RIP in Blues Heaven, J. Geils

Appropriately, I was just leaving Fenway Park in Boston with my friends when we heard the news that guitarist J. Geils had died. The J. Geils Band were legendary here in Massachusetts, a gritty, down-to-earth blues rock band who had a string of hits in the 70’s, then reemerged again in the 80’s at the height of MTV’s heyday. The band, fronted by charismatic lead singer Peter Wolf and propelled by the bluesy harmonic licks of Magic Dick, released their first album in 1970, and hit the road to tour the country incessantly. They became known as one of the hardest working (and hardest rocking) bands in America, and hit it big on FM radio with their 1972 LP “LIVE! FULL HOUSE”, featuring the single “Lookin’ for a Love”:

The first time I caught them was in ’73, touring in support of their album “BLOODSHOT”, with the hit “Give It to Me”. More hits followed, but at the dawn of MTV, the boys changed from guitar-based blues rockers to video pop stars with hits like “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame”:

Musical differences caused the band to split up in 1985. John Geils turned to his second love, auto racing, driving and restoring Italian sports cars. In the 90’s he returned to music, forming Bluestime with former band mate Magic Dick, and once again hit the road, touring the New England club circuit. There were sporadic Geils band reunion shows, most recently a 2015 outdoor performance for WHJY-Providence’s 34th anniversary. J. Geils was found dead in his home in Groton, MA earlier today at age 71, purportedly of natural causes. Their working class, blue collar ethic made them Boston’s greatest rock band, and I’ll end this tribute with their hard rocking 1980 hit “Love Stinks”. Rock on, J. Geils.

 

RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television

“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back, and a style was born. When Frank Sinatra caught one of Rickles’ gigs, the comedian started lobbing his insult grenades at the superstar. Sinatra loved it, and Rickles’ career took off like one of his verbal poisoned arrows, landing spots on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and especially Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Don made his movie debut in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, a 1958 submarine drama alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Not bad company for a Jew from Queens! Highlights from his film career include the role of the shady carnival partner of Ray Milland in Roger Corman’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Rickles also appeared in four of AIP’s “Beach Party” flicks, playing basically different variations of the same character (Jack Fanny , Big Drag, Big Bang, Big Drop). He was “Crapgame”, the hustling supply sergeant, in Clint Eastwood’s 1969 WWII heist movie KELLY’S HEROES, and had a memorable role as Robert DeNiro’s lieutenant in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 CASINO. That same year, Rickles gained a whole new audience when he began voicing Mr. Potato Head in the TOY STORY series.

But it was episodic television where Rickles truly got a chance to shine. Rickles never headlined a successful sitcom on his own (the closest he got was two seasons as CPO SHARKEY), but his guest shots are among some of my favorite Don Rickles performances. For example, his Newton Monroe on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ,   a nebbishy door-to-salesman who’s given a boost of confidence by Andy and Barney (“I’m not inept anymore! I’m ept!!”). Or the renegade Hekawi Bald Eagle, son of Chief Wild Eagle, on F TROOP. He was fugitive kidnapper Norbert Wiley, raising a ruckus on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Rickles hilariously played Sid Krimm, old Army buddy of Maxwell Smart (“When do we meet the broads, Max?”) on a two-part GET SMART, with his close friend Don Adams as Agent 86. Best of all was his 1990 appearance on HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, as the mentor to Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the creepiest in the series!

And we can’t talk about Rickles without mentioning his insulting every star in Hollywood on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts:

We’ve been blessed to have such a man as Don Rickles to make us laugh over the years. Hail and farewell, ya hockey puck! We’ll miss you!

 

 

Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll: RIP Chuck Berry

“Johnny B. Goode”. “Roll Over, Beethoven”. “Sweet Little Sixteen”. “Rock and Roll Music”. The most iconic songs of the Golden Age of Rock’N’Roll belonged to one man, Chuck Berry. When I got home this evening and heard the news he passed away at the age of 90, I knew I’d have to preempt my regularly scheduled post and pay tribute. Because without Chuck Berry, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Beach Boys, no rock and roll as we know it. He was that influential on 20th century music, and the uncrowned King of Rock and Roll.

Sure, Elvis was bigger, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of kids listening to their radios searching for relief from the blandness of 50’s commercial pop. He spoke their language, the language of teenage lust, hot rods, high schools hops, all set to a rocking back beat. Berry was influenced by the jump blues of Louis Jordan and the electric blues of T-Bone Walker, the western swing of Bob Wills and the soulful singing of Nat King Cole, added his own “duck walking” brand of showmanship, all propelled by Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano, and created something totally unique. He called it rock and roll.

Chuck was no saint. Far from it. As a teen, he did time in a reformatory for armed robbery and car theft. He was found guilty of violating the Mann Act for crossing state lines with a 14-year-old waitress, got sued for installing a camera in the ladies room at his restaurant, did four months for tax evasion, and was busted for possession of weed. Chuck Berry was rock and roll’s real bad boy, and a notoriously cranky curmudgeon, but his fans remained ever loyal despite his flaws. They knew his talent outweighed all his faults.

Much as teens idolized him, the adults hated him, mainly because he was a black man selling teenage sex to their children. But he still sold out concerts and was featured in Hollywood rock flicks like ROCK ROCK ROCK and GO JOHNNY GO! Like most 50’s rockers, he suffered a career slump during the 60’s, but came back strong in 1972 with the #1 double-entendre hit “My Ding-a-Ling”:

The 1987 rock doc HAIL! HAIL! ROCK’N’ROLL a 60th birthday concert filmed by Taylor Hackford featuring a veritable Who’s Who of classic rockers joining Chuck onstage. There was Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and more celebrating the music of their idol. Earlier this year, on Chuck’s 90th birthday, it was announced he would be releasing his first new recording in 38 years, “Chuck”. I for one am eagerly awaiting it’s release.

Chuck Berry will live forever as one of the greats in rock’n’roll history, and one of the last century’s music pioneers. I own a compilation disc titled simply “Blues” that showcases his best recorded blues performances, and I’ll leave you with his “Wee Wee Hours”. All hail the uncrowned King!:

Say Goodbye to Hollywood: RIP Robert Osborne of TCM

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne”.

Those four words, delivered in a smooth-as-honey voice, were delivered to classic films lovers watching TCM for over twenty years. Now that voice has been silenced, as fans learned today of Osborne’s death at the age of 84. He had been off our screens since early 2016 due to an undisclosed ailment, and we all eagerly hoped and prayed for his return. Alas, it’s not to be.

Robert Osborne wanted to be an actor when he first arrived in Hollywood in the 1950’s. He signed a contract with Desilu Studios, and soon began a close, lifelong friendship with superstar Lucille Ball. Osborne had small roles in episodic TV, and a couple of films (but I’d be hard-pressed to pick him out in SPARTACUS or PSYCHO), but his acting career went nowhere. Ball suggested he put his journalism degree from the University of Washington to good use, along with his extensive knowledge of Hollywood history. He wrote “Academy Awards Illustrated” in 1965, then used his newfound credibility to become a television and newspaper entertainment reporter. His seminal work “50 Golden Years of Oscar”, first published in 1977, has become must-reading for classic movie lovers, and has been updated every ten years.

By this time, Osborne was a regular columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. He hosted films on the fledgling The Movie Channel until Ted Turner came calling. Turner held the rights to the MGM library and was eager to compete with AMC. He brought Osborne on board, and it was a match made in heaven. Osborne’s easy going style and vast familiarity of Hollywood history made him welcome in millions of homes. He was comfortable as a slipper, relaxed and gracious, never talking down to his audience. The classic film community will miss Robert Osborne’s presence in our living rooms, and I think this “TCM Remembers” clips says it better and more eloquently than I ever could:

Godspeed, Mr. Osborne. Job well done.

You’re Gonna Make It After All: RIP Mary Tyler Moore

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She was America’s TV sweetheart in the 60’s and 70’s. Beautiful and talented Mary Tyler Moore has passed away at age 80, her smile no longer brightening this world. Mary was Laura Petrie, the perky and perfect suburban housewife on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, then broke new ground as single career girl Mary Richards on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, both seminal sitcoms from television’s Golden Age of Comedy.

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Born in Brooklyn Heights in 1936, Mary became a dancer as a teen, and got her first show business break as ‘Happy Hotpoint’, a tiny dancing elf in TV commercials for Hotpoint stoves. Her next break got her noticed, playing the sexy secretary on RICHARD DIAMOND PRIVATE DETECTIVE, which starred David Janssen. Mary never fully appeared on the show, only her smoky voice and dancer’s legs, and viewers were left to speculate on the rest of the package.

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Then came THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961-66), a sophisticated (for its time) half hour about a comedy writer, based on Carl Reiner’s experiences working for Sid Caesar. Laura Petrie was, like Mary, a former dancer who met husband Rob while working for the USO. Mary’s singing and dancing skills were sometimes on display, but it was her comic timing with partner Van Dyke that earned her an Emmy for Best Actress. The pair was pure gold together, and they reunited several times after the series ended its run, including a memorable 2003 PBS adaptation of the stage hit THE GIN GAME.

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Mary made a few movies following THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, most notably 1967’s THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE with Julie Andrews and 1969’s CHANGE OF HABIT, Elvis Presley’s final film. She returned to the small screen in 1970, headlining her own sitcom THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. As Mary Richards, a thirtysomething single girl who moves to Minneapolis and lands a job as associate producer of the local Six O’clock News program on fictional WJM, she was an independent working woman paying her own way through life, something rarely seen on weekly TV. The show featured what’s possibly the best supporting cast in sitcom history: there was gruff boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), newswriter Murray Slaughter (Gavin McLeod), sarcastic neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), bubbleheaded anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), man-hungry ‘Happy Homemaker’ Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), upwardly mobile neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman), and Ted’s sweet, naïve wife Georgette (Georgia Engel). All had the chance to strut their comedic stuff while level-headed Mary was the glue that held it all together. The series won 29 Emmys during its seven-year run, including three for Mary herself.

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Mary never made it big in feature films, though she did receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination as the icy, uptight mother of a suicide victim in 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE, Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Television was her home, and she starred in popular TV movies like FIRST YOU CRY (1978), HEARTSOUNDS (1984, with James Garner), FINNEGAN BEGIN AGAIN (1985, with Robert Preston), and the 1988 miniseries LINCOLN, playing Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Sam Waterson’s President. She proved herself as adept at drama as she was with comedy in these roles. She had an abrupt change of pace in 2001’s LIKE MOTHER LIKE SON: THE STRANGE STORY OF SANTE AND KENNY KIMES, based on the true story of a murderous grifter and her equally homicidal son. But it’s still as America’s TV Sweetheart she’ll fondly be remembered for, the girl who “could turn the world on with her smile, who could take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seems worthwhile”. Sweet dreams, Mary.

2016 IN MEMORIAM (S through Z)

This is the final entry in our tribute to those artists, entertainers, and pop culture figures who passed away in 2016. Let’s all hope the 2017 list is much, much shorter.

Veteran CBS News journalist Morley Safer (“60 Minutes”)

Actress Theresa Saldana (“Raging Bull”, “The Commish”)

DC comic book letterist Gaspar Saladino

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Actor Joe Santos (“The Rockford Files”)

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Prolific character actor William Schallert

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Horror star Angus Scrimm (the “Phantasm” series)

Comedian/actor Garry Shandling

Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepherd

Actress Madeleine Sherwood (“The Flying Nun”)

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Actor/singer/conductor Frank Sinatra Jr.

MMA fighter Kimbo Slice

Actor James Stacy (“Lancer”)

Singer Kay Starr (“Wheel of Fortune”)

Music & film producer Robert Stigwood

ruthGolden Age actress Ruth Terry

Actor/host Alan Thicke (“Growing Pains”, “Thicke of the Night”)

Television producer/executive Grant Tinker

Futurist writer Alvin Toffler (“Future Shock”)

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Mexican actress Lupita Tovar (1931’s Spanish language “Dracula”)

jtChild actor Jerry Tucker of Our Gang

vanitySinger/actress Vanity

pvBritish character actor Peter Vaughn (“Game of Thrones”)

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 Actor Robert Vaughn (“The Man from UNCLE”, “The Magnificent Seven”)

 Southern rocker Jimmie Van Zandt

Singer Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”, “Take Good Care of My Baby”)

Actor Abe Vigoda (“The Godfather”, “Barney Miller”, “Fish”)

Voice actress Janet Waldo (Judy of “The Jetsons”)

Author Bill Warren (the seminal “Keep Watching the Skies”)

Earth Wind & Fire Maurice White 1981 (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)

Maurice White of Earth, Wind, & Fire

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The fabulous Gene Wilder

Charlton Comic artist George Wildman (“Popeye”)

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Actor Van Williams (“The Green Hornet”)

Actor Douglas Wilmer (“The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”, “The Vampire Lovers”, British  TV’s “Sherlock Holmes”)

Musician Bernie Worrell (Parliament-Funkadelic, Talking Heads)

Porn star/heavy metal icon Tera Wray

Singer Glenn Yarbrough (“Baby, the Rain Must Fall”)

CAR & DRIVER editor/screenwriter Brock Yates (“The Cannonball Run”)

STAR TREK

Actor Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”)

alanyActor Alan Young (“The Time Machine”,   TV’s “Mr. Ed”, voice of Scrooge McDuck)

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TV Horror Host Zacherley

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Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmund

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Cajun music legend Buckwheat Zydeco

May The Force be with them all.

RIP The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

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One day after the tragic death of her daughter Carrie Fisher, the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds has passed at age 84. I’m not going to update my previous IN MEMORIAM  post; Miss Reynolds deserves a post of her own.

Full shot of illustration of Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden, and Donald O'Connor as Cosmo Brown walking together in rain, holding umbrellas during the opening musical number "Singin' In The Rain."

One of the last of the old studio contract players, Debbie got good notices in such musical films as THE DAUGHTER OF ROSIE O’GRADY, THREE LITTLE WORDS, and TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE, but it’s her role as Kathy Seldon in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN that made her a star. This joyful ode to the transition from silent movies to sound isn’t just my favorite musical, it’s one of my favorite films ever! Debbie shines as the ingénue forced to lip-synch for catty star Lina Lamont (the wonderful Jean Hagen), and more than holds her own in the dancing and clowning departments with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a perfect movie, and 20  year old Debbie played a big part in making it a dream come true for film fans.

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More hits followed: THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS, SUSAN SLEPT HERE , THE TENDER TRAP, THE CATERED AFFAIR (a dramatic change-of-pace costarring Bette Davis), BUNDLE OF JOY. Another signature role was up next as Debbie portrayed backwoods tomgirl Tammy Tyree in the romantic comedy TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR, singing the hit title tune as well:

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1964’s THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN brought Debbie her first (and only) Oscar nomination in this adaptation of the award-winning Broadway musical. Her output slowed down as the decade wore on, and Debbie did more television and stage work, garnering a Tony nomination for the 1973 revival IRENE. She kept busy in Vegas, amassed a huge collection of Hollywood memorabilia, and was given the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in 2015 for her work in raising awareness on mental health issues (daughter Carrie suffered from bipolar disorder).

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Debbie Reynolds had her share of tragedies and scandals… first husband Eddie Fisher had a notorious affair with Elizabeth Taylor, resulting in divorce, and second husband Harry Karl’s gambling addiction almost bankrupted her. Her difficulties dealing with Carrie’s mental health and drug issues have been well documented. But through it all, Debbie Reynolds kept smiling and moving forward, a true star not only of show biz, but a star of life. This final tragedy of Carrie’s death was more than she could take, however. Bless you, Debbie Reynolds, I hope you find peace at long last.