Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

TV icons

In the past week we lost two more actors who loom large in the memory of baby-boomers as well as being accomplished artists in their own right. While our first memories of them may be of their TV shows, they also made their mark on the big screen.

Lt. Commander Quinton McHale (1917-2012)

For some of us, Ernest Borgnine will always be, first and foremost, the guy from McHale’s Navy. Clearly displaying a flair for comedy, Borgnine was essentially playing Sgt. Bilko on a boat, and it was a show beloved by adolescent boys and probably lots of other people. Running from 1962 to 1966, the series made a star out of Borgnine’s second banana, Tim Conway, as the bumbling Ensign Parker. The cast also included Joe Flynn as the appropriately apoplectic Capt. Bingham and Carl Ballantine as Gruber. Borgnine also played McHale in a 1964 movie, and he also participated in the 1997 McHale’s Navy movie, in which McHale was played by Tom Arnold.

But citing McHale’s Navy betrays my vintage. I was amused to hear reports on BBC and Ireland’s RTÉ radio that highlighted the fact that Borgnine was the voice of Mermaidman for more than a decade on Spongebob Squarepants. What kids.

The fact is that Borgnine was around so long that even those of us who can remember back to the 1950s nearly need to be reminded that Borgnine had a celebrated movie career. He had a mug that destined him to play heavies, in movies like From Here to Eternity (in which he beat Frank Sinatra to death), Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock, before he won an Oscar playing the titular love-struck butcher in the Paddy Chayefsky-penned, Delbert Mann-directed Marty. He appeared in a lot of films, including a fair number of war movies and westerns, as well as doing a fair number of guest shots on TV westerns. Just a few of his movie credits include The Vikings, the original Flight of the Phoenix, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (plus a couple of made-for-TV sequels), John Sturges’s Ice Station Zebra, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (with William Holden), Willard, Bunny O’Hare (with Bette Davis), The Poseidon Adventure, Aldrich’s Emperor of the North Pole (with Lee Marvin), The Devil’s Rain, The Greatest (in which he played Angelo Dundee opposite Muhammad Ali playing himself), Disney’s The Black Hole and Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (with Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman).

His other TV series included Future Cop (in which his partner, Michael Shannon, was an android), Airwolf (as Dominic), The Single Guy (in which he played the doorman) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (in which he reprised his role as the voice of Carface from the movie’s sequel). He also appeared in the final episode of ER.

With so many memorable roles to his credit, it’s probably a bit strange that I remember, in particular, a couple of others that stick in my mind. One is as the titular spectre in the 1978 made-for-TV movie The Ghost of Flight 401. The other is as the cabbie who drives Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Among many choice lines, in a future Big Apple (in 1997, to be precise) that has been converted into a prison, he advises Plissken, “Bad neighborhood, Snake! You don’t want to be walking from the Bowery to 42nd Street at night!”

A trooper to the very end, his final film has not yet been released. It is called The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.

Sheriff Taylor (1926-2012)

If Ernest Borgnine managed to create a whole array of different characters with his distinctive features, Andy Griffith always appeared to be playing the same character. He was smart enough to know what he was good at and that was playing characters from the country who seemed simple but were wily as a fox.

He played that character for most of the 1960s in the guise of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, father to Opie (played by future A-list director Ron Howard). The town of Mayberry, North Carolina, was so vividly etched by the characters and stories that appeared on our small screens each week that it truly seemed like a real place. Coming from a small town myself, I soon became aware that urban and suburban people everywhere just assumed that every American small town was like Mayberry. And they weren’t exactly wrong. They just hadn’t seen any of David Lynch’s work yet.

Griffith’s small-town TV shtick had a successful second act, which was quite popular with my parents, in the 1980s and 1990s with Matlock. It was sort of a mash-up of The Andy Griffith Show and Perry Mason. Griffiths’s two TV series did so well that we forget that Griffith had less successful forays into our living rooms. Headmaster lasted 13 episodes in 1970. The New Andy Griffith Show last ten episodes in 1971. Salvage 1 lasted 19 episodes in 1979. Griffith also appeared in the TV miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors and Centennial.

Andy Griffith made a few notable movies for the big screen. He essayed the prototype for his stock character (as well as that of Gomer Pyle, which started as a character on his sitcom) in the military comedies No Time for Sergeants and Onionhead. After he became well known, he showed up in films like Angel in My Pocket (playing a homespun minister), Hearts of the West (playing a wily former western star, opposite Jeff Bridges) and the Leslie Nielsen spoof Spy Hard (as General Rancor).

Griffith’s film career, however, was bookended by two roles well worth remembering. His debut was in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd in 1957, in which he played Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter who rises to become a popular homespun TV personality. Corrupted by success and power, he exemplified the dark side of the entertainment industry. People speculated that the character was inspired by such personalities of the era as Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Henry Faulk or Arthur Godfrey.

In his 80s, Griffith continued to act but could pick and choose his parts. He took one in the film Waitress, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. Set in a small-town café somewhere in the South, the film follows the travails of a waitress played by Keri Russell, who is stuck in a bad marriage. Griffith played Old Joe, a curmudgeonly café regular who takes a fatherly interest in her. In the end Old Joe becomes the deus ex machina that resolves Russell’s problems. It is a sweet performance and so typical of our familiar screen friend Griffith. It is a lovely way to remember him.

-S.L., 9 July 2012

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