It was my father who phoned me Friday to let me know that country music legend Ferlin Husky died on St. Patrick’s Day from heart failure at the age of 85—which is sort of unusual in that I’m usually the one who lets him know if a notable has gone to their greater reward…after I try to jog his memory as to who the notable was, of course. I was quite saddened to hear of Husky’s demise seeing as how I gave him a birthday shout-out last December (back when I could still do the birthday salutes on a daily basis); so instead of rehashing here what I said then I hope that tribute will suffice.
Husky’s biggest hit of his music career, Wings of a Dove, always reminds me of a scene in the 1983 film Tender Mercies where the movie’s protagonist, country singer Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), is reunited with his estranged daughter Sue Anne, played by actress Ellen Barkin. Sue Anne mentions a song that Mac used to sing to her when she was very young and asks him if he remembers it; he replies that he does not but after they’ve finished their conversation he reflectively recites the lyrics to Husky’s hit to himself. I’ve always had difficulty buying into that scene because the idea of Duvall’s character—a country music great who’s hit the skids but finds redemption and a career comeback thanks to his love for a woman played by Tess Harper—not knowing Wings of a Dove is akin to a rock ‘n’ roll musician admitting he can’t play a Chuck Berry guitar lick. You’d think the daughter would have called him out on that.
Another celebrity who has left this world for a better one that died on the same day as Ferlin was British character actor Michael Gough, who also got a birthday tribute back in November of last year when he turned ninety-four. Sadly, the man best known for his appearances as butler Alfred Pennyworth in several of the films in the Batman movie franchise (and films like Horror of Dracula and The Legend of Hell House) succumbed to complications from a short illness on the day of the wearing of the green.
I don’t know what it is about hearing of the deaths of some of my country music heroes but for some reason it serves to remind me that I’ve missed noting the passings of other notables in the world of movies, television and music—Jane Russell is, of course, the most obvious omission. I can’t really add anything to what has already been said by so many others but I always considered myself a huge fan of that full-figured gal, particularly in such films as His Kind of Woman (which is probably my favorite of her films) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…not to mention the fact that she was the leading lady in two Bob Hope comedy classics, The Paleface and 50 Westerns from the 50s fave (and mine too) Son of Paleface.
But my neglecting of celebrity deaths stretches all the way back to January, when BBFF Stacia Jones e-mailed me to let me know that comic actor Charlie Callas had died at the age of 83 on the 27th. Callas, a nightclub fave whose specialty was a comic stutter coupled with wild sound effects, worked alongside such industry greats as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Jerry Lewis (he appears in Lewis’ 1967 feature film The Big Mouth) and was also a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson…until he pissed Carson off one night when, failing to get a laugh from the audience, he shoved the mercurial host and was never invited back again. As a kid, I knew Callas from his co-starring role as reformed-thief-turned-restaurateur Malcolm Argos on TV’s Switch from 1975-78, a detective drama that starred Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert that my mother was a big fan of, and the voice of the titular beast in the 1977 Walt Disney feature film Pete’s Dragon. Charlie also made appearances in several Mel Brooks films, including Silent Movie, High Anxiety, and History of the World: Part I.
We’ve said goodbye to so many wonderful character actors in just two short months. Actor Michael Tolan succumbed to heart disease and renal failure at the age of 85 on January; many couch potatoes might recognize him as the thesp who played Mary Richards’ journalism teacher boyfriend, Dan Whitfield on Mary Tyler Moore, but he also had roles on such TV series as The Doctors and The Nurses (as Dr. Alex Tazinski) and “The Senator” segments of TV’s The Bold Ones (he played Jordan Boyle, the administrative aide of Hal Holbrook’s titular legislator, Hayes Stowe). Tolan began his acting career in films (billed as Lawrence Tolan) like The Enforcer and Fort Worth and in stage productions like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Romanoff and Juliet but walked away from all that in the mid-60s to concentrate on television, having become disenchanted with theatre work. He did, however, play a large role in the creation of New York’s American Place Theater—a nonprofit off-Broadway playhouse that he started in 1963 with Wynn Handman and Sidney Lanier.
I’m sort of ashamed to admit this but the first thing that popped into my head when I heard about the passing of French actress Maria Schneider was the phrase “Go, get da buddah.” It’s a reference to Schneider’s best-known film role, opposite Marlon Brando in the 1972 cult classic Last Tango in Paris. Sadly, it’s also the only movie in which I’ve seen Schneider; she herself lamented the fact that she had worked in nearly 50 films and yet the only one for which she’s remembered was a movie that, in retrospect, she sort of wished she hadn’t gotten involved with the first place. Last Tango was one of those movies that I put off watching for a long time because of its notoriety (frank sexual themes…and of course, the bit with the butter) and while my film education probably benefited from finally seeing it I can’t see myself sitting through it a second time, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael be damned. Schneider died in Paris on February 3 at the age of 58.
Another cult movie that it took me a long time to getting around seeing was Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which I managed to do in September 2009… and thereby introducing me to the charms of the incomparable Tura Satana, who starred in that bizarre concoction as the beautiful but evil Varla. Like the aforementioned Schneider, Satana’s appearance in Pussycat was pretty much her signature role even though she also appeared in such features as Pam fave Irma la Douce, The Astro-Zombies, and The Doll Squad (the last directed by the notorious Ted V. Mikels). Satana died at the age of 72 from heart failure on February 4.
Because I stopped watching The Waltons at about the time Richard Thomas left the series (I always identified with his character of John-Boy, because I wanted to be a writer as well) I don’t have a familiarity with the show’s later seasons…and so I couldn’t figure out at first who my BFF The Duchess was talking about when she told me about the passing of character actress Peggy Rea (it also didn’t help when her husband mistook Peg for Charlotte Rae of The Facts of Life fame). Rea played Rose Barton on Waltons for several seasons but if Duchess had mentioned some of Rea’s other regular TV gigs—notably Lulu Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard and Jean Kelly on Grace Under Fire (yes, I have watched these in the past…don’t judge me)—the confusion would have been cleared up a little sooner. (Rea also appeared from time to time on the sitcom Step by Step as Ivy Baker—a show I have never watched because…well, I have some standards.) I’m probably a lot more familiar with some of the movies Rea was in: 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Cold Turkey (as Barnard Hughes’ spouse), What’s the Matter With Helen?, etc. But one credit that I saw missing from many of the write-ups on Rea was that she served as a casting director on TV’s Have Gun – Will Travel and even appeared on the show from time to time (usually as an Irish charwoman). The zaftig character actress will nevertheless live on here at TDOY; we lost a special lady on February 5 at the age of 89.
The Chuckie Award-winning She Blogged by Night (often imitated, never duplicated) is also where I learned that one of my favorite character actors, Kenneth Mars, took his final curtain bow at the age of 75 on February 12—a thespian who really made you sit up and take notice whenever he walked into a scene. There isn’t enough bandwidth on the Internets to list and talk about the amazing turns he did in movies and television though most people are no doubt familiar with his work in the Mel Brooks-directed films The Producers (as Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind) and Young Frankenstein (as the Lionel Atwill-inspired Inspector Kemp). Among the other more memorable movie appearances of Mars: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, What’s Up, Doc?, Night Moves, Full Moon High, Fletch, Radio Days, Citizen Ruth…and the wonderful character he plays in 1974’s The Parallax View, the ex-FBI agent who has a memorable conversation with star Warren Beatty while operating a kiddie train at an amusement park. (I also loved Mars on the late, lamented sitcom He & She and—though I’ll probably be burned in effigy for blasphemy—thought he made a decent replacement for the deceased Edward Platt in the Get Smart reunion movie, Get Smart, Again!)
On the same day that Mars left this world for a better one we also bid adieu to actress Betty Garrett, whose work I became quite familiar with in my TV-obsessed youth on All in the Family (as neighbor Irene Lorenzo) and Laverne & Shirley (as landlady Edna Babish-DeFazio). But when my classic movie obsession took hold I got introduced to her fabulous turns in such musicals as Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Neptune’s Daughter, and On the Town (my favorite of Garrett’s movie roles—I’d kill to meet a gal like Brunhilde Esterhazy). Because Garrett was married to actor Larry Parks at the time of her M-G-M fame she ended up blacklisted from guilt by association (Parks had become a target of HUAC because of his involvement with the Communist Party between 1941 and 1945) and though she starred in the 1955 musical version of My Sister Eileen the movie roles sort of dried up after that and it wasn’t until the Family/Laverne & Shirley gigs that she experienced a career resurgence. Garrett succumbed to an aortic aneurysm at the age of 91.
When my mother and I sit down to watch an old movie or TV show, we often play a game whereupon the first of us to spot character great Len Lesser shouts out “Uncle Leo!” Lesser’s greatest fame was playing the character of Jerry Seinfeld’s uncle on the comedian’s self-titled sitcom (he was also “Garvin” on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond, another favorite of mi madre) but I never cease to be amazed when I run across Len in episodes of such TDOY boob tube favorites as Gunsmoke, M Squad, Have Gun – Will Travel, Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, My Favorite Martian…the list goes on and on. Lesser also turns up in such feature films as Shack Out on 101, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Kelly’s Heroes, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Moonshine County Express, and Baadasssss! Lesser is no doubt shouting “Hello!” in the Great Beyond, having shuffled off this mortal coil on February 16 at the age of 88.
In looking over the list of celebrity obituaries two of the names jumped out at me because while I was familiar with most of the deceased from notifications on Facebook I had not heard of the passing of baritone singer Don Rondo, a pop music vocalist who enjoyed some chart success in the 1950s with hits like Two Different Worlds and the million-selling White Silver Sands. Rondo died of complications from a year-long battle with lung cancer on January 27 at the age of 81. Johnny Preston was the other individual whose death I was stunned to hear about; Preston scored a million-selling chart topper in 1960 with Running Bear, a tune written by J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (who performs the Indian war whoops on the record along with a country singer named George Jones) and released seven months after Richardson’s tragic death on “the day the music died.” (Oddly enough, I was better acquainted with country singer Sonny James’ cover of Bear, which hit the #1 spot on the country music charts in 1969, before I heard Johnny’s original.) Preston had a pair of follow-ups, Cradle of Love (which peaked at #7 and is sadly not played often enough on oldies stations) and Feel So Fine (#14), but the hits became scarce after that. Johnny left this world for a happier hunting ground on March 4 at the age of 71.
With those out of the way, here are some other passings from the world of entertainment and beyond:
Chief White Eagle (January 24, 93) – Canadian born Mohawk actor/stuntman who appeared in such movies as Northwest Passage, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Niagara; once observed that he had been “killed” by John Wayne seven times onscreen
Gladys Horton (January 26, 65) – R&B/pop music vocalist who founded and fronted the Motown girl group The Marvelettes (Please Mr. Postman, Beechwood 4-5789)
John Barry (January 30, 77) – Academy Award-winning British composer best known for the scores of films like Born Free, Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves …and many of the movies in the James Bond franchise
Doc Williams (January 31, 96) – Country music performer who enjoyed a long association as an entertainer on WWVA Jamboree (WWVA is a radio station in Wheeling, WV) with his group The Border Riders
Charles E. Sellier, Jr. (January 31, 67) – Independent film and television producer-screenwriter whose 1972 novel The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams became a feature film in 1974 and a short-lived TV series from 1977-78; also had a hand in classic “documentaries” like In Search of Noah’s Ark
Eunice Sanborn (January 31, 114) – Supercentarian who, at the time of her death, was the world’s oldest living person
Margaret John (February 2, 84) – British film and television actress who appeared on such TV series as Crossroads, The District Nurse, Eyes Down, High Hopes, and Gavin & Stacey
Bill Foster (February 2, 78) – Veteran television director who worked primarily on sitcoms like Benson, Amen, and Full House; also directed the pilot for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and the infamous Geraldo Rivera debacle The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults
Margie Hines (February 4, 101) – Film and voice actress who worked at the Fleischer Studios as the voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons from 1938-43; also originated the voice of Betty Boop
Uga VIII (February 4, 1) – Beloved University of Georgia bulldog mascot (my mom and sister Kat are still a little verklempt about this)
Lena Nyman (February 4, 66) – Swedish film actress best known as the star of the erotic cult classic I Am Curious (Yellow) and its sequel, I Am Curious (Blue)
Donald Peterman (February 5, 79) – Oscar-nominated cinematographer whose film work includes Flashdance, Splash, Cocoon, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Get Shorty
Miriam Hansen (February 5, 61) – University of Chicago film historian and scholar whose field of study centered on early cinema and mass culture, as detailed in her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in Silent Cinema
Gary Moore (February 6, 58) – Irish blues/rock guitarist best known for his stints with Skid Row and Thin Lizzy
Marvin Sease (February 8, 64) – American blues/soul singer whose songs included Ghetto Man and Candy Licker
Donald S. Sanford (February 8, 92) – Film, radio and television writer who began his career penning scripts for radio’s Martin Kane, Private Eye before graduating to such boob tube series as Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, and The Outer Limits; his screenplays include Mosquito Squadron and Midway
Bill Justice (February 10, 97) – Veteran Walt Disney animator-director who worked on such features as Fantasia, The Three Caballeros, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan; chiefly responsible for the character of Thumper in 1942’s Bambi, the chipmunks known as Chip ‘n Dale, and the memorable opening of TV’s Mickey Mouse Club
Joanne Siegel (February 12, 93) – Widow of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel who was the model for the character of Lois Lane
James Elliott (February 12, 82) – Scottish-born film and television actor best known for his regular role as Alf Sutcliffe on the hit Australian TV soap Number 96
Thomas Patrick (T.P.) McKenna (February 13, 81) – Veteran Irish stage, screen and television actor who appeared in such films as The Quare Fellow, Straw Dogs, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and regular roles on such TV series as Callan, Crown Court, and The Chief
Paul Marcus (February 13, 55) – British television director-producer who worked on such TV series as Prime Suspect, Maigret, and Wokenwell
John Leonard Strauss (February 14, 90) – Emmy Award-winning film and television composer/music editor who wrote the theme song of TV’s The Phil Silvers Show and co-wrote the theme (with creator Nat Hiken) to Car 54, Where are You? in addition to working on such films as Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and The Blues Brothers
Sir George Shearing (February 14, 91) – Legendary British-born jazz pianist who wrote and recorded nearly 300 songs during his lengthy music career including Lullaby of Birdland
David Frank Friedman (February 14, 87) – Legendary B-movie and exploitation filmmaker-producer whose films include the notorious cult classics Blood Feast and Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS
Alfred Burke (February 16, 92) – British film and television actor best known as the star of TV’s The Public Eye; his film work includes Bitter Victory, Children of the Damned, and The Nanny
William “Bill” Blanc Monroe (February 17, 90) – Peabody Award-winning NBC News journalist who served as the moderator and executive producer of that network’s Meet the Press from 1975-84
Perry Moore (February 17, 39) – Author and filmmaker whose films include Lake City and The Chronicles of Narnia franchise
Walter Seltzer (February 18, 96) – Press agent turned film producer whose movies include One-Eyed Jacks, Will Penny, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green
Cayle Chernin (February 18, 63) – Canadian film and television actress whose roles in movies include Goin’ Down the Road, Love in a 4-Letter World, and Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues
Max Wilk (February 19, 96) – Playwright/screenwriter and journalist whose book The Golden Age of Television: Notes from the Survivors was a major influence on this tiny scrap of the blogosphere known as Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
Eddie Brandt (February 20, 90) – Songwriter/composer and animation writer who will live forever in the hearts of classic film buffs as the founder of the Mecca of movie research and memorabilia, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee
Haila Stoddard (February 21, 97) – Broadway actress-producer who dabbled in radio (Big Sister, Stella Dallas) and also appeared in many live television productions; was a cast member of the long-running TV soap opera The Secret Storm
Bill Nimmo (February 22, 93) – Radio and television announcer/game show host who was Johnny Carson’s sidekick on Who Do You Trust? before Ed McMahon stepped in; also worked at various times with Jackie Gleason and Regis Philbin
Jean Dinning (February 22, 86) – Singer-songwriter who comprised one-third (with Virginia and Lucille) of the Dinning Sisters, a popular vocal trio in the 1940s…but is probably best remembered as the co-author of Teen Angel, a million-selling pop chart topper recorded by her brother Mark in 1960
Nicholas Courtney (February 22, 81) – British stage, screen and television actor who achieved boob tube immortality as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart on the cult BBC sci-fi TV series Doctor Who
Michael Zimring (February 23, 94) – Movie and theatrical agent whose early career was spent on stage and in radio, appearing on such shows as The Lux Radio Theatre, Calling All Cars, and Wings of Destiny
Eddie Serrato (February 24, 65) – Rock ‘n’ roll musician and drummer for Question Mark and the Mysterians, those lads responsible for the million-selling garage rock smash 96 Tears
Mark Tulin (February 26, 62) – Rock ‘n’ roll musician and bassist for The Electric Prunes, those lads responsible for the garage rock classic I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night; also played with Smashing Pumpkins
Gary Winick (February 27, 49) – Film director-producer whose work includes Tadpole, Pieces of April, 13 Going on 30, Charlotte’s Web, and Letters to Juliet
Eddie Kirkland (February 27, 88) – Legendary blues guitarist, singer-songwriter and Macon, GA native whose nickname was “Gypsy of the Blues”
Frank Buckles (February 27, 110) – Supercentarian who was the last living U.S. World War I veteran; he passed away at his home in Charles Town, WV so he pretty much had one foot in Heaven as it stood
Frank Alesia (February 27, 65) – Film and television actor-director (Captain Kangaroo, Laverne & Shirley) who landed roles in a plethora of 60s beach party flicks including Bikini Beach, Pajama Party, Beach Blanket Bingo, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and C’mon, Let’s Live a Little
Hy White (February 28, 95) – Jazz/blues guitarist who jammed with the likes of Woody Herman and Ray Bloch…whose orchestra he was a member of and played with for more than fifteen years on The Ed Sullivan Show
Nick LaTour (aka Edgar D. Nixon, Jr.) (February 28, 84) – Singer-actor son of civil rights leader Edgar D. Nixon who guested on many TV shows (Baby, I’m Back, 227) and had small roles in such films as Deep Cover, Don Juan DeMarco, and Jingle All the Way
Al Morgan (March 3, 91) – Novelist and one-time The Today Show producer whose 1955 novel The Great Man was adapted for the big screen the following year; it was speculated at the time of the book’s release that the “great man” was heavily based on radio and TV’s Arthur Godfrey
Charles Jarrott (March 4, 83) – British film and television director-producer whose best known movies include Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1973’s Lost Horizon, and The Other Side of Midnight
Louie Ramsay (March 6, 81) – British musical comedy actress of stage and television best known for portraying Dora Wexford, the wife of Inspector Wexford (George Baker, to whom Ramsay was also married in real life) on TV’s The Ruth Rendell Mysteries
Herman “Roscoe” Ernest III (March 6, 59) – New Orleans funk/R&B drummer who was a fixture of Dr. John’s backup band for many years but also worked and recorded with the likes of Lee Dorsey and the Neville Brothers
Mike DeStefano (March 6, 44) – Standup comedian whose previous narcotics addiction was fueled into stories and routines that earned him a fourth place win on NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2010
Jean Bartel (March 6, 87) – Former Miss America turned stage, screen and television actress whose movie roles include Sanctuary, Marriage on the Rocks, and The Oscar; also appeared in guest shots on such TV series as The Gale Storm Show and Perry Mason
Bronko Nagurski, Jr. (March 8, 73) – Canadian football playing son (Hamilton Tiger-Cats) of NFL legend Bronko Nagurski, who inspired a blogathon last August at My Floating Red Couch
Mike Starr (March 8, 44) – Rock ‘n’ roll bassist for Alice in Chains whose 2010 stint on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab apparently didn’t take
St. Clair Lee (March 8, 66) – R&B vocalist who was a one-time member of the Hues Corporation, a group that recorded in 1974 one of the few records from the disco era that I’m able to tolerate, Rock the Boat (my paisans Jeff Lane and Jeannie McDowell sang this on the log flume ride at Camden Park one time, much to the annoyance of the ride’s other patrons)
Robert Marcucci (March 9, 81) – Philadelphia record company mogul and talent agent who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian…so you know a stretch in Purgatory is in his future; also loosely inspired the main character in the 1980 film The Idolmaker
David S. Broder (March 9, 81) – Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist and television pundit praised by his peers as “the dean of the Washington press corps” (your mileage, of course, may vary—I prefer Frank Rich’s description of Broder as the nation’s “bloviator-in-chief”)
Jack Hardy (March 11, 63) – Folk singer-songwriter-promoter whose low-budget Greenwich Village musical cooperative, Fast Folk Musical Magazine, featured performances by the likes of artists such as Lyle Lovett, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, and Shawn Colvin
Hugh Martin (March 11, 96) – Stage and screen songwriter-composer best known for co-writing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and The Trolley Song (both featured in Meet Me in St. Louis); he also worked on such stage and movie musicals as Best Foot Forward and The Girl Most Likely
Joe Morello (March 12, 82) – Legendary jazz drummer best known for his work with The Dave Brubeck Quartet, playing on their classic pop hit Take Five
Melvin Sparks (March 13, 64) – Soul-jazz session guitarist who played on albums recorded by greats like Leon Spencer and Charles Earland
Big Jack Johnson (March 14, 70) – Mississippi blues musician and singer-songwriter who recorded albums both as a solo artist and as one-third of The Jelly Roll Kings (with Sam Carr and Frank Frost)
Ronnie Hammond (March 14, 60) – Macon, GA native who fronted as the lead vocalist for the 70s group Atlanta Rhythm Section, singing on such hits as Imaginary Lover, So In to You, and Spooky (a cover of the old Classics IV hit)
Todd Cerney (March 14, 57) – Country music producer and singer-songwriter who wrote tunes for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Cheap Trick before penning such hits as Restless Heart’s I’ll Still Be Loving You and Steve Holy’s Good Morning Beautiful
Nathaniel Dwayne “Nate Dogg” Hale (March 15, 41) – Rap singer-musician who had a hand in such hits as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Warren G’s Regulate