Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Giuseppe Conlon (1946-2011)

It seems to be a January tradition that I will find myself obliged to salute cherished movie people who succumb at the dawn of the new year before I can get around to my annual salute to those who departed in the previous year. So be it. Look for that next week.

Like a lot of gifted character actors, Pete Postlethwaite seems like Woody Allen’s Zelig. You look back at all kinds of movies, and he always seems to be there somewhere.

He was the man shaving a general in Ridley Scott’s The Duellists. He was the butcher in Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function (starring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith). He made a particularly strong impression as the tightly wound, angry working class father in Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives. He was the king in a play within the movie in the Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version of Hamlet. He turned up in David Fincher’s Alien 3. He was the father of Jeremy Irons’s character in Stephen Gyllenhaal’s Waterland. And he was Capt. Beams in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (starring Daniel Day-Lewis).

And that doesn’t even include his considerable British television work or his movies after 1992.

The role that really caused Postlethwaite to break out internationally was the same one that earned him his only Academy Award nomination: Giuseppe Conlon in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, working again with Day-Lewis. The two of them played real-life father and son, recounting how Gerry Conlon and his father were wrongly arrested and imprisoned for an IRA bombing. Postlethwaite’s portrayal of the elder Conlon, who died in prison before his name could be cleared, is heartbreaking. The contrast between that performance and the one he gave in Distant Voices, Still Lives, essaying two very different kinds of fathers, demonstrates Postlethwaite’s remarkable range. From that point on, it was hard to miss the actor when he showed up in movies. And he was in a lot of them, going back and forth between British films and/or independent films and international blockbusters.

His high-profile, memorable performances include Kobayashi in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, the Old Man in Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, the priest in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the determined bandleader in a depressed Yorkshire mining town in Mark Herman’s Brassed Off, a pair of Steven Spielberg flicks (a big game hunter in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and a district attorney in Amistad) and, exploiting his unique facial structure, the title role in the silly Steve Barron comedy Rat.

And that just brings us up to the end of the last millennium. After that, he had appearances in Lasse Hallström’s The Shipping News, the terrorist thriller Red Mercury, Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener and the sci-fi adventure Æon Flux. He played another priest in the 2006 remake of The Omen. He was particularly busy in the last couple of years of his life, appearing in the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, the remake of Clash of the Titans and Ben Affleck’s The Town. Perhaps our last enduring image of him will be as Cillian Murphy’s father on his deathbed in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But that wasn’t his final role. He will appear in Nick Hamm’s yet-to-be-released Killing Bono, based on the account of brothers Neil and Ivan McCormick, who tried to find success as a rock band but were destined to be always in the shadow of their contemporaries U2.

Spielberg famously called Postlethwaite “the best actor in the world.” In fact, he was so good that, in supporting roles, we nearly didn’t notice him, as if he weren’t acting at all. But if you want a reminder of how good he was, watching Distant Voices, Still Lives, In the Name of the Father and/or Brassed Off should do the trick.

Honey West (1930-2011)

In looking back, it astounds me that the TV series Honey West was on TV for only one season. In my mind, while it definitely ended too soon, it seems to have gone on for a lot longer. It made a singular impression on me and on other boys my age. It was a spinoff of Burke’s Law, which had already fed our fantasy view of the wealthy playboy life. If Amos Burke could be a debonair man about town who solves crimes, then a hot blonde female private eye, who has a pet ocelot, only raised the temperature for innocent young males. Honey West made an appearance in a 1965 episode of Burke’s Law and then became the center of her own series later that year.

Honey, of course, was played by Anne Francis, and this wasn’t the first time she had raised our, um, interest, with her beauty and strange mixture of innocence and danger. She did a fair amount of TV work in the early days and was a regular film fixture in the 1950s. She was Flamingo McManamee to James Cagney’s political demagogue in Raoul Walsh’s A Lion Is in the Streets. She was an unfortunate local in John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock. She was also in Walsh’s Battle Cry and was new schoolteacher Glenn Ford’s wife in Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle. She was a fugitive convicted murderer in Ray Nazarro’s The Hired Gun. And she was a lieutenant in the military romantic comedy Don’t Go Near the Water. But her most enduring role from that period (probably from any period) was that of Altaira, the sheltered daughter of Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius, in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. The two of them, along with Robby the Robot, were the only inhabitants of the planet Altair—until they got a visit from a starship crew headed by the late Leslie Nielsen. The flick was a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and boy did it ever work. It was scary and sexy and thought-provoking. And, while Francis may have been the cheesecake, she was good cheesecake. Outer space would never be the same.

Over the years, Anne Francis guest starred on just about every TV show there was, including recurring roles on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, Dallas, Riptide and The Drew Carey Show. She even reprised her Honey West character in 1994 on the Burke’s Law revival series.

Since this reminiscence has well established my nerd credentials, let me end by pointing out that in the early 1960s Frances appeared in two memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone. In “Jess-Belle,” she sported dark hair as a jealous Appalachian girl who makes an unfortunate bargain with a witch (Jeannette Nolan) to get the young man she desires. And in one of the creepiest, most disturbing episodes ever, “The After Hours,” she played a confused a young woman in a department store who is terrorized by mannequins. As always, we couldn’t (or didn’t want to) take our eyes off her.

-S.L., 6 January 2011

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