Thursday, April 8, 2010

Three Dynasty Members, and a Crusader



Everybody recognizes this guy's name, or at least his surname. American audiences saw him in supporting roles in such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral and A Man for All Seasons, but his international reputation was overshadowed by those of his sisters.

He was the middle child, and only son, of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, British theatrical royalty (left)who instilled in all their children show biz DNA. Though Vanessa and Lynn are more easily recognized by Americans, Corin was very well-known in his native England for stage appearances in Shakespeare, Coward, and the like. He was equally well-known, and sometimes reviled, for his political views, which, like his sister Vanessa, he never failed to espouse. He was as left-wing as anyone could get, and it's possible that his extremely radical politics damaged his career.

Someone noticed that, as soon as the Berlin Wall fell, Corin's career picked up. In his middle and later years, he worked steadily onstage, and in 1998, delivered a Tony nominated performance in the premiere production of a forgotten Tennessee Williams play, Not About Nightingales. His socialist views, like those of his sister Vanessa, tempered over time, though he was a vocal supporter of a movement to impeach prime minister Tony Blair after the Iraqi Invasion.
He shared political views with big sister Vanessa (and occasionally shared the stage with her, as in The Cherry Orchard, above), but he shared an ambivalence about his father with little sister Lynn. She wrote a play about it (Shakespeare for My Father) and he wrote a memoir about it (Michael Redgrave - My Father) . In 2004, he played King Lear on the same stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company where his father had triumphed in the role 50 years earlier.(If you are unsure which character above is Lear, you need to brush up your Shakespeare).

Corin Redgrave died Tuesday at the age of 70.

Well, if Americans aren't too sure who Corin Redgrave was, they certainly knew this guy, who died last week amidst a lot of hoopla:



Everybody knows the suave, sophisticated actor who spent the better part of his career in television. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill, but dropped out when he discovered the money he could make on the radio. His smooth vocal quality was a natural for the medium. When WWII came along, he enlisted in the air force, and was promptly sent to Broadway, in the ensemble of Moss Hart's Winged Victory, a tribute to American pilots. Later stage roles included another American soldier, in the original Teahouse of the August Moon, and replacing Henry Fonda in the original Mister Roberts. On the big screen, he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's comic mystery The Trouble with Harry, and in Truman Capote's docudrama In Cold Blood.

But his greatest fame was on television. He worked steadily as a guest on various episodics in the early days, and delivered a fine performance as a cynical theatre critic in a television play called What Makes Sammy Run?, which starred a young Larry Blyden (that performance is available on DVD; I've seen it and it's well worth renting). His first starring role was as dashing playboy Bentley Gregg in the sitcom Bachelor Father, playing one of television's first single parents (technically, he was raising his niece). In later years, he was the disembodied, but highly recognizable, voice of "Charlie" in one of the iconic series of the 1970s, Charlie's Angels. (He performed the same vocal duties in the two film remakes of recent years).

In the 80s, he headlined another iconic series, Dynasty. ABC's answer to the smash hit Dallas, the primetime soap dealt with the wealthy and powerful Carrington clan. During its first season, Forsythe's role was written as a ruthless patriarch who ruled his family with an iron fist; that tempered a bit over time, as Forsythe's own likable personality crept in. I disliked the series myself, but watched it in its early years due to the presence of the family's son, one of the first gay characters I had run across on television. Of course, the writers eventually turned the character bi-, and he married Heather Locklear or something, and I completely lost interest.

The public at large wasn't too interested, either, at least during the show's first season. The show struggled through its first year and was renewed based more on its pedigree (Aaron Spelling, ABC's hitmaker at the time, produced the show) than on its ratings. In a smart move, the writers teased the arrival of the scheming matriarch of the family, who swept into a wedding (or was it a funeral? Who remembers?) in the final scene of the first season. The role of Alexis Carrington was due to be cast during the hiatus, so the character arrived dressed in a heavy black veil, played by an extra. When season two premiered months later, the veil was lifted to reveal Joan Collins; her catfights with Linda Evans became a signature of the series.

Dynasty's ratings rose, hitting #1 in 1985. The show spawned a short-lived spinoff, The Colbys, before sputtering out after nine seasons.

Forsythe himself was amused that his performance as Blake Carrington turned him into a sex symbol in his 60s. He received three Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations for his work on Dynasty, losing them all.

He died last week at the age of 92.

Nobody remembers this (I certainly didn't), but this guy was also a Dynasty star, at least in its later years:



He was born into a middle class family with upper-class connections: his father was an aide-de-camp to King George VI for a time. Chris declined to enter the family's stock brokerage firm, and studied to be an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, making his stage debut in Shaw's Man and Superman in the late 60s. He was a charismatic young actor who worked often, but stardom eluded him. I first saw this guy in the BBC mini-series The Duchess of Duke Street, playing the romantic interest of the leading lady.

He made more than a few feature films, in roles both large and small (he stood next to Charlton Heston in 1970's Julius Caesar, and appeared in Three Men and a Little Lady). He toured England and the states as Henry Higgins in a revival of My Fair Lady, but it was his casting in Dynasty which probably brought his biggest fame. (He played John Forsythe's brother, who plotted to steal the family fortune. yawn.)

His personal life was marked with tragedy, as his son died in a car crash in his 20s, and he himself struggled with substance abuse. He died yesterday from septicaemia at the age of 66.

I have one more obit, but before getting to it, you just have to take a peek at the clip below, the opening credits for one of the later seasons of Dynasty. This show epitomized the excess of the 80s and, as always happens with a night-time soap, the cast had grown to an unmanageable size. So the writers took them all to a fictional country and slaughtered about half of them. The "Massacre in Moldavia" is still considered one of the great Jump The Shark moments in TV history.

OK, back to the real world. I'm embarrassed to reveal that I had never heard of this guy until his recent death. Embarrassed, because he was one of the founders of the regional theatre movement in which I live my life.



In 1937, this youngster from New Mexico was cast in a community theatre production of The Distaff Side in San Diego, CA. Other than a stint in the military during WWII, and a few years in Hollywood (he assisted Orson Welles for a time), he remained with that theatre for the rest of his life. He was instrumental in turning The Old Globe Theatre into a professional theatre, the first to use Equity actors on the West coast. He was its artistic director over forty years, and remained a vital element of the Globe until his death. He directed over 200 productions, and produced over 200 more, many of which went on to lasting fame. The list of shows he sent to Broadway include several August Wilson premieres, and a few Neil Simons as well.

In 1986, I was living in Los Angeles and sometimes made the schlep down Interstate 5 to San Diego to catch a weekend matinee at The Old Globe. One such Sunday, I sat behind Bernadette Peters, who I later learned was in the audience at Stephen Sondheim's (and, I assume, Craig Noel's) invitation. We were watching the world premiere production of Into the Woods, a show which was very much still in flux. They were of course eyeing Broadway, and Sondheim and his collaborator James Lapine wanted Peters in the show. The female lead in Into the Woods is undeniably the Baker's Wife, which was already being played by Joanna Gleason (spectacularly, I may add). I learned later that Peters was offered her choice of playing the Witch or Cinderella, and, well, if you're a musical geek, you already know she chose to play the Witch. The role was beefed up quite a bit for Peters, and she had some success with it in New York, though structuralists could point out that her presence in what was originally a supporting role slanted the piece. If I had been Bernadette Peters (and in so many ways, I am, we're practically twins), I would have chosen to play Cinderella, a character which actually undergoes a change during the course of the play. She navigates an emotional arc in her story, while the Witch, well, doesn't.

I've slid off-topic here a bit, what are the odds of that happening? Back to Craig Noel, who helped guide Into the Woods to its later success. He was responsible for the growth of The Old Globe into one of the giants of the regional theatre movement, and the theatre won the 1984 regional theatre Tony. Noel led the effort to restore the fascility when it was distroyed by arson in 1978, and created a Master of Fine Arts in Acting at the University of San Diego which was connected to the theatre (I have several friends who came out of that program, which is one of the country's best).

In 2007, Noel was presented the U.S. National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush, who must have had some help in chosing such a worthy recipient, since I can't imagine Bush ever sat through a play in his life. Craig Noel did, though, and the professional theatre is better for it. He died last week at the age of 94.