Monday, January 10, 2011


Here are a few folks who died over the holidays whom I think should be remembered.

Pete Postlethwaite


He had an unlikely name for celebrity, and an unlikely face for stardom, but his supporting work in film and on stage was widely respected. After a couple of years spent as a teacher, he returned to school to train as an actor. He spent some time onstage at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, working with contemporaries Julie Walters, Emma Thompson, Antony Sher, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nihy, and Daniel Day-Lewis. He was later to play the latter's father in his breakout role in 1993's In the Name of the Father, for which he won an Oscar nomination (he lost to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive).

Other films of note included The Usual Suspects, Alien 3, Distant Voices Still Lives, The Constant Gardener, and Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet, in which he played Friar Lawrence. His appearances in two Stephen Spielberg films, Armistad and The Lost World: Jurassic Park led the director to call him "probably the best actor in the world."

Pete had an ongoing stage career, returning often to his roots at the Everyman; his King Lear was a critical hit and transferred to London. He spent some time with the Royal Shakespeare Company (didn't everyone?), which is where I saw him onstage. Actually, he was on tour with the group when I saw them in Los Angeles in 1984. He had a large supporting role in Derek Jacobi's Cyrano; Jacobi was at his swashbuckling, over-the-top best in the role (for which he earned a Tony nomination when the troop went on to Broadway), and Pete held his own as the pastry chef who wants to be a poet. That performance is well-preserved on one of those stagy videotapes the RSC used to make.

Postlethwaite struggled in recent years with the various cancers which ended his life on January 2nd. He has a film in the can (Killing Bono), and had an active 2010 despite his illness. He appeared in the regrettable remake of Clash of the Titans and in the DiCaprio thriller Inception. His performance in Ben Affleck's The Town is now a dark horse candidate for another Oscar nomination.

This gal never won an Oscar nod, though she was nominated for the Emmy and won the Golden Globe in 1966:

Anne Francis

She lost that Emmy award to Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley, but she will still be remembered as the first actress to headline a detective series with a female character in the title. The show was Honey West, and though it ran only a season, I remember it pretty clearly. An episode of Burke's Law served as the pilot, and the half-hour show created quite a buzz. Honey West was a private eye who drove a sleek sports car and lived with an ocelot named Bruce. There was a definite feline quality to Francis's performance, accentuated by her wardrobe, which was often in leopard or tiger print and was frequently pretty revealing for mid-60s TV. She sometimes wore a full-body, skin-tight "cat suit" similar to the one everyone remembers Diana Rigg wearing in the Avengers, which was running simultaneously in Britain. In fact, with some bitterness, Anne later recalled that Honey West was cancelled after one season because it was cheaper for ABC to import The Avengers, which took her timeslot.

Francis was a frequent player on TV episodics throughout her career, though she made an early splash on the big screen in the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. It was based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and she wore skimpy costumes opposite Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Robbie the Robot. More than a decade later, Anne was to work with Pidgeon again in Funny Girl, playing Ziegfeld girl Georgia James, who had a contentious relationship with her boss, Florenz Ziegfeld. Francis was one of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood at the time, but she had spent several years in television, so she took the role in hopes of reigniting her feature film career. Sadly, much of her role in Funny Girl ended up on the floor of the cutting room, which in itself ignited a controversy which continued for years. It was said that Francis held Streisand to blame for so much of her performance disappearing in the editing room, but Anne, to her credit, attempted to deny those rumors. In 2002, she wrote a lovely letter to Streisand about the mess, go here to read it.

Anne Francis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, and kept the public apprised of her health on her personal website. She and her signature beauty spot (a mole on the right side of her mouth) were taken from us January 2nd.

Bill Erwin

He began his career in 1941 as a stage manager for Edgar Bergen ("I was in charge of the dummies"), but he became an early fixture on television, as soon as it was invented. His credits span a whopping 7 decades of television, and include everything from I Love Lucy to Star Trek: The Next Generation. He may be best remembered by sitcom fans for his guest gig on Seinfeld, playing a cranky old man (he excelled at such roles) whom Jerry tries to "adopt."

Bill was nominated for an Emmy for the performance, losing to David Clennon's guest shot on Dream On.

He had some success on the big screen, playing in classics such as Streetcar Named Desire; Erwin was a favorite of director John Hughes, who gave him cameo roles in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, She's Having a Baby, Home Alone, and Dennis the Menace. He was particularly proud of his performance as the bellman in the time-traveling romance Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve.

That film has become a bit of a cult classic, and Bill always attended the annual reunions of the
film's cast and fans. He spent his downtime at the drawing board, and had cartoons published in The New Yorker and Playboy. He died at the end of last year at the age of 96.