Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bob & Fess & Mack the Knife

I'm sensing a Soviet plot. I hope those Men From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, are keeping a lookout for dangerous situations, since our TV spies are dropping like flies. On the heels of the death of Peter Graves, whose best known role was in the espionage thriller Mission: Impossible, comes word of the death of another television spy:

Robert Culp


He had headlined an earlier TV series in the 50s called Trackdown, but his co-starring role in the mid-60s show I Spy made him a household name. The series was unusual for several reasons, as it mixed a sly wit with the action common in the espionage genre of the period. More importantly, the show introduced one of television's first dramatic lead characters of color, played by Bill Cosby. The chemistry between the two stars was palpable, and though it was Cosby who won Emmys every year of the series, the duo stood side-by-side in the Civil Rights movement of the period.

Culp also broke new ground in Paul Mazursky's first film, Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, a spoof of the sexual revolution of the late 60s (it's about wife-swapping; that's Elliot Gould, Natalie Wood, and Dyan Cannon sharing the bedtime).

Culp returned to his "spy" roots in the 80s, when he costarred as an FBI agent in the light-hearted fantasy series The Greatest American Hero.

He was apparently a recurring regular on Everybody Loves Raymond, but as I didn't (love Raymond), I never saw his sitcom work. He died the other day as a result of a fall at the age of 79.

Another television star of the mid-60s recently died:

Fess Parker


Parker's appearance as two iconic American heroes overshadowed anything else he attempted in his acting career. In the mid-50s, Fess was a contract player for Warner Brothers, and appeared in a single scene of the horror flick Them!. Walt Disney viewed the film with an eye to cast star James Arness in the role of Davy Crockett for a three-episode television event. Instead, he chose the little-known Parker to play the frontiersman, congressman, and Alamo martyr. No one knew it at the time, but with Davy Crockett, Disney had invented the mini-series; he was more excited about the explosive interest in coonskin caps, lunchpails, and moccasins which the show ignited. (It's said the price of raccoon fur shot up from 25 cents a pound to over 8 dollars thanks to the Davy Crockett Craze.)

Uncle Walt placed Fess under contract, and gave him one of his most memorable film roles in Old Yeller, among other features. In the mid-60s, Disney created a television series around the legends of Daniel Boone, with Parker in the title role. The show lasted six years; Parker later retired from acting (after turning down the role of McCloud). He spent his subsequent years running a wine resort.

Here's a guy I never heard of until his death, but his contribution to the theatre should not be overlooked.

Carmen Capalbo


In 1952, he was a brash young man in his 20s when he attended a concert presentation, directed by Leonard Bernstein, of the Kurt Weill classic The Threepenny Opera. The show had already had an English language production in the early 30s, but with a new adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, Capalbo was determined to reintroduce it to New York. He persuaded Kurt Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, to reprise the role of Jenny, which she originated in the 1928 Berlin premiere, and opened a new production at the Theatre de Lys (now the Lucille Lortell) in Greenwich Village in 1954. The show was a smash, but was forced to close to make room for an incoming production.

A campaign to reopen the show resulted in Threepenny Opera returning to Off-Broadway in September, 1956, where it set the record as the longest running musical in New York (it kept that record until The Fantasticks surpassed it in 1966). The Tony Award committee broke with its own rules when, in 1956, it awarded the Tony for best supporting actress in a musical to Lenya's Off-Broadway performance; a special Tony went to the production itself.

This Off-Broadway revival remains the pivotal English language production of the show, and included in its opening night cast Bea Arthur (barely recognizable at right), John Astin, and Charlotte Rae, as well as the legendary Lenya. Capalbo directed several pieces uptown on Broadway, including the original production of Moon for the Misbegotten, but he will best be remembered as the man who put Off-Broadway on the map, while bringing a musical theatre classic to the attention of the western world.