Thursday, March 3, 2011

Obits from Mars and Beyond

These supporting players have died in recent weeks, and though I am late to the wake, they deserve some mention in these pages. Regular visitors here know how I feel about actors who spend their careers in support, so here's a toast to some recent ghosts.

Kenneth Mars


He will be widely remembered for his hilariously over-the-top performances of two Germans in two Mel Brooks classics. He created the role of Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind for the original The Producers (his character penned the play-within-the-movie "Springtime for Hitler"):

In Young Frankenstein, his performance as the police chief was upstaged by his fake arm, with which Mars made comic magic.

I first became aware of Kenneth when he co-starred in the 60s sitcom He And She, starring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. It won the Emmy for the only season it ran, but is now believed to be a precursor to later, sophisticated programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show; its comic slant on the lives of a young married couple in New York is an antecedent of Mad About You decades later. On He And She, Mars made an impression as the fireman who lived next door to the central couple, and made many memorable entrances by placing a wooden plank between the two buildings, and walking across it, from window to window.

Kenneth was a regular player in comic series and films throughout the 60s and 70s, and provided memorable moments in What's Up, Doc?, Radio Days, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He became a sought-after voice actor in his later years, voicing King Triton in The Little Mermaid and its various sequels and spin-offs. He died last month from pancreatic cancer at the age of 75.

Charlie Callas


OK, that's not really Charlie Callas, but is instead one of his most famous characters. He provided the voice of the title character in the Disney flick Pete's Dragon, using no words, only vocal sounds. His rubber-faced expressions and extreme vocal impressions (of people, of animals, of inanimate objects, of any- and everything) made him a go-to guy on the variety and talk show circuit of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. He can't really be called an actor, though he spent some time in a semi-dramatic role on the Robert Wagner series Switch.

He was appearing on Merv Griffin's show in the 60s when another guest, Jerry Lewis, was so smitten with him that he cast him in his next film, The Big Mouth. Hundreds of guest shots followed, including about 50 appearances with Johnny Carson. Show biz lore has it that, during an appearance on The Tonight Show in 1982, Callas was bombing so badly that he gave Carson a comic shove, which did not amuse the star.

He never appeared on the show again, and it was commonly believed that Carson banned Callas from the show for life. The NY Times disputes that claim, but it makes a good show biz story, doesn't it? Charlie continued to work the nightclub circuit and pursue voice-over gigs until he died last month from natural causes.

Peggy Rea


She was born and raised in California, and attended UCLA for a time, before dropping out to attend business school. That training put her in good stead, as she worked as a production secretary when her acting career lagged. She spent some time in New York, appearing in A Streetcar Named Desire and the Cole Porter musical Out of the World, before returning to LA to resume a TV acting career. She made her TV debut playing a nurse on the I Love Lucy episode in which little Ricky was born, and her lengthy career included appearances on Gunsmoke, Side by Side, Marcus Welby, Golden Girls, and countless others. Her hefty figure led her to find a niche playing matrons, often with a comic twist. She was Boss Hogg's wife in The Dukes of Hazzard and Brett Butler's mother-in-law on Grace Under Fire. During the waning years of the long-running drama series The Waltons, she was hired to play Olivia's cousin, becoming the show's de facto matriarch as actress Michael Learned withdrew from the series to pursue other interests.

Peggy Rea died a few weeks ago from heart failure at the age of 89.

Michael Tolan


He had a pretty active stage career for a time, appearing on Broadway in Romanoff and Juliet and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, but he became disenchanted with the challenges of commercial stage work in the mid-60s. He headed to Hollywood and became a regular player on television episodics. He had a recurring role playing Mary Tyler Moore's boyfriend on her series, and costarred on The Senator portion of the umbrella series The Bold Ones in 1970. Though he had disdain for commercial stage work, he helped found the non-profit American Place Theatre in 1962, which became a proving ground for young writers and actors testing their craft (Faye Dunaway and Morgan Freeman appeared there early in their careers).

The theater remains a functioning Off-Broadway house today. Michael Tolan died last month at the age of 85.

This gal's only claim to celebrity was a long stint on a soap opera, but she parlayed the gig into a higher profile career as an advocate for several worthy causes:

Christopher Templeton


She spent 11 years as a player on The Young and the Restless, mostly as a back-burner character in support of the leading plotlines. As the secretary to Jabot Cosmetics, she interacted with the core family of the show, the Abbotts, and occasionally stepped out on her own. Whether it was through bravery, or as a stunt, the show cast Templeton in the role largely due to her disability; she suffered from polio as a child, and walked with a leg brace and a cane throughout her life. She became an activist for the handicapped, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she became an activist for that as well. Her acting career included guest shots on Simon and Simon, Charles in Charge, Columbo, and Knots Landing. She was told in 2008 that her cancer was untreatable, so she turned to alternative medicine, which prolonged her life until February 15 of this year, when she died at the age of 58.