Thursday, January 20, 2011


All these folks died weeks ago, but life around here has been pretty busy. A bit of travel linked to an audition took up some time, and this week, I've spent many hours at the computer, registering scores of actors for our upcoming group auditions. I enjoy being busy, so no complaints from me. These folks have something to complain about though: they're dead.

Peter Yates


He was one of Hollywood's workhorses, and was as likely to produce a dud as a diamond. He was nominated for two Oscars for his screen adaptation of The Dresser in 1983, the same year he delivered the abysmal sci fi flick Krull. The former is one of my favorite films, dealing as it does with a ragtag group of touring actors. Yates made the dangerous decision NOT to try to "open up" the play. Other than an expositional opening sequence, The Dresser takes place in real time, during a performance of King Lear. The film brilliantly illustrates the claustrophobic atmosphere of a theater's backstage life; Yates directed both his leading men (Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay) to Oscar nominations.

Peter is probably best remembered for his direction of the Steve McQueen action film Bullitt; though the film was released way back in 1968, the 10-minute car chase through the streets of San Francisco is still regarded as one of the finest action sequences ever filmed.

Yates received more critical acclaim for Murphy's Law (1971) and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), but he was drubbed for several other films. Barbara Streisand was being hailed as a skilled film comedienne after the screwball hit What's Up, Doc?, but Yates directed her follow-up, For Pete's Sake, which is pretty disappointing. And the less said about Mother, Jugs, and Speed (guess which one Raquel Welch played) and The Deep (an attempt to recreate the success of Jaws by filming another Peter Benchley thriller), the better.

But Yates's masterpiece is probably Breaking Away, a deceptively breezy comedy about a teenager who becomes obsessed with bicycle racing. The cast featured premiere performances by Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley.

Stage vet Barbare Barrie earned an Oscar nod, and Yates himself was nominated for his direction; the film was up for Best Picture, and Steve Tesich won the award for his screenplay.

Peter Yates died Jan 9th at the age of 81.

Susannah York


She burst on the film scene as the love interest in 1963's Best Picture, Tom Jones, and she remained a regular figure in international film for the next two decades. She played Paul Scofield's daughter in 1966's A Man For All Seasons (another Oscar winner for Best Picture) and turned some heads as the ingenue in the groundbreaking British film of 1968, The Killing of Sister George (the film is believed to be the first to openly deal with lesbianism).

A year later, York received her only Oscar nomination, for her performance in the gritty depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? That shower sequence is a stunning example of wordless acting. Susannah, being a proper English lady (she had a smidge of royal blood, being a descendant of William the Conqueror), took umbrage at being nominated without being asked (!), and the academy responded to her admonishments by giving the award to Goldie Hawn for Cactus Flower.

York appears (as Mrs Cratchitt) in one of the most respected of the A Christmas Carol films (the one starring George C. Scott), and in 1972, she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for Images. She is also remembered for her cameo appearances in the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise. She played his birth mother, standing quietly by as Marlon Brando, playing his father, sends the infant off into space before the destruction of the planet Krypton. She reappeared in Superman II, though only as a result of litigation. Brando had filmed enough material during his 12 days of shooting to be included in Superman II (Superman and its sequel were filmed simultaneously), but by the time the first film came out, and was a smash, Marlon sued for additional profit share. With his participation in the sequel in limbo, Susannah was brought in to film that scene at the North Pole, or in the Ice Palace, or wherever that thing is (I wasn't paying all that much attention by then).

Once the legalities were settled, York was excised from Superman II, and Brando is now in the director's cut.

Our Susannah was pretty blunt about her small but important role in the saga. Director Richard Donner reported that York was frustrated that Brando had a soliloquy before sending Supe into outer space, while she stood idly by. She complained, "The mother doesn't get to say Dick!"

Susannah York died of cancer at the age of 72.

David Nelson


He was the last surviving member of the television clan which, along with Father Knows Best and Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver, was blamed for idealizing the American family of the 50s and early 60s. There are those out there, though, who would never "blame" Ozzie and Harriet and their kids, they would instead CREDIT them, for giving the public a glimpse of what American family life could be.

I confess that I was never a fan of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the show in which David Nelson grew up. It bugged me that Ozzie never went to work, and I hate cardigan sweaters. But I have to give the Nelsons their due. Ozzie was a bandleader (though I don't remember a single episode in which he displayed any musical ability) and Harriet was his singer when they married and began a radio program based on their life together. They were one of the major hits of the 40s, and their sons, David and Ricky, ultimately joined the family business when they began playing the roles of David and Ricky.

The four Nelsons and their gentle humor made the transition to television in 1952, and remained fixtures for the next 14 years. The boys grew up onscreen, and in the later years of the series, David's real life wife June Blair was added to the cast as David's wife June. And Ricky's real life wife Kris was added to the cast as Ricky's wife Kris. No wonder the lines between fiction and reality were always blurred by the Nelsons.

David willingly relinquished the spotlight to his younger brother Rick, and he appeared as an actor in a few rather forgettable projects before becoming a director. His performance in the film The Big Circus is proof enough that he was at his best when he was shirtless, in spandex, and in silence. David died last week from colon cancer at the age of 74.

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