Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dimming the footlights

I know the ol’ blog’s been a little quiet the past couple of days, for which I truly apologize…but I was kept busy with a project initiated by the good people at Radio Spirits to chronicle those celebrity notables who took their final bows at the curtain this year, with an emphasis on those who had a tangible connection to both old- and new-time radio.  With some much-needed help from the Old-Time Radio Mailing List’s Ron Sayles, who is pretty good at keeping track of both comings and goings of OTR folk, I was able to cobble together a fairly respectable list of those individuals who have sadly left this existence for a hopefully better one.

The drawback to this is that you can never really get caught up with celebrity passings; no sooner did I hand in my work to RS’ Karen Lerner when I learned that announcer Fred Foy, the man whose beckoning to listeners to “return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear” inspired the title of this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere, has died at the age of 89.  Foy was not only the announcer/narrator on The Lone Ranger for many years but he also worked the other programs in the WXYZ triumvirate, The Green Hornet and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.  In fact, for many OTR fans Foy was THE Lone Ranger announcer despite the fact that several people preceded him in that enviable position.

The obituary of Foy courtesy of had an interesting bit of info: Foy’s daughter Nancy says that her father never got tired of doing the famous Ranger intro, and would oblige anyone with a rendition of it when asked.  I find that positively fascinating.  I mean, I can certainly understand his enthusiasm—it’s great fun to do—but you’d think there would have been a time when he would have gotten fed up with it or snapped at somebody, yelling, “Yeah, I got your ‘great horse Silver’ right here, pally.”

I’ve admittedly been sort of remiss in keeping up with celebrity passings of late; my original scheme was to sort of do a “catch-all” post like I’ve done on previous occasions but sadly I’ve been slacking off since mid-October in this task, and as such missed the demise of some famous names.  This post is an attempt to catch up with the ones that I missed.

Character actress Janet MacLachlan left us on October 11th of this year at the age of 77; I’m old enough to remember that she was one of the four thesps who appeared on the American version of the hit Britcom Love Thy Neighbour (the others being Ron Masak, Joyce Bulifant and Harrison Page) but she also had regular roles on Archie Bunker’s Place (as housekeeper Polly Swanson) and Cagney & Lacey.  MacLachlan also had an important gig in the 1972 Sounder as the teacher who inspires the young David Lee Morgan (Kevin Hooks).

When I heard of actor Simon MacCorkindale’s passing the very first thing that came to mind was “Manimal!”  The 1983 series starred MacCorkindale as a college professor capable of metamorphosing into any animal of his choosing and though it was only on the air for eight episodes it’s become legendary among bad television aficionados.  MacCorkindale had better luck on TV’s Falcon Crest, where he played catting-around attorney Greg Reardon in the final two seasons of that show’s run; he also had substantial roles in the series Counterstrike and Casualty.  MacCorkindale passed away on October 14 at the age of 58.

MacCorkindale’s Falcon Crest co-star Chao-Li Chi died just two days after him on October 16 at the age of 83; the actor played the manservant (also named Chao-Li) to Jane Wyman’s Angela Channing throughout the show’s run, and in addition appeared in such feature films as Big Trouble in Little China, The Joy Luck Club and Wedding Crashers.

For most of his onscreen career, actor Johnny Sheffield answered to either “Boy” or “Bomba”; he played the son of Tarzan and Jane in the M-G-M (and later R-K-O) film series beginning with 1939’s Tarzan Finds a Son! and then when that series was done went over to Monogram/Allied Artists to star in a dozen feature films as Bomba, the Jungle Boy.  But this is sort of giving Sheffield’s film resume short shrift; the actor, who died at the age of 79 on October 15, also appeared in such films as Babes in Arms, Knute Rockne All American and Million Dollar Baby.

I forget precisely where I gleaned the information but I thought I read somewhere that the reason actress Barbara Billingsley wore pearls on Leave it to Beaver—even when she was vacuuming and doing other household chores—was that she felt the necklace took attention away from what she believed to be a freakishly long neck.  (As it turned out, Billingsley wore the bling because of her neck “hollow”—she thought the poils would brighten thing up a tad.)  I was really bummed when I heard about her passing on October 16 at the age of 94, but with the news that Shout! Factory is releasing the sixth and final season of her signature TV series to DVD on March 1 (as a separate release from the already-available six seasons box set) her boob tube legacy is set in stone.  (And her appearance in Airplane! [1980] still has the power to make me giggle uncontrollably to this day—“Now you just hang loose, blood…”)

Three days after Billingsley’s passing (on October 19), we lost another TV icon in actor Tom Bosley, who lives on in boob tube immortality as patriarch Howard Cunningham on the long-running sitcom Happy Days.  Bosley will also be remembered for his TV roles as the titular sleuth of Father Dowling Mysteries and Sheriff Amos Tupper on the mystery series Murder, She Wrote…and for shilling such products as Glad sandwich and garbage bags, Saturn automobiles and outfits like Specialty Merchandise Corporation and LifeBack USA.  Bosley’s distinctive voice was also put to use on such animated productions as Hanna-Barbera’s 1972-74 series Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and a Rankin-Bass Christmas special I haven’t seen in ages, The Stingiest Man in Town.  Tom was also the host of The General Mills Radio Adventure Theater, a 1977 radio anthology series produced by the late Himan Brown to try and recapture the magic of OTR much in the vein of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.  Bosley passed away at the age of 83

About three weeks back when I was putting together the birthday list for November 30, I was surprised to learn that actor Graham Crowden had his final bow at the curtain on the same day of Bosley’s passing at the age of 87.  Crowden, a Scottish-born thesp who appeared in many of director Lindsay Anderson’s feature films—if…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital—is probably best known on this side of the pond as eccentric retirement home resident Tom Ballard of the Britcom Waiting for God, one of my father’s favorite shows (faithful TDOY readers are familiar with the fact that Ivan, Sr., is not a fan of what he calls “scripted” television so this is heady praise indeed).

Emmy Award-winning television and radio comedy writer Coleman Jacoby checked out on October 20th at the age of 95; Jacoby got his career start scripting jokes for Bob Hope and Fred Allen’s radio shows before leaping into television and working for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows.  Teaming up with Arnie Rosen, the two writers then established a fruitful association writing material for Jackie Gleason and Art Carney; they later worked in tandem on The Phil Silvers Show and The Garry Moore Show.  Jacoby once remarked to his partner of their employment with The Great One: “We have a tiger by the tail—a fat, funny tiger.”

Another Emmy Award winner, television and film director Lamont Johnson directed feature films like The McKenzie Break and The Last American Hero and TV-movies along the order of My Sweet Charlie, That Certain Summer, The Execution of Private Slovik, Fear on Trial and Crisis at Central High.  But before settling down behind the camera he was in front of it as an actor…and also in front a microphone; he played the role of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes on a syndicated radio series beginning in 1951.  Johnson passed away at the age of 88 on October 24.

Producer Lisa Blount won an Oscar in 2002 for her 2001 short The Accountant—but she was probably better known for her acting talent, appearing in such films as September 30, 1955, An Officer and a Gentleman, Prince of Darkness and Great Balls of Fire!  She also played the outrageous Bobbi Stakowski on the cult Fox TV series Profit, a show that has been released to DVD.  Blount was found in her Little Rock, AK home on October 25, dead at the age of 53.

As a young couch potato I was a big fan of Captain Kangaroo…and was saddened to learn of the passing of actor James Wall, whom Captain fans knew as Cap’s teacher-neighbor Mr. Baxter.  Wall started out on the show as the program’s stage manager before appearing on-air in 1968; he remained in that capacity until 1978.  Wall was also the stage manager for the U.S. Open Tennis Championship telecasts, and died at the age of 92 on October 27.

The news of actor James MacArthur’s death at the age of 72 the following day was also a bit of a jolt; MacArthur’s signature series, Hawaii Five-O, was a huge favorite of my mom’s and I’d often watch it with her as a youngster—puzzled at the thinking that allowed me to sit down and watch rampant homicides in the 50th state but refused to expose me to the admittedly salty language and controversial themes of the sitcom All in the Family.  Jimmy’s character of second-in-command Danny Williams, or “Danno,” as head man Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) referred to him, made it possible for the phrase “Book ‘em, Danno” to enter the American lexicon.  MacArthur was also a familiar face in many a Disney film of yore, notably The Light in the Forest, Third Man on the Mountain and Swiss Family Robinson.

Actress Jill Clayburgh, who was nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards for her roles in 1978’s An Unmarried Woman and 1979’s Starting Over, said farewell at the age of 66 on November 5; Woman is a movie that has received raves and plaudits from a great many of my fellow cinephiles but my dirty, shameful secret is that I’ve never seen the film.  I have seen Clayburgh in The Terminal Man, Silver Streak, Semi-Tough and First Monday in October and she was first-rate in all of them.

William Self is a name that may not be instantly recognized by many people but he’s held in particularly high regard here at TDOY because as a program executive for CBS-TV he was in charge of developing new series and one of those pilots ultimately became known as The Twilight Zone.  Shortly after that, he was hired by 20th Century-Fox Television as an executive producer and during his stay made the company one of the top suppliers of television programming, bar none.  Some of the programs instituted under Self were Peyton Place (the first prime-time soap opera), Batman (the first prime-time series based on a comic book superhero) and Julia (the first weekly TV series to feature a black woman as the main character).  Other hit shows that Self had a hand in include Daniel Boone, 12 O’Clock High, Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Land of the Giants and Room 222.  Self passed away November 15th at the age of 89.

I’d be willing to bet that the state flag of West Virginia flew at half-mast on the day (November 28, at the age of 84) that Leslie Nielsen shuffled off this mortal coil; Nielsen, who did a number of promotional spots for the Mountain State’s Lottery back in 2001 was made an honorary Mountaineer the following year by then-Gov. Bob Wise for his efforts.  Before Leslie’s sidesplitting performance in the movie Airplane! and subsequent appearances in the TV series Police Squad! and the Naked Gun movies (a career choice that led Roger Ebert to dub Nielsen “the Olivier of comedy”), he was a straight-arrow actor known for such films as Forbidden Planet and The Sheepman and TV dramas like The New Breed, Dr. Kildare, Peyton Place and The Bold Ones (“The Protectors”).  I can’t help but snicker at the thought of a generation who laughed at Nielsen as Frank Drebin going back to some of the black-and-white stuff he did in the 1950s and 1960s and discovering that while Leslie was funny in those it wasn’t intentional.

If you’ve taken the time to sit down and watch any of the episodes from the DVD releases of classic TV series like The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Invaders or Cannon chances are you’ve probably seen the name of Alan Armer receiving a producer or executive producer credit.  Writer-director-producer Armer went to work for Quinn Martin Productions in 1959 after success on such shows as My Friend Flicka and Broken Arrow, and his involvement on The Fugitive was so instrumental to its success that the program won an Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series…and when he left the show in its final season the seams on Fuge really started to show.   Other series that benefited from Armer’s deft touch included the underrated oater Lancer and the short-lived 1973 series The Magician; we lost a true TV great on December 5 at the age of 88.

When I learned of character actress Neva Patterson’s passing on December 14 at the age of 90 via The Obit Patrol, the first thing that leapt into my mind was “That’s the evil dame from V!”  Patterson didn’t play one of the disguised lizard aliens in the original 1983 miniseries; she was Eleanor Dupres, mother of “freedom fighter” Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) who was perfectly willing to kowtow to the “Visitors” and their agenda if it meant power for her.  Evil…eeeeevilll!!!  But Patterson’s show business resume is much longer than that—she had high-profile roles in such films as An Affair to Remember (as the woman Cary Grant dumps for Deborah Kerr), Desk Set (as Spencer Tracy’s uptight assistant), David and Lisa and The Buddy Holly Story (as Ma Holly) and regular gigs on TV’s The Governor and J.J. and the underrated James Garner western Nichols (as Ma Ketcham, the other role for which she’s remembered here at TDOY).  (She later turned up in a memorable Bret Maverick episode as Emma Crittenden in “The Mayflower’s Women Historical Society,” and it was fun to see her get to work with Garner again.)  Before getting a foothold in films, Patterson made the rounds on radio with appearances on such shows as The Cavalcade of America and You are There.

Speaking of OTR roots, while cinephiles are aware of Blake Edwards’s lengthy movie resume that includes Operation Petticoat, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses, Experiment in Terror and—of course—the Pink Panther movie series they might not know that Edwards created two radio detective shows that later made the successful transition to TV—The Line-Up and Richard Diamond, Private Detective.  He also created the TV series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, both programs that utilized the music of Henry Mancini, with whom Edwards collaborated on many a feature film.  Edwards called it a wrap on December 15 at the age of 88.

Lastly, learning of actor/standup comedian Steve Landesburg’s death on December 20 at the age of 74 was a real blow because…well, this sort of goes back to my earlier observation about my father’s dislike of “scripted” television.  Papa does not embrace the sitcom in the manner that I do but he was a fan of Barney Miller when it was on the air and I used to watch it religiously with him…and Landesburg, who played the cerebral Detective Arthur P. Dietrich was my favorite because so many of my friends told me that I reminded them of him (the deadpan portion, I’m guessing—I’m not really all that bright).  Not that I’m throwing out major hints to any DVD companies (*cough* Sony *cough*) but it would nice to see a fourth (and a fifth…and a sixth…etc.) season of Miller on the schedule sometime soon so that future generations can remember Steve’s work on one of the best sitcoms in TV history.

There have been a few other celebrity demises since mid-October that I left out of this post only because I’m not as familiar with their work as I should be or they didn’t make the impact that the ones I listed here did…but I will make certain they get their due in a follow-up.

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