The squared circle tolled ten bells for “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino , probably the most popular wrestler of his generation, who died at age 82. Bruno held the WWWF/WWF (now WWE) world title longer than anyone, 11 years in two title reigns (1963-71, 1973-77), took on and defeated all comers, and sold out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 188 times. Sammartino was a legit tough guy who once held the record in the bench press (565 pounds), and had a no-nonsense rep backstage. You just didn’t mess with Bruno! He appeared at the first WRESTLEMANIA, in the movie BODY SLAM, and was indicted into numerous Halls of Fame celebrating his almost thirty year career. A hero to millions of grappling fans (including Yours Truly), there will never be another Bruno Sammartino.
Many of Bruno’s in-ring foes also took the three-count in 2018. Pittsburgh native ‘Luscious’ Johnny Valiant (74) wrestled for Bruno’s local promotion and WWWF as a “good guy” named John L. Sullivan before teaming with his kayfabe brother ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant to win the tag team titles on two occasions (and five tag titles in other promotions). Upon retiring from the ring mayhem, he started a second career as the hated manager of The Dream Team (Brutus Beefacke & Greg Valentine). Later, Johnny became a stand-up comic and actor of note (THE SOPRANOS, LAW & ORDER).
Nikolai Volkoff (70) was once known as Bepo Mongol, and challenged Bruno under both monikers; he also held the tag championship with The Iron Sheik. Don Leo Jonathan (87) was a 6’6″, 300+ pound Canadian who grappled around the world, winning many titles; his 1972 battles with Andre the Giant are legendary. Larry “The Ax” Hennig (82) was a hated heel wherever he went, and the father of Curt Hennig, aka ‘Mr. Perfect’ (and grandfather of current WWE competitor ‘Curtis Axel’). Masa Saito (76) hailed from Tokyo, and competed for his country in the 1964 Olympics before turning pro; he was a two-time WWF tag champ with Mr. Fuji, held the AWA World title, and once had a “death match” on a deserted island with Japan’s Antonio Inoki that lasted two hours!
Big Van Vader (63) was a former football player named Leon White who was amazingly athletic for his size, and won World titles in WCW and New Japan. Tom Billington (60) was known as The Dynamite Kid for his eye-popping aerial maneuvers, and made a formidable teammate for The British Bulldog. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (63) was the brawn of The Hart Foundation alongside his partner Brett “The Hit Man” Hart (Jim’s daughter Natalia currently wrestles in WWE). Big Bully Busick (63) is remembered for his thick handlebar moustache, bowler derby, and ever-present stinky cigar. Matt Cappotelli (36) won WWE’s TOUGH ENOUGH III, and was slated for mat glory until being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and being forced into retirement (as an aside, his cousin Lisa Campbell once won TV’s BIG BROTHER competition).
Jose Lothario (83) was extremely popular in Texas and Florida, and was the trainer for ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels. Brickhouse Brown (57) wrestled mainly in the South as well, and was also a fan favorite. “The Rebel” Dick Salter (67) could work as a face or heel, depending on where he was; either way, he was another legit tough guy. “Grandmaster Sexay” Brian Christopher (46), son of veteran Jerry Lawler, won many titles (including the WWE tag straps), but unfortunately his demons got the best of him. Chris Champion (57) was one half of The New Breed with Sean Royal. Frank Andersson (62) won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics before embarking on a brief pro career.
Rayo de Jalisco (85) was a legend in his native Mexico, tag partner of El Santo, and appeared in many lucha libre films. Raul Matta (71) was popular in both Mexico and California. Universo 2000 (55) competed for over thirty years. 4’7″ Piratita Morgan (48) was one of Mexico’s top mini-luchadore stars. And last but not least, Larry Matycik (72) started his career at age 16, becoming one of the sport’s top TV announcers (St. Louis’s “Wrestling at the Chase”), matchmakers, promoters, and author of many books on the subject. All entertained their audiences for decades, and will be missed.
There’s no doubt Stan Lee (95) had the biggest influence on today’s pop culture. Getting his start at age 17 working for his uncle Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics in 1941, the young Stan was appointed editor after the departure of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America. Stan spent the next two decades writing thousands of words for superhero, humor, crime, horror, western, and other comics (whatever the market dictated) until he reteamed with Kirby on something daringly different. That something was The Fantastic Four, a quartet of all-too-human superhumans that set the comic world on it’s ear. Now renamed Marvel Comics, Stan co-created with Jack and artist Steve Ditko a line-up of heroes with human foibles: Spider-Man, The Hulk, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and other names you all now know. Stan promoted Marvel incessantly, giving his artists nicknames, writing a monthly column (Stan’s Soapbox), lecturing on college campuses, and raising comic book consciousness to another level. The Marvel Super Heroes are now everywhere, thanks to the box office success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Stan’s cameos in the films will certainly be missed by True Believers the world over. Excelsior, Stan!
Ditko also passed away this year at age 90. His rendition of The Amazing Spider-Man helped turn the puny Peter Parker, bit by a radioactive spider, into a pop culture icon, and his trippy work on Dr. Strange set a new standard for weirdness in comics. Ditko lent his distinctive touch to Charlton’s Captain Atom and Blue Beetle, DC’s Hawk and Dove and The Creeper, and his objectivist Mr. A, incorporating the philosophies of writer Any Rand. His deceptively simple yet complex style contains much nuance, and he was truly one of a kind, on the page and in his personal life, declining interviews even after his creations became world-famous. Steve Ditko was a unique individual, and will also be missed.
Russ Heath (91) was noted for his DC war comics (The Haunted Tank), but also worked in other genres for EC and Marvel, and drew those ubiquitous “toy soldier” ads that appeared in the backs of comics. Marie Severin (89) had her own unique style; remembered for her work on The Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and others, she drew superhero satires for Marvel’s brief but memorable “Not Brand Echh” during the Swingin’ Sixties. Mort Walker (94) created the still-running Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois newspaper strips. Writer Gary Friedrich (75) is remembered for his run on Sgt. Fury, and co-created Marvel’s supernatural superhero Ghost Rider (and the now-forgotten but personal favorite of mine, Hell-Rider for Skywald). Nick Meglin (82) was the long-time editor for MAD Magazine. Carlos Ezquerra (70) co-created the legendary Judge Dredd. Takahiro Sato (41) is well-loved among Manga buffs. William O’Connor (48) illustrated the games Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.
Science Fiction readers were saddened by the loss of Harlan Ellison (84), a true genius and noted provocateur. The eloquent Mr. Ellison wrote some of the genre’s classic short stories (“Repent, Harlequin… Said The Tick-Tock Man”), novels (A BOY AND HIS DOG), edited the essential volume DANGEROUS VISIONS, dabbled in comics (The Hulk, The Avengers), and my favorite STAR TREK episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”. Ursula K. LeGuin (88) was another genre author whose greatest accomplishment was the EARTHSEA series. Dave Duncan (85) was known to fans for WEST OF JANUARY and his SEVENTH SWORD series. Peter Nichols (78) compiled THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION. Jack Ketchum (71) was a horror writer whose books (OFF SEASON, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, RED) scared the daylights out of readers (including yours truly!).
More mainstream authors who left us included the white-suited wordsmith Tom Wolfe (88), pioneer of the “New Journalism” style (THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST, RADICAL CHIC, THE RIGHT STUFF, BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES); Philip Roth (85, GOODBYE COLUMBUS, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, THE HUMAN STAIN); humorist Cynthia Heimel (70), a feminist who wrote a monthly column for PLAYBOY; sarcastic political columnist Nicholas von Hoffman (88); Drue Heinz (103), publisher of THE PARIS REVIEW; Jerry Hopkins (82), ROLLING STONE writer who penned biographies of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison; and physicist Stephen Hawking (76), whose A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME became an unexpected best seller.
Businessman Wayne Huizenga (80) put Blockbuster Video on almost every block; he later owned the Miami Dolphins. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (65) also bought sports teams in his native Seattle. Charles Lazarus (94) gave us the late, lamented Toys’R’Us. Dave Edgerton (90) established McDonald’s chief rival Burger King. Fashion designers Hubert de Givenchy (91) and Kate Spade (55) became iconic brands. John Coleman (83) was a meteorologist who co-founded The Weather Channel. Dennis Hof (72) owned Nevada’s notorious Bunny Ranch; Hof was elected to the Nevada State Assembly this year… a month after he died!
Astronauts John Young (87) and Alan Bean (86) both walked on the moon. Adrian Cronauer (79) was an Armed Forces DJ whose life was turned into the film GOOD MORNING VIETNAM. Chef Paul Bocuse (91) was a pioneer of Nouvelle Cuisine. Larry Haney (70) was co-founder of the Burning Man festival. Graphic designer Art Paul (93) was PLAYBOY’s Art Director for 29 years. Whitey Bulgar (84) terrorized Boston for decades as boss of the Winter Hill Gang; unbeknownst to his criminal cohorts, he was also a rat for the FBI. Whitey went on the lam for 16 years before being captured, tried, and sentenced to prison. And you know what happens to rats in prison…
Two people who left us this year defy traditional classification. Melvin Dummar (74) was a humble gas station attendant who claimed to have found an elderly man in the Nevada desert and saved his life. That man, so said Melvin, was billionaire Howard Hughes. A handwritten will allegedly left him part of the vast Hughes estate. Melvin never did collect that money, but his story was turned into Jonathan Demme’s entertaining 1980 film MELVIN & HOWARD. Was Melvin telling the truth? We’ll never really know…
Naomi Parker Fraley (96) was working at an aircraft assembly plant in Alameda, California, during WWII when her picture was taken by a news photographer. The pic was widely distributed in the press, and artist J. Howard Miller based his famous poster on Naomi’s image…
Thanks for keeping ’em flying, Naomi. You’re still an inspiration to us all!
There was no bigger loss in the music world than the death of ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin at age 76. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha originally sang Gospel at her father Rev. C.L. Franklin’s revivals. She signed on with Columbia Records, who tried to pigeonhole her with safe Easy Listening standards. Moving over to Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha began recording at Muscle Shoals for producer Jerry Wexler, and belted out R&B hit after hit: the raucous “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, “Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Think”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Until You Come Back to Me”. Hitting a slump in the mid-70’s, Aretha came back strong with 80’s successes “Jump To It”, “Freeway of Love”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”, and duets with Eurythmics (“Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”) and George Michael (‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”). The word “icon” gets tossed around all too frequently these days, but Aretha Franklin was a true pop icon, with a booming voice that will not be silenced as long as there are fans of music around.
Rock’n’roll lost some true pioneers this past year. D.J. Fontana (87) played drums in a band called The Blue Moon Boys with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and a young singer named Elvis Presley. Fontana spent 14 years as Elvis’s drummer, laying down the beats on classics “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and so many others. Nokie Edwards (82) was the innovative lead guitarist for instrumental group The Ventures, whose hits include “Walk Don’t Run” (on which Edwards played bass) and “Theme from Hawaii 5-0”. Matt “Guitar” Murphy (88) joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band in 1948, and was a sideman for blues legends Memphis Slim and James Cotton before hitting it big later in life as a member of The Blues Brothers.
Roy Clark (85) was a multi-talented instrumentalist who had a #1 hit singing the melancholic “Yesterday, When I Was Young”, as well as co-hosting the long-running country music program HEE HAW. Singer Marty Balin (76) soared to fame with Jefferson Airplane (and later incarnation Jefferson Starship). Ray Thomas (76) of The Moody Blues sang and played flute, notably on the group’s “Nights in White Satin”, which was a hit in two different decades. Cranberries lead vocalist Delores O’Riordan (46) died far too soon. Hugh Masekela (78) brought the sounds of South Africa to America, wowing the hippie crowd at the ’67 Monterrey Pop Festival with his trumpeting prowess, and scoring a #1 hit with “Grazing in the Grass”. Dennis Edwards (74) lent his soulful singing to such Temptations hits as “Cloud Nine”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Psychedelic Shack”, “Ball of Confusion”, and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” during the Motown group’s most creative period.
Techno artist/DJ Avicii had a huge following; his life was tragically cut short at age 28 by suicide due to mental health issues. On the other side of the spectrum, singer Vic Damone lived to the ripe old age of 89; the popular crooner counted a #1 hit (1949’s “You’re Breaking My Heart”) among his many Top Ten tunes, and was regularly featured on TV, in movies, and Las Vegas. Other voices stilled by death include France’s Charles Aznavour (94), Scott Boyer of Cowboy (70), Cajun legend Vin Bruce (87), Big Band vocalist Don Cherry (94), Buzz Clifford (75, “Baby Sittin’ Boogie”), Gospel’s Del Delker (93), Jimmy Farrar of Molly Hatchet (67), rockabilly’s Billy Hancock (71), country’s Freddie Hart (91, “Easy Loving”, “My Hang Up is You”), Mike Harrison of Spooky Tooth (72), Edwin Hawkins (74, who had a surprise hit with the Gospel tune “Oh, Happy Day”), Scott Hutchinson (36, Frightened Rabbit), Hawaiian superstar Ed Kenney (85), Leah LeBelle (34, AMERICAN IDOL runner-up), Dean Lima of LFO (41), Reggae’s Trevor McNaughton (77), Tom Netherton (70, THE LAWRENCE WELK SHOW), death metal’s Frank “Killjoy” Pucci (48), Tom Rapp (70, Pearls Before Swine), bluegrass star Randy Scruggs (64), Gayle Shepherd of the Shepherd Sisters (81, “Alone”), soulful Lowrell Simon (75), Daryle Singletary (46, “I Let Her Lie”, “Too Much Fun”, “Amen Kind of Love”), Mark E. Smith of The Fall (60), jazz legend Nancy Wilson (81), Lari White (52, “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”), Tony Joe White (75, “Polk Salad Annie”), and Betty Willis (76).
If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band with the additions of guitarists Tim Calvert (52, Nevermore), Eddie Clark (67, Motorhead), Ed King (68, Strawberry Alarm Clock , Lynnrd Skynnrd), Danny Kirwan (68, Fleetwood Mac), Glenn Schwartz (78, Pacific Gas & Electric), Wah Wah Watson (67) and Eddie Willis (82) of The Funk Brothers, Fred Weiland (75, The Strangers), and Todd Youth (47, Danzig); bassists Max Bennett (90, LA Express, Wrecking Crew), Mars Cowling (72, Pat Travers Band), Alan Longmuir (70, Bay City Rollers), Craig McGregor (68, Foghat), Jim Rodford (76, Argent, The Kinks); keyboard wizard Roy Webb (70, Lanny Kravitz, Suzy Quatro); sax players Ace Cannon (84, Bill Black’s Combo) and Charles Neville (79, The Neville Brothers); drummers Mickey Jones (76, The First Edition, who later enjoyed an acting career), Nick Knox (60, The Cramps), Vinnie Paul (54, Pantera), Jabo Starks (79, James Brown’s Famous Flames), Pat Torpey (64, Mr. Big), Charlie Quintana (56, Social Distortion); multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock (61, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull); and cellist Hugh McDowell of ELO (65).
On the blues side of town, legendary singer/guitarist Otis Rush (83) wrote and recorded such now-standards as “Double Trouble” and “All Your Loving”. Denise LaSalle (78) had mainstream success with the hit “Trapped By A Thing Called Love”. Big Jay McNeely (91) honked his badass saxophone on countless blues records. Maurice Reedus (65) played his sax on Cleveland street corners, so well a documentary was made about him (THE SAX MAN). Little Sammy Davis (89) blew his harp for blues lovers for over seventy years, while Lazy Lester (85) did it for sixty. Guitarist Preston Shannon (70) backed Shirley Brown before striking out on his own, while Floyd Miles (74) played with Clarence Carter and Gregg Allman. And we must give a tip of our porkpie hats to Louisiana’s Jewel Records owner Stan Lewis (91), who released hits from Lowell Fulsom (“Reconsider Baby”), Dale Hawkins (“Suzie-Q”), and John Fred & His Playboy Band (“Judy in Disguise”), and Arkansas’s Sunshine Sonny Payne (92), who hosted the seminal “King Biscuit Time” on radio’s KFFA for over fifty years!
Jazz buffs are mourning the losses of Big Bill Bissonnette (81, trombone), Shelly Cohen (84, clarinetist and assistant music director for Johnny Carson’s TONIGHT SHOW), Nathan Davis (81, sax), Bill Hughes (87, trombonist for Count Basie), Sonny Fortune (79, sax), Coco Schumann (93, guitarist and Holocaust survivor), Tommy Smith (81, Canadian pianist), Cecil Taylor (89, avant-garde pianist), and Bill Watruss (79, trombone). Producer and songwriter Rich Hall (85) was known as “The Father of Muscle Shoals”. Harvey Schmidt (88) composed the long-running musical “The Fantasticks”; Carol Hall (82) wrote the music and lyrics for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. Kenny O’Dell (73) wrote country classics “Behind Closed Doors” and “Mama He’s Crazy”. Scott English (81) wrote rock hits “Bend Me Shape Me”, “Help Me Girl”, and Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”.
In the studio, engineer Geoff Emerick (72) worked with The Beatles beginning with 1966’s “Revolver”. Jimmy Robinson (67) engineered recordings for Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, and Led Zeppelin. David Bianco (64) produced albums by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, and many other artists. Gary Burden (84) created iconic album covers for Steppenwolf, The Doors, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, and most notably Neil Young. Peter Simon (71) was a noted rock photographer closely associated with The Grateful Dead. Joe Jackson (89) was patriarch of the musical Jackson family.
Barbara Cope served the music industry in her own way during the heyday of psychedelic hard rock. Barbara was a famed groupie known as “The Dallas Butter Queen” (use your imagination!). She was ‘friendly’ with Hendrix, Zeppelin, David Cassidy (whaaat!), Joe Cocker, and other luminaries, and was immortalized in the Rolling Stones song “Rip This Joint”:
Leaving the rock scene behind in 1972, Barbara sold her vast collection of rock memorabilia to make ends meet, keeping her private memories instead. She died in a house fire on January 14 in East Dallas at age 67, gone but not forgotten. Rock’n’roll forever, Barbara!
Just a few hours after finishing the first part of this annual tribute, I learned Penny Marshall had passed away at age 75. Penny became a semi-regular on her producer-brother Garry’s sitcom THE ODD COUPLE, then shot to stardom in the HAPPY DAYS spinoff LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, costarring with Cindy Williams as a pair of working class Milwaukee girls who frequently found themselves in slapstick situations. After a successful seven year run, Penny turned to directing with the feature JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH, an action-comedy vehicle for Whoopi Goldberg. Her next film, 1988’s BIG, was a smash, with a 12-year-old kid wishing he was “big” – and, thanks to the fortune telling machine Zoltar, gets his wish, turning into Tom Hanks! BIG was the highest-grossing film directed by a woman at the time, and Penny went on to make AWAKENINGS with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (my all-time personal favorite baseball film, with Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and so many more), RENAISSANCE MAN starring Danny DeVito, THE PREACHER’S WIFE with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, and RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS starring Drew Barrymore. Whether before or behind the cameras, Penny Marshall was a force to be reckoned with, and her talents will be missed.
Neil Simon’s (91) talent was with words, and the writer produced a ton of them during his long career. Starting out in television, Simon contributed to Sid Caesar’s groundbreaking YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS and CAESAR’S HOUR, and Phil Silvers’ sitcom SGT. BILKO before scoring Broadway success with 1961’s COME BLOW YOUR HORN (later made into a film starring Frank Sinatra). His plays were adapted into movies and TV shows, including BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE ODD COUPLE, SWEET CHARITY, LAST OFTHE RED HOT LOVERS, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, and he wrote hits like THE GOODBYE GIRL, MURDER BY DEATH, and THE CHEAP DETECTIVE exclusively for the screen. Winner of numerous awards, Emmys, Tonys, Golden Globes – but strangely never an Oscar – Neil Simon’s work will still be performed long after we’re all gone.
Director’s chairs around the world will be a lot emptier. Italian Bernardo Bertolucci (77) gave us political thrillers like THE CONFORMIST and THE SPIDER’S STRATAGEM before shocking the world with the X-Rated LAST TANGO IN PARIS, starring (of all people) Marlon Brando. Bertolucci’s international productions included the historical drama 1900 (with Robert DeNiro and an all-star cast), the provocative LUNA starring Jill Clayburgh, the Oscar-winning THE LAST EMPEROR, the Zen meditation LITTLE BUDDHA, and the sensuous STEALING BEAUTY. Czech Milos Forman (86) came to America and won two Oscars, for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS. Forman adapted well to his new country, and his sense of humor elevated films like HAIR, HEARTBURN, VALMONT, THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, and MAN ON THE MOON.
Over in England, Nicholas Roeg (90) started as a cinematographer (MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, FARENHEIT 451, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD) before making his directorial debut with PERFORMANCE, starring Rolling Stone Mick Jagger. Roeg had success guiding rock stars to fine screen performances (David Bowie in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, Art Garfunkel in BAD TIMING: A SEXUALOBSESSION), made one of the 70”s most chilling films (DON’T LOOK NOW with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), and made daring films like WALKABOUT, INSIGNIFICANCE, and THE WITCHES. Fellow countryman Lewis Gilbert (97) helmed the classics SINK THE BISMARCK!, ALFIE, and EDUCATING RITA, as well as three 007 movies: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, and MOONRAKER.
Italian Gianfranco Parolini (93) filmed Peplum entries SAMSON, FURY OF HERCULES, and THE TEN GLADIATORS, but is best remembered for the SABATA trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns. Jorge Grau (88) gave us the cult classic THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE. Michael Anderson (98) directed the Oscar winner AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, THE DAM BUSTERS, 1984, SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, and the sci-fi hit LOGAN’S RUN . Vincent McEveety (88) worked with icons Henry Fonda and James Stewart on FIRECREEK, and did ten comedies for Disney (THE MILLION DOLLAR DUCK, THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD, HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO). Stan Dragoti (85) gave us the comedies LOVE AT FIRST BITE and MR. MOM. Hugh Wilson (74) was responsible (for better or worse!) for the original POLICE ACADEMY, as well as creating TV’s WKRP IN CINCINNATI. Robert Sheerer (89) was a member of the 40’s jitterbug dance troupe The Jivin’ Jacks and A Jill, appearing in WHAT’S COOKIN’, PRIVATE BUCKAROO, and GIVE OUT SISTERS before becoming a director for movies (ADAM AT SIX A.M., HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING) and TV (THE LOVE BOAT, FAME, MATLOCK, and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, DEEP SPACE NINE, VOYAGER). Geoff Murphy (80) made YOUNG GUNS II and FREEJACK.
Megaproducer Martin Bregman (92) began as a talent manager before producing some of Al Pacino’s best (SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SCARFACE). He also worked with Alan Alda on such films as THE FOUR SEASONS and SWEET LIBERTY. Gary Kurtz (78) and Gloria Katz (76) both worked behind the scenes producing the George Lucas hits AMERICAN GRAFFITI and STAR WARS . Hong Kong’s Raymond Chow (91) helped bring Martial Arts and Bruce Lee to American theaters. Phil D’Antoni (89) was the genius behind a trio of great 70’s cop flicks: BULLITT , THE FRENCH CONNECTION , and THE SEVEN-UPS . Steven Bochco (74) left his indelible mark on television with hits like HILL STREET BLUES, L.A. LAW, DOOGIE HOWSER M.D., and NYPD BLUE. Jerry Thorpe (92) produced and directed favorites THE UNTOUCHABLES, KUNG FU, and HARRY O. Paul Junger Witt (77) had the magic touch in both TV sitcoms (SOAP, BENSON, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, BLOSSOM) and movies (BRIAN’S SONG, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, THREE KINGS). John D.F. Black (85) worked as a producer/writer/director on a multitude of TV (STAR TREK ) and film (SHAFT, TROUBLE MAN ) productions.
Cinematographer Robby Muller (78) lent his keen eye to SAINT JACK, PARIS TEXAS, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., and DOWN BY LAW. Richard Kline (91) manned the cameras on CAMELOT, HANG ‘EM HIGH , THE BOSTON STRANGLER, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, THE MECHANIC , KING KONG, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and BODY HEAT. Art Director Michael Ford (90) won Oscars for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and TITANIC. Yvonne Blake (78) created the costumes for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and SUPERMAN. Pablo Ferro (83) gave us dazzling titles for DR. STRANGELOVE, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, and MEN IN BLACK. And let’s not forget the contributions of William Hobbs (79), fight choreographer on the films OTHELLO, THE THREE and FOUR MUSKETEERS, CATAIN KRONUS – VAMPIRE HUNTER, FLASH GORDON, EXCALIBUR, LADYHAWKE, WILLOW, DANGEROUS LIAISONS, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, and the series GAME OF THRONES.
So many talented people are no longer with us: producers Gerald Ayres (82, THE LAST DETAIL), Arnold Kopelson (83, PLATOON), Allison Shearmur (54, THE HUNGER GAMES, ROGUE ONE), Ezra Swerdlow (64, SPACEBALLS, ZOMBIELAND), Craig Zadan (69, FOOTLOOSE); screenwriters William Goldman (87, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Thad Mumford (67, TV’s MASH, THE COSBY SHOW), David Sherwin (75, IF, O LUCKY MAN); cinematographers Michael Gershman (73), Ronnie Taylor (93, Oscar for GANDHI); editors Edward Abroms (82, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, BLUE THUNDER), Francoise Bonnot (78, Oscar winner for Z), John Carter (95), Anne V. Coates (92, Oscar winner for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA); production designers Terence Marsh (86, DR. ZHIVAGO, OLIVER!); composers Johann Johannsson (48, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, SICORRO), John Morris (91, Oscar winner for THE ELEPHANT MAN), Arthur Rubinstein (80, WAR GAMES, STAKEOUT), Patrick Williams (79, BREAKING AWAY, SWING SHIFT); documentarians Peter Clifton (77, THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME), Rick McKay (57, BROADWAY: THE GOLDEN AGE); stuntman Jack N. Young; animator Rick Reinert (93).
Last but certainly not least, we salute Stephen Hillenburg, the animator who introduced the world to SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS, the subversively silly Nickelodeon cartoon that’s enjoyed by young and old alike. Hillenburg died from ALS at the too-young age of 57, but his beloved creation will live on forever. Now pass the Krabby Patties, please!
(The Grim Reaper was pretty busy this year, so busy this remembrance of film and television personalities will be broken into two parts)
At the end of every year, Cracked Rear Viewer salutes those both in front of and behind the cameras who are no longer with us. The biggest name was undoubtedly Burt Reynolds, who passed away at age 82. Burt was one of 70’s cinema’s hottest stars, from his breakthrough role in DELIVERANCE to rough’n’tumble films WHITE LIGHTNING and THE LONGEST YARD to his ‘yahoo’ classics SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and THE CANNONBALL RUN. Reynolds hit a career slump during the 80’s, but came back strong as a character actor in such 90’s films as BOOGIE NIGHTS (receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination) and MYSTERY, ALASKA. He was no stranger to the small screen, either; early in his career, he was a regular on RIVERBOAT, GUNSMOKE, and DAN AUGUST, later starring in the 90’s sitcom EVENING SHADE. Burt’s warm personality and unforgettable, infectious laugh will certainly be missed.
Burt wasn’t the only big name who left the stage. Oscar winning actress Dorothy Malone (93) first got noticed in Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP , sharing a brief scene with Humphrey Bogart, and went on to fame in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, TOO MUCH TOO SOON , BEACH PARTY , and the TV version of PEYTON PLACE (as the prime-time soap’s star Constance McKenzie). Tab Hunter (86), Dorothy’s BATTLE CRY co-star, was one of the biggest matinee idols of the 1950’s, whose credits include Joe Hardy in DAMN YANKEES, TRACK OF THE CAT, GUNMAN’S WALK, and the early beach movie RIDE THE WILD SURF. Tab scored a #1 hit song, “Young Love”, and later starred in John Waters’ POLYESTER and Paul Bartel’s LUST IN THE DUST opposite the immortal Divine.
For a generation of filmgoers, Margot Kidder (69) was THE Lois Lane, costarring with Christopher Reeve in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and it’s sequels. Margot was much more than the Man of Steel’s main squeeze, starring in genre films SISTERS, BLACK CHRISTMAS, THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and more mainstream fare like THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER, 92 IN THE SHADE, and WILLIE AND PHIL. John Gavin (86) played Janet Leigh’s lover in PSYCHO, Lana Turner’s lover in IMITATION OF LIFE, and Julius Caesar in SPARTACUS, but his biggest role came when President Ronald Reagan appointed Gavin as Ambassador to Mexico. Gloria Jean (92) was a Universal starlet of the 40’s whose sweet soprano graced such films as THE UNDERPUP, IF I HAD MY WAY, A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN, and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (starring the irrepressible W.C. Fields); she was teamed with Donald O’Connor for a series of teen-oriented pocket musicals with titles like GET HEP TO LOVE, IT COMES UP LOVE, and MR. BIG. Patricia Morison (103) was never a big star in movies, but did fine work in films of the classic era: PERSONS IN HIDING (as a Bonnie Parker-type), THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD, BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON, HITLER’S MADMAN , THE FALLEN SPARROW, CALLING DR. DEATH, LADY ON A TRAIN , DRESSED TO KILL. Patricia left Hollywood behind in the late 40’s and achieved stardom on Broadway in KISS ME KATE and THE KING AND I.
Big Clint Walker (90) was popular in both television (CHEYENNE, KILLDOZER) and films (YELLOWSTONE KELLY, THE DIRTY DOZEN ), as was actor Bradford Dillman (87, COMPULSION, FRANCIS OF ASSISI, countless episodic TV and TV-Movies). Multi-talented Harry Anderson (65) was a comedian, magician, and sitcom star (NIGHT COURT, DAVE’S WORLD) who also acted in the Stephen King miniseries IT. Comedian Jerry Van Dyke (86) appeared with John Wayne in MCCLINTOCK!, on his brother Dick’s weekly series, and sitcoms MY MOTHER THE CAR and COACH. Ken Berry (85) kept fans laughing in F TROOP, MAYBERRY RFD, and MAMA’S FAMILY. John Mahoney (77) was in TIN MEN, MOONSTRUCK, EIGHT MEN OUT, IN THE LINE OF FIRE, but is best remembered as Kelsey Grammer’s cranky dad for nine seasons on FRASIER. Nanette Fabray (97) won a Tony for LOVE LIFE, three Emmys for CAESAR’S HOUR, and costarred with Fred Astaire in THE BAND WAGON. David Ogden Stiers (75) amused viewers as stuffy Major Charles Emerson Winchester on M*A*S*H.
Actress/writer Delores Taylor (85) worked with husband Tom Laughlin in the BILLY JACK films . Sondra Locke (74) received an Oscar nomination for THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, and costarred in a series of 70’s films with then-boyfriend Clint Eastwood (THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, THE GAUNTLET , EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, SUDDEN IMPACT). Susan Anspach (75) gained fame in FIVE EASY PIECES, BLUME IN LOVE, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, and THE BIG FIX. Former Marine R. Lee Ermey (74) had a long career after debuting in Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET. Verne Troyer (49) made audiences laugh as Mini-Me in the AUSTIN POWERS movies. Jerry Maren (98) helped pave the way for Troyer and others; he was THE WIZARD OF OZ’s last surviving Munchkin. Maria Rohm (72) appeared in Jess Franco’s BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, 99 WOMEN, JUSTINE, VENUS IN FURS, and COUNT DRACULA. French star Stephane Audran (85) was known for Claude Chabrol’s LES BICHES and LE BOUCHER, BABETTE’S FEAST, and Luis Bunuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Mary Carlisle (104) started way back in the 1930’s; her films include COLLEGE HUMOR and DR. RHYTHM opposite Bing Crosby, KENTUCKY KERNALS with Wheeler & Woolsey, and the “old, dark house” comedy ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT.
Barbara Harris (83) played in A THOUSAND CLOWNS, NASHVILLE, Hitchcock’s final film FAMILY PLOT, and the original FREAKY FRIDAY with Jodie Foster. Michele Carey (75) starred opposite The Duke (EL DORADO), The King (Elvis in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE), and The Chairman of the Board (Frank Sinatra in DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE). James Karen (94) was in everything from FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER to THE CHINA SYNDROME, POLTEGEIST, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Soon-Tek Oh (85) was in such diverse fare as THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN , MISSING IN ACTION 2, and voiced the title character’s father in MULAN. Tim O’Connor (90) had ongoing roles in the series PEYTON PLACE and BUCK ROGERS. Jean Porter (95) played an autograph hound in THE YOUNGEST PROFESSION, rode the range with Roy Rogers in SAN FERNANDO VALLEY, and was part of the havoc in ABBOTT & COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD. Ann Gillis (90) played Becky Thatcher in 1938’s THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, the title role in LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE, and voiced Faline in Disney’s BAMBI.
Other performers and personalities who’ve left screens large and small: actors Lassie Lou Ahern (97, Our Gang member), funnyman Marty Allen (90), Gary Beach (70, THE PRODUCERS), Patricia Benoit (91, MR. PEEPERS), Scotty Bloch (93), Phillip Bosco (88), Olivia Cole (75, ROOTS, BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE), Bill Daily (91, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW), Hugh Dane (75, THE OFFICE’s Hank), Peter Donat (90), Frank Doubleday (73, ASSAULT ON PRECICNT 13, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), Robert Dowdell (85, Lt. Cmdr. Morton on VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA ), Fenella Fielding (90, the CARRY ON movies), Sean Garrison (80), Eddie Foy III (83), Eunice Gayson (90, DR. NO , FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE , REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Pamela Gidley (52, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, CHERRY 2000), James Greene (91, PARKS & RECREATION), Kenneth Haigh (86, CLEOPATRA, MAN AT THE TOP), Mary Hatcher (88, VARIETY GIRL, HOLIDAY IN HAVANA), Alf Humphreys (64, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, FIRST BLOOD), Ricky Jay (72), Diane Jergens (83), David Landsberg (73), Louise Latham (95), Deanna Lund (81, LAND OF THE GIANTS )…
Katherine MacGregor (93, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRARIE), Vanessa Marquez (49, ER, STAND AND DELIVER), Robert Mandan (86, SOAP), Wayne Maunder (80, CUSTER , THE SEVEN MINUTES), Jan Maxwell (61), Peggy McCay (90), Allyn Ann McLerie (91), Laurie Mitchell (90, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE ), Donald Moffat (87), Alan O’Neill (47, SONS OF ANARCHY’s Hugh), Yosuke Natsuki (81, YOJIMBO, GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER), Kristin Nelson (72, OZZIE & HARRIET, ADAM-12, wife of Ricky Nelson, mother of Matthew and Gunnar, sister of Mark Harmon), Daniel Pilon (77), Jacqueline Pearce (74, THE REPTILE), Roger Perry (85), William Phipps (96, FIVE)…
Charlotte Rae (92, THE FACTS OF LIFE), Meg Randall (91), Siegfried Rauch (85, PATTON, THE BIG RED ONE), Donnelly Rhodes (80, SOAP), Mark Salling (35, GLEE’s Puck), Connie Sawyer (105, “The Oldest Working Actress in Hollywood”), Carole Shelley (79, THE ODD COUPLE), Diana Sowle (88, WILLY WONKA), Naomi Stevens (92, THE APARTMENT, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), Kin Sugai (92, GODZILLA ), Ken Swofford (85), Greta Thyssen (90, several Three Stooges shorts, JOURNEY TO THE 7TH PLANET), Charles Weldon (78), Scott Wilson (76, IN COLD BLOOD, THE WALKING DEAD), Robert Wolders (81), Peter Wyngarde (90, JASON KING, FLASH GORDON), Celeste Yarnell (74, EVE), Louis Zorich (93).
Former child stars Donna Butterworth (62, PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE, THE FAMILY JEWELS), Joseph Wayne Miller (36, HEAVYWEIGHTS), John Paul Steuer (33, GRACE UNDER FIRE), original Mouseketeer Doreen Tracy (74); voice actors Douglas Rain (90, 2001’s HAL), Simon Shelton (52, TELETUBBIES’ Tinky Winky), Doug Young (98, Hanna-Barbera’s Ding-A-Ling Wolf, Doggie Daddy); porn stars Jerry Butler (58), Johnny Keyes (82, BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR), Jennifer Welles (81). Evangelist Billy Graham (99) first appeared in America’s living rooms in 1951; his Crusades can still be watched today on TBN and his website. Jim Hendricks (68) hosted CAPTAIN USA’s GROOVIE MOVIES in the early days of cable. Chuck McCann (83) hosted Laurel & Hardy comedies on local New York television before branching out as a voice and onscreen actor; longtime fans haven’t forgotten his series of commercials for Right Guard (“Hi, guy!”). Robin Leach (76) took us on weekly tours inside the LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH & FAMOUS. Will Jordan (91) made a career out of imitating Ed Sullivan, while Will Vinton’s (70) Claymation marvels introduced us to The California Raisins. Finally, there’s Alan Abel (91), a prankster who perpetrated hoaxes on the media for decades, and made the mockumentary IS THERE SEX AFTER DEATH? Hey, Alan, let us know…
Merry Christmas! I’ve got one more present for you to unwrap, and it’s a doozy! It’s the Mexican fantasy film SANTA CLAUS, brought to you by K. Gordon Murray, the enterprising film distributor who made a career out of unleashing South-of-the-Border lensed luchadore and children’s flicks on American audiences. SANTA CLAUS made oodles of money for good ol’ K. Gordon, and he rereleased it every few years to bank oodles more!
In this version of the Kris Kringle legend, Santa Claus lives in a castle up in the clouds above the North Pole, and has enlisted children from all over the world to work at Toyland, where they make all the toys for good girls & boys (can you say “slave labor”?). Santa inadvertently summons up The Devil Himself (here called Mr. Pitch), who does his best (worst?) to get kids to misbehave and piss off Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. Santa’s all-seeing Eye of Agamotto (er, that’s Cosmic Telescope… sorry, wrong movie!) helps him see the mischief Pitch’s trying to spread around, so Santa’s good buddy Merlin the Wizard concocts some Magic Powder to put the kids to sleep on Christmas Eve, and a Magic Flower that renders him invisible. But Pitch is up to his old tricks, cutting a hole in Santa’s bag that dumps his magic stuff, and the Jolly One winds up treed by a vicious dog just as daylight is approaching. Can Merlin save Christmas? Of course he can!
I know he’s supposed to be jolly, but Santa’s manical laughter throughout the film makes it seem like he’s had too much Tequila-spiked eggnog and Acapulco Gold (and speaking of mind-altering substances, little Lupita’s dream about the Dancing Dolls comes off more like an LSD-fueled nightmare!). The movie’s so nonsensical, it makes SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS look like Academy Award material! Yet it’s got a charm of it’s own, and you’ll find yourself laughing as manically as Santa himself while watching 1959’s SANTA CLAUS:
And remember, as Santa says during the film, “A dream is a wish that the heart makes” (hmmm… seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before…)
Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.
Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.
The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.
Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:
The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley , Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.
LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!
Like last week’s “Christmas Wrapping”, the song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home” made it’s debut on a compilation album, 1963’s “A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector”:
The label’s head honcho, ‘Wall of Sound’ producer Phil Spector (we won’t get into his later sordid life – it’s Christmas!), originally wanted his then-wife Ronnie to sing the Elle Greenwich/Jeff Barry (the duo responsible for rock classics like “Be My Baby”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Leader of the Pack”, “Hanky Panky”, and “River Deep – Mountain High”) penned tune. But Ronnie couldn’t give Phil quite what he wanted, so backup singer Darlene Love of The Blossoms was called in – and nailed it!
Darlene Love sang background vocals on many of the era’s hits (Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett’s “The Monster Mash”, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, Johnny Rivers’ “Poor Side of Town”, Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”), and sang lead on the #1 smash “He’s a Rebel” under the name The Crystals (who were actually The Blossoms). After taking a break from performing in the 70’s, she returned to the spotlight, singing in clubs and on tour, and from 1986-2014, sang her Christmas classic annually on David Letterman’s show:
Darlene also has acted, appearing as Danny Glover’s wife in the LETHAL WEAPON movies, starred on Broadway, and was featured in the 2013 rock doc 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. So now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Darlene Love – enjoy! And Merry Christmas!
There’s no sign of Robin Hood to be found in the Roy Rogers vehicle TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD. However, the film has gained a cult following among sagebrush aficionados for the plethora of cowboy stars gathered together in this extremely likable little ‘B’ Western directed by Republic Pictures workhorse William Whitney , with plenty of songs by Roy and the Riders of the Purple Sage to go along with that trademark Republic fightin’ and a-ridin’ action (thanks, stuntmen Art Dillon, Ken Terrell, and Joe Yrigoyen!).
Some rustlers have been stealing Christmas trees from ‘retired actor’ Jack Holt’s tree farm. The benign Jack raises his trees to sell at cost to parents of poor kids, but avaricious J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell ) and his foreman Mitch McCall (former Our Gang member Clifton Young ) want to put an end to it and corner the Christmas tree market! U.S. Forestry Agent Roy is out to stop the varmints, along with his goofy sidekick Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones ) and his kid sister, whose name, appropriately enough, is Sis (Carol Nugent)! Aldridge’s purdy but haughty daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) is sent to get Jack to sell out, and when he refuses, the baddies use every dirty trick in the book (including murder!) to put him out of business!
Toby has a change of heart when she learns McCall has kidnapped her pappy after the villains resort to arson, causing Jack to be overcome by smoke inhalation. Things look bleak, as the tree wranglers are scared to bring the firs to market, so Sis gets the idea to call in the troops: Western icons Rex Allen, George Cheseboro, Crash Corrigan , William Farnum, Monte Hale, Tom Keene , Allan “Rocky” Lane, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler ! They rush the trees by wagon over a burning bridge (with special effects courtesy of Republic’s Lydecker Brothers), the baddies are defeated, and Christmas for them thar poor kids is saved!
Anyone familiar with these Roy Rogers Westerns knows about the weird mix of Old West cowboys in modern times, and this one is no exception. Roy’s overgrown Boy Scout character is pure corn, but he was a big box office draw for the kiddies, and the film sure looks good in Trucolor (Technicolor’s poor cousin). Jack Holt, older and balding, is still as square-jawed as ever, and it’s a treat to see him along with all the other former cowboy stars under one Western sky. They don’t actually get to do much besides a little shooting and riding, but that’s okay, their mere presence helps up grade the material. Despite all these cowboy heroes appearing together, it’s Roy’s palomino Trigger, “The Smartest Horse in the West” , who receives second billing (his German Shepherd Bullet is featured, too)!
Roy gets to sing a few songs with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (“Home Town Jubilee”, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny”, “Every Day is Christmas in the West”), and there’s a cute subplot involving Sis and her pet turkey Sir Galahad, who Splinters envisions as a tasty Christmas dinner! Nobody did these things better than Republic, and it’s all harmless fun from the waning days of the Saturday matinee Westerns. The glimpse of cowboy heroes past makes it more than worth your time, and while it’s no classic, it sho’ nuff is a lot of fun!
(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the action, romance, and quips more than adequately, and makes Bond all-too human. Perhaps that’s the trouble, that they wanted their super-spy to be super, but personally I think Lazenby made a fine Bond, and wish he’d continued in the part.
Along with humanizing 007, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE gives us a back-to-basics approach, with more emphasis on plot and less gadgets and gimmicks. This is evident in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond (whose new face isn’t fully shown until around the halfway mark) saves a young woman from drowning herself in the ocean, then is attacked by and fights off some unknown assailants (and gets off the witty line “This never happened to the other fellow”). There’s no bombastic theme song; what we get instead is a montage of the previous Bond films inside a stylized martini glass, as if to state “out with the old, in with the new”!
The young woman is Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, who prefers to be called Tracy (“Teresa was a saint; I am not”), who turns out to be the daughter of European crime boss Draco, who may have information leading to the location of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. But Bond is taken off the Blofeld case by M (still played by Bernard Lee ), and the licenced-to-kill agent angrily submits his resignation. The loyal Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell ) arranges instead for Bond to be granted two weeks leave. Bond travels to Portugal to meet Draco, who thinks Bond would make a good match for Tracy, and uses his information as leverage.
Bond and Tracy fall in love for real, and 007 then goes back on Blofeld’s trail, disguising himself as a genealogist to infiltrate the SPECTRE chief’s Swiss Alps mountaintop lair. Blofeld is posing as a benevolent research scientist seeking to cure the world’s allergies, and his patients are twelve beautiful women – Bond’s in heaven! But heaven can wait, as he discovers Blofeld’s fiendish plan to use the girls as his “Angels of Death” and spread his deadly “Virus Omega”, which will cause infertility among all species of life on Earth and the destruction of the human race unless his demands are met…
There’s no lacking on the action front, with exciting sequences like Bond’s daring escape down the mountain on skis while pursued by Blofeld and his minions, an icy stock car race in Tracy’s Mercury Cougar XR7, Bond vs. Blofeld in a bobsled chase, and Draco’s team assault on Blofeld’s lair. First time director Peter Hunt had been an editor on several Bond films and was more than familiar with the territory. Editing chores were taken over by John Glen, who’d eventually move to the director’s chair for five Bonds (the final three with Roger Moore, two with Timothy Dalton).
Diana Rigg was no stranger to the spy game, having spent three seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel on TV’s THE AVENGERS. Diana makes a great Bond girl as Tracy, the only woman he’d ever fallen in love with to this point, and can hold her own in the action department (*SPOILER ALERT* her death by Blofeld’s assassin after her wedding to James comes as a sad but necessary shock, as Bond must always remain a man alone). A pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas is an elegantly evil Blofeld (though my favorite is still Charles Gray ). Italian star Gabrielle Ferzetti (L’AVVENTURA, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) is equally elegant as the cultured crime lord Draco. Among those “Angels of Death” you’ll find Julie Ege (Hammer’s CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT), Joanna Lumley (ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’s Patsy), Catherine Schell (SPACE: 1999’s Maya), and Angela Scoular (the ’67 Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE).
As for George Lazenby, he marched to his own drum, and has had a varied career, including the Italian giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?, some kung-fu films for producer Raymond Chow, and the French soft-core EMMANUELLE series. His post-Bond work doesn’t amount to much, but he’s happy. We’re happy too, if only for his one appearance as Her Majesty’s Greatest Secret Agent. I’ll leave you with James & Tracy’s love theme, “We Have All the Time in the World”, sung by jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong: