dying of natural causes with the exceptions of Sanders and Bates, who committed suicide and Monroe, whose death will always remain a mystery. The experience of working on All About Eve left a bad taste in Holm’s mouth. She despised Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe and never missed an opportunity to disparage them to the press for the rest of her life.

Returning to the stage and the excitement of a live audience, Holm appeared in The King and I 1951 and Anna Christie 1952 before returning to the screen in The Tender Trap 1955 and High Society 1956, both starring Frank Sinatra. She also appeared on television from the late 50s well into the 80s in everything from dramas to sitcoms, with additional stage work in Mame 1966 and The Grass Harp 1971. In 1965 she was the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly rated television adaptation Cinderella with Leslie Ann Warren and had a role in the TV mini-series Backstairs at the White House 1979. Her last big film was Three Men and Baby 1987.

Her honors include a Sarah Siddons Award for distinguished achievement in 1966, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a presidential appointment (by Ronald Reagan, an old friend) to the National Arts Council, a knighting by King Olav of Norway (her father’s homeland) and was inducted into The American Theatre Hall of Fame.

Celeste Holm, mother of 2 sons, was married 4 times during her life, the longest (30 years) to Wesley Addy an actor she met in Hollywood who played the sheriff in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964 that starred her old nemesis Bette Davis. When she was 87, she married a 41-year-old opera singer, which lasted until her death this morning, following a heart attack on Friday the 13th. She was 95.

Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012

An amiable man of peculiar good looks and overt masculinity, Ernest Borgnine earned his place in Hollywood history through hard work, perseverance and talent that resulted in a 60 year, award studded career  consisting of well over 100 films that also included extensive television and voice over work.

Born in Hamden, Connecticut to parents of Italian origin, he lived in Milan between the ages of two and seven, then attended school in New Haven before joining the Navy in 1935. Discharged at the end of WW2 and at the urging of his mother, Borgnine studied acting at the Randall School of Dramatic Art in Hartford before moving on to Abingdon, Virginia to join the ensemble actors at the Barter Theatre from 1946-1950. There his first role was in State of the Union, then as the gentleman caller in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, winning over audiences with a natural charm that was hard to dismiss. In 1949, Borgnine made his Broadway debut as the nurse in the play Harvey which led to other stage appearances, firmly establishing him as a strong character actor.

with Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity

He moved to Los Angeles in 1951 landing his first big film role in the classic From Here to Eternity 1953 starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed playing Sargeant “Fatso” Judson, in charge of the stockade who bullies and taunts Frank Sinatra. His performance was so good that he was cast in villainous roles in his next 3 big budget films, Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, Vera Cruz with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, both in 1954 and Bad Day at Black Rock 1955 with Spencer Tracy and Lee Marvin. In the second half of 1955, Borgnine did an abrupt about-face that would change the direction of his career permanently by accepting the role of a lonely, love struck butcher in Marty, directed by Delbert Mann with Betsy Blair as his co-star. Borgnine’s earthy, touching performance earned him a Best Actor Oscar, a BAFTA, the New York Film Critics Award, best actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival and the National Board of Review Award. Following this triumph, he appeared in a variety of roles in a successful film career that ran from the latter half of the 50s well into the 80s in such classics as The Best Things in Life Are Free 1956, The Flight of the Phoenix 1964, The Dirty Dozen 1967, Ice Station Zebra 1968, The Wild Bunch 1969, The Poseidon Adventure 1972 and Escape from New York 1981.

Borgnine’s television career was every bit as prolific. In 1951 he appeared in a few episodes of Captain Video and His Video Ranger’s which led to scores of other appearances in Goodyear Television Playhouse, Ford Television Theatre and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre before finally signing on to his own sitcom in 1962 that would become a classic, where he joined the ranks of other classic television leading men; John Forsythe, Andy Griffith, Alan Young, Robert Young, Fred MacMurray and Buddy Ebsen.

McHale’s Navy was a male oriented sitcom where Borgnine played Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale of PT-73 with a crew of lovable insubordinate’s; Tim Conway, Joe Flynn, Gary Vinson and Carl Ballentine. The show became an overnight success during the first season and stayed high in the ratings until 1965 when due to repetitive story lines, its audience lost interest and the show was cancelled in 1966. His TV career only gained momentum and he made guest appearances on Love Boat, Little House on the Prairie, Magnum P.I., Highway to Heaven, Murder She Wrote, Texas Ranger, Touched by an Angel and E.R. He also lent his unmistakable voice to work on the Simpson’s and Sponge Bob Square Pants, playing Mermaid Man with his old friend Tim Conway taking the role of Barnacle Boy.

In 1996, Borgnine toured the U.S. in a bus to see the country and to meet his many fans. The trip was made into a documentary, Ernest Borgnine on the Bus. He also, that year, served as chairman of the National Salute of Hospitalized Veteran’s and also started a campaign to urge veteran’s to come forth and tell their stories. He was a Freemason in Hollywood Lodge #355 and a member of the Loyal Order of Moose.He authored an autobiography “Ernie” in 2008 and underwent a promotional tour to keep in touch with his fans from which he was never inaccessible. From 1972 through 2002, he marched in Milwaukee’s annual Great Circus Parade as the Grand Clown. In 2007 he became the oldest person (at 90) to be nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the television movie A Grandpa for Christmas. In 2009 at 92 years of age he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the TV series E.R.

Borgnine was married 5 times during his lifetime; Rhoda Kemins 1949-1958 where he fathered a daughter Nancee, Katy Jurado 1959-1963, Ethel Merman 1964 a union that lasted 38 days of which he said “you get 2 bombs in room and something is going to explode”, Donna Rancourt 1965-1972 that produced 3 more children, a son Christopher and daughters Sharon and Diana. From 1973 he was married to Tova Traesnces that lasted until his death yesterday of renal failure. He was 95.

Andy Griffith 1926-2012

Born on June 1st, 1926 the same day and year as Marilyn Monroe, Andy Griffith’s career as an actor took a very different turn that I feel was due to his strong sense of self and genuine interest in enhancing the lives of the people around him with warmth, goodwill and a smile that was like a beacon in the dark. Like Monroe, Griffith became an entertainment icon but one that resonated with a different energy devoid of glamour and inaccessibility, making him a person you wouldn’t think twice about spending time with over a plate of saltines and a jar of honey roasted peanut butter.

Raised in Mt. Airy, North Carolina he graduated from high school where his interest in drama and the arts was sparked. He carried that interest into the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where he studied music and theatre becoming president of the UNC Men’s Glee Club and a member of Alpha Rho Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, America’s oldest fraternity for men in music. During his college years he appeared in student productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: The Gondoliers, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore. He also played a decent guitar and sang. After college, Griffith taught English at Goldsboro High School where he taught, among others, future NPR personality Carl Kasell.

Griffith began his 60+ year career as a monologist, telling long, hilarious stories of a country boy’s impressions of the urbane world around him becoming an instant hit with audiences. His most famous being “What it Was, Was Football” which he recorded as a single that reached #9 on the charts in 1954. The following year he appeared on the Broadway stage as the lead in No Time for Sargent’s that ran for over 700 performances and was nominated for a Tony as “Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor” losing to Ed Begley but won the Theatre World Award for the role. He reprised that role for the film in 1958 where he met fellow cast member Don Knotts that marked the beginning of a life long friendship between the 2 men. Another pivotal stage role for Griffith was in the musical Destry Rides Again in 1957 with a score by Harold Rome where he was again nominated for a Tony but lost to Jackie Gleason.

Andy Griffith’s first starring film role was in A Face in the Crowd 1957 where he played an amoral, drunken drifter plucked out of jail and obscurity into the national spotlight with the help of publicist Patricia Neal, eventually becoming a talk show host of great power and influence. His over-inflated ego results in an epic down fall leaving him destitute. Directed by Elia Kazan with an extraordinary cast that included Walter Matthau, Lee Remick and Tony Franciosa, A Face in the Crowd examined the complexities of gaining and maintaining celebrity despite the high emotional cost of everyone involved. It garnered mixed reviews after it opened but clearly was a film way ahead of its time.

Television proved to be fertile ground for Griffith. His appearance on an episode of  Make Room for Daddy, where he played a small town sheriff who issued a speeding ticket to the shows star Danny Thomas, became the back door pilot for The Andy Griffith Show and the rest is classic television history.

The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina that was populated with eccentric and zany individuals where Griffith acted as Sheriff Andy Taylor. The show brimmed over with small town sensibilities and homespun wisdom. The cast included Griffith’s longtime friend Don Knotts in the hilarious role of Deputy Barney Fife for which he won multiple Emmy’s, Francis Bavier as Aunt Bee, Ronny Howard, who would grow up to become a fabulous director, as his son Opie, Jim Neighbors as Gomer, who would eventually star in a spin-off series, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and George Lindsey as Goober. Griffith’s role as Sheriff Taylor required him to act as counselor, problem solver, advisor, mediator and disciplinarian in a way that was never judgmental or condescending and always respectful.

The show was an immediate hit becoming a staple of prime-time television that made its legions of fans yearn for small town life. FUN FACT: The opening sequence of the show was actually filmed in a park in Beverly Hills and not in rural North Carolina. The Andy Griffith Show ran from 1960 to 1968 with Knotts leaving the series in 1965 and with his departure the show lost a lot of its comic punch. Griffith exited the show in 1967 to pursue other projects and the series continued as Mayberry RFD starring Ken Berry. Griffith made final appearances as Taylor in a 1986 reunion TV movie Return to Mayberry and 2 other reunion specials in 1993 and 2003 all of which had strong ratings.

After his role as Andy Taylor, Griffith was no stranger to TV appearing in many made for television movies and countless sitcoms that include; Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C, The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O, The Doris Day Show, Here’s Lucy, The Bionic Woman and Fantasy Island. His next starring role in a television series happened in 1986 where he played a brilliant lawyer with small town values who never lost a case in Matlock that ran until 1995. Matlock slaughtered other contemporary TV dramas with powerhouse ratings but once again Griffith was ignored by the Emmy nominating committee but won a People’s Choice Award for his role in 1987.

Griffith continued making films throughout his career notably Angel in My Pocket 1969 with Lee Meriwether, Rustlers Rhapsody 1985 with Marilu Henner and Sela Ward, and Waitress 2007 with Keri Russell and Nathan Fillion. He also continued recording religious music that was close to his heart, never straying far from his Baptist roots, and won a Grammy for one of those albums “I Love to Tell the Story, 25 Timeless Hymns.”

Griffith was a lifelong Democrat and endorsed candidates Mike Easley and Bev Perdue in their successful runs for state Senator from North Carolina speaking at the inaugurations of both. He declined an offer by Democratic officials to run against Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senator race in 1989.

Griffith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and was inducted into The Country Gospel Music Hall of Fame along with Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn in 1999.

He was married 3 times, to Barbara Bray Edwards from 1949-1972 that ended in divorce, then to Greek actress Solica Cassuto from 1975-1981 also divorced and to Cindi Knight from 1983 until his death. During his marriage to Bray Edwards he adopted a son who preceded him death and fathered a daughter Dixie Nan.

Andy Griffith passed away at home on Roanoke Island located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks from an undisclosed illness and due to family wishes was buried within 5 hours of his death.

  

   

Nora Ephron 1941-2012

 

The eldest of four daughters born to screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron in New York City, this down to earth, insightful soul had a fertile mind and razor-sharp wit. These traits combined with a talent for writing and very strong observational skills made Nora Ephron the Dorothy Parker of my generation.

Moving to California at an early age, Ephron graduated from Beverly Hills High School then back to the east coast to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts. During her college years Ephron’s parents wrote a play which turned into the film Take Her, She’s Mine 1963 with Jimmy Stewart and Sandra Dee basing Dee’s character on Nora. After college she worked as a White House intern during the JFK administration ( claiming she was the only intern he didn’t hit on) then moved to New York to work in the mailroom of Newsweek.

A strike by the International Typographical Union in the mid 60s, NYC newspapers were forced to suspend publication so Ephron and a few of her friends started putting out their own satirical publication where her parodies of New York Post columnists caught the eye of Post publisher Dorothy Schiff who hired Ephron as a reporter when the strike ended.

She began writing for Esquire, New York Magazine and the New York Times Magazine and in doing so became one of the best known humorists in America. New York was good to her and Ephron’s love affair with the city is illuminated in this lovely quote…” I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possiblity place you could ever live in; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to be with. And it turned out I was right.”

Ephron began screenwriting when enlisted by her 2nd husband Carl Bernstein to help re-write the script for All the President’s Men and although their treatment was not used in the final film, Nora was offered her first screenwriting job for a television movie.

In Hollywood, Ephron set her own standards in a male dominated industry that she found hostile to films by or about women. She was nominated for an Academy Award on her first screenplay, Silkwood 1983 that starred Meryl Streep and Cher. She followed that with the screenplay for Heartburn 1986, an autobiographical piece based on the circumstances surrounding her divorce from Carl Bernstein about whom she quipped ” was capable of  having sex with a venetian blind.” She wrote and produced the amazing and heartfelt When Harry Met Sally 1989 with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan that brought her international acclaim, winning a BAFTA and a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nod for best original writing.

Ephron began flexing her directorial muscles in the 90s with mixed results. Beginning with This is my Life 1992, a film about a mother trying to break into the world of stand up comedy did little to resonate with audiences despite a top-notch comic cast that included the enormously gifted Julie Kavner, Carrie Fisher and Dan Aykroyd. Sleepless in Seattle 1993, that paired Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan was a critical and commercial success firmly establishing Ephron as Hollywood’s foremost creator of romantic comedies. Mixed Nuts 1994, with Steve Martin and the late and glorious Madeline Kahn, focused on the people who worked at a suicide prevention hotline on Christmas Eve, opened to neither critical acclaim or commercial success. Michael 1996 starred John Travolta as an earthy and earthbound angel was a huge success and the first film where Ephron acted as writer, director and producer. She finished up the decade with You’ve Got Mail 1998 re-uniting the team of Hanks and Ryan in a re-make of 1940s Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan.

The only film of note from Ephron in the 21st century was Julie & Julia 2009 starring close friend Meryl Streep, who was fantastic as Julia Child. The film enjoyed critical and commercial success, winning awards from critics in most metropolitan areas.

Ephron leaves behind a handful of insightful films that celebrated ordinary, responsible women as well as a treasure trove of published works; Wallflower at the Orgy 1970, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women 1975, The Boston Photographs 75, Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media 1978, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman 2006 and I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections 2010.

Some memorable Ephron quotes;

“I’ve heard male film directors say making a movie is very much like fighting a war, but to me if there is a caterer, it’s hardly a war.”

“You can’t retrieve your life (unless you’re on Wikipedia, in which case you can retrieve an inaccurate version of it.)”

“When your children are teenagers it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

“Beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be in touch with are their own.”

Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person…reading is bliss.”

Nora Ephron was married 3 times in her life; writer Dan Greenburg, journalist Carl Bernstein, both ended in divorce and to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, a union that lasted until her death last week. She died from pneumonia, a complication resulting from acute myeloid leukemia that was diagnosed in 2006.

 

Donna Summer 1948-2012

Ladonna Adrian Gaines, born in Boston of working class parents, had an epiphany at 10 years of age while singing as a soloist in her church choir where “the voice of God” told her she was destined to become famous . As Ladonna grew up she morphed into a woman of great beauty and talent, changed her name to Donna Summer and worked for a few years in Germany and Austria performing in musical theatre.

Returning to the U.S. she made a living as a background singer for 3 Dog Night before releasing the first of her many signature songs, Love to Love You Baby in 1975, a hedonistic anthem that defined gay culture and ushered in a new era of music and dancing known as Disco. Summer paved the road for other musical acts intent on glorifying the gay experience such as The Village People and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Anyone who experienced the culture at that time, including this writer, can attest to the fact that dancing to this music in crowded gay clubs was an unforgettable experience. During this time it was rumored that she was a transvestite.

Donna Summer over the next few years enjoyed massive commercial success with songs like Bad Girls, MacArthur Park, Heaven Knows, Hot Stuff, Dim All the Lights, On the Radio and She Works Hard for the Money. She even got together with Barbra Streisand to duet Enough is Enough. My personal favorite was a duet she did with Liza Minnelli Does He love Me, Like He Loves You?

During a concert in 1983 Donna Summer, a born again Christian announced to the audience “I’ve seen the evils of homosexuality. AIDS is the result of your sins”. She went further by saying “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” denouncing the very group who gave her a career in the first place. Her inflammatory remarks stunned the gay community who were already in crisis mode over the mystery illness that was decimating their community. Many gay establishments banned Summer’s music and her career came to a screeching halt.

It took her 8 years to address those remarks during an interview with ACT UP where she denied the incident ever happened saying “Eight years ago, I made reference to AIDS. What I supposedly said I did not say and any reference to AIDS was an innocent reference.” Huh? She went on to blame a disgruntled reporter who worked for The Village Voice for fabricating the story. Many claimed the story true, she said it was false so it will remain a mystery to what actually occurred but anyone who has even a passing knowledge of born agains knows they preach hate and hide behind the Bible while doing it. It’s said that time heals all wounds and the gay community eventually (it took decades) started listening to Summer’s music again though her later musical offerings lacked the excitement and vitality they once had.

At the end of her life Summer could look back on her career with some degree of satisfaction. She was the recipient of 5 Grammy’s , had 3 consecutive double albums reach #1 and had four #1 singles in a 13 month span. In addition she also received an NAACP Image Award, had 3 Platinum albums, 11 Gold albums, 12 Gold singles and 6 American Music Awards.

In recent years Summer privately battled cancer and in the end cancer won. Wherever her passing took her I hope she say’s hello to Adam and Steve. She was 63. 441 in dog years.