Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monkey Business

That birth year seems a little suspect to me, and to others too, as it would make this monkey 80 years old at his death.  Even in captivity, which Mike surely was, this would exceed his normal life expectancy by at least 20 years.  Why are we talking about this?  Because Mike the Monkey was better known by this name:

If the story holds true, Mike was one of over 15 chimps to play Tarzan's comic sidekick and snugglebunny.  The character was a highlight of the film series, acting as a comic foil as well as a loyal friend (Cheetah was fabricated by the film makers, as no such character appears in any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books from which Tarzan the ape-man sprang).The zoo where Mike has been living for about 40 years claims that he was a gregarious, fun-loving chimp, but when he lost his temper, he would fling his feces. 

This temperamental behavior smacks of a star who does not get his way, and rings true to Mia Farrow.  Mia, you'll recall, is the daughter of Maureen O'Sullivan, who played Jane in the series of Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller.  Farrow recalls that her mother referred to Cheetah as "that bastard," as he was always biting her.  The chimp was always affectionate with Weissmuller, however, leading Maureen to speculate that Cheetah was gay. Who else would want to nuzzle a swimmer in a loincloth?

O'Sullivan should have counted her blessings.  She was only bitten.  Apparently, she could have been pummeled with shit.

Hold It Between Your Knees

Bert Schneider
When this film producer died a few weeks ago, nobody had heard from him in decades.  I was a little too young to appreciate him in his prime, which coincided with the countercultural movement of the late 60s and early 70s.  Though he was born into the Hollywood establishment (his father was a muckity-muck at Columbia during the heyday of the studio system), Bert did his best to forge a new path. 

He attended Cornell for a time, and was expelled.  His producing career took off when he teamed with Bob Rafelson to create the phenomenon known as The Monkees.  He helped concoct the off-beat sitcom, which concerned a rock group loosely based on The Beatles, and was partially responsible for the group's swift rise to superstardom.  When he produced the band's film debut, Head, people thought he'd lost his.  The stream-of-consciousness style of the film alienated the fans of the Monkees, and the really cool kids would not be caught dead watching anything starring The Monkees.  The film tanked, but is now considered an authentic period piece.

Bert's biggest contributions were in film, where he guided Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The King of Marvin Gardens, among others, to cult status.  As I said, I was a little too young to appreciate these films, but I've since seen some clips, including that hilarious diner sequence in Five Easy Pieces.  It's sometimes said that this single scene made Jack Nicholson a star.

Bert Schneider's other films of note include The Last Picture Show and Days of Heaven. 

His documentary, Hearts and Minds, was a devastating illustration of the hypocrisy of the Vietnam war, and was the perfect embodiment of his extreme left-wing politics.  It won the Oscar.  Schneider faded from the national consciousness once his style of "in-your-face" film fell out of fashion, and has rarely been heard from since the mid-70s. He died December 12th, at the age of 78. 

Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter

George Whitman


The above picture is not Whitman, of course, but it illustrates his contribution to the literary world.  Born in New Jersey, he served in Paris during WWII, and settled there.  He began lending books to American soldiers, and soon opened a bookstore called Le Mistral.  Located across the street from Notre Dame cathedral, the shop became a home for itinerant writers, who were always offered a spare bed by Whitman.  One such expat tells this story:

"Eyeing me suspiciously, George asked if I was a writer. I said I’d been a college editor, and had aspirations. He said OK... I could have a week on the mattress."

In the early 50s, Whitman befriended Sylvia Beach, who had owned a bookshop of her own, called Shakespeare and Company, before the war.  She reportedly shut down the place rather than sell a copy of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to a Nazi soldier.  That shop never reopened, but Whitman eventually purchased Beach's inventory, and changed the name of his shop to Shakespeare and Company, in her honor. 

It's said that the shop, now run by Whitman's daughter, is the most famous bookshop in the world, having been mentioned in countless pieces of literature, and even having appeared in several movies (Woody Allen's recent hit Midnight in Paris, for instance).

Frankly, I had not heard of this place before Whitman's recent death.  I visited Paris when I was 17, and somehow, a musty, cramped bookshop never made it onto my itinerary (though it surely would now).  But in reading the descriptions of the place, it seems to be a spot where one can browse for hours, discovering treasures. 

So why is this guy's death, and his bookstore, on my radar?  It reminds me of the bookshop which features prominently in one of my favorite little films, 13 Charing Cross Road. 

In that spirit, the Yeats quote which adorns the wall at Shakespeare and Company seems apropos:

"Be not inhospitable to strangers,
Lest they be angels in disguise."

George Whitman, proprietor of the most famous bookstore in the world, died December 14th, at the age of 98.

Before The Parade Passes By

Harry Kullijian
When this guy died last week, on the eve of his 92nd birthday, he was a reminder of the adage, "all things come to he who waits."  And boy, did he wait.  He spent some time in the military, serving with distinction in both WWII and Korea, and was a prominent real estate tycoon, then local politician, in the northern California area.  In 2002, he picked up this book:

In it, his high school sweetheart, Carol Channing, mentioned him fondly.  He looked her up, and they began a late-life romance.  They married a year later, and have since been strong advocates for arts education, forming a foundation.  His death from an aneurysm comes just as a documentary about his wife, Larger Than Life, is making the film festival circuit.

The Mayor of 43rd Street

Dan Frazer
My respect for actors who live their lives "in support" is certainly in play here, as this gent was a common face on TV from the 50s through the 90s.  His most recognizable role was probably as Kojak's boss, a long-suffering police captain saddled with a renegade cop. 

He was equally at home with comedy, appearing in a couple of early Woody Allen films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) and in a slew of sitcoms. 

He played opposite Sidney Poitier in the film which won the latter his Oscar (Lillies of the Field), and in his later career, was a recurring presence on all three New York based Law and Orders.  That New York connection was very real for Frazer, who was born in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, and maintained close ties to the region for the rest of his life.  After his spell in LA, he returned to the neighborhood, since renamed "Clinton," and was such a regular presence there that he became known as the Mayor of 43rd Street.

My New York "branch" is in that neighborhood, but that's not the only reason Dan Frazer is on my radar.  For a decade beginning in 1986, he played the no-nonsense chief of police on As The World Turns, and has the distinction of playing opposite Helen Wagner, whom I have mentioned before in these pages, and who is in the Guinness Book as playing the same role longer than any other actor. 

(I've also written about the now-defunct soap, and the significance it played in my life.)  On the show, Frazer became the second husband of the afore-mentioned Wagner (astonishingly, this soap's matriarch lasted the full 54 years of the show's run, but had only two husbands), and was at the center of an Alzheimer's storyline which was a groundbreaker at the time.

Dan Frazer died several weeks ago, at the age of 90.