Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Time to pluck three talented people at random from the recent obituaries and take a moment to remember them. There is no rhyme or reason to pick this particular trio, as opposed to all the other wonderful and gifted people we have lost in the last while, other than they stuck themselves in my mind on this particular day.

Lee the confidence-stricken gunfighter (1932-2016)

By all logic the subhead just above should read “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” That is the one role for which Robert Vaughn was best known and most remembered. And usually that is the way I go, but in this case there was something just a bit significant and sad that the last of the titular cast of John Sturges’s classic The Magnificent Seven has now left us.

And what a cast it was. Some of them were way more than enough to carry a movie all on their own: Yul Brynner (gone 31 years), Steve McQueen (gone 36 years), Charles Bronson (gone 13 years), James Coburn (gone 14 years). They were joined by a great character actor (Eli Wallach, gone two years), a solid supporing actor (Brad Dexter, gone 14 years) and, well, some European eye candy (Horst Buchholz, gone 13 years). Of all of them, though, it was Vaughn’s crisis-shaken gunslinger Lee, the one who finally finds his courage when it really matters, who had the most satisfying character arc. I still have not got around to seeing Antoine Fuqua’s recent remake and I do not doubt it has its own joys and appeal, but it is hard to imagine any other movie having the same impact on an audience—especially a young one and a male one—at this or any subsequent point in history.

Though The Man from U.N.C.L.E. dominates our memories, it is worth remembering that Vaughn made an impression in no fewer than a half-dozen other TV series. Immediately before taking on Napoleon Solo, he was a captain in The Lieutenant. Then he was a detective in the London-based The Protectors in the 1970s and starred in Emerald Point N.A.S. in the 1980s. After that he joined The A-Team in its final season. At the end of the century he played a judge in a TV series based on The Magnificent Seven, and after that he was in the series Hustle.

In addition to that, he made zillions of guest appearances during the past six decades in TV sitcoms, dramas, westerns, and whatever—in addition to several notable miniseries (Captains and Kings, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, Centennial, The Blue and the Gray). He also had something of a soap opera career, playing a character on As the World Turns in 1995 as well as appearing recently on the UK’s granddaddy of soaps, Coronation Street. As for the big screen, he followed up The Magnificent Seven by co-starring again with Steve McQueen, this time as a a bad guy, in Bullitt. He continued to have supporting roles in feature films, returning an odd time to his famous early movie role in fare like the 2012 UK soccer comedy The Magnificent Eleven. Along the way, he did everthing from providing the voice of the evil computer in Demon Seed to playing a slimy studio exec in Blake Edwards’s deliciously vicious S.O.B. Memorably for me, he sort of reprised his Lee character, this time as an extraterrestrial, in a 1980 Roger Corman (Jimmy T. Murakami was the official director) sci-fi flick, Battle Beyond the Stars. This time around his co-stars were Richard Thomas, John Saxon and George Peppard.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t get into full-time acting until his mid-twenties and whose first screen appearance was as a spear carrier (uncredited) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

Makeup magician (1961-2016)

We tend mostly to remember actors because theirs are, after all, the faces that we see up there on the big screen. So let us take time to remember a talented craftsman whose job was to cover up those faces and make them unrecognizable.

There are a number of reasons that I have a fondness for John Vulich and was so sad to hear of his passing on October 12. For one thing he was a fellow San Joaquin Valley boy, born in Fresno in 1961. For another (though I only recently learned this) he shared a birthday with my childhood best friend. Mostly though, he was responsible for creating some of the most impressive and memorable characters on some of my favorite TV shows. He won three Emmys for special effects makeup for The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and one other one that I am trying to remember.

One of his first jobs was creating the zombie “Bub” in the 1985 George Romero sequel Day of the Dead. He would later work on Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. He also worked on Troll, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls, Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, Fright Night Part 2, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, and the TV shows Werewolf, Hypernauts, Charmed and the Buffy spinoff Angel. Beyond just makeup, he also had special effects credits for movies like Ghoulies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the infamous never-released 1994 Roger Corman version of The Fantastic Four.

I’m still trying to remember that other TV show for which he won an Emmy. Oh wait, I’ve got it now. (You’re way ahead of me, aren’t you?) It was, of course, the great Babylon 5. He also worked on the ill-fated B5 follow-up Crusade. So, yes, we have Vulich and his team at Optic Nerve Studios to thank for all the great visual memories of Ambassador G’Kar and all the other memorable interplanetary characters in the greatest sci-fi TV series ever.

Though it is way too soon to be quoting it again: “A toast… to absent friends, in memory still bright.”

Eva Seward, vampire’s victim (1910-2016)

What about this for an amazing life? At the time of Emliano Zapata’s revolution in Mexico Guadalupe Natalia Tovar, the oldest of nine children, was born in Oaxaca and grew up near Mexico City. When she was 16, Hollywood talent scouts came to her gymnastics class and were stunned by her beauty. Accompanied by her grandmother, she took a train to Hollywood and became a contract player, taking dance lessons with the father of the yet-unknown Rita Hayworth.

She was promoted as “the sweetheart of Mexico” and became known for the melodrama Santa (Saint) about a simple country girl whose life takes a dark path after being seduced and abandoned by a soldier. It was a commercial breakthrough for Mexican cinema and one of the country’s first talkies. While never a major star, Lupita Tovar would go on to work with the likes of Henry Fonda, Gene Autry and a past-his-prime (and inebriated) Buster Keaton, who nearly drowned her while filming a water tank scene for 1936’s The Invader (aka An Old Spanish Custom). She eventually married Paul Kohner, the Universal executive who had had the idea of tapping into the Latin American movie market by making Spanish language versions of Hollywood films, saving costs by using the same sets as the English language versions. Thus she played the Helen Twelvetrees role from The Cat Creeps and the Barbara Stanwyck role from Ten Cents a Dance.

Most notably, she assumed the role originated by Helen Chandler as Mina (Eva in the Spanish version) in Tod Browning’s Dracula. The Spanish version of Drácula, directed by George Melford and an uncredited Enrique Tovar Ávalos and starring Carlos Villarías in the Bela Lugosi role, is considered by many to be superior to Browning’s version, if only for not having the same restrictions on the eroticism of the story.

Her last movie was in 1945 and her last TV appearance in 1952, but she founded something of a Hollywood dynasty. Her son Pancho Koehner has produced many movies, including a number of ones for the big and small screen about the little French girl Madeline. Her daughter Susan Kohner had a respectable career as an actor, notably playing Juanita Moore’s light-skinned African-American daughter in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 tearjerker Imitation of Life. Her grandsons are producers/directors/actors Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz. Chris has directed The Golden Compass and A Better Life. Paul has directed In Good Company, American Dreamz, Little Fockers, Admission and Grandma. Together they have directed American Pie, Down to Earth and About a Boy.

All that because she showed up for gym class. At the age of 106, Lupita Tovar passed away on Saturday, the day after her daughter Susan’s 80th birthday.

Que descanse en paz, señora.

-S.L., 16 November 2016

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