RIP Jerry Lewis

One of the last of the great entertainers of his generation, Mr. Jerry Lewis has gone to his reward.

I confess, I’m not the best person to expound on Mr. Lewis’s career, as I haven’t seen many of his films, but of course, everyone knows his name, and that of his illustrious long-time partner, Mr. Dean Martin, with whom he was one of the top box-office draws for more than half a decade, before they unfortunately had a falling out and split as a team. Lewis himself remained a major box office draw in his own right, with films like The Nutty Professor, The Bellhop, and The Disorderly Orderly.

Like many comedians, Mr. Lewis was a consummate  professional and a very intelligent, hard-working man, in stark contrast to his nasally, child-like onscreen persona. In addition to his comedy work in films, stage, radio, and television, he was a life-long advocate for sufferers of muscular dystrophy disease, particularly children.

His appearance as a panelist on What’s My Line showed both his comedic skills and his sincere charity work:

 

Meanwhile, this rather harsh interview with him toward the end of his life, in which he bluntly refused to play along with the trite, canned questions of his interviewer shows that he maintained by his sharp mind and independent spirit up until the end.

Mr. Lewis spent his life making millions of people smile, and dedicated years of his time to helping those in need, and there are far worse legacies a man can leave behind.

May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

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RIP Haruo Nakajima

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I’ve just learned that Haruo Nakajima, the stuntman and actor who originated the role of Godzilla himself, has passed away at the age of 88 of pneumonia. Now all the major players of that greatest of monster films are gone, with the sole exception of Akira Takarada.

Mr. Nakajima was a stuntman and bit player at Toho studios (he played one of the bandits in Seven Samurai) when he was picked to play the monster in Tomoyuki Tanaka’s massive gamble Godzilla. Since they pretty much had to invent the different special effects techniques as they were making the film, the suit they designed was notoriously difficult to work with. Mr. Nakajima suffered terribly for the role, enduring temperatures up to 140 degrees and often leaving a whole cup of sweat behind him. The suit weighed over 200 pounds and included numerous bits of machinery to operate the mouth and tail. Though a trained athlete and a powerful man, Mr. Nakajima fainted more than once during the shoot.

Yet he returned for twelve films, finally retiring from the role after Godzilla vs. Gigan. In the process, he helped give Godzilla the distinctive personality that made him such a memorable figure on screen. Mr. Nakajima was known as a very good humored, playful man, and that side of him sometimes came across through the mountains of coarse latex. Those who remember Godzilla clapping his hands in mockery of King Kong, or leaping with excitement after sending King Ghidorah packing will see Mr. Nakajima’s personality shining through. At the same time, he could lend remarkable dignity and poignancy to Godzilla’s movements, as seen in the underwater confrontation at the end of the first film, or his interactions with Minya in Son of Godzilla.

Few may know his face or name, but Mr. Nakajima helped create one of the great figures of cinema, and for that he will always be remembered.

Rest in peace, sir, and many thanks.

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RIP Adam West

More sad news: Adam West, forever immortalized in the infamously cheesy 1960s Batman show, has passed away at the age of 88 after a brief battle with Leukemia.

Mr. West was one of those actors (like Bela Lugosi) whose career was made and destroyed by a single role. He never recovered from being the Caped Crusader, especially after changing tastes caused the show itself to become infamous. At first, West descended into self-destructive depression over this fact, but later came to embrace his unique claim to fame and relished his position in the Batman legend.

Whatever you think of the show, Mr. West deserves credit for being the Batman for a whole generation. This, after all, is part of the Batman mythos as well, and even if it’s one that many fans might prefer to forget, it introduced one of the seminal characters of American comics to a whole new audience, including some of the writers and artists who did some of the best work with the character.

Happily, this very point was made in possibly Mr. West’s best post-Batman role: on Batman: The Animated Series. In the episode “The Gray Ghost Strikes,” West plays an actor made famous for playing a superhero on an old TV show, but whose career was subsequently destroyed by typecasting, and who now questions whether his life had any impact.

Adam West does some very impressive voice work as a man dealing with many of the same problems that he faced in his own life, and whose receives a truly touching vindication in discovering that he has had a positive impact, all the more so because the episode is so clearly sending that same message to Adam West himself. It’s Paul Dini and the other makers of what many regard as the very best iteration of Batman thanking the man who headed what is widely considered one of the worst for introducing them to the character they love.

By this point, I think it’s safe to say that Mr. West transcended his typecasting to become, if not a respected actor, a respected figure in the Batman fandom. Whatever you think of the 1960s show, Adam West undoubtedly inspired a generation of both fans and artists, which is something I think any actor can be proud of. May he rest in peace.

RIP Don Rickles

I really enjoy show business people. Not celebrity gossip, but the working actors, actresses, and comedians for whom entertaining is simply their job; a hard job, but a job worth doing. That’s one reason I loved The Dick Van Dyke Show so much, because it was all about that side of things; not glitz and glamor, but the working-people who happen to have entertaining as their career.

One of the many guest stars on the show was a young Don Rickles, the king of the insult. Mr. Rickles seems to have been exactly that kind of man in real life; a hard-working comic who earned his stripes in the cut-throat world of show business, carved a niche for himself, and cheerfully paid his dues through sixty years of quality work, until he finally went to his reward earlier today.

Mr. Rickles was the master of the insult; a skill he developed as a stand-up comic working bars and clubs with often rowdy clientele. From there he progressed to roasting major celebrities, including the notoriously unpredictable Frank Sinatra. No one but Mr. Rickles could get away with mocking Sinatra, but somehow, when he insulted you it was funny rather than offensive. He would say the most outrageous things; but always with an undercurrent of affection. As he himself put it, “If I were to insult people and mean it, it wouldn’t be funny.”

Mr. Rickles attributed this quality to his personality; it was because he was who he was that he could do such outrageous things and get away with it. Somehow, the warmth of the man shone through his insults. He was, by all accounts, a very kind man in real life, married to the same woman his whole life, and a close friend of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Lucille Ball, and mild-mannered fellow comedian Bob Newhart.

Modern audiences were privileged to be introduced to him through his performance as Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies, ensuring that his name and work will remain in the public eye. His was a unique talent, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. May he rest in peace.

TCM Remembers and a Tribute to Two Lost Masters

I always enjoy TCM’s in memoriam videos. Well, enjoy might not be the right word, but they’re fitting tributes to those lost in the entertainment world. Retrospectives like this are important: they help us to remember both the achievements of those who’ve gone before us and deserve our respect, and they also remind us of our own mortality and the remorseless march of time, forcing us to consider what our legacy shall be. In memoriam are necessarily memento mori.

Watch and pay respects to those professionals in their field who have departed this vale of tears.

This year we lost some great ones. Leonard Nimoy, of course, received much fitting tribute after his passing in February. Maureen O’Hara marked the passing of one of the last stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If I’m not mistaken, her death leaves only Olivia de Havilland left of that generation. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, was the last of the classic horror stars to pass on, following Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. Wes Craven, past master of horror, likewise departed.

I would like to draw particular attention, however, to two actors whose work I only know from a few projects, but who were especially talented and entertaining performers not well known to modern audiences.

The first is Louis Jourdan, a splendid French actor possessed of a tremendously entertaining style. He excelled at playing smug, upper-class villains. I’m most familiar with him from an episode of Columbo in which he played a corrupt food critic who poisons a chef who threatened to expose him. Jourdan is deliciously disgusting in the role; he’s a repulsively smug bastard, but he’s just so exuberant in being a smug bastard that you can’t help being entertained by him. He rattles off complicated dishes with evident relish at his own knowledge and prances and gestures theatrically across the screen at every opportunity. Yet the hamminess fits the role: you feel like this is the kind of guy who would act at all times as if he were part of a stage melodrama. I also love his final confrontation with Columbo as the two collaborate on a meal while the detective lays out how he solved the case. Jourdan’s more restrained here as the noose tightens around his neck, and his exit line is one of the best of any Columbo episode, and perfectly delivered. “Lieutenant,” he sighs after tasting Columbo’s cooking. “I wish you’d been a chef.”

Jourdan had long and distinguished career, most of which was spent trying to avoid being typecast as a ‘continental lover.’ He commented that he much preferred character parts, and it certainly shows. His best known role is probably in the musical Gigi, which I haven’t seen myself, but he’s also famous for playing a Bond villain in Octopussy. It’s not one of the better entries, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen it to comment on his performance, though he does get at least one particularly great line: “You seem to have a nasty habit of surviving.”

The other actor was also a veteran of Columbo (there are few high-class actors of the time who weren’t): Theodore Bikel, a burly, incredibly energetic performer, one of those actor’s actors who could melt into any role and make it work. He had small roles in a number of classic films (notably My Fair Lady and The African Queen), but was best known for his stage and television work (he apparently played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof over 2,000 times). Like Jourdan, I most remember him from Columbo. In his episode, he played a member of a ‘Mensa’ like group of geniuses who concocts a brilliantly executed murder to cover up his embezzlements.

Columbo episodes generally come in two flavors: there are the classic mystery episodes, where the point is to catch the killer and the character study episodes, which are more about exploring the murderer’s character and personality. Jourdan’s episode was an example of the former, Bikel’s the latter. We get to know his character very well indeed by the end; he’s brilliant, but he’s emotionally stunted for just that reason, always reaching out to the childhood he lost as “an imitation adult.” He claims the man he killed was his best friend, but from what we see the relationship appears to have been rather one-sided. He’s married to an absolutely vapid woman who is only interested in sex and whom he seems to have married for that reason. In fact, he’s a profoundly lonely man. Even his so-called intellectual peers don’t interest him (“I find them eccentric bores”). Somehow or other, he just doesn’t fit in to any of the boxes society tries to put him in, even the one seemingly tailor made for him. You don’t dislike the man; you feel sorry for him.

Personally, I really relate to this character. I know what it’s like to feel alienated and lonely both in the ordinary day-to-day world and in the sheltered, ‘selected’ world set aside for people ‘like you.’ It’s a marvelous performance by Bikel, one that sticks with you long after the episode ends.

The other performance I remember by Bikel (I haven’t seen many, unfortunately) was an episode of The Twilight Zone in which he plays a paranoid fanatic who occupies his time spying on people, cataloguing what he considers their undesirable traits and seeking to make them pay for it (one of his victims was a doctor who failed to save a patient). Overwhelmed by the task before him, he decides to destroy all ‘evil people’ by sheer will at the stroke of four.

The twist to this one is as predictable as it gets, and it’s not one of the great Twilight Zone episodes, but the sheer force of Bikel’s performance makes it enjoyable nonetheless. To this day I can’t hear the words “four o’clock” without recalling the particular inflection he gives them. I also love his response to an FBI Agent (whom he’s trying to give ‘information’ to) tactfully asking whether he’d ever seen a psychiatrist: “Why?” he giggles. “I’m not evil!”

Every year marks the end of thousands of lives. Some of those lives were masters in their particular craft, giants in their field, or simply hard-working professionals who did their jobs well. Lous Jourdan and Theodore Bikel were both great performers and they, together with all those TCM Remembers, will be missed.

 

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.

Wes Craven RIP

I intend to have an update explaining my lack of blogging up soon, but first I must report sad news from the film world. Wes Craven, one of the great directors of modern horror and creator of one of my own personal favorite films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, has passed away at the age of 76 of brain cancer.

Mr. Craven’s first film was the, ah, ‘controversial’ (polite way of saying ‘utterly disgusting’) The Last House on the Left, followed by The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing (a gloriously campy piece of schlock) before achieving his magnum opus with A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that was only prevented from being perhaps the finest horror movie of all time by a truly atrocious ‘twist’ ending (which was apparently forced on Craven by the studio, who wanted a series). Unfortunately, Mr. Craven never quite achieved those heights again, though he continued to make innovative and intelligent horror films, including the horror-comedy Scream and its sequels.

Mr. Craven was a talented and creative director with a unique style and a sophisticated sense of humor. Though his greatest work was behind him, he will always be remembered and honored wherever the horror genre is appreciated.

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Eternal rest grant unto him, oh, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. Forgive him his trespasses and may he rest in peace.