Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Gone but not forgotten X

I now continue my annual alphabetical roll call (begun last week) of movie and other entertainment media personalities who passed on during the year 2004. Farewell and thanks.

  • Ann Miller: 500 taps a minute?! Wow! Your legs should have been registered as a dangerous weapon. A star of the stage (Sugarbabies anyone?) and, of course, Hollywood’s “Queen of the B’s,” your dancing/acting career was as active as it was long-lived. Being the age I am, I mainly remember you for two unrelated performances. You sang and danced your way through the most expensive commercial ever made (at the time) for some soup brand I had never heard of (“Honey, why do you have to make such a big production out of everything?”). And you made your final big screen appearance in, of all things, a David Lynch movie, Mulholland Drive, playing a landlady in the Los Angeles of Lynch’s warped imagination.

  • Jan Miner: You had a very long career on the New York stage, but since most of us don’t live in New York, most of us don’t know you for that. You did have a couple of movie roles, most memorably as the mother of Lenny Bruce (played by Dustin Hoffman) in Bob Fosse’s Lenny. You were also in Mermaids with Cher. But whenever we saw you in those movies or in your occasional guest appearances on TV, our minds nagged us as to why you seemed so darned familiar. Then it would hit us. We saw you for years and years (and years) in TV commercials as Madge, the manicurist who was too cheap to buy proper softening hand liquid for her customers. Nostalgia for long-time TV viewers? You’re soaking in it!

  • Bill Morey: In a rational universe, your appearance in a classic movie like Deathrace 2000 would be your claim to fame. Or maybe the one in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Or maybe your roles in more conventional films like The Onion Field or the cable movie Beggars and Choosers. But let’s face it. This isn’t a rational universe, and you don’t really have a claim to fame. Anyway, I’ll always remember you for playing the grumpy street dweller Oscar on The John Larroquette Show.

  • Andre Noble: Your story is nearly too tragic to believe. You were 25 and beautiful and talented. Despite your shyness, you pursued drama studies and acting. After graduation, you landed roles in Canada for a TV series, a TV movie and two feature films, coincidentally playing gay youths in the latter three. These included Adam in Twist, the gritty update to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, and an 18-year-old who leaves his suburban home for a series of misadventures with a crack-addicted hustler in Sugar. Then you took a short break and went hiking with friends on an island near your home in Newfoundland, encountered a lethal wildflower called monkshood and later took ill and died. This is the sort of thing they write tragic, epic poems about.

  • Ron O’Neal: You had a plan to stick it to The Man! Or did The Man stick it to you? You were a serious actor, working on the stage in Cleveland and New York. You even got an Obie for No Place to Be Somebody. In a more just world, you might have had a wider range of roles on the big screen. But it was the 1970s and there was only one role that the Hollywood powers-that-be wanted you to play. And you played it well and, arguably, kicked off the whole blaxploitation phenomenon. You strutted and jived and drove an El Dorado Cadillac as the cocaine dealing Youngblood Priest in the movie Superfly.

  • Jerry Orbach: Try to remember the kind of September when you were a young man acting and singing on the New York stage. You were El Gallo in The Fantasticks, Billy Flynn in Chicago and Julian Marsh in 42nd Street. But you will be remembered mainly for your television work. You auditioned for two characters and played a defense attorney on Law and Order before landing the continuing role of Detective Briscoe and playing him for a dozen years. But you also had a movie career, acting in such films as The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, Prince of the City, The Flamingo Kid and Last Exit to Brooklyn. In my house, however, your (paradoxically anonymous) claim to fame is voicing the role of an animated chandelier, the flaming Casanova Lumiére in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. For every other moviegoer, you knew well what your film claim to fame was. You were the dad who was mean to Baby in inexplicably popular Dirty Dancing

  • Jack Paar: I kid you not, you were likely the greatest chatter in a medium that has been awash in chat for decades. Before Jay Leno and Johnny Carson (but after Steve Allen), you hosted NBC’s Tonight Show. It’s hard to believe that conversation on television once was so spontaneous, unscripted and informative. You gabbed with politicians like Bobby Kennedy, Dick Nixon and Barry Goldwater, as well as unique personalities like Oscar Levant and Peter Ustinov. You jumpstarted the careers of Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and the duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. You even had the Beatles before Ed Sullivan. Not bad for a guy who was retired before he was 50.

  • Robert Pastorelli: In the past couple of years, there have been several Eldins in my life. You were, of course, the original. But when I laughed at the running gag of how you moved into Murphy Brown’s house for years to do a painting job, I didn’t realize that reality could mirror art. The conversations between yourself and Candice Bergen were some of the highlights of that TV series. You had a couple of other series, including the Americanized version of the British police series Cracker, in which you had the Robbie Coltrane role. You had some small roles on the big screen, including Sister Act 2, Eraser, Michael and Heist. Bye, and we’ll see you in next and last film, Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty.

  • Johnny Ramone: When you closed your acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you said something that we don’t often hear from rock stars or at celebrity award ceremonies: “God bless President Bush.” Let’s face it, you weren’t your typical punk rocker. Politically conservative and a hard-headed numbers man, you were the antithesis of band mate Joey Ramone, whose love of his life you won and married. Yet somehow, in spite of all the differences, the two of you (and Dee Dee) made music together for 20 years. You made one movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Make that two, if you count the quite good documentary End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. With your passing, the Ramones are all gone, save the drummers. And your untimely death (from prostate cancer) ruined one of the potentially best jokes of the year: the one about the new panel discussion show on Fox News. It was to feature Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Johnny Ramone. The title? Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

  • John Randolph: How many people get to play the father of both Jack Nicholson and Chevy Chase? I haven’t actually checked, but I’m guessing one, and that’s you (in Prizzi’s Honor and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, respectively). Oh yeah, and Roseanne’s father (on her TV series). And Tom Hanks’s grandfather (in You’ve Got Mail). But you weren’t just a fatherly figure. You were something of a hero. A self-described “old radical” who got his start in the 1930s’ Federal Theater Project (chronicled in Cradle Will Rock), you were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, for 15 years. Yet you kept acting on the stage when the silver screen was denied you, until you made your comeback in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, in which you were surgically altered to become Rock Hudson. And, to the end of your days, you never gave up your devotion to progressive causes.

  • Eugene Roche: What a year. We not only lost Madge the manicurist, but also the Ajax man. You were one of those actors whose face was more familiar than his name. But it was a face that didn’t just show up in cleanser commercials. You were the landlord on Webster and Pinky Peterson on All in the Family. And Luther Gillis on Magnum P.I. and E. Ronald Mallu on Soap. But your crowning moment was on the big screen. In Slaughterhouse-Five you played the genial POW who is delighted and amazed to pick up an intact porcelain figurine out of the firebombed debris of Dresden and is then promptly executed for looting by the Nazis.

  • Johnny Sands: Your bio is actually better than your film career. At 13, you left your home in Texas and hitchhiked to Hollywood, worked as a cinema usher and then got spotted by a talent agent on your way to the beach. In fact, the beach is the reason you used the name Johnny Sands instead of your real one, Elbert Harp Jr. (Good decision.) Film roles? There’s only one that we remember you for. You were Shirley Temple’s boyfriend in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.

  • Carrie Snodgrass: What happened to you? There was huge buzz about your third movie, Diary of a Mad Housewife, in 1970. You even got an Academy Award nomination. After that, you were in a string of movies with titles like The Attic, Trick or Treats and Mission of the Shark. But you also had roles in Brian De Palma’s The Fury, Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo. Still, for some reason you never managed to realize the potential of the talent you clearly had.

  • Ray Stark: Deal maker, producer and all-around Hollywood insider, you brought more than 250 movies to the silver screen. Not bad. For all that, you will mainly be remembered for one movie in particular. For years, it was a dream of yours to make a movie about your mother-in-law, the Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. The result was the Broadway musical Funny Girl, followed by its big screen adaptation, and eventually its sequel Funny Lady. In the process, you made a star of Barbra Streisand, who won an Oscar for the role. Thanks. I guess.

  • Jan Sterling: Nothing said floozy like your blonde hair and hard-edged looks. As you yourself noted, you played women “of questionable virtue” on the stage, on the TV and in 10 of your 42 movies. In an excellent obituary, The Independent of London (a city where you spent many years) noted your film highlights as plunging a pair of scissors into Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, being a lethal romantic rival to Joan Crawford in Female on the Beach, playing a hardened criminal behind bars in Caged and getting an Oscar nomination for playing a former call girl in The High and the Mighty. And let’s not forget your turn as a teacher in High School Confidential. But your tough screen persona (one choice quote from Ace in the Hole: “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”) belied your real character. During your years in London, you were a full-time volunteer, working in prisons and hospitals and helping your partner Sam Wanamaker in his campaign to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

  • Ingrid Thulin: For better or worse, we will never be able to think of you without also thinking of Ingmar Bergman. And that means we will also see you as grim and angst-ridden, not how you were in real life. You were in some of Bergman’s best, including Wild Strawberries, The Magician, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers and, most controversially, The Silence, in which you played an incest-minded lesbian wasting away from alcohol and tuberculosis. If only your accent had not been so strong when speaking English, you might have followed your fellow Swedes Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman into greater international stardom. You had your chance, playing opposite Glenn Ford in Vincente Minnelli’s epic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But preview audiences had so much trouble with your accent that MGM had you dubbed by Angela Lansbury. Other non-Bergman films included Alain Resmais’s La Guerre est finie and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, as well as joining an international cast for The Cassandra Crossing.

  • Peter Ustinov: Even the entertainment epithet “triple threat” underestimates you. You were a writer, a pundit, a producer, a director, an actor, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting as well. You were successful as a young man and then just kept on going, seemingly forever. Even people fairly mature in years may tend to remember you chiefly as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile, followed by Evil Under the Sun, Dead Man’s Folly and Appointment with Death. (Less explicably, you also had the title sleuthing role in 1981’s Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.) But let us not forget that you won not one but two supporting actor Oscars: for Stanley Kubrick’s Roman epic Spartacus and for Jules Dassin’s caper flick Topkapi. You also got nominated for the star-studded epic Quo Vadis? Other acting roles included Beau Brummel, The Egyptian, We’re No Angels, The Sundowners, Logan’s Run and Lorenzo’s Oil. As a director, you made Lady L and Romanoff and Juliet (in which you starred along with Sandra Dee and John Gavin), a Cold War romantic comedy which you which based on your own play. And you produced, directed, co-scripted and acted in a real classic, the 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, featuring the young and beautiful Terence Stamp in the title role.

    -S.L., 13 January 2005

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