Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Activist and the Actor

Here are a couple of people who only showed up on my radar after their recent deaths:

Alice McGrath

She was only 24, and ill with pleurisy, when defense attorney George Shibley knocked on her door in 1942. He was beginning a trial which would become infamous for its racism and xenophobia, and he needed some administrative help. 22 young Mexican Americans had been accused of murdering a Mexican farmworker near a swimming hole in southeast Los Angeles. They were labeled "zoot suit gangsters," after the long coats and pegged pants young men of such ethnicity were fond of wearing. The boys were not allowed to speak with their attorneys during the 13 week trial, and were prevented from changing their clothes or cutting their hair during the first month of what became known as the Sleepy Lagoon Trial. The judge was openly contemptuous of the defendants, and the jurors were not sequestered, giving them access to sensational publicity surrounding the case. Alice McGrath was appalled at the overt racism apparent, and when 10 of the guys were convicted of murder, and the rest of lesser charges, she joined their appeal team.

Two years later, the verdict was overturned for complete lack of evidence. McGrath's participation in the case was later celebrated in Zoot Suit, a musical drama which had a brief life on Broadway and was turned into a film starring Edward James Olmos, with Tyne Daly playing a fictionalized version of McGrath. (You knew there had to be a theatrical angle to this story, didn't you?)

McGrath went on to a lifetime of social activism, including decades working with Nicaraguan hospitals and homeless. She died this week at the age of 92.

Bet you don't recognize this guy, who died recently at the age of 87:
Jan Leighton


It would surprise everybody to know that he has played more roles than any other actor in the world. At least, the Guiness Book of World Records said so, in 1985 (as of that year, the number was a staggering 2,407). Though he began as a stage actor, appearing on Broadway in Wildcat with Lucille Ball, he reinvented himself as an impersonator, available for personal appearances, industrial work, screen and television spots, and print ads. He researched all his characters, and usually furnished his own costumes. He appeared often in TV commercials, playing Castro or Einstein or Washington or Lincoln. In one bank commercial alone, he played Clark Gable, Groucho Marx, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt, all complaining about check charges. Other commercials included performances as Alexander Hamilton (how do you play Alexander Hamilton??), Bach, Dracula, and Frankenstein (or rather, Frankenstein's monster).

In what may have been a career highlight, he even played Mr. Whipple's twin, for Charmin toilet paper.

His print work included shots as Kissenger and da Vinci, and he even graced the cover of Time, as Uncle Sam. He claimed he would go anywhere to play anyone, and was hired to appear, in person, as Vince Lombardi and Babe Ruth, as Mozart and Ghandi, as Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan, as Scrooge, Bogart, Charlemagne, and Darwin. Wyatt Earp and John Wayne were in his repertory, as were Walter Cronkite, Ernest Hemingway, and General Patton. Folks say his Margaret Thatcher was pitch-perfect.

He had an average face, which allowed for elaborate make-up transformations, and he reveled in the anonymity of his work. The NY Times claims that, when asked how he was doing, he would reply, “I’m alive and well and living in someone else’s face.”

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