Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Holiday Week Obits

Can you believe all the people who have died lately? Here's a quick rundown of those who hold some interest for me. I'm sure you heard about this one:

Jennifer Jones


It's pretty surprising this gal lasted to the ripe old age of 90, as she suffered substance abuse problems, survived two suicide attempts, and endured a second marriage (out of three) which essentially wrecked her career. She started out with a bang, starring as a saintly peasant girl who has visions of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette. It's often considered her film debut, though she appeared in a few earlier pieces under her real name, Phylis Isley. It certainly put her on the map at a young age: she snagged the Oscar for her performance. She was married at the time to actor Robert Walker, but was conducting an affair with one of the tyrants of Hollywood, David O. Selznick, who was himself married to Louis B. Mayer's daughter. The two eventually divorced their spouses and married each other, becoming one of Hollywood's power couples of the 40s and 50s.

Selznick did his wife's career no favors with constant interference. Though she worked steadily during the period, his choice of roles for her did not capitalize on her strengths. Portrait of Jenny, Beat the Devil, Duel in the Sun, and Love is a Many Splendored Thing were a few of her better known films; Selznick tended to alienate his wife's directors with constant demands on her behalf. He steered her away from roles he considered unworthy, such as East of Eden (Julie Harris got the role) and On the Waterfront (Eve Marie Saint put herself on the map with that one, and won the Oscar). Meanwhile, Jones appeared in a string of forgettable roles in Madame Bovary, A Farewell to Arms, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Good Morning, Miss Dove.

In her later years, she made some regrettable film choices, such as The Idol (1966), in which she slept with her son's best friend, and Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969), in which she played a porno queen. Her final film appearance was in the star-studded disaster epic, The Towering Inferno.

She retired, and lived quietly with her third husband, art collector Norton Simon, until her death last week.

You don't know this guy's name, but maybe you recognize his face:

Val Avery


He was one of those character actors who created a niche and stayed there comfortably throughout his career. Mafia types were a specialty, but he also played cops, bosses, and any kind of gruff meanie. He was in Humphrey Bogart's final film (The Harder They Fall), and appeared with Paul Newman in Hud and Hombre. He was a favorite of director John Cassavetes, who used him in Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Gloria. He played a traveling corset salesman in The Magnificent Seven, and cut off Eric Roberts's thumb in The Pope of Greenwich Village. His television career began during the live days, and continued through The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Columbo, and The Odd Couple. In an unusual move for any actor, he convinced his director on Russian Roulette to remove all his dialogue, and allow him to portray his role of an assassin with silent menace.

It was a bit of a departure for him to play a kindly grandfather onstage in Over the River and Through the Woods off-Broadway in 1998. He died last week at the age of 85.

Recognize this guy? Probably not:
Charles Davis


Ok, this isn't really Charles Davis. It's a leprechaun. I've scoured the 'net looking for an actual shot of Davis, and there simply isn't one, which is very surprising, since he appeared in 22 films, including The Desert Rats (with Richard Burton), Hong Kong Story (with Clark Gable), and Star (with Julie Andrews) and has over 100 television appearances to his credit, including Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Perry Mason, The Wild Wild West, and Leave it to Beaver. He was a writer as well, contributing scripts to Death Valley Days, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Bold Ones.

But apparently he hated to have his picture taken, or he's a vampire and doesn't show up on film. But I'm pretty impressed with his stage cred. He was a member of the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin (appearing opposite Burgess Meredith among others) when the Broadway producers of Finian's Rainbow were looking to cast the role of Og (now that picture above makes some sense, right? Og is a leprechaun). During its original run and first national tour, Davis gave over 1000 performances of the role. He met his wife, actress Marilyn O'Connor, doing the show, and after a marriage of 59 years, she is one of his survivors. I hope she has some pictures of him. He died last week at the age of 84.

I'm sure you heard of this guy's death a few weeks ago:

Gene Barry


He is remembered primarily for his television work, having starred in three series: Bat Masterson, Burke's Law, and The Name of the Game. It was this last one which brought him to my young attention. Each episode was a whopping 90 minutes in length, and starred either Barry, Tony Franciosa , or Robert Stack. The series was an example of a "wheel series," in which two or more series are rotated in the same time slot. The three leading men all headed different magazines in the same publishing house, and were tied by the presence of the same editorial assistant, played by a young Susan St. James.

At the time, I had no idea Gene Barry had a previous film and stage career. He was in the original Sci-Fi classic The War of the Worlds, and appeared in its remake directed by Steven Spielberg (who got one of his early career breaks directing an episode of The Name of the Game). Barry's early stage career was dominated by musicals and operettas, a fact which had faded into the background until his triumphant return to the musical theatre as the original Georges in La Cage Aux Folles in 1983.

He introduced one of Jerry Herman's nicest ballads, "Song on the Sand," and earned a Tony nomination for his work. He lost the award to the hammier performance of his co-star, George Hearn. Barry died last week at the age of 90.

Tired of actor obits? Here's a guy who was not one, but had a bit of an effect on the show biz community:

Roy E. Disney


My friend Becky alerted me to his death; I recognized the name, but mainly because of his father, who was also named Roy. The Disney brothers started the behemoth which carries their name, with Walt handling the creative side and Roy the business side. The younger Roy, the guy who recently died, spent his early career as a producer and creator of nature documentaries, including The Living Desert and The Vanishing Prairie, both of which received some Oscar love. With the deaths of his father and uncle, he tried unsuccessfully to gain control of Disney Studios, finally leaving the company and becoming an independent financier.

Years later, having made his own fortune, he turned his attention back to his family's heritage, and clashed with Disney moguls Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. In particular, our Roy was distraught over the state of the Disney Animation department, a wing of the company which put Disney on the map but which had fallen into major disarray. As he put it, the company's emphasis on its theme parks resembled a real estate company masquerading as a film studio. After a series of corporate maneuvers, he was able to gain some control over Disney Animation, and ushered in a new era of cartoon classics. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were all blockbuster hits for the studio, and all were developed under Roy's tutelage.

Disney was also a major philanthropist, donating millions to the California Institute of the Arts. In his parents' name, he funded REDCAT, an experimental theatre attached to the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. He died last week at the age of 79.

I know Oral Roberts died last week, too, but I don't feel like writing about him. Hey, it's my thing here.

But this gal will be missed by lots of you Sesame Streeters:

Alaina Reed-Hall


She was a regular on "the Street" for about a decade, and had a bit of a career elsewhere. I remember her from her co-starring role on 227, a sitcom built around Marla Gibbs which had a healthy 5 year run in the late 80s. She was also a singer and stage actress, appearing in Eubie, Hair, and Chicago, and an off-Broadway run of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road. In her later career, she popped up on ER, Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue, and Friends. She lost her battle with breast cancer last week, at the age of 63.

The controversy surrounding this guy will probably die with his death last month:

Robert Degen

He was a musician during the WWII era, working clubs and weddings and such in the Scranton, Ohio area. He never hit the big time, and eventually gave up and became a furniture salesman. He was not much of a composer, but the one song he bothered to copyright, in 1944, was the cause of lots of headaches: "The Hokey-Pokey Dance." A few years later, another musician, Larry LaPrise, claimed to have written the song to entertain skiers in Sun Valley, Idaho, and recorded his version. Thus began a decades-long dispute over ownership of the song, which was ultimately settled out of court, with both gents (who never even met) sharing the writing credit and the royalties.

But the controversy over the Hokey Pokey was not settled. There is evidence that the phrase first appeared in the 18th century, with the words "hokey pokey" invented by Puritans to mock the Latin Mass (note the similarity to "hocus pocus"). Lately, some Scottish Catholics were concerned the song was being used by soccer fans to taunt rival teams, and suggested that singing the song should be considered a hate crime.

Anybody who gets the tune stuck in their head would agree. Anyway, one of the men who actually received royalties on the song, the aforementioned Robert Degen, died in November at the grand old age of 104. He had a long life, but his funeral wasn't easy on his survivors. The most traumatic part for his family was getting him into the coffin. They put his left leg in. And then the trouble started.