Category Archives: celebration of a life

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.