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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Two lamented actors (1941-2004)

I am not ordinarily drawn to overly self-absorbed performers, and Spalding Gray was perhaps the most self-absorbed of them all. But there was something about him that you couldn’t help but like, even as he went on and on about his concerns, his insecurities, about him, him, him. About a dozen years ago, I had the opportunity to see him perform one of his signature monologues in a fairly intimate setting at Seattle University, and he was no less than riveting, even as he went on and on about him, him, him. Based on that experience, I can testify that, when you saw him in his filmed monologues (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy), you were getting the real deal. Seeing him those films was materially no different from seeing him in the flesh. For most performers, filming a feature-length monologue and releasing it as a movie would be box office suicide. Certainly lots of performers can carry off the proverbial one-man show, and this often works fine on the live stage. But there is something about celluloid that doesn’t like too much chat. You don’t have the live connection with the performer in a movie theater that you have when he or she is standing before you on the stage. But Gray’s performances (if you can call them that; he wasn’t playing a character, but rather having a one-sided conversation) engaged the movie audiences the same way that the art house hit My Dinner with André unexpectedly did.

Like all too many people, Gray struggled with depression and, when he vanished from the Staten Island ferry in January, friends and family feared the worst. Their fears were confirmed March 7 when his body was pulled from the East River. In an age where lots of people go to extremes over the death of a celebrity whom they have never met, I think those of us who are saddened by Gray’s demise might be forgiven because we do feel that we got to know the man. That was his work and art: sharing his life with anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, the manner of his death will cause a sick feeling to anyone seeing or remembering the movie poster for Swimming to Cambodia, portraying Gray with his head not quite above water, although as metaphor that image in retrospect seems more apt than ever.

Secondary to Gray’s career as a writer and monologuist, was his not insignificant film acting career. He had roles in nearly 40 movies, many of which you have seen, even if you didn’t notice him or know who he was. In Swimming to Cambodia (directed by Jonathan Demme), he chronicled his participation in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film, The Killing Fields, in which he played a U.S. consul. Other movies in which he had small roles included Clara’s Heart (with Whoopi Goldberg), Beaches (with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey), Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill, Ron Howard’s The Paper, John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon, and James Mangold’s Kate & Leopold.

Typically, his roles were small and incidental, if not perfunctory. Often he was easy to miss, even if you were already familiar with his face and his work. And maybe, in a way, that is the ultimate praise for a supporting actor. But, as far as his feature film acting roles (as opposed to his filmed monologues and TV and stage work), there is one small role that, for me, sticks out. He was nothing short of brilliant in the ensemble 1995 film, Drunks. In a movie in which a bevy of actors like Faye Dunaway, Richard Lewis, Diane Wiest and Amanda Plummer competed with each other for how much scenery they could chew, Gray brought a welcome respite of humor and poignancy as a character he seemed to know well enough to inhabit his skin. He played an erudite man who shows up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and then proceeds to convince everyone that he wandered in by pure accident. The skillful combination of denial and subtle reaching for help in that performance is a fine tribute to the talent and humanity of Spalding Gray.

* * *

The age of 62 was too young for Spalding Gray to pass on, and it was also too young for Paul Winfield, who died of a heart attack the same day that Gray’s body was recovered.

The tributes to Winfield appropriately drew attention to his most respected work, which included such films as Sounder and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich and the TV miniseries King. His last role was a cameo in the recent TV remake of Sounder. He also made a bit of television history in the late 1960s, playing Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend on the sitcom Julia, which helped break the racial TV barrier, and more than two decades later he got an Emmy for playing a judge on Picket Fences.

Winfield was always a hard-working actor in that he took small and even silly roles along with the serious and great ones. He was a supporting player in such flicks as The Terminator, Cliffhanger, Dennis the Menace and Mars Attacks! He even played “Auntie Mahalia” in the silly and somewhat disturbing 1998 sex comedy Relax… It’s Just Sex.

But I wouldn’t be a true geek if I didn’t spotlight Winfield’s Star Trek work. He had a small role in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan as well as a memorable guest spot on a 1991 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok.” And I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t also point out that, in a 1994 episode of Babylon 5, he played the father of Dr. Franklin, the station’s chief medical officer. In that episode (“GROPOS”), which makes for timely re-viewing these days, Winfield played a general about to lead his men into battle and who barely acknowledges his anti-war doctor son. While Winfield’s role in that episode didn’t lend itself to much more than a standard portrayal, as a stand-alone episode in the B5 series “GROPOS” was one of the most moving. The “Darmok” episode, on the other hand, did allow Winfield’s acting ability to shine and dominate the story. This was one of the very best episodes in the entire run of ST:TNG. Virtually a two-man show pitting Winfield’s extraterrestrial captain against Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Picard on a planet, where the two are stranded together and have no common language, the story is an allegory of different cultures trying to understand each other and make peace instead of war. As a testament to the nature of humanity, this work ranks with anything else that Winfield did.

-S.L., 18 March 2004

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