Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Tribute time

Most of my tributes to movie, TV and other artistic/entertainment people who leave us come after the year is over. But it seems as though there have been a whole bunch of people lately who have passed on, and I don’t really want to delay mentioning them, so here comes a midyear clump of mini-tributes.

Something wicked this way writes (1920-2012)

Few names resonate in the genre of science fiction as strongly as that of Ray Bradbury. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke can be thought of as being in the same league, but none of them permeated the popular culture to the same extent as Bradbury. That is probably because so many of his stories were adapted (sometimes by himself), or even conceived, for television and movies.

The big three movies that stemmed from Bradbury’s imagination are François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, Jack Smight’s The Illustrated Man (with Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom) and Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (with Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce and Diane Ladd). Of these, it is Truffaut’s film that marked baby boomers for life. The theme of a society that burns books as a matter of course and the ultimate impossibility of people letting those books disappear was both pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. The film’s influence goes well beyond the attractiveness of its leads, Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Its very title has become cultural shorthand for the film’s themes. No wonder that Michael Moore ripped it off to give added significance to his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

Chief among Bradbury’s many other contributions, we need to mention his anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theater as well as the 1980 miniseries The Martian Chronicles. He also worked with director John Huston to adapt Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in 1956. And let us not forget that he was a prolific contributor to various iterations of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. These episodes reflect typically Bradburyian themes like, well, androids (“Design for Loving,” “I Sing the Body Electric”). Other memorable episodes were the body-snatcher-ish “Special Delivery” and the things-are-not-always-what-they-seem-themed “The Jar.”

Corporal Newkirk (1932-2012)

Most people seem to remember Richard Dawson for shamelessly kissing every woman in sight. That was part of his shtick during his 300 years hosting the game show Family Feud. Some of us will remember the Hampshire-born British comedian primarily, though, for playing the amusing always-got-an-angle prisoner of war Corporal Newkirk on one of the oddest-premised sitcoms of all times, Hogan’s Heroes.

Something about fast-talking Dawson must have made him seem like military material. Three years before Hogan’s Heroes his screen career began with an uncredited bit as a British soldier in The Longest Day, which was followed by walk-ons and guest spots on comedy shows and sitcoms like Jack Benny’s and Dick Van Dyke’s. More military adventures followed with The Devil’s Brigade (with William Holden and Cliff Robertson) and King Rat (with George Segal). His game show gig seemed to keep him busy forever, but he also had regular roles for three years on Laugh-In and on Van Dyke’s 1973-74 sitcom. (Hmmm, you’d think he could have helped Van Dyke with his accent in Mary Poppins.)

His final screen acting role was fittingly memorable. In Paul Michael Glaser’s 1987 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Running Man he played (what else?) a game show host, but this time in a dystopian future in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wrongly convicted “Butcher of Bakersfield” finds the competition rigged.

Mrs. McCluskey (1939-2012)

I’m a sucker for feisty old ladies. Like the one Peg Phillips played on Northern Exposure. Or the one Kathryn Joosten played on Desperate Housewives. For an actor who didn’t even get seriously started in the profession until she was 42, she made quite a mark.

Starting with a part in Randal Kleiser’s 1984 slice-of-smalltown-life flick Grandview, U.S.A., she showed up in bit parts in all kinds of movies and TV shows, playing everything from a grocery checker to a waitress to cleaning woman to a cafeteria lady to a nurse to an ER patient to Murphy Brown’s secretary No. 83. She had recurring roles on Dharma & Greg, My Name Is Earl and Scrubs and played Martin Sheen’s secretary on The West Wing as well as stints on General Hospital and Joan of Arcadia (as Old Lady God). She will be particularly remembered in our house also for playing Ashley Tisdale’s grandma on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Zachary Levi’s accident-prone aunt in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

But it was her role of Karen McCluskey that was her crowning thespian achievement. Not only did she get to dispense lots of wisdom to her troubled neighbors on Wisteria Lane, but she had a dead husband in her freezer, got to play detective with Lily Tomlin (as her sister) and got to have a late-in-life romance (with Orson Bean). And she got to play one of the most memorable and moving death scenes in television history mere weeks before her life and death imitated her art.

Sam Drucker (1915-2012)

A surprising number of Frank Cady’s film roles are uncredited, starting with his turn as a farmer in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Some of those bit parts are in pretty memorable movies, like The Vicious Circle, Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn, D.O.A., The Asphalt Jungle, Father of the Bride, etc.

He played too many roles to mention, but suffice to say that his gawky, down-home appearance and manner destined him to play a host of clerks, janitors, men on the street, shopkeepers, bartenders, gas station attendants and doctors. He was born to appear on sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (as Doc Williams).

But all those roles vanish in the mist of time, leaving only one in our memories forever. Cady will always be Hooterville’s shopkeeper Sam Drucker, a role he played from 1963 to 1971 (and in the 1990 TV movie Return to Green Acres) in that decade’s preeminent sitcom crossover triumvirate: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Goodfella (1943-2012)

Henry Hill was not actually in show business, but he became part of movie history anyway. A 1986 biography of his colorful life in New York’s crime world, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi, was adapted into a successful movie in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas. Hill was played by Ray Liotta.

Hill had become a government witness and had gone into the witness protection program in 1980, but he only lasted in it a couple of years because he kept running afoul of the law. He spent the rest of his life moving from one place to another, successfully staying ahead of the dangerous people he had crossed—until he outlived them. His residence kept changing, with periods in places like Ohio, Nebraska, Montana, Kentucky and, finally, California. He was never that secretive, often giving interviews and appearing on television and radio.

He gets a special mention here because I used to eat his food. Actually, a lot of people did. He often worked as a cook in various restaurants, usually Italian. In fact, in 2002 he published The Wiseguy Cookbook (co-authored with Priscilla Davis) documenting his favorite recipes. One of the places he landed was Redmond, Washington, where he was prone to hanging out at the bar in a certain Mexican restaurant there. He wound up becoming a cook there during the same time I myself was frequenting the place. It wasn’t until I had moved away that my friend Dayle alerted me to a Seattle TV report about his time in Redmond. None of us ever suspected how close we were to real-life film legend, which is just as well. After all, how can you fully enjoy your enchiladas and tacos if you are worrying about being caught up in the middle of a mob hit?

What amazes me is that Hill managed to live to 69 and to die of natural causes. His erstwhile mob cohorts never managed to make him sleep with the fish tacos.

-S.L., 14 June 2012

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