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Posts Tagged ‘obituary’

Larry Gelbart

I was a fan of Larry Gelbart before I knew that television shows had writers. M*A*S*H*  reruns always made me laugh as a kid. He stopped writing the show after its fourth season, but his fingerprints were on it until the very end. The show seemed to reflect his comic sensibilities always. He also had a hand in the delightful A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical comedy about- well, comedy. There was his early years as a writer for Sid Caesar, and his later in life masterpiece, Tootsie. But more than that, he was available to other writers. I’ve spent the last few days reading from other writers about how when they met Larry, he would always be willing to help them out.

I never got the chance to meet Larry Gelbart. He was on my list of people I’d have to dinner in a perfect world. I can hardly believe he’s gone. It was only this year, watching PBS’ invaluable series on American comedy Make ‘Em Laugh, where I saw him looking still spry and as quick-witted as ever ( he was never a dull interview). Now, after a couple of shell shocked months where I have seen many of the idols of my childhood shake off their mortal coil, all I can say to this devastating loss as a fan of comedy is:

Gen. Wilson Spaulding Barker: Nurse, is everybody around here crazy?
Lt. Ginger Bayliss: Everybody who’s sane is, sir.

( M*A*S*H*, “Chief Surgeon Who?”, 1972)

I didn’t say it would be logical.

So long, Larry Gelbart. And thanks. Because of people like you, I wanted to write.

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The news over the weekend of Walter Cronkite’s death hit me pretty hard. I didn’t grow up with him on my TV news- I was born in the late 70s and Ilive in Canada. But the history geek in me led me to him and his com padrein truth, Edward R. Murrow. I, like many others of my generation, saw him in flashback almost, in his bigger, grander moments. I saw him nearly lose all composure announcing JFK’s death, felt the wonder seeping out of the tubes as he observed the moon landing, felt his irritation about the futility in Vietnam. His were first person accounts on videotape, the most trusted man in America, able to influence an entire nations feelings on a war by simply observing it. It has been said time and again over the last couple of days that there will never be another Walter Cronkite. Certainly this will be true- not only because he was one of a kind, but because no one seems to aspire to be that type of journalist any more. The era where journalism was a true profession, capable of providing checks and balances to the government, is really over.

Frank McCourt also dies this weekend after a battle with cancer and meningitis. His was a fascinating  story. Not famous outside of being an eccentric NYC teacher, he published one of the most elegant, tragic, beautiful memoirs in history. I’ve read Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis numerous times. He found humor in the hypocrisy and poverty of his life and inspired me to find the truth in my own voice as a writer, even while writing snarky recaps for TV shows.

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I remember being handed Margaret Atwood’s dystopian future novel A Handmaid’s Tale in high school English and promptly trying to figure out a way to get out of reading it, seeing as Atwood’s novels are dreary ( her essays are anything but). So I tracked down a tape of the film at the local video store and watched. It was dark, dreary, dystopian, like Atwood, but there was this young actress, luminescent even in the red burqua they made the handmaids wear.

That was Natasha Richardson.

By all accounts, she was like that in life- boisterous, warm. with a throaty laugh and an energy that consumed the space she inhabited. She convinced confirmed bachelor Liam Neeson to marry, and their nearly fifteen year marriage was one of the most sane, normal, human relationships in Hollywood history. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different- he, a working class lad from Ireland who fell into acting after a career as a boxer and a fork lift operator for Guinness ( that, my friends, is very Irish).  She was the member of a famous theatrical family whose legend predates modern acting, even film.  Her mother was an Oscar winning actress and activist. Her father was an Oscar winning film maker and well known rogue. Her uncle, her aunt, her sister- they all act. It’s the family trade. And she was wonderful at it.

It doesn’t take much for Natasha Richardson to worm her way into your heart by acting- the performance she gave as Patty Hearst is the stuff of legend. But her best performances never happened on screen. There was the electric 1993 production of Anna Christie, in which she and Neeson devastatingly portrayed lust while falling in love behind the scenes. Her now legendary turn as the luminous Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes’ reconfigured Cabaret, for which she was awarded a Tony award. Her most famous film role was that as Lindsay Lohan’s mom in the remake of  The Parent Trap, where she was amusing and charming and warm. It was my daughter’s favorite movie for years.

As a fan of film and theater, I am deeply saddened by the loss of Ms. Richardson yesterday. She passed away in New York, after being transferred from Montreal, suffering head trauma after a fallon a ski hill. She was only 45 years old.  My heart goes out to Mr. Neeson, their two sons, Micheal and Daniel, her mother, sister Joely, and the extended family and friends of this astonishingly beautiful, gifted woman.

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  • At least Bikini Girl left AI, but still- sucks is an understatement.
  • Apatow to make short film for Oscar show. Male frontal nudity on ABC, y’all.
  • James Franco wins Harvard’s prestigious Hasty Pudding Award. He’ll make a pretty drag queen, I must say.
  • Speaking of pretty girls, Jude Law to play transsexual model in Sally Potter’s upcoming film. Leaked pic has him looking like a more tragic early 90s Winona Ryder.
  • Big Love for Big Love at HBO, picked up for fourth season.
  • M.I.A., Goddess, has announced she will attempt to perform Sunday at the Grammys- her due date. Oscars- still up in the air.
  • Punk fans around the world mourn the loss of Lux Interior, the leader of The Cramps, who were the ultimate psychobilly purveyors of the 70s through the millennium. He was 62 ( or 60, depending on the source), and had died of a long time heart affliction. He will be missed.
  • This could get me in huge trouble with Twilight fans, but- I’m sorry, Stephen King is right, Stephanie Meyer’s is not a great writer. Where he’s wrong is that she is a perfectly adequate writer with an inability to build a story successfully, which plagues many writers of popular fiction ( as opposed to the heady lit elite types like a Cheever or an Irving or an Updike- although they can fall prey on occasion as well). I know this because it’s my own issue when I write, I just haven’t been lucky enough to catch an agent or a publisher willing to look the other way ( plus I don’t write about vampires or wizards). The fact is, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is much better written as it was meticulously planned out , every plot point, over years before she committed a word to paper, leaving a clear channel for her to tell a very complex story about good and evil. While I found Twilight an amusing diversion, each preceding novel of the Meyer’s series seemed to lose the plot a bit until Breaking Dawn, which was so bizarre and out of character as to make the whole series seem ridiculous. Her prose is clunky, her dialog cliched, her story fantastical even in the realm of fantasy fiction ( believe and stick to your own mythology- never waiver). So please keep the blood spatter to a minimum, Twilight fans. It’s innocuous enough as a series that I don’t hate it, but I really can’t call it great literature. Stephen King is fundamentally right ( all though, I admit, tact is not his strong suit).

I’ll await my death over by the water cooler. Have a wonderful day.

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Paul Newman, 83, actor and philanthropist. 09/26

David Foster Wallace, 46, author ( Infinite Jest). 09/12

Isaac Hayes, 65, singer, songwriter, actor. 08/10

Jerry Wexler, 91, music producer. 08/15

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, 89, author and Soviet dissident. 08/04

George Carlin, 71, comedian and actor. 06/22

Cyd Charisse, 86,  dancer and actress. 06/17

Tim Russert, 58, anchor of ” Meet the Press”. 06/13

Bo Diddley, 79, guitarist, one of the godfathers of Rock and Roll. 06/02

Yves Saint Laurent, 71, famed fashion designer. 06/01

Dick Martin, 86, comedian and host of ” Laugh-In” with partner Dan Rowan. 05/24

Sydney Pollack, 73, Oscar winning director and actor. 05/26

Robert Rauschenberg, 82, artist. 05/12

Eddy Arnold, 89, musician. 05/08

Charlton Heston, 84, actor and Conservative activist, President of the National Rifle Association. 04/05

Richard Widmark, 93, actor. 03/24

Paul Scofield, 86, Oscar Winning actor. 03/19

Arthur C. Clarke, 90, author ( 2001: A Space Odyessy). 03/19

William F. Buckley, 82, famed Conservative pundit. 02/27

Roy Scheider, 75, actor. 02/10

Heath Ledger, 28, Oscar nominated actor. 01/22

Suzanne Pleshette, 70, actress. 01/19

Van Johnson, 92, actor. 12/12

Bobby Fischer, 64, chess prodigy turned eccentric. 1/17

Steve Fossett, 64, billionaire adventurer. Declared dead on 2/15, though missing since September 2, 2007, and his remains were found September 2008.

Will Elder, 87, artist and satirical cartoonist ( MAD, Playboy). 5/17

Mildred Loving, 68.

This fascinating woman was a pregnant eighteen year old when she married Richard Loving in Washington D.C. The year was 1958, and they would have been like any other normal Virginia couple if the police hadn’t arrested them under arcane miscegenation laws. This black woman married to a white man would in 1963 ask the ACLU to take her and her husband’s case to the Supreme Court, where the Warren Bench overturned their convictions. The woman at the heart of Loving v. Virginia would toward the end of her life never give interviews, but would later release a statement supporting gay marriage, as she, better than most, understood that marriage is not always about children and religion, but always, always about human rights and love. 5/2

Levi Stubbs, 72, singer ( The Four Tops). 10/17

Harold Pinter, 78, playwright. 12/25

Eartha Kitt, 81, singer and actress and Catwoman. 12/25

Mark Felt, 95, Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal. 12/18

Bettie Page, 85, legendary pin up girl. 12/12

Odetta, 77, folk singer. 12/2

Miriam Makeba, 76, singer and anti-apartheid activist. 11/9

Michael Crichton, 66, author and co-creator of the TV series ER. 11/4

Studs Terkel, 96, journalist, author, and radio host. 10/31

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Actor Van Johnson: 1916-2008

Most people would recognize the face if not the name. Van Johnson was a huge star in the 40s and 50s. But like many of the era, he fell away from favor as acting styles changed and the grittier Method style became fashionable. He was actually a really good actor, and a teen heart throb before the idea became fashionable. He appeared in some lighter fare- In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland ( and a cameo by a toddler Liza Minelli, but I digress…), but I will remember him always as Lt. Steve Maryk, one of the lead mutineers in The Caine Mutiny. He would later go on to star across the country in regional and dinner theater productions, landing on Broadway a few times as well, and a specatcular career as a guest star on many of the best shows of the 70s and 80s. He had been out of commission for the better part of the 90s, popping up occasionally to talk about those greats he worked with on PBS and other documentaries about film history. He was one of the last to experience the real studio system, an underrated star and actor, and the film world just lost another great.

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One of my mother’s favorite movies of all time was Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. She was a Robert Redford fan, and I can recall her swooning over the man, but as gorgeous as Redford was ( and still is), I was always more fascinated by Paul Newman. It was those blue eyes, icy and flashing with wisdom.  He was captivating, even when I was young.

When I became one of those movie snobs more inclined to watch Italian neo realism than Hollywood blockbusters, a Newman film would always bring me back to the land of congealed snow. Whether it was his undisciplined Rocky in Somebody Up There Likes Me, his brooding ( if chastened by the production code) Brick in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, his Fast Eddie in both The Hustler and The Color Of Money,  Hud, Luke, Harper, Butch, Judge Roy Bean, Henry Gondorff, Reggie Dunlop, Michael Colin Gallagher, Frank Galvin, or his Sully Sullivan, I came back for Newman. He was a product of his time, an actor who fell into it and who studied with Lee Strasberg, at the end of the studio system and at the beginning of the hyphenates. Newman was a great actor, who made it look easy on screen, and with matinee idol looks and actual talent, he made a huge impact in the late fifties.

But Newman was more than a pretty face. He was politically active, supporting Eugene McCarthy against Lyndon Johnson, and George McGovern against Nixon. He turned down Dirty Harry for it’s politics, donated to the Nation to keep it going, and then, of course, his active support for Ted Kennedy and his vocal support for equality rights for marriage. Newman was unapologetic about his politics, and held fast to them through out his life, even dropping former friend Charlton Heston when Heston became a fervent right winger. He was also one of the best known philanthropists in the world, creating the Newman’s Own brand of popcorn and salad dressing, and donating millions over the last three decades to children’s charities.

Newman was nominated nine times for an Oscar- for best actor in The Hustler, The Color Of Money, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Verdict, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence Of Malice, and Nobody’s Fool, and for best supporting actor inThe Road to Perdition. He won for The Color Of Money, and was also awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy in 1994, as well as a career achievement award. He was also nominated for five BAFTAs, two Palm d’ors, a DGA award, four Emmys ( of which he won one, as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Empire Falls), 14 Golden Globes ( he won six), a Tony nomination ( for a revival of Our Town in 2003), and numerous critics and fan awards. One of the first actors to direct outside the studio system, he ended up directing six projects, all interesting, including a famed TV version of The Shadow Box, and the 1987 version of The Glass Menagerie.

Newman was also famed for his long, fifty year marriage to actress Joanne Woodward, which is an eternity and a half in Hollywood.  Woodward was his second wife, and they had three children together ( he also had three children with his first wife, Jackie Witte).  They worked on eleven films together, and Newman directed his wife to an Oscar nomination for Rachel, Rachel.

Newman’s acting trailed off in the nineties, as his love for auto racing took over. Owner of a CHAMP racing team with Carl Haas, Newman had raced Le Mans and admitted that it was it was where he felt the most at home.

My favorite Newman moment happens to be the entire film The Verdict, and I hold fast that it is his single greatest performance. His alcoholic attorney grasping at his last chance case, and he’s offered money to settle. In what I’m sure is frank Galvin’s only true noble move in his life, he says

“That that poor girl put her trust into the… into the hands of two men who took her life. She’s in a coma. Her life is gone. She has no home, no family. She’s tied to a machine. She has no friends. And the people who should care for her – her doctors… and you and me – have been bought off to look the other way. We’ve been paid to look the other way. I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it; I can’t take it. ‘Cause if I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a… rich ambulance chaser. I can’t do it. I can’t take it.”

Paul Newman passed away today, after a battle with cancer, in his home near Westport, Conn. He was 83, and surrounded by his wife, children, and close friends.

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