Sunday, September 12, 2010

“They're here already! You're next! You're next! You're next!”

You’ll have to excuse the facetiousness in this blog post header, but that’s the first thing I thought of when I learned from Toby “His Toobness” O’Brien and “Uncle” Sam Wilson of the passing of stage and screen great Kevin McCarthy…particularly since both of them so astutely pointed out that trying to “catch up” with the irritating tendency of life’s rich pageant to yank many of its talented players off the stage (with the biggest freakin’ hook you’ve ever seen) is a fool’s errand. Hearing that McCarthy—an actor who was truly one of my very favorites—will now be playing to SRO audiences somewhere in The Great Beyond is one hell of a bummer to end one’s day. McCarthy died yesterday at the age of 96 at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts.

I think the reason why I liked McCarthy so much is that he wasn’t a show-offy, “look-at-me-I’m-acting” thesp—he was solid, dependable and as comfortable as that pair of Adidas sneakers it took me years to finally throw out. His signature role is probably that of Dr. Miles Bennell, the hero of the 1956 paranoid sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who learns to his grief that his friends, neighbors…and even his best girl…have been taken over by alien spores and transformed into emotionless drones. I still recall with relish the very first time I saw Invasion when I was just a little tad. Scared the absolute !@#$& out of me…and continues to do so to this very day.

McCarthy’s career began on stage in New York in the late 1930s, and really caught fire in 1949 when he appeared as Biff Loman with the one and only Paul Muni in London in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. His triumph in that led to his landing the part in the 1951 movie adaptation (opposite Fredric March), and his efforts netted him a Golden Globe as Most Promising Male Newcomer. You can’t say McCarthy didn’t fulfill that lofty ambition—among the films I’ve glimpsed him in: Stranger on Horseback (1956), Nightmare (1956), The Misfits (1961), The Prize (1963), The Best Man (1964), Mirage (1965), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Kansas City Bomber (1972), Piranha (1978), the 1978 version of Snatchers (in which he humorously reprises his role from the original), The Howling (1981), Fast Food (1989—the film in which sister Debbie has a walk-on...but no, she didn't get to meet him), The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) and Matinee (1993).

McCarthy also had an extensive television c.v.—I don’t think there’s a program he didn’t guest-star on. He had supporting roles on the 1969-70 soap The Survivors and the 1981-82 nighttime soap Flamingo Road, and recurring roles on the likes of Bay City Blues, The Colbys and The District. He was also brought in as a love interest in the doomed-to-die Bea Arthur sitcom Amanda’s…but even an old pro like Kev couldn’t save that sinking ship.

The Rifleman, The Defenders, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Dr. Kildare, Burke’s Law, The Fugitive, 12 O’Clock High—McCarthy made the rounds on these classic programs and so many more. He also appeared in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “Long Live Walter Jameson”—and he was so memorable in that half-hour that he was also cast in the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)…the only decent part of that sad, pathetic clambake (of course, he worked alongside fellow thesps Patricia Barry and TDOY god William Schallert, so like Smuckers, you know it had to be good).

For many years, the 1951 Death of a Salesman film was unavailable to see because the Arthur Miller estate put it on the shelf in favor of the 1985 Dustin Hoffman version…but I was fortunate enough to be able to acquire the previous movie sometime back through…well, never you mind how I obtained it. I’ve been looking for a reason to sit down and watch it, and I think that’s what I’ll do with the remainder of the evening—because I will truly miss the actor known as Kevin McCarthy, and I’d like to see him take a few well-deserved bows one last time.

Addendum: Always gratifying and encouraging to hear what sort of tributes a great actor like McCarthy generates among my esteemed blogging colleagues...go and read the thoughts of Stacia, Cinema Viewfinder and Edward Copeland in addition to Toby and Sam's perspectives mentioned in the first paragraph.

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Toby O'B said...

His role as Bokonon in "Between Time And Timbuktu" remains my favorite TV role. And he really got the chance to cut loose in "Innerspace". He'll be truly missed.....

Jeff Overturf said...

One of the great under-appreciated.

We'll always have "Invasion..." though.