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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

When acting virtually transcends death

There was a really interesting article in The New York Times this week. No, it wasn’t either of the articles about President George W. Bush or any of the 327 articles about former President Bill Clinton. No, this was a really interesting article.

It was about how the late actor Nancy Marchand was going to get to appear in one more episode of the hit television series The Sopranos.

Marchand died last June, and this presented a problem for the producers of the series. Even though her character always seemed to be on her deathbed anyway, just having her vanish suddenly wasn’t the ideal way to resolve her story. So they came up with the idea of using film clips taken from previous episodes and outtakes and editing them skillfully into scenes with other cast members. The task was aided by the fact that her character, Livia, generally said the same things over and over again anyway (“I wish the Lord would take me now.” “What do you care?”).

Of course, this isn’t the first time that writers have had to deal with the death a key actor in a TV series. In the old days, they would just replace the character with a similar one, often with little or no explanation, like the neighbor Mr. Wilson in the Dennis the Menace series or the nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz in Bewitched. (Let’s not even get into the multiple Darrens.) The first time I became personally became aware of subterfuge to cover up ailing actors was while watching the latter seasons of Petticoat Junction. For some reason we started seeing less and less of the mother, Kate Bradley. She would be missing for weeks at a time. They even had one whole episode about everyone going to the train station (in Pixley, I think it was) to pick her up because she had been away, and there was a whole comedy of errors about who was going to collect her and whether they would ever make it to town or not. Finally, at the very end everyone arrived back at the hotel with Kate, who was seen only briefly from the back as she walked across the porch into the front door. I may not have been the brightest bulb in those days, but even I was suspicious enough to wonder if that was really her at all. I would later learn that the veteran comic actor Bea Benaderet, who played Kate (as well as being part of Jack Benny’s extended comedy family, the neighbor Blanche Morton on Burns and Allen, Cousin Pearl on The Beverly Hillbillies and, not least, the original voice of Betty Rubble), had terminal cancer.

The New York Times article goes on to describe how a similar problem occurred during the filming of Gladiator, when Oliver Reed died suddenly while filming was still going on. The problem was resolved when the visual effects supervisor digitally restored some of Reed’s discarded scenes to use in the latter part of the movie. This sort of thing definitely raises some interesting questions about where to draw the line between the actor’s art and the technician’s work. If Reed had been nominated for an Academy Award, would the potential Oscar go to the late Reed or to the visual effects guy?

This whole thing also certainly opens a can of worms in regards to an actor’s (or an actor’s heirs’) rights to his or her own image. Perhaps someday actors will have to sue a Napster-like web site that allows users to freely trade virtual recreations of celebrities’ faces, bodies, gestures and personal nuances. These are weighty issues, but I don’t really intend to discuss them. I mainly brought this up so that I could tell my Oliver Reed story.

I never met Oliver Reed, so I can’t even include him in my erstwhile series of near-encounters with celebrities. But I did feel as though I had made some sort of cockeyed connection last year when some friends from my hometown arrived in Ireland on a mission to seek out the husband’s Irish roots. Our search for his ancestry led us to a small village called Churchtown, north of Mallow in County Cork. There was one pub in the town and, of course, we had to stop in for a pint and to inquire as to whether anyone there remembered Joe’s great-grandfather leaving for America 130 years earlier. (Intriguingly, the town had been razed by a catastrophic fire about that time.) No one could shed any light on our man, but the visit was not entirely wasted. I spotted an autographed photo of Oliver Reed on the wall, and the owner explained that Reed had lived in a house outside that very village during the latter part of his life, and this very pub was his local.

I have to say, the Guinness definitely tasted even better than usual in that place.

-S.L., 1 March 2001

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