Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Kookie, Quirky Carradines

David Carradine:

By now, everybody in the world is buzzing over the provocative death of David Carradine. I don't begin to understand such things, being the naive innocent that I am. I do wonder why Carradine, if he indeed was...um...pleasuring himself with asphyxiation, was found in the closet. Is that part of the fantasy? Well, we may never know, though the Carradine family has apparently requested FBI intervention to sort out the mess in Bangkok.

I confess that I was not a big fan of David's, I suppose because I had no interest in his role in Kung Fu, which made him into a martial arts icon. His earlier breakout performance was in Bound for Glory, a bio-pic about folk singer Arlo Guthrie, which I also have not seen. But I have no doubt he was a fine actor, if for no other reason that it was in his genes.

The Carradine clan must be Hollywood's largest acting dynasty, beating the Baldwins, the Bridges, the Arquettes, and the Fondas. Patriarch John Carradine was surely the most prolific of the family, appearing in hundreds of films and television shows during his long career.

If he is remembered at all these days, it is as a regular player in lower budgeted films of the western and horror genre. His gaunt face and deep basso voice kept him employed for 60 years or more. John Ford used him frequently, and he created the role of the disillusioned preacher in the classic Grapes of Wrath:

John was an experienced stage actor, and led his own Shakespearean troop for many years. He has a fond place in my heart for his stint in the original production of one of my favorite musicals, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in which he created the role of the procurer Marcus Lycus (he's on the far left).

John married multiple times, and sired four sons, three of whom (David, Keith, and Robert) became actors (he adopted a fifth son, Bruce, who is also a performer).

Middle son Keith Carradine is well-known for his appearances in several Robert Altman films, including Nashville, in which he sang his own composition, "I'm Easy." He won the songwriting Oscar for the tune. (Keith will be starring in this week's Friday Dance Party in these pages...aren't you trembling in anticipation?)

Robert Carradine is fairly well-known these days for having played Hillary Duff's father on the Disney series Lizzie McGuire. In his earlier career, he was a regular in the Revenge of the Nerds film series, and appeared with his siblings David and Keith as the Younger Brothers in The Long Riders.

The third generation of Carradines is headed by Keith's daughter Martha Plimpton, who was conceived while her parents appeared together in the original Broadway production of Hair. Ah, free love! Plimpton has had a long career in film and onstage, including a starring role in a John Waters movie which is near and dear to my heart, Pecker. (I'm in it, but did not work with Martha.) She is known to a whole generation of movie-goers as Stef Steinbrenner in the smash Goonies; she was often cast as the tomboyish, troubled teenager in such films as Steve Martin's Parenthood and Running on Empty, in which she appeared with her boyfriend River Phoenix. (She dumped him over his repeated drug abuse; he later died from an overdose.) Plimpton appears regularly onstage, and recently won three back-to-back Tony nominations for her work in Coast of Utopia, Top Girls, and Pal Joey.

Other members of the third generation of acting Carradines include Robert's daughter Ever, and David's daughters Calista and Kansas. Yes, these people actually named their children "Ever" and "Kansas." David even named his son, by actress Barbara Hershey, "Free." (That travesty has since been rectified: Free Carradine changed his name to "Tom").
There are other Carradines floating about, including Christopher, one of the original half-brothers, who became an architect and worked with Disney Imagineering, and Michael Bowen, another half-brother who has a recurring role on Lost. But my favorite member of the family remains Keith, probably because I caught one of his stage performances years ago. You wouldn't think anyone could be such a smooth dancer sitting down, but Keith accomplished the feat. Check back on Friday for the Dance Party, and you'll see why I think of him as the least odd of the oddball Carradines...

Kenny Rankin


In a career spanning four decades, Rankin was a well-regarded singer and songwriter. Though he had already released several singles, he was first noticed as a lead guitarist on Bob Dylan's landmark album "Bringin' It All Back Home" in the 60s. Appearances on The Tonight Show boosted his profile, and he became one of Johnny Carson's favorite musical guests (Carson contributed liner notes to Rankin's "Mind Dusters" album).

His hits included "Spanish Harlem," "Round Midnight" and "Peaceful." His smooth guitar skills were so evident on his cover of The Beatles' hit "Blackbird" that Paul McCartney requested he play the tune when he and John Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His own compositions were recorded by Peggy Lee, Carmen McRea and Mel Torme, among others. Rankin was a long-time supporter of WeSpark, an organization created by my late friend Wendy Jo Sperber as a support center for cancer patients.
Here is a typically smooth performance of a soul-comforting tune:
Kenny Rankin died Sunday from lung cancer. He was 69.