Monday, November 29, 2010

Nice Beaver

Leslie Nielsen


Roger Ebert called him the "Olivier of spoofs," and there isn't anyone out there who would disagree. Check out the internet today; it seems everybody has a favorite line from one of his parody films, uttered with complete sincerity in Nielsen's signature deadpan.

He escaped an abusive childhood in Canada by joining the WWII effort, though he was too young to be deployed. After studying at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto (yes, there is such a place), he headed to New York on a scholarship at The Neighborhood Playhouse. He worked in summer stock and debuted on Broadway in 1952's Seagulls Over Sorrento, but it was on screen that he began to be well-known. He was a regular on the live episodics of 50s television, and had over 50 such credits in one year alone. He was a natural leading man type, with strong good looks and a height over 6 feet. His film debut was in the regrettable The Vagabond King (Leslie later nicknamed it "The Vagabond Turkey"), but the performance lead to a contract with MGM, and a starring role in the sci fi classic Forbidden Planet. He played opposite Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor, which proved he was a viable leading man for both action films and romances. But after several years on contract (and after losing the role of Messala in Ben Hur to Stephen Boyd), he became a free agent. His leading performance in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox is still well-regarded, and throughout the 60s and 70s, he appeared regularly on the dramatic series of the day.

He did not have much luck headlining his own series; during the decade of the 60s, he starred in 3 programs which were not hits. One of those, Bracken's World, is one of my guilty favorites (I wrote about it when its costar Peter Haskell died). Nielsen joined the show in its second season, in an effort to stall sliding ratings, but he was unable to save the program and appeared in only 13 episodes before it was cancelled. Shortly afterward, he appeared in the potboiler The Poseidon Adventure, playing the captain who is bullied into sailing a cruise ship without enough ballast. The logical thing happened of course: a wave flipped the boat upside down, and a new film genre was born: the all-star disaster flick.

Nielsen's career took the turn for which we are all eternally grateful in 1980, when he was one of a group of serious actors cast in Airplane!. This parody film is included in the AFI Top Ten Comedies of all time, and Leslie's "Don't call me Shirley"is one of the top 100 movie quotes, again as chosen by the American Film Institute. Airplane! was featured on the Dance Party a while back, and I wrote a bit about the film at that time, go here if you are interested.

The success of Airplane! lead its creators to chose Nielsen to play the lead in their TV series Police Squad in 1982. The show was (and still is) a scream, but required the audience to pay attention to get all the humor. ABC shifted the series around a couple of times before cancelling it after only 6 episodes were produced. (In each of those episodes, the earnest narrator intones the name of tonight's "Special Guest Star." Immediately following, that guest star would be gruesomely murdered and vanish from the episode.) The critics loved Police Squad, and the creators of The Simpsons are sure it would have been a smash had it been produced 20 years later. As it was, though Nielsen received an Emmy nomination for his performance (he lost the award to Alan Alda in MASH), the show was considered one of the big flops of the year.

But Police Squad provided Leslie with a new career as a film farceur. His parody film credits include three Naked Gun movies, which were in fact continuations of his TV series, as well as spoofs of The Exorcist, 2001, Dracula, and The Fugitive. He played President Harris in Scary Movie 3 and 4, and Scary Movie 5, with Nielsen again reprising his role, awaits release. He even wrote a parody autobiography, "The Naked Truth," portraying himself as an Oscar winning actor who had slept with Elizabeth Taylor. He is also known for a series of comic instructional videos called the "Bad Golf" series.

Leslie Nielsen suffered hearing loss at an early age, and was legally deaf throughout his career; he depended on hearing aids, and was an activist for the Better Hearing Institute. In recent years, he returned to the stage, touring the country in a one-man show about Clarence Darrow. He died over the weekend from pneumonia at the age of 84.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Turkey Lurkey Leftover

Had enough turkey for one weekend? I don't think so. To kick off the holiday season on the Friday Dance Party, let's take a look at an interesting clip from the 1969 Tony Awards. It is the clip which represented a show which, though very much a traditionally structured book musical, provided some interesting firsts and innovations. Promises, Promises was the musicalization of the hit Billy Wilder film from 1960, The Apartment. Neil Simon provided the book, and the score marked the Broadway debut of one of the most successful composing teams in recording history, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The duo brought a pop sensibility to Broadway, and were the first to enhance the onstage voices with back-up singers in the pit. One of Bacharach and David's favorite singers, Dionne Warwick, recorded the title tune and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," both of which became pop hits (Bobbie Gentry's version of the latter song hit #1 in Britain). Star Jerry Orbach won the Tony for his leading performance, and the show had a very healthy run of over three years.
The recent revival, starring Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth, received mixed reviews but has maintained strong crowds due to its star power; the show will be closing at the first of the year when the stars complete their contracts.
As for the show itself, well, the supporting role of Marge is clearly the part to have: Marian Mercer won the Tony for her performance in the original, as did Katie Finneran in the revival.
I saw a summer stock production of the show many decades ago, starring Donald O'Connor, who was a bit long in the tooth for it even then; that production was swiped by a comic actor named Bill McCutcheon playing the doctor who lives next door. I do not remember the number presented below. This clip represents what I think is the major reason Promises, Promises should be admired today. The choreographer was the great Michael Bennett, who was just stepping up the gas on his career, and the three leading dancers here went on to substantial careers. Of course, you recognize Donna McKecknie, who at this time was becoming the perfect instrument for Bennett's choreography; she would go on to create another star-dance turn in Company, and of course, win the Tony for the original A Chorus Line. Speaking of that ground-breaker, another of its original stars is in this clip as well. Baayork Lee (playing Miss Wong in this clip) created the role of Connie in A Chorus Line, and in fact has made a career of recreating Bennett's choreography. The third dancer in this clip is Margo Sappington, whose background and subsequent career was in ballet, though her biggest claim to fame at the time was her involvement (as choreographer and co-star) with the nudie revue Oh, Calcutta!; she has since become a respected choreographer on international ballet stages.
The song is called "Turkey Lurkey Time," and if you can figure out a meaning to it, be my guest. The story goes that the authors were having some trouble bringing Act One to a close, and turned to Bennett to jazz things up. Neil Simon reports that the number Bennett created "didn't just solve the problem, it was a sensation." It takes place at the office Christmas party, and incorporates many of the moves seen in the dance clubs of the day. It's said that the gyrational aspect of the steps kept the chorus at the chiropractors throughout the run. (The current revival does not end Act One with "Turkey Lurkey Time"; instead, another Bacharach and David song,"'A House is Not a Home," was interpolated to give Chenoweth the closing number.) For this day of turkey leftovers, enjoy this week's Dance Party. I worked 15 years in an office, and our Christmas parties were just like this:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Just in time for Thanksgiving comes the final clearing out of the obituary file. I just could not face the holidays until I had acknowledged the following dead people. Some were famous, some were not, some were foolish, some were a different species. But they all caught my eye, and deserve a bit of a send off. Grab your turkey baster, and take a gander.

Dino De Laurentiis


He was one of the most prolific producers in the history of international film, responsible for artistic triumphs and popular schlock in equal numbers. He was a leading participant in what is known as the Italian New Wave of 1950s cinema, and delivered two Oscar winners with La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957). He was the first producer to recognize the financial wisdom of international co-productions, and was known for casting big spectacle films with stars from differing countries speaking differing languages, then dubbing and re-dubbing the films as they were released around the world. Thus, he put Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn in War and Peace (1956), Kirk Douglas in Ulysses (1954), and Charles Laughton in Under Ten Flags (1960).

On the schlock side, he persuaded Jane Fonda to star in her then-husband's sci-fi skin flick Barbarella in 1968 (Fonda later lamented that she turned down both Rosemary's Baby and Bonnie and Clyde in order to shoot Barbarella, I can only be thankful for Dino's persistence, as I shudder to think what Fonda would have done to those classic films).

Dino produced John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, in 1976, and the same year, introduced a young Jessica Lange in the King Kong remake. He is credited with producing what most consider to be David Lynch's finest film to date, Blue Velvet (1983). Other prestigious films he guided include Serpico (1973), and Three Days of the Condor (1975). He held the screen rights to the first of the Hannibal Lechter series of books, and made two films from that source material: Manhunter (1986) and Red Dragon (2002). He was also responsible for the prequel Hannibal Rising (2007).

Dino died early this month at the age of 91; one of his surviving grandchildren is Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis.

Noel Taylor


He toyed with playwriting and acting in his youth (he played a bellboy opposite the Lunts in the early 30s), but his lasting fame was as a costume designer. He made a big splash by translating the Alice in Wonderland illustrations, by John Tenniel, into stage costumes for Eva Le Gallienne's production of the classic in 1947; he made 140 costumes in two weeks, by himself, with no assistants. The production was one of the sensations of the decade, and Taylor became an in-demand designer for the rest of his career.

His Broadway credits include Teahouse of the August Moon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Stalag 17, No Time for Sergeants, and Night of the Iguana. For television, his designs for the 1953 production of Hamlet began a 17 year association with the Hallmark Hall of Fame. He was nominated for four Emmys, winning in 1978 for Actor: The Paul Muni Story. He once remarked that he could not count the number of dresses with bustles he had made over the years. I bet he thought he caught a break in 1973, when he designed the PBS broadcast of Steambath (everybody in the show wore a towel).

He designed for some of the most demanding women in Hollywood; Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Gloria Swanson all wore his designs. Katherine Hepburn called him the finest designer she had ever worked with, and when Julie Harris was awarded her Kennedy Center Honor in 2005, she asked him to accompany her (and she wore one of his designs, natch). He died Nov. 4 at the age of 97.

James Stovall


I did not know James, but quite a few theatrical folk in the DC community did. He grew up in Baltimore, and studied musical theatre with Debbie Allen, who was attending Howard University at the time. He went to college in Atlanta, and landed his first Equity gig at the Alliance Theatre there. He was known for his work in musicals, appearing on Broadway in Once On the Island, Sweet Charity, The Rocky Horror Show, and The Life. He assumed the role of Coalhouse Walker in Broadway's Ragtime after playing in the Chicago and Los Angeles companies. More recently, he was in the 2009 revival of Finian's Rainbow, and was preparing a developmental staging of the new musical Shoulda Woulda Coulda, a Jazz Age Musical for Off-Broadway's York Theatre when he died last month from heart ailments. James was a spiritual man, and was executive director of the Ministry of the Arts & Culture at the United Palace Theatre in Harlem, which premiered a production he co-wrote, produced, and directed, Nativity: A Life Story.

Denise Borino-Quinn


She wasn't much of an actress, but that's ok, since she didn't really consider herself one. In 2000, she was working as a secretary in a law office when she attended an open casting call on a fluke. She claimed she was really there to support a friend, and to see the huge crowd. By coincidence, she had attended the same high school as David Chase, the show's creator, but as there was a difference of 2 decades between them, she did not expect any special treatment. She was plucked from that crowd of New Jersey wannabes (numbering 14,000!), and though she had no acting experience, landed the small role of Ginny Sacrimoni in The Sopranos. The character went on to become one of the best loved of the Soprano's mafia wives.

The Sopranos became the proof that HBO was a major player in the field of original television programming. Throughout the show's run, our gal effectively played opposite Vince Curatola as NY crime boss Johnny Sack; with her large girth and sunny disposition, she became a fan favorite, and though hers was an extremely small part, an entire story arc of The Sopranos in 2002 centered around a disparaging remark made about her weight.

She went through a stomach-stapling procedure, and apparently never acted again. She died October 27th after a battle with kidney cancer.

Here's a gal whose death made me wonder if any of the current crop of "reality stars," who seem to be famous just because they so desperately want to be so, will end up with similar obits:

Mary Leona Gage


During her day, she was the most famous, or rather most infamous, beauty ever to be crowned Miss USA. She was Miss Maryland when she won the award in 1957, and kept her crown only 24 hours. Enterprising reporters uncovered the scoop: she lied to pageant officials about all her biographical details. Instead of the 21-year old single girl she claimed to be, she was instead an 18-year old who was already twice-married and a mother of two. She had hoped to escape a bad marriage by winning fame and fortune as a pageant queen, but the Baltimore Sun outed her and she was stripped of her title (Miss Utah, the first runner-up, got lucky that year).

The poor thing never recovered from the bad publicity, though she attempted to parlay her notoriety into a show business career. She worked in Vegas for a time, and toured strip clubs with a singing and dancing act. She attempted suicide twice, and all six of her marriages ended in divorce. Destitute and alone, she died last month from heart disease at the age of 71.

Anyone who studied theatre in college or beyond knows this name very, very well:

Oscar Brockett


He earned one of the first doctorate degrees ever given in Theatre, and taught across the country. He designed scenery for a time, but his lasting influence will be scholarly. In 1968, he wrote what is still considered the definitive history of theatre, a volume which is currently in its 10th edition and is required reading in just about every theatre training program in the country. (It's even been translated into Farsi). With his History of the Theatre, he moved the emphasis of theatrical study away from the text, and concentrated more on how those texts were realized on the stage. His work had a profound effect on the way Theatre History is taught; my "Brockett" was rarely off my desk during my grad school years, and it still sits on my bookcase. I just pulled it out to have a look; page after page of the text contains points I highlighted, so I could find them again when studying for the comprehensive exams required for my MFA. I would guess my Brockett was the major source I used to pass my comps (a year early, thank you Oscar!)

"Brock," as he was known to his countless students and colleagues, suffered a massive heart attack several weeks ago, at the age of 87.

Shannon Tavarez


This cheerful kid attended a cattle call at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 2008, and less than a year later, she was starring in The Lion King, sharing the role of Nala with another young actress. She was in the show about six months before complaining about aches in her back. She was diagnosed with leukemia and was forced to withdraw from the production. A bone marrow transplant was needed, but as Shannon was of mixed-race (her mother was African-American, her father Dominican), there was very little hope a donor could be matched.

Her predicament inspired several campaigns to entice minorities to become registered as possible bone marrow donors. The "Get Swabbed" campaign included celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Rihanna, and encouraged all races to enter the data base with a simple swab of saliva. Ten thousand new donors signed on, but Shannon could not find a match. She died last month at the age of 11; the lights outside The Lion King's Minskoff Theatre were dimmed in her honor.

Leonard Skinner


There's a reason this guy's name is familiar. In the late 60s, he was a hard-assed P.E. coach at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, FL. He sent a trouble-making student to the principal for breaking the dress code (the kid's hair touched his collar.) The kid was Ronnie Van Zant, and he remembered his various run-ins with Skinner when he changed the name of his fledgling rock band from "One Percent" to "Lynyrd Skynyrd". By 1973, the group had hits with "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird", and Skinner, who had left teaching and opened a real estate office (and later a bar), became a bit of pop/rock trivia.

Skinner eventually warmed up to his part of musical history, and even took advantage of the band's popularity by renaming his bar. The band's musical output was cut short when Lynyrd Skynyrd's private plane crashed in 1977, killing Van Zant and several others. As for the man who inspired the unusually named group, Leonard Skinner died Sept. 20 from Alzheimer's.

I had never heard of this guy until he died, since he was a sports figure, and I don't usually follow sports. But apparently, he gained international celebrity last summer, so I thought I'd wrap things up with his obit:



His early life is a bit sketchy. It was originally reported that he was hatched in a tank at the Sea Life Centre in Dorset, England, and subsequently transfered to another Sea Life Centre in Germany. But once he gained fame, ESPN reported that Paul had actually been captured as an adult off the island of Elba in the spring of 2010. The timing of that story does not pan out, as Paul had already reached regional fame in 2008, for his psychic skills. It was in that year that he correctly predicted the outcome of 6 of the 8 international soccer games the German team was playing that year.

But it was during the 2010 World Cup that Paul's celebrity exploded. Two plastic, clear boxes were presented to him, side by side. Each had the flag of one of the competing teams, and each had a juicy morsel inside for Paul to taste. Paul correctly guessed the outcome of all seven of Germany's games, including their loss to Spain in the semi-finals. By then, his fame was international, with the Iranian president accusing the octopus of "spreading Western propoganda and superstition." When the Germans did indeed lose to Spain, as Paul predicted, death threats were made and the Spanish government offered to fund the mystical mollusk's protection. (Death threats were nothing new to Paul: when he correctly predicted that Germany would beat Argentina, famous Argentine chef Nicolas Bedorrou posted an octopus recipe on Facebook. )

Paul capped his career by successfully predicting Spain's win over the Netherlands in the final round of the World Cup. He retired with a 100% record for the 2010 series. On October 26, Paul was found dead in his aquarium; as he had reached his life expectancy of 2, foul play was not considered. As I said, I had not heard of Paul during the height of his celebrity, but I am glad to learn of the "pick the box" routine he used for his predictions. As an octoped, if he had used the "One Potato, Two Potato" method, it would have taken forever.