Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Felix Unger (1920-2004) and Dr. Franklin (1961-2004)

When somebody famous dies, we all have our own particular strange, quirky memories of them. Or maybe just I do. But I think you know what I mean. Maybe some small, brief role an actor played that for some inexplicable reason sticks in your mind, even more than the roles that the actor is most famous for. For instance, when I heard last week that Tony Randall had died, my first thought was not of the TV version of The Odd Couple or even of the movie comedies he specialized in during the late 1950s and early 1960s. No, my first thought was of a comedy skit he was in years ago on Saturday Night Live. I had even referred to it last November in a movie review.

The sketch was one of those trademark SNL parodies of a unlikely television show about a character with self-describing name, in this case “Mr. Short-Term Memory.” I believe guest host Tom Hanks actually had the title role in that one, and Randall made a surprise cameo appearance playing himself, to which Hanks exclaimed repeatedly “Tony Randall!” in fresh surprise every few seconds. I don’t know why this was so funny, but it was. And, as I mentioned before, my friend Jim and I can still get great mileage out of it by just yelling the name “Tony Randall!” in a situation when one of us (or someone else) has forgotten something that was said or has happened very recently.

Okay, so this is the only Tony Randall tribute you will ever read that begins with his brief appearance on a late night comedy show. Most of them, more rationally, have focused on his several television series, including his five-year stint playing opposite Jack Klugman on The Odd Couple. Felix Unger seems to have been the role he was born to play, and he will be identified with that character forever. He also made a bit of television history in 1981 by playing the lead character in a TV series who was gay (in a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way) in Love, Sidney. As timid as it was, the gambit was considered quite daring at the time, although that must be hard to believe for young people who have grown up on the likes of Ellen and Will & Grace.

Randall’s lengthy TV career, which began in 1950 with One Man’s Family followed closely by Mr. Peepers, might obscure for some people the fact that he also was very busy over the years on the stage and the silver screen. He had the title role in the 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and proceeded to take ownership of that most venerable of romantic comedy characters, the quirky, meddling best friend. He starred alongside Doris Day and Rock Hudson in three of their rom com matchings. Other memorable roles included the King in the 1960 version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, no fewer than six characters in the 1964 western fantasy 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, and a turn as Hercule Poirot in the 1965 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Alphabet Murders. He also starred opposite Barbara Eden in a movie that presaged her I Dream of Jeannie TV series, The Brass Bottle, although in the film it was Burl Ives who was the genie rather than Eden.

Fittingly, his final film appearance was in last year’s homage/send-up of Rock/Doris 1960ish rom coms, Down by Love. With that appearance Randall’s career had come full circle and the baton was officially passed to his clear successor as the funnily neurotic foil/sidekick, David Hyde Pierce.

Many of us will be forever grateful to Randall for providing a fair amount of entertainment during the entire second half of the 20th century. A few of us will also be grateful for the example he set of a life well lived. For one thing, he was married to the same woman for more than 50 years. When his wife died, he re-married. I can’t pretend to imagine what regrets he or his wife or his children might or might not have now that he has passed on while his kids are still so young, but I have a strange bit of gratitude for the fact that he became a father for the first time in his upper 70s. It has made me feel like a rather young dad by comparison.

* * *

A strange thing that happens when you become a fan of a cult TV series is that, in some odd way you become emotionally attached to the actors who play major, and even minor, roles in that series. Even though it’s something that is going on only in your own head, they become your friends. Even if you have never met them in person, even if you have never seen them out of character. It’s a weird phenomenon, and I can’t begin to judge whether this is healthy or unhealthy or neutral. It just happens. With the advent of the internet, the feeling of “knowing” these people gets even stronger because you are perhaps reading words written by people who do know these people or maybe even by these people themselves.

So, when one of these people suddenly disappears and at an all-too-young age, it affects you. And I suppose it is some sort of testament to an actor that so many people he never met could be affected by his passing. Last weekend there was such a loss in the Babylon 5 “family.” Richard Biggs, the 43-year-old actor who played Dr. Stephen Franklin, died suddenly of what seems to have been a massive stroke. In addition to the B5 series and TV movies, his credits include a number of TV guest appearances, the soaps Days of Our Lives and The Guiding Light as well as the series Any Day Now and Temors. In an odd coincidence, the distinguished actor who played his father in a memorable 1994 episode of B5, Paul Winfield, also died just a few weeks ago.

As the space station’s chief doctor, Biggs’s character served the usual plot function required of that role, i.e. analyzing dead or comatose alien life forms and saving the lives of various crewmembers. But thanks to the writing of show creator J. Michael Straczynski, Dr. Franklin also explored a host of medical, ethical, political and personal issues. Biggs acquitted himself particularly well in portraying the doctor’s struggle with denial then acceptance of a substance abuse problem and his tortuous personal odyssey to get past it.

The sad news about Biggs’s death comes at a time when the community of B5 fans has been waiting anxiously for word of a brand new Babylon 5 project, which is speculated to be a feature film. As anticipated and dreamed-of as that has been, joy over the continuation of the B5 saga will now and always be tempered with regret by the knowledge that it will not include Rick Biggs.

-S.L., 27 May 2004

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