Monday, July 19, 2010


Here's a guy whose reputation in the theatrical and film communities is probably unmatched, though folks outside those industries are unlikely to have heard of him:

John Willis


As long-time editor (over 45 years) of Theatre World, he amassed statistics, photographs, and production details for every Broadway and most Off-, Off-Off-, and regional theatre productions. The annual publication is routinely used as source material for anyone who has any kind of question regarding an American theatrical production or individual. He did the same for Screen World, covering just about every film which received distribution; he contributed to Dance World and Opera World as well. He was widely regarded as an expert historian in theatre and film, and is informally acknowledged to have attended more theatrical performances than anyone in history (during his tenure at Theatre World, he attended 7-9 performances per week, which amounted to over 20,000 shows in his career).

Willis curated the annual Theatre World Awards, created in 1945 to honor young performers making their New York stage debuts. Here's a shot of Willis, on the far right, standing behind Anthony Perkins, who won the award in 1955 for Tea and Sympathy, and Richard Benjamin, who won in 1967 for Star-Spangled Girl:

The first winners of this prestigious prize included Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, and Barbara Bel Geddes; other winners over the years included Warren Beatty, Jennifer Holliday, Liza Minnelli, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Harris, Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Broderick, Meryl Streep, Lucie Arnaz, and John Leguizamo. Alan Arkin's 1963 win for Enter Laughing became especially poignant in 1991, when his son Adam won for I Hate Hamlet:

While editing his publications, John Willis supported himself with a 20-year career as an English teacher in the New York City School System. He won the Tony in 2001 for Excellence in Theatre, and was listed in "Who's Who" for decades. He died last month at the age of 93.

The same year Theater World premiered, 1945, a single picture was snapped which capsulized the excitement which accompanied the end of WWII.

Edith Shain


On August 14, 1945, Shain was working as a nurse in a New York hospital when Truman announced the end of WWII. Everyone in Manhattan headed to Times Square, and shortly after she spilled out of the subway, she was grabbed by an exuberant sailor and bent over into a passionate kiss. The photographer who took the shot, Alfred Eisenstaedt, reported that he spotted the young sailor running down the street, snagging any woman in sight for a celebratory smooch. Young, old, small, fat, he was grabbing every female within reach, and the photographer started snapping pictures. "V-J Day in Times Square" was published a week later in Life magazine, and became an iconic illustration of the spontaneous patriotism and joy which erupted at the end of the war.
Shain remained anonymous until the 1970s, when she finally wrote the photographer claiming to be the girl in the picture (there have been several other claimants over the years, and the identity of the sailor has never been settled). She became an activist for WWII veterans and an invited guest to ceremonies commemorating the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the war's end. She died last month at the age of 91.

Regular readers of these pages know my affection and respect for actors who spend their careers in support. Here are a couple we recently lost:

James Gammon


He was one of those craggy-faced character actors who worked all the time. His film debut, in 1967's Cool Hand Luke, began a long career in Hollywood; he made memorable impressions in Urban Cowboy, The Milagro Beanfield War, Leaving Normal, Ironweed, Silverado and Cold Mountain. He is particularly loved for a comic turn as the coach in Major League and its sequel.

His resume includes over 135 roles on TV, ranging from Gunsmoke to Grey's Anatomy, and he had recurring roles on The Waltons and Nash Bridges (though only nine years older, he played Don Johnson's father in the latter series).

Like so many other actors, his first love was the stage, and he founded the tiny (50 seats) Met Theatre in Los Angeles in the 70s; he opened the space with a trio of Inge plays, Bus Stop, Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs, which attracted positive critical attention. Above all, his stage career was dominated by Sam Shepherd's work, with which he had continued success. He appeared in major productions of Curse of the Starving Class, A Lie of the Mind, Simpatico, and The Late Henry Moss, and won a Tony nomination for the Broadway production of Buried Child.

James Gammon died last week at the age of 70.

Vonetta McGee


In 1972, the New York Times called her “just possibly the most beautiful woman currently acting in movies.” Blacula, Hammer, and Shaft in Africa provided starring vehicles for her, and though she appeared with Sidney Poitier in The Lost Man and with Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction, she was unable to parlay her earlier successes in the "blaxpoitation" genre of films into more mainstream fare. She had a recurring role on L.A.Law for a time, and played Carl Lumley's wife during the run of Cagney and Lacey (the two actors ultimately married). McGee died July 9 from cardiac arrest at the age of 65.

Because one of my best, oldest buddies in Los Angeles is a successful voice actor, I am always aware of the deaths of some of his peers. It may mean more work for him. The voice of this guy died last week:


Peter Fernandez


This guy deserves respect because he was responsible for a lot of the success of Speed Racer. He was an actor, making his Broadway debut at the age of 11, but had been writing for pulp magazines when a friend asked him to write dialogue for a Japanese cartoon series being imported for American television. That series was Astro Boy, which was followed by Gigantor. When Speed Racer came along, Fernandez was writing and dubbing these very Japanese characters into English. His rapid-fire dialogue on Speed Racer was necessary to fill the multi-syllabic mouth movements of the original language.

The series which Fernandez Americanized in the 1960s set the stage for the respect which Japanese anime now enjoys. He died last week at the age of 83.

A while ago, I mentioned the death of Jiminy Cricket's vocal interpreter, and now comes word that another Disney voice has been silenced. (That is, the original voice has been silenced. Disney replaced this gal years ago, with Jennifer Hale. )


Ilene Woods


Our future princess was only 18, and beginning a career as a singer, when a couple of friends asked her to sing a few songs for a demo. She complied, singing "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," "So This Is Love," and "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," accompanied by a lone piano. A few days later, Uncle Walt himself called and interviewed her on the phone. A few days after that, she was the voice of Cinderella, beating out over 300 other actors.

And here's a fun fact: Ilene's costar, at least musically, was future TV talk-show host Mike Douglas, who provided the singing voice for Cinderella's Prince:

The film was a last-ditch effort to erase the studio's debt, which in 1950 was considerable. Disney had not had a blockbuster hit since Snow White had shacked up with those seven little pervs in 1937. The film cost a whopping three million dollars, but Walt's gamble paid off, and with Cinderella's profits, he formed his own music publishing house, his own film distribution arm, entered into television production, and began building his personal dream, Disneyland.

As for Woods, she continued a singing career based on her Disney work, and appeared at the White House during the Truman years. In 1963, she married Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy, with whom she remained until her death on July 1 at the age of 81. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and was in a nursing home in California at the time of her death. Her husband reported that, though his wife had lost most of her memory, she seemed comforted whenever her nurses played her big Cinderella ballad: