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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tony, Carroll & Jack

They’re dropping like flies! That’s what it seems like anyway.

This month (with a couple of days to go yet, knock on wood) we lost three major acting talents. Actually, there were at least four major acting losses that I’m aware of, as well as numerous other lesser-known thespian passings, but I am basing the original count on the amount of press coverage received.

The first, of course, was Anthony Quinn, who succumbed on June 3. He appeared in a whole slew of film and television productions ranging from 1936 to the current year but, as the press bios were quick to point out, he has long been known and probably will always be known for a single role—the title character in the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. I am old enough to remember when the film made a splash at the Oscars and the song “Never on Sunday” was practically inescapable. For my money, however, I preferred Quinn in such epic and/or action roles of the period as The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. He played so many different nationalities and ethnicities that for many years I never was sure where he was from. (He was, of course, a native of Mexico.) The main question is: will he be remembered only for Zorba or for his huge body of films or for fathering a slew of kids into his 80s? They are all impressive achievements.

Last week we lost Carroll O’Connor, and while his body of work was not as extensive as Quinn’s, he too is remembered mainly for a single role. He did at least manage to escape interminable typecasting as Archie Bunker, as he had a pretty darn good TV run as the Southern sheriff on In the Heat of the Night. For those characters, as well as recurring roles on Party of Five and Mad About You, O’Connor is best known for his television work, but he also had a respectable career in film through the 1960s and beyond. His parts were usually small, but there was something about his physique and Irish pug face that made him a good authority figure or villain. For looks alone, I am sure that if he had lived long enough, he would have been tapped for the TV movie about Slobodan Milosevic. For no particular reason, I tend to remember him as the major general in Kelly’s Heroes, a Clint Eastwood adventure/comedy that I found very funny at the time. Without having seen all his film roles, I am ready to go out on a limb and declare that his best one had to be his last—the lovely romantic comedy, Return to Me starring Minnie Driver and David Duchovny.

The most recent of the big three acting losses is, of course, Jack Lemmon. It is a testimony to his talent and career that he isn’t universally associated with one character the way Quinn and O’Connor were. The film role you link with Lemmon probably depends a lot on your age. If you have grandchildren, you are quite likely to think of him as wacky Ensign Pulver in the 1955 film Mister Roberts. If you are a bit younger, you may be likely to think of him as the star of such comedies as Some Like It Hot or The Out-of-Towners or such dramas as Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger. He might have been forever remembered as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple—if Tony Randall hadn’t usurped that character in a long-running TV series (similar to what Alan Alda did to Donald Sutherland’s portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H). If you’re a kid, you’ll think of Lemmon as a grumpy old man. I’ll always remember him as Sissy Spacek’s father-in-law in 1982’s Missing if only because it was a rare major movie treatment of modern Chile. While no one role stuck incessantly to Lemmon, perhaps his long string of collaborations with Walter Matthau, who died last year, will.

Less remarked this month was the passing of comic legend Imogene Coca on June 2. Best known for television work, she also gave us a fair number of laughs on the big screen, including a memorable turn as the grandmother who dies and is strapped to the roof of the car in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Even less noticed at the end of May was the death of veteran character actor Anne Haney. You may not know the name, but you probably would recognize the face. Always in relatively small supporting roles, she has been on a bunch of television shows, including Providence and Ally McBeal. She probably got her biggest exposure as the unsympathetic social worker in Mrs. Doubtfire. She also made appearances in The American President, Liar Liar, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho.

-S.L., 28 June 2001

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