Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Fallen idols

It’s one of those weird times. So much change (apparent or real) seems to be going on in history and in popular culture. Protestors in Iran. A crazy guy shooting off missiles in Korea. A celebrity-in-chief in the White House. Famous people dropping like flies. The entire planet having a Princess Di moment over the sudden death of a pop star. What’s it all mean? Beats the heck out of me. But let me try to keep up.

Thriller (1958-2009)

If I hear one more armchair psychiatrist telling me how Michael Jackson never had a childhood, I’m going to throw up. He had a childhood, and I certainly wouldn’t trade mine for his—not even for all the money, well, for all the money that Michael Jackson earned in his life. He was a prodigy and deserves to be called a genius as well. He was in a class by himself as an entertainer but also as a strategist for marketing and exploiting himself. As others have noted, he was the ultimate cross-over artist—neither quite black nor white, neither quite male nor female, neither quite sane nor crazy. All the weirdness seems to have been calculated—at least at first. It’s hard to remember now but, back in the olden days that were the 1980s, that’s how celebrities like Jackson and Madonna and David Bowie got press attention before there were zillions of cable channels and the World Wide Web. But the weirdness took on a life of its own, and Jackson became a strange and pitiable figure. The raw animal energy and macho sexiness of his breakthrough videos became an odd contrast to the lithe, effeminate figure that appeared in interviews and in front of courthouses. He was as big as any music idol has ever been, and his trajectory seemed to have no limit. But he had no Frank Sinatra-like second act to follow his teen idol phase. There was no middle age, where he could sling the coat over his shoulder while nursing a martini on a barstool.

Since this is a movie web site, let’s remember Jackson’s contributions to film. His chief contribution, of course, was to the music video, an art form that sprung up to fill time on cable music channels, predominately MTV. In the beginning, these things seemed to be glorified commercials for selling albums and, ultimately, the videos themselves on videotape and later DVD. But, clearly, music videos showed themselves to be works of art in their own right. Indeed, some of the most notable and interesting new film directors of the past decade or two have developed their skills on making music videos (as well as, it must be said, commercials). Jackson’s music videos were instant classics, particularly Thriller, which deserves to be called a proper movie and was directed by an established film director: John Landis, whose c.v. included Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places. The makeup effects were done by the legendary Rick Baker, who appears in the video as a zombie, as does Jackson’s sister Janet. Other cameos included preeminent science fiction fan/journalist Forrest J. Ackerman as a cinema patron. Horror legend Vincent Price has a speaking part in the song.

One wonders if Jackson could have had more of a career in film. His one big feature film role was that of the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz, along with Diana Ross as Dorothy, Nipsey Russell as the Tinman and Ted Ross as the Lion. He also starred in Stan Winston’s 1997 short Ghosts. Otherwise, his acting work consisted of music videos, video games and cameos in movies like Men in Black II. And a turn on The Simpsons as a mental patient named Leon Kompowsky, who believed that he was Michael Jackson. He also starred in a 17-minute film directed Francis Ford Coppola, along with Anjelica Huston and Dick Shawn. It was called Captain EO and, as far as I know, the only way to see it was at Disney theme parks. It was reported to be, minute for minute, the most expensive movie ever made.

At one time, Jackson was reported to be lined up to star in a new Steven Spielberg adaptation of Peter Pan. It never happened, of course. Given events later in Jackson’s life, it may be just as well that the star did not leave such a movie for posterity. And, in any event, the whole project, in which Jackson would have played the boy who refused to grow up, may have seemed just a tad redundant.

Mitch and Det. Stone (1912-2009)

This one is easy. Karl Malden will be remembered primarily for one indelible movie role and one prominent TV role. The former, of course, was Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, a card-playing buddy of that New Orleans bundle of animal magnetism known as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. He had originated the role on the stage, along with Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter. (The starring role of Blanche DuBois went to Jessica Tandy on the stage and to Vivien Leigh in the Elia Kazan film.) Malden got his only Oscar for playing Mitch, the nice guy who has an interest in the neurotic Blanche. His only other Oscar nomination was also for a film he did with Kazan and Brando, for playing Father Barry in On the Waterfront.

His memorable TV role was, of course, as Det. Mike Stone, senior partner to Michael Douglas’s Steve Keller in the 1970s series The Streets of San Francisco. Malden seemed to go on playing the gruff Det. Stone in those commercials for American Express travelers’ checks, in which he gravely admonished viewers, “Don’t leave home without them!” He also starred in a short-lived 1980 series called Skag, about the travails of a Pittsburg working class family. His last appearance was a guest role playing another priest, on The West Wing.

Many actors have faces. Malden had a mug. His looks were striking, but he was not what you would call handsome. His features begged him to be called an everyman. A working class son of immigrants in Gary, Indiana, and born with the name Mladen Sekulovich, he may not have been as compelling as Brando, but in his own way he was more likeable, or at least more comfortable.

Roles he played, which you may have missed or forgotten, include a detective in Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, a medic in Halls of Montezuma, Dr. Marais in Phantom of the Rue Morgue, Anthony Perkins’s father in Fear Strikes Out, the reverend in Disney’s Pollyanna, another priest in Robert Mulligan’s The Great Imposter, a sheriff in Marlon Brando’s One-Eye Jacks, Warren Beatty’s father in John Frankenhammer’s All Fall Down, a warden in Birdman of Alcatraz, an agent in Mervyn LeRoy’s Gypsy, a cavalry captain in Cheyenne Autumn, a professional gambler in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid, an outlaw gang leader in Henry Hathaway’s Nevada Smith, a thief in Hotel (the guests should have had travelers’ checks!), a spook who recruits Michael Caine for a job in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, a rancher owner in Blake Edwards’s Wild Rovers and terrorist victim Leon Klinghoffer in the TV movie The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro.

As usual, I have my own sentimental favorite role that may be different from yours. In Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 Oscar-winning biopic Patton, Malden was again in the shadow of a larger-than-life actor. This time it was George C. Scott in the title role. Malden played General Omar Bradley, the decent man who was known by his troops as “the Soldier’s General.” And we couldn’t help but feel that Malden was the same centered type of fellow that Bradley was, who was more concerned with results than glory. Like every movie about World War II that came out in those days, I saw it with my dad, and he assured me that Bradley was more of a hero than Patton was. Just as the world may have under-appreciated the work of Karl Malden while it was busy focusing on the the Brandos and the Scotts.

My favorite line of movie comes when things are going badly during a battle. In the chaos, a soldier, not realizing that the man next to him is the general in charge, exclaims, “What silly son of a bitch is in charge of this operation?” Omar Bradley replies, “I don’t know, but they oughta hang him.” It displayed the same humor, sense of responsibility and lack of ego that Karl Malden must have had.

Charlie’s angel (1947-2009)

I was surprised (and I wasn’t) that the leads of the reports on Farrah Fawecett’s death (during the five hours before she was totally eclipsed) focused on her famous poster. It was definitely a classic and memorable photo. All white teeth and hair, with a smile that was nearly euphoric and a body that seemed too good to be true, she was a young heterosexual man’s fantasy. And that may explain why her death got so much attention, despite the blanket Jackson coverage. It must be because so many people who control our news coverage these days are male and of a certain age. Even George Stephanopoulos admitted to having had the poster on the wall of his room.

But it would have been nice if more reports had started out by mentioning that she was a veteran actor who had been nominated for three Emmys (for the TV movies The Burning Bed and Small Sacrifices and the TV series The Guardian) and five Golden Globes (for Charlie’s Angels, The Burning Bed, Small Sacrifices, the TV movies Nazi Hunter: the Beate Klarsfeld Story and Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story, and the feature film Extremities).

Here’s some trivia. Fawcett had early appearances on Mayberry R.F.D., I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun and The Partridge Family. She had recurring roles on Harry O, The Six Million Dollar Man and Spin City. One of her earliest movie roles was in Myra Breckinridge. Other movie roles you may have forgotten include Logan’s Run (with Michael York), Somebody Killed Her Husband (with Jeff Bridges), Sunburn (with Charles Grodin, Art Carney and Joan Collins), Saturn 3 (with Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel), The Cannonball Run (with Burt Reynolds and Roger Moore), See You in the Morning (with Jeff Bridges again) and the Disney comedy Man of the House (with Chevy Chase and Jonathan Taylor Thomas). Her last role was a supporting part in the 2004 comedy The Cookout.

If Fawcett will inevitably be remembered for her numerous cheesecake and lightweight roles, let us not forget her respectable, serious roles in the likes of The Burning Bed and Extremities. And let’s add to that list her titular performance in the TV biopic Margaret Bourke-White, about the noted photojournalist, and her role as Robert Duvall’s wife in the 1997 film he wrote and directed, The Apostle.

Hey-yo! (1923-2009)

For the record, Ed McMahon did have something of a film career. Of course, he usually played an announcer or a bartender or, more likely, himself. As it happens, his first movie was also Martin Sheen’s. Seven years before the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, they appeared in a tense drama about hostages on a New York subway called The Incident. Other roles: the mob flick Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, the original Fun with Dick and Jane (with George Segal and Jane Fonda), a walk-on (or rather a camel-on) in Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste, as Adam Arkin’s dad in the werewolf spoof Full Moon High, in a strange James M. Cain adaptation called Butterfly (with Stacy Keach, Pia Zadora and Orson Welles), as a governor in For Which He Stands, and a comedy called Mixed Blessings (with Timothy Bottoms).

In the eyes of the world, McMahon was the ultimate second banana. Casual viewers of The Tonight Show might have thought that Johnny Carson gave him a job as a favor because Ed was a genial guy and maybe he needed the work. The truth is that Ed McMahon probably could have given the famously well compensated Carson a run for his money in the net worth department. McMahon was everywhere: game shows, commercials, blooper shows, Star Search and, of course, on the end of the couch every night laughing heartily at even the lamest of Carson’s quips. (The long-running gag of The Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer’s flattering and servile attitude toward David Letterman is an apparent homage to McMahon.)

For such an indefatigable salesman, McMahon had a comfortable personality that you couldn’t help but like. Carson ribbed him as a man who might be overly fond of his drink, an impression that fit his Irish name and demeanor like a glove. But, to the extent that he did drink, he gave drinking a good name. It was hard to imagine better company than Ed. Always pleasant, bordering on fawning, he never displayed a trace of ego. As I wrote on Carson’s death four years ago, The Tonight Show in those days seemed incredibly hip and sophisticated to someone who was not allowed, most nights, to stay up late enough to watch it. I imagined that the banter and the drinks and the wit went on all night long among Johnny, Ed and bandleader Doc Severinsen, as they all went home together after the show was over.

I don’t know about Doc, but Ed and Johnny actually were close in their personal lives. After all, they were together longer than they were with any of their wives. Ed was secure enough to realize how successful he was, despite being the second banana. “I laugh for an hour and then go home,” The New York Times quoted him as once saying. “I’ve got the world’s greatest job.” You are right, sir.

Caine (1936-2009)

The news of David Carradine’s strange death in Bangkok a month ago was quite a shock. It was like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Which is weirdly appropriate since our lasting memory of him might be his title role in Tarantino’s two-part opus Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. But no, we all know what he’ll be remembered for, don’t we. His pop culture legacy is playing one Kwai Chang Caine in three TV movies, actually four, if you count the 1991 reunion of old TV western stars that was called The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw. Did I say one Kwai Chang Caine? Actually, it was two, the original and then his descendant in modern times alongside his big city cop son, played by Chris Potter, in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. The latter series was distributed by Prime Time Entertainment Network (PTEN) in the 1990s, and I know that because it always came on after Babylon 5.

But Carradine was much more than Caine or Bill. He had literally hundreds of screen roles. Always a busy actor, he is listed by the IMDB as having a stunning 47 roles on his acting c.v. just since he appeared in the second Kill Bill movie in 2004. But then he came from a busy acting family. His father was veteran character actor John Carradine who, among zillions of movies, was memorable in Joe Dante’s The Howling. His brothers were Keith (Nashville, Deadwood, Dexter) and Robert (four Revenge of the Nerds movies and Lizzie McGuire’s dad).

On TV David Carradine started out with guest shots in westerns (he was the Utah Kid on an episode of The Virginian) and dramas. He had the Alan Ladd role in a TV series based on Shane. He played Justin LaMotte in North and South and North and South, Book II. On the big screen, he and his brother Robert had small parts in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Other notable roles include Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (with Barbara Hershey), Gray Lady Down (with Charlton Heston) and Lone Wolf McQuade (with Chuck Norris). He also had a preeminent role in Walter Hill’s landmark 1980 western The Long Riders, which was a virtual actor brother convention. David, Keith and Robert Carradine played Cole, Jim and Bob Younger. Stacy and James Keach played Frank and Jesse James. Dennis and Randy Quaid played Ed and Clell Miller. And Christopher and Nicholas Guest played Charlie and Bob Ford.

Three film roles in particular, however, need to be highlighted, if we are going to remember David Carradine properly. They display his talent and his range and his willingness to do anything for a role. They are, in no particular order, the Paul Bartel-directed, Roger Corman-produced exploitation classic Death Race 2000, in which he and Sylvester Stallone played race car drivers aiming at pedestrians for extra points; Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg, in which he played an acrobat in post-World War I Berlin, along with Liv Ullmann; and Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, the biopic of Woody Guthrie that garnered Carradine some of the best notices of his career.

-S.L., 2 July 2009

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