Monday, February 22, 2010

Notable passings

I titled my previous post “At Death’s door,” which sounds a bit alarmist, I know—but then that got to me to thinking that if that really were the case, I probably would have greeted these people who have recently left us along the way:

Singer-guitarist Dale Hawkins scored a top 30 hit in 1957 with Susie Q, a song that has since become a “rock-‘n-roll anthem”—having later been covered by such groups as The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival (who took their version of the song to the top 20 in 1968). He finally succumbed to colon cancer (having been diagnosed with the disease a little more than four years ago) at the age of 73.

Hawkins’ Susie Q—a rockabilly number classified by many music historians as “swamp-rock”—influenced an entire generations of later rock ‘n’ rollers thanks to its incredible guitar lick courtesy of James Burton, who joined Hawkins’ band in 1955. Hawkins had a few smaller follow-up hits, notably My Babe and La-Do-Dada, and later on his career enjoyed success as a producer with charted smashes like Bruce Channel’s Hey Baby! and the Five Americans’ Western Union. (Talk about a song you do not want to get into your head…)

Dale was once quoted as saying: “Study the masters, man…grab the roots and see how it evolved and know what's real.” Amen to that. (A doff of the TDOY chapeau to cub reporter Larry Shell, who originally e-mailed me the notice of Dale’s passing.)

I was particularly saddened to learn of one of my favorite character actors shuffling off this mortal coil; the inimitable Lionel Jeffries, who passed away last Friday at the age of 83. Most people will remember Jeffries from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1967) as Grandpa Potts…and a few more will point out that Jeffries also dabbled in directing; particularly the beloved 1971 feature The Railway Children (for which he also the screenplay). But the reason why I chose the Jeffries picture to the right is because my favorite of his films is Murder Ahoy (1964), one of the four Miss Marple films released by M-G-M between 1961 and 1965 starring another British acting great, Margaret Rutherford, as the famous sleuth. Jeffries plays a by-the-book sea captain who finds himself saddled with Miss M and her attempts to solve a murder on board his vessel.

Jeffries also appeared in a fitfully funny film with Peter Sellers entitled Two Way Stretch (1960), with Sellers as a jewel thief who plans a heist behind prison walls and Jeffries as his frustrated police nemesis. (The two men teamed up three years later for an equally hysterical film with a slightly similar premise, The Wrong Arm of the Law.) Among Jeffries’ notable film appearances: The Colditz Story (1955), The Quatermass Xperiment (1956), Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957), The Nun's Story (1959), Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), Fanny (1961), The Truth About Spring (1965), You Must Be Joking! (1965) and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). He was also featured in several Britcoms, notably Tom, Dick and Harriet (which was “Americanized” as the short-lived sitcom Foot in the Door) and Rich Tea and Sympathy.

Caroline McWilliams was one of many actors/actresses who benefited from exposure on the venerable soap opera warhorse The Guiding Light (she played Janet Mason Norris on the daytime drama from 1969-75), parlaying her hard work into guest shots on some of the more popular prime time shows like Kojak, Quincy, M.E., Barney Miller and The Incredible Hulk. But McWilliams—who’s gone on to her rich reward at the age of 64 from complications of multiple myeloma—exceeded expectations, going on to an impressive stage career (both performing and directing), work in feature films (White Water Summer, Mermaids) and plum roles on classic television sitcoms like Soap and Benson—perhaps her best-known TV showcase.

McWilliams had played a character named Sally on writer-producer Susan Harris’ comic parody of daytime dramas, Soap, when Harris tabbed her to play the role of secretary Marcy Hill on the spin-off series Benson—which transplanted the character of sardonic butler Benson DuBois (Robert Gillaume) to the mansion of Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling (James Noble)—the brother of his former employer, Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond). (McWilliams and Gillaume weren’t the only two actors from Soap to “jump ship”—Inga Swenson, who was also featured in a brief story arc on the show, joined the Benson cast as housekeeper Gretchen Kraus.) McWilliams’ cheerful and supportive Marcy appeared on Benson’s first two seasons; she was married off at the beginning of the series’ junior year and for all intents and purposes was never heard from again. I don’t know that much about the history of Benson (a subject that I must admit doesn’t interest me much) but I always got the impression that Caroline’s departure from the series was due to the fact that the Marcy character was a bit too nice…and as such, dull. (She was put to better use on Soap, where Sally was a particularly nasty piece of work.)

But Caroline continued to work on the cathode ray tube; she co-starred alongside Eric Idle in a justifiably short-lived sitcom, Nearly Departed, and also had short gigs on the likes of St. Elsewhere, Sisters, Beverly Hills, 90210 (as LuAnn Pruit) and Judging Amy.

I know celebrity passings shouldn’t be a popularity contest—but the death that had the greatest emotional impact on movie fans and bloggers belongs to Kathryn Grayson, the operatic singing star of popular M-G-M musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945), Show Boat (1951) and Kiss Me Kate (1953). She was 88.

Because I’m not much of a musicals fan, I can’t really comment too much in depth on Grayson’s career—I’ve only seen Boat and Kate, and the Abbott & Costello vehicle Rio Rita (1942), which features Kathryn (it was made at M-G-M). But she remains a favorite with musicals fans; among her better-known films are Thousands Cheer (1943), Two Sisters from Boston (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), The Kissing Bandit (1948), Lovely to Look at (1952), The Desert Song (1953) and her final feature film, The Vagabond King (1956). She made occasional appearances on TV after King; including three guest shots on Murder, She Wrote between 1987 and 1989.

R.I.P, Messrs Hawkins and Jeffries…and fare thee well to Ms. McWilliams and Grayson. The four of you will be sorely missed.

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1 comment:

Flickhead said...

Yikes! Don't forget Lionel Jeffries in First Men 'In' the Moon!!! Cavorite, old man, Cavorite! "Please! Please! Let me explain!"