Saturday, June 25, 2011

The passings parade

Last week, I wasn’t able to include (as longtime TDOY chum Brent McKee mentioned in the comments) an obituary for musician Clarence “The Big Man” Clemmons because the renowned tenor saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band played his last solo shortly after I posted the news of the week’s passings from the areas of music, TV, movies and miscellanea.  Clemmons, who joined “The Boss” in 1972 and played with Springsteen's musical aggregation until his death, also released several solo albums during his musical career…and in 1985 scored a Top 40 duet with Jackson Browne, You’re a Friend of Mine:


Clemmons’ talents didn’t just extend to wailing on the saxophone—he made a number of appearances on episodes of such TV shows as Diff’rent Strokes, Jake and the Fatman and My Wife and Kids; he also had recurring roles on the likes of Nash Bridges, The System and the critically-acclaimed The Wire.  He also landed roles in various films such as New York, New York, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Fatal Instinct.  Clemmons suffered a stroke on June 12 of this year and died six days later at the age of 69.

The most notable celebrity passing this week would have to be that of stage, screen and TV legend Peter Falk…a performer who, if he done nothing else in life but the peerless comedic turn alongside Alan Arkin in the 1979 classic The In-Laws (“Jesus!  Pigs!”) would be held in extremely high esteem here in the House of Yesteryear.  But his long-running stint as TV’s Lieutenant Columbo, “everyone’s favorite rumpled detective,” on NBC from 1971-78 and ABC from 1989-03 and his body of both film and stage work signals that we lost an amazing talent Thursday (June 23), when Falk succumbed to complications from both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83.

Falk lost an eye at the age of three due to a retinoblastoma and though the glass eye he wore from that point on certainly didn’t affect his stage career any (appearing in such varied productions over the years as Diary of a Scoundrel, Saint Joan and The Prisoner of Second Avenue) it could have been a setback when he set his cap to conquer movies and TV.  (Columbia studio head Harry “White Fang” Cohn reportedly said to him after he failed a screen test that “for the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”)  But Falk persevered and won roles in such films as Wind Across the Everglades, The Bloody Brood and Pretty Boy Floyd.  In 1960, Peter landed the role of gangster Abe “Kid Twist” Robles in the film Murder, Inc., and his performance was singled out not only for critical praise but attention from his peers when his was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Spartacus’ Peter Ustinov).  The following year, Falk again garnered an Academy Award nom for his performance in director Frank Capra’s cinematic swan song, Pocketful of Miracles and though he lost to George Chakiris his onscreen career was guaranteed at that point, with memorable parts in such films as Pressure Point, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Robin and the 7 Hoods and The Great Race.

Before his big break in Murder, Inc., Peter was a fixture on TV as a guest star on such series as Have Gun – Will Travel, The Law and Mr. Jones, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Naked City and Wagon Train.  He won the first of his five Emmys (the other four for Columbo) for a 1962 production on the anthology series The Dick Powell Theatre, “The Price of Tomatoes,”—an honor that played an instrumental role in his landing his first starring series in The Trials of O’Brien, a short-lived CBS legal drama that featured him as legal eagle Daniel O’Brien…a whiz of an attorney in the courtroom but a bit of a dud when it came to his personal life.  In hock to gamblers (he had a thing for the ponies) and behind in his alimony payments to his ex-wife (played by Joanna Barnes)—not to mention the rent on his apartment—O’Brien depended on his efficient secretary “Miss G” (played by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch) to rein in his excesses but it was, as William Bendix’s Chester A. Riley often observed, “a losin’ fight.”  Trials garnered much critical praise but its Saturday night time slot (up against Lawrence Welk on ABC and Get Smart on NBC) was a tough row to hoe and a move to Friday nights in December didn’t help much, either—Falk, however, has stated in more than one interview that he actually preferred The Trials of O’Brien to his more celebrated turn on Columbo.

The part that would make Peter famous on TV began in 1968 with a TV-movie entitled Prescription: Murder—Falk played a doggedly determined (if slightly seedy-looking) police detective investigating physician Gene Barry in a part that had originally been played by Thomas Mitchell on stage and Bert Freed in a 1960 episode (“Enough Rope”) of TV’s The Chevy Mystery Show.  Peter got the role that was originally planned for Bing Crosby (who turned down the role because it would interfere with his golf game), and three years later reprised it in a second pilot (directed by Steven Spielberg) entitled “Ransom for a Dead Man” that attracted the attention of NBC, who made the series Colombo part of the original rotation (along with McMillan and Wife and McCloud) of the network’s Sunday Night Mystery Movie

Columbo was a notch above the usual crime drama fare in that the program wasn’t so much a whodunit (we usually knew who the guilty party was, generally seen in the first few minutes of each episode) but a how’s-he-gonna-catch-‘em—with Falk as the raincoat-attired police dick whose rumpled, seedy exterior masked a shrewd investigative mind, a personage the actor himself once described as “an ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes.”  The character, with his catchphrases of “Pardon me, sir…I hate to bother you” and “…just one more thing,” became a huge hit—cementing Falk’s TV immortality and providing fodder for comedians and parodists for years after.  The NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie was cancelled in 1977 but Falk continued to make several Columbo telefilms after the show got its walking papers and in 1989, Lt. Columbo again walked a beat when ABC resurrected the Mystery Movie concept and made Peter the hub of its new venture.  Falk continued to play the character on the small screen in a number of telefilms produced after ABC shut the doors on its Mystery Movie until 2003.

Though Falk will probably always be remembered as Columbo it would be a disservice not to mention that he was one of my generations’ most brilliant actors, with a film resume that included such hits as Mikey and Nicky, Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, The Brink’s Job, …All the Marbles, Wings of Desire, The Princess Bride, Cookie, Tune in Tomorrow… and Faraway, So Close!; he was also a favorite of actor-director John Cassavetes, who used Peter in such films as Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Big Trouble.  (And if that weren’t enough, he’s also in the funniest of the Muppet movies, The Great Muppet Caper.  He will be sorely missed.)

We also said goodbye this week to actor Don Diamond, an accomplished character actor whose amazing career during the Golden Age of Radio received short shrift in the obituaries I was able to locate online for him.  Diamond’s versatility could be heard on such classic programs as Escape, Let George Do It, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Night Beat, Suspense, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Dangerous Assignment, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Broadway’s My Beat, Gunsmoke, Rocky Fortune, Fort Laramie, Frontier Gentleman and Have Gun – Will Travel plus dramatic anthology series like Family Theatre, The NBC University Theatre, The Lux Radio Theatre, Screen Directors’ Playhouse and The CBS Radio Workshop (Diamond also had roles on the “NTR” series The Sears Radio Theatre).  Diamond’s talents for dialects got their earliest workout in the aural medium, and as an actor he never completely abandoned that knack because he later supplied voices for such theatrical cartoon series as The Tijuana Toads (also known on TV as The Texas Toads) and TV’s The New Adventures of Zorro and The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.

Because Don’s métier would learn toward television, he only made a handful of films but they include the likes of Borderline, The Old Man and the Sea, Irma la Douce, How Sweet it Is, Viva Max and Breezy.  Diamond discovered early on in his career that he was quite proficient with a Spanish dialect, and used it to play characters on episodes of such series as The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, Peter Gunn, The Gale Storm Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, My Favorite Martian and Rawhide.  He sidekicked for actor Bill William’s titular hero on The Adventures of Kit Carson, a syndicated western that ran from 1951-55, and played Corporal Reyes on the Walt Disney-produced Zorro during its run on ABC from 1957-59.  But here at this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere known as Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Don Diamond will be fondly remembered and beloved as Crazy Cat, the questionably loyal subordinate to Chief Wild Eagle (Frank DeKova) on the classic Western sitcom F Troop, which originally aired on ABC from 1965-67.  Crazy Cat—or “Craze,” as O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Agarn (Larry Storch) often referred to him—was an ambitious Hekawi brave constantly angling to take over Wild Eagle’s position as Chief and even got a brief opportunity to do so in an episode entitled “Our Brave in F Troop,” in which O’Rourke and Agarn sneak Wild Eagle into Fort Courage as a soldier in order to get his tooth pulled (“When Wild Eagle away, Crazy Cat play.”)  Crazy Cat was one of the funniest characters on the show; an Indian whose hippie-like demeanor sometimes seemed to suggest that he and the other Hekawis were doing something a little stronger than drinking firewater, if you get my drift.  Diamond was dispatched to the Happy Hunting Ground on June 19 at the ripe old age of 90.

Composer/orchestrator Fred Steiner passed away on the same day as Peter Falk at the age of 88 and like Diamond, honed his chops in radio providing musical compositions for such series as This is Your FBI (on which he was the longtime music director), Suspense, Life with Luigi, On Stage and The CBS Radio Workshop.  He also did quite a bit of film work—one of the films he scored will be shown tonight on TCM at 2:30am EDT, 1956’s Run for the Sun (a remake of The Most Dangerous Game) but he also contributed to such features as The Prowler, Son of Paleface, Casanova’s Big Night, Good Morning, Miss Dove, The Man With the Golden Arm, Time Limit, Saddle the Wind, The Killers (the 1964 version), The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Hallelujah Trail.

Television is where Frederick really made his mark: he scored such classic series as Man Against Crime, Have Gun – Will Travel, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Daniel Boone and Hawaii Five-O.  The most important item on his resume, however, is a little ditty known as Park Avenue Beat…but coach potatoes all over the world know it as the theme to the long-running legal drama Perry Mason.


And a few of the other celebrity notables we bid a fond farewell to this week:

Simon Brint (June 11, 61) – Composer and musician best known as one-half of Raw Sex, the house band for Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ comedy-variety series; also contributed musical compositions for such programs as Murder Most Horrid, Coupling, The Smoking Room, Absolutely Fabulous, Monarch of the Glen and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

Robert A. White (June 17, 87) – Veteran film and television scribe who got a foothold in the business writing for radio (Tales of the Texas Rangers) and then went on to pen scripts (often in tandem with his wife Phyllis) for such series as The Real McCoys, My Favorite Martian, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Mission: Impossible, Medical Center and Ironside

Joel Simon (June 19, age unspecified) – Film and television producer who before establishing WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) Films in 2002 produced such features as Married to the Mob, Hard to Kill (the Steven Segal film that I jokingly dubbed “Hard to Watch” in order to piss my mom off), Wild Wild West (the execrable movie version with Will Smith), Looney Tunes: Back in Action and the why-the-hell-was-this-necessary remake of The In-Laws

Ryan Dunn (June 20, 34) – Reality TV personality whose death in a drunk-driving accident shouldn’t be duplicated by impressionable young minds at home…and the fact that he achieved his fame on a show called Jackass just goes to show that irony can be pretty ironic sometimes

David Rayfiel (June 22, 87) – Film and television writer whose best known work was often done in tandem with director Sydney Pollack and star Robert Redford (and often uncredited) in such films as Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor and The Electric Horseman; also penned one of my favorite Night Gallery episodes, “Whisper”

Jared Southwick (June 22, 34) – Rock ‘n’ roll guitarist/musician best known for his work with the band The Dream is Dead

Mike Waterson (June 22, 70) – Longtime British folksinger and musician

Gene Colan (June 23, 84) – Comic book artist best known for his lengthy stint at Marvel Comics, where he worked on such titles as Daredevil, Howard the Duck and The Tomb of Dracula; co-created superheroes The Falcon and vampire hunter Blade

And this one just under the wire—longtime CNN sportscaster Nick Charles passed away today at the age of 64 from complications due to bladder cancer.  The co-host of the network’s Sports Tonight program was one of the first on-air personalities for the fledgling news organization in 1980 (after several years working for local stations in Baltimore and Washington, DC) and was there until 2001 when he went to work for Showtime.  For Nick and all the other talents mentioned in this post…R.I.P.

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