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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Dudley, Milton & Billy

This thing about major celebrity deaths always occurring in threes is really creepy. It’s one of those things that when you hear people talk about it, you figure there must be some logical explanation for why it always seems to happen that way and that, on careful examination, it surely doesn’t always happen that way. And yet…

Last June I was lamenting in this space that we had lost Anthony Quinn, Carroll O’Connor and Jack Lemmon in a single month. Now, nine months later, we are contemplating the loss of Dudley Moore, Milton Berle and Billy Wilder within a matter of hours of each other. I suppose one could argue that the passing of Britain’s Queen Mother shortly thereafter throws off the superstitious math, but I’m not sure that she can rightly be called a “celebrity.” I mean, on how many chat shows did she appear anyway?

No, the “three” thing is really quite strange, and I honestly don’t know what to make of it. It’s probably best simply to accept it as one of those little mysteries that keep life interesting. And, speaking of keeping life interesting, that’s what each of these three men did in their own way.

Dudley Moore will be remembered primarily for two movies. And, no, one them isn’t Santa Claus: The Movie. I am speaking, of course, of 10, in which he leaves Julie Andrews in the midst of his midlife crisis goes on a mad chase after Bo Derek, and Arthur, in which in an age of blossoming political correctness and awareness of alcoholism as a serious disease needing treatment he made being perpetually drunk funny again. These were roles which were enhanced by his five-foot-two-and-a-half-inch height. His short physical stature was great cinematic shorthand for the inadequacies that every man of every height feels. That, plus a strangely sweet vulnerability and maniacally desperate acting style, conveyed perfectly (for a comedy anyway) what might fuel a man’s midlife insanity or the need to retreat into drink. Unfortunately, he was never so lucky again with screen roles. But he should also be saluted, along with his partner Peter Cook, for helping to usher in that zany brand of 20th century British humor that delighted audiences worldwide and was best exemplified by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Milton Berle was someone we thought of as almost exclusively a television star, and his cultural impact will have been mostly felt by Americans of a certain age. But it’s worth noting that he also appeared in quite a number of theatrical films during his lengthy career, beginning with a role as a child in 1914’s The Perils of Pauline. Most of his films were ones that you wouldn’t remember or would never have heard of. Or else he appeared only in a jokey cameo, like when he showed up as a blind man in 1976’s Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood or as himself in 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It is also worth noting that he had a role, along with practically every other comedian of the time, in 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. But he wasn’t an actor. He rarely, if ever, played a role than wasn’t actually Milton Berle. He was a comedian, and one of the most durable of all time. For a connoisseur of classic American comedy shtick, heaven would have been to attend the Friar’s Roast of memorial service that was held for Berle on April Fool’s Day and featured heart-felt zingers from the likes of Don Rickles, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar and Larry Gelbart.

Easily, the most influential of the three who left us last week has to be Billy Wilder. He is one of those towering Hollywood talents who, if you don’t happen to be a film buff, amazes you when you realize that this one man had a hand in all of the classic films he either wrote, co-wrote, directed and/or produced. As a recently arrived immigrant from 1930s Germany (and quick student of the English language), he helped pen such sparkling romantic comedies as Midnight, Ninotchka and Ball of Fire, which featured such legendary leading ladies Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck. As a writer/director, his films included such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Spirit of St. Louis, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Take a minute and look over that list. (I’ve deliberately omitted his lesser-known films, some of which were not critical or commercial successes.) Think about all the magic movie moments we would have missed without this man. No Barbara Stanwyck seducing Fred MacMurray into a murderous plot. No Gloria Swanson declaring that “I am big. It’s the movies that got small” and informing Mr. DeMille that she’s ready for her close-up. (And, by extension, no mega-bucks Andrew Lloyd-Weber musical extravaganza.) No romantic scenes between Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. No iconic image of Marilyn Monroe with her dress being blown about by steam from a sidewalk grate. No Jimmy Stewart arriving triumphantly by plane in Paris. No Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon wearing dresses or Joe E. Brown quipping, “Nobody’s perfect.” No Shirley MacLaine running to Jack Lemmon’s door as he pops his cork. It boggles the mind.

Rest in peace, Billy Wilder. It’s a crime that no one would let you make a movie after 1981’s Buddy Buddy (with the immortal duo of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon). For what’s it’s worth, sir, you are, and always will be, big. It is indeed the movies that got small.

-S.L., 4 April 2002

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