Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Boatman, Overloaded

According to mythology, Charon saw dead people. He also shipped them. He was the ferryman who ushered the recently departed across the River Styx to their final destination. He got a real workout in 2008, as I've mentioned in an earlier entry. In fact, I've mentioned many of his passengers in the past year, over 40 of them. Most were in the arts, though a smattering were public figures in other areas, and a couple were personally important in my life.

Because I hate the HUGE SIGNIFICANCE of New Year's Eve, about which I wrote last year, I thought I'd duck all that soul-searching and self-evaluation one is supposed to do, and instead take this opportunity to glance once more at some of those who left us in 2008.

We lost a couple of real legends this year, and, in my opinion, Paul Newman was the biggest. I have such admiration for this man who respected his craft and always strove to be his best. At the same time, he remained healthy by creating a stable home-life (with the best actress of her generation, Joanne Woodward) and indulging in other interests. When I wrote about Newman, I focused on the success of his 50 year marriage, and did not mention the tragic drug death of his son, which gave birth to his philanthropic endeavors.

Charlton Heston has to be classified as an icon, too, even as I was never enamored of his acting. I can't recall a single film performance of his which bowled me over, and in my favorite Heston film, Planet of the Apes, that loincloth did all the acting. I wrote about meeting Heston, years before his politics veered so far to the right, and I was recently reminded that he marched with Martin Luther King when it was unpopular for a white star to do so. His death from Alzheimer's, well, I wouldn't wish that on anybody.

(Time to let go of that rifle now, Chuck...)

I can claim to have met another icon who died this year, comedian George Carlin. I doubt he would consider himself so important, but his lengthy career proves otherwise. I also mentioned the irony of his posthumous Mark Twain Prize, presented at the Kennedy Center before a glittering crowd. It's not ironic that he won the prize, it's ironic that, during the ceremony, his Seven Words You Can't Say On TV was played. And censored. The whole routine is about censorship, and for it to be censored in front of a live audience who were there to celebrate his

While talking about icons and legends, I think I would put director/actor/producer Sidney Pollock in this group. I loved Pollock as an actor, and admire him as a director who worked so well with huge personalities such as Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep. He knew a little something about acting.

Hey, we lost Bozo the Clown this year, too. Well, Bozo didn't actually die , but the gent who refined the clown's image and played him longer than anybody else did. Mr. Clean croaked this year, too, or rather, the actor who played him in the first live-action commercials. I imagine Bozo and Clean will be around a lot longer than the guys who first made them famous. That makes them icons, right?

I mentioned half a dozen writers whom we lost this year, and Harold Pinter has to be at the top of that list, in terms of both quality and quantity of work. Dale Wasserman provided two hits which have become perennials, and William Gibson, though prolific, will be remembered for providing colleges and community theatres one really strong play. Studs Terkel may win the award for longevity, and George Furth's work with Stephen Sondheim created one classic concept musical, and one flop which refuses to die; people are still tinkering with it. Both Company and Merrily We Roll Along will stand the test of time. And though Michael Crichton created ER, I think his lasting legacy will be his sci-fi work.

The majority of obits I penned in 2008 concerned actors. What are the odds of that? We lost at least three performers who were triple-threats, before that term was invented. These ladies could sing, dance, and deliver a punchline: Eartha Kitt, Cyd Charisse, and Van Johnson. Kitt died Christmas Day, just in time for my final Friday Dance Party of the year, and Johnson, who was technically not a lady, also graced the Dance Party the week he died.

Many of the actors we lost this year achieved their fame in sitcoms. Estelle Getty, whom I was not convinced was a great actress, nonetheless gets lots of respect for having hung in there, and finally "making it" in her 50s. Beverly Garland had a long television career but will probably be most associated with My Three Sons, which she joined in its final seasons. We also said so long to Rhoda's husband (David Groh), Mary Hartman's mother (Dody Goodman), and The Jefferson's neighbor (Paul Benedict, who was equally admired as a stage director). Among this group, I felt the death of the terrific Suzanne Pleshette most keenly. She was well respected as a dramatic actress before that fateful night when she appeared as a guest on the Johnny Carson show (this was back when performers were booked on talk shows because they could talk, rather than just to promote their newest project). Bob Newhart was also on the program that night, and the two had such an immediate comic chemistry that she was offered the role for which she is best remembered, Emily Hartley. Her appearance on Newhart's second sitcom insured that it become the finest series finale in TV history (sorry MASH fans).

I mentioned that the soap world lost three long-term players, including All My Children's Eileen Herlie, who has the distinction of playing Hamlet's mother opposite Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton, twenty years apart! Irene Dailey (Dan's sister) and Beverlee McKinsey (generally considered to be the best actress ever to work in daytime) , pictured, both spent years on Another World and other programs, while devoting their evenings to the Broadway stage.

Harvey Korman must be considered one of the greatest Second Bananas in show business, and Dick Martin's expertise as a sitcom director should not be overshadowed by his participation in one of the most innovative TV programs ever, Laugh-In. We lost them both this year, as well as one of my favorite "variety" stars, Edie Adams. When I wrote of Adams's passing, I mentioned her tender rendition of "That's All" on the final Lucy and Desi program; go here for a listen.

TV lost the First Lady of Star Trek, Majel Barrett Roddenberry, as well as the great Peanuts animator Bill Melendez. Those of us living in DC keenly felt the loss of another television star, Robert Prosky. He spend years on Hill Street Blues, but around here, he is remembered primarily for his stage work.

In addition to Paul Newman and Charlton Heston, I mentioned the deaths of several other film stars. Not many people would be able to pick Fred Crane or Evelyn Keyes out of a line-up, but they were two of the few surviving players from Gone With the Wind, until this year. They were both character actors, as were two bigger movie stars who died in 2008, Paul Scofield and Roy Scheider. Scofield won the Oscar for Man for All Seasons, and Scheider should have won for All That Jazz, but again, I doubt the general public would be able to pick them out of a book of mugshots.

Here's a guy who moviegoers would be able to identify on sight. Heath Ledger's accidental drug overdose ended a promising young career, and there is talk of an Oscar this year for his work in The Dark Night. I haven't seen that film yet, but surely Ledger had not yet fulfilled his promise as an actor. He will always be respected for his participation in Brokeback Mountain; along with Jake Gyllenhaal, he was pretty fearless.

I felt the loss of all of the above folks, but of course I was more affected by the deaths of the people in my personal world. The DC theatre community lost an elder statesman earlier this year when Bill Hamlin passed away, and just last week, young Shane Wallis died in a motorcycle accident. The unexpected death of John MacDonald of the Washington Stage Guild in July continues to affect our local community; I was just getting to know this gentle man before a senseless home accident took him away.

Perhaps I should have expected that 2008 would be a year of loss, as it was exactly one year ago, on New Year's Eve 2007, that my long-time acting coach, director, mentor, and dear friend Bobbi Holtzman died. I was only in occasional touch with Bobbi since my move from LA, but I continue to think of her each and every time I begin a new theatrical project. My years with her, in her class and as her friend, gave me my artistic sensibility.

I imagine she encouraged the ferryman to "take his toys" during her ride with him across the Styx. I hope she's resting in peace, along with the others we lost this year. Maybe Charon won't be quite so busy in 2009.

We can always hope...