The Way of the Word

23. August 2011

RIP Loriot

Born November 12, 1923, as Bernhard Victor Christoph-Carl von Bülow (short: Vicco) in Brandenburg an der Havel; died August 22, 2011 in Ammerland.

Vicco von Bülow was born in 1923 as the son of a Major of the police. Actually, the von Bülows were old German nobility who can trace their line back until 1154. After the divorce of his parents, he and his younger brother lived with their grandparents, until the father remarried in 1932. After graduating school, he followed his father’s advice and studied art in Hamburg. Upon graduation, he worked as a graphics designer, and became a cartoonist in 1950. At this time, he chose the pen name of Loriot. His success as a cartoonist took some time, it wasn’t until 1954 that his work was collected in book form.

His breakthrough was when he started to present the TV show Cartoon in 1967. While his presentation was originally completely serious and straight, it eventually developed into one of the show’s comedic highlights. He also started to produce his own animated shorts for this German TV program. After designing the mascot for a German charity (the dog Wum), he got his own TV show in the 1970s. The short films from this program are still being re-run on German TV. One of the various activities he pursued during his career was conducting opera.

He officially retired from TV in 2006, giving the reason that the medium had become so short-lived that it was no longer possible to produce quality comedy for it.

It’s possible but exhausting to list the awards he won during his career.

So, what can I add to everything that is being said about Vicco von Bülow now that he’s dead? Basically, as someone who grew up laughing at his jokes, I can confidently state that Germany is no longer funny. The funniest German ever has left us. At least we can always look back on his jokes.

25. June 2011

RIP Peter Falk

Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927 in New York, died June 23, 2011 in Beverly Hills, at the age of 83.

The actor Peter Falk was famous for two things. One of them being his glass eye, which he got after losing his right eye at the age of three. Which didn’t stop him from participating in team sports as a youth. He was actually considered a star athlete in high school. While the glass eye kept him from enlisting in the US armed forces during WW2, he did serve as a cook and mess boy in the merchant marines for a year and a half. After that, he initially signed up for Israeli army’s war against Egypt, but that war was over before the proverbial ink had dried. So he went back to university. Upon graduating, he tried to join the CIA, who rejected him because he had been a union member while in the merchant marines.

While working as an efficiency analyst for the city of Hartfort, he joined the local community theater. At the same time, he studied with Eva Le Gallienne; a class he lied to get into: Miss Le Gallienne only taught professional actors. When he was found out, and she told him he should be a professional actor, he quit his day job. Moving to New York, he became a successful stage actor. From 1958 to 1960, he also played small roles in movies.

His cinema breakthrough was the role of Abe Reles in the movie Murder, Inc. in 1960, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He got another nomination the following year for his part in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. During the same period, he also did some TV work, which also got him award nominations. He won the Emmy in 1962.

In 1968, he accepted a supporting role in the Gene Barry TV movie Prescription: Murder, a role that had been rejected by Bing Crosby. Prescription: Murder was something original at the time: a murder mystery from the murderer’s POV. Falk was cast as Barry’s foil, the police detective Lieutenant Columbo.

(Pause for effect.)

Now, if you haven’t heard of Columbo, you’re probably from another planet, and even then you’re likely to know of the character. Peter Falk played the unique, polite and much smarter than he appeared detective from 1968 until 1978. It wasn’t so much an ongoing TV series, but rather a series of TV movie specials.  The longest seasons were 2 and 3, with 8 episodes each.  It was revived in 1989, for more TV movies and specials until 2003. The people who worked on it were a real who-is-who of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg directed the first regular episode in 1971. Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, John Cassavetes, Mickey Spillane, Richard Kiley and George Hamilto are only a minor sampling of guest stars. Falk’s Columbo quickly became one of the most iconic sleuths in fiction, ranking with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. In parallel, he continued to make movies (preferring smaller, independent movies) and act on the stage.

After a series of dental operations in 2007, Peter Falk rapidly declined into dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This is the point where I usually explain what the person whose obit I wrote here meant to me. In this particular case, I don’t feel up to it.

I mean, this is Columbo we’re talking about, you know. If you didn’t love Columbo, that’s proof that you don’t have a soul.

24. June 2011

RIP Gene Colan

Born September 21, 1926 in New York, died June 23, 2011 (aged 84), after a broken hip and complications from a liver disease.

Gene Colan studied art at the Art Students League of New York and began working in comics in 1944, drawing for Fiction House’s Wing Comics. He joined the US armed forces just in time for the end of the war, but spent time serving with the US occupation forces in the Philippines, where he rose to the rank of corporal and drew for the Manila Times. Upon his return in 1946, he produced a short story, took it to Timely Comics and was hired on the spot, where he worked as a staff artist until Timely laid off almost all their staff in 1948. Colan turned to freelancing, especially for the company that would become DC Comics.

Upon the beginning of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Colan quickly established himself as one of the greatest artists working in American comics. He worked on Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man and most notably Daredevil.

With Daredevil as his signature superhero work, he became something of a household name when he teamed up with writer Marv Wolfman on the horror series The Tomb of Dracula, a book that he had actively lobbied to be assigned to. His dark, moodily-brooding pencils that were complimented by the work of inker Tom Palmer were probably a greater factor in the book’s success than Marv Wolfman’s inspired writing.

In the 1980s, he had a falling out with Marvel Comics and instead worked more for DC Comics, on books like Batman, Night Force or Wonder Woman.

He quite literally kept working until the end.

Colan was a multiple awards winner, like the Shazam Award (1974), the Eagle Award (1977, 1979), the Sparky Award (2008) and the Sergio Award (2009). He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the Silver Age, Colan had his very own style. It was a dark, shadowy and moody style. Personally, I always felt that he worked on some books where his style didn’t mesh (Captain America, for example), but on the right books (Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, Night Force, Nathaniel Dusk) it was really breathtaking. Colan is one of those few American comic artists whose work actually looks better when it’s stipped of the coloring, as you can easily see if you look at Marvel’s Essential Tomb of Dracula collections. He was one of the first artists who could make me excited for a new comics series: the only reason why I eagerly anticipated the coming of DC’s Night Force back in 1982, or that Nathaniel Dusk noir miniseries (1984) by a writer I didn’t know, were because it had Colan art, and he wasn’t doing superheroes.

In that regard, yes, it was funny: I was very much a superhero reader at the time, but I always felt that Colan was wasted on superheroes. His style was wrong for it, it was too different, too unique.  It was, in a word, distinctive, and by all accounts he struggled against the pressure from his higher-ups in order to keep it distinctive, rather than to conform to a house style or some momentary fashion. That alone should earn him respect and accolades. Of course, it helps that he was one of the best comics artists ever. His visual storytelling skills, his moody, shadowy and atmospheric style set him apart from most of his peers, and seriously, anyone who wants to work as a comic book artist should look at his work and learn from it.

Will he be missed? By those who knew him, certainly. I haven’t had the privilege, but I’m told he was one of the nicest people in the business. By the rest of us, his readers? Well, we still have the comics he drew to re-read and appreciate, and to make us thankful for everything he had to give to us.

23. February 2011

RIP Dwayne McDuffie

Born February 20, 1962; died February 21, 2011, from complications after emergency surgery at the age of 49.

Sometimes, these things come as a surprise and a shock. As in the case of Dwayne McDuffie, a prolific and extremely gifted writer. According to all sources, he seemed to be in fine health when he attended the All-Star Superman DVD premiere a few days earlier. According to reports, he died from complications from a surgical procedure performed on Monday night. So far, details are not known.

After a stint at radio and copyediting for a financial magazine, Dwayne had joined Marvel Comics as an assistant editor, and started to write for them in 1988. He went freelance in 1990, and founded Milestone Media in 1992. Milestone Media was a coalition of African-American comics creators, in order to express a multi-cultural sensibility that he felt was missing in comics. Several Milestone series were eventually published by DC Comics.

In the course of his career, Dwayne worked on high-profile series and characters such as Fantastic Four, Justice League of America, Batman, Iron Man and Spider-Man, to name just a very few. However, other than the Milestone comics (of which some characters, such as Static, became iconic in their own right), he definitely made his mark in animation.

Dwayne’s version of the Justice League in the animated Justice League Unlimited is lauded as perhaps the best version of these characters and concepts ever produced. In 2008, he revamped the Ben10 franchise. His most recent releases were the Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and All-Star Superman animated movies.

I didn’t know Dwayne in person, but we did interact online a couple of times. He was a smart, witty and very personable man; if you didn’t like Dwayne, there was something wrong with you.

He was a fantastic writer, a gifted writer, with a vision. He influenced a great many people in comics and animation not only by being there for them, but also by example. His passing is triply sad; not only did it seem that he was on the verge of receiving the recognition he deserved, not only was it too sudden and too soon, but it also robs the rest of us of those stories he hadn’t gotten around to telling yet.

16. January 2011

RIP Susannah York

Born Susannah Yolande Fletcher, January 9, 1939, died January 15, 2011, of cancer.

Nerd alert: if I think Susannah York, I think of Superman’s mom, Lara, in Superman 1, 2 and 4.  She was, of course, much more than that.

Susannah York’s movie debut was 1960, in the movie Tunes of Glory, where she played alongside Sir Alec Guiness. She also performed in the award winning movies Tom Jones (1963), A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Battle of Britain (1969).

While the Superman series might have been what imprinted her on a whole generation of nerds, her crowing moment in movies was probably the 1970 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a movie about couples who try to win a dance marathon in the depression era. Susannah York was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role of Alice in this one, but stepped on the Academy’s toes when she declared that she felt offended that she was nominated without being asked first. The Oscar subsequently went to Goldie Hawn. One wonders… She did get the BAFTA for the same role, though.

Although she did a lot of work for movies and TV, York claimed she was happiest on a theater stage, where she felt she truly belonged.

She also wrote two children’s books, In Search of Unicorns and Lark’s Castle, and was politically active.

30. November 2010

RIP Peter Hofmann

Peter Hofmann was born on August 22, 1944, in Marienbad (Germany) and died on November 29, 2010 in Selb (Germany) at the age of 66, apparently of pneumonia.

Hofmann joined a rock band as a singer and bass player at the age of 16. Before that, he was an exceptional athlete, and during his time as a Bundeswehr conscript he served as a paratrooper. He used the money he got when he retired from the Bundeswehr to finance his training as a singer at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe. He gave his debut as an opera singer (he was a tenor) in Lübeck in 1972 as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte. His breakthrough came in 1976, when he sang the role of Siegmund at the Bayreuther Festspiele. He sang there for 14 years. Afterwards, he sort of specialized in singing Wagner operas. His voice started to fail him in 1990, and he ended his career as an opera singer.

Parallel to opera, he performed as a rock singer and published several very successful albums. After retiring from opera, he joined the cast of Hamburg’s stage of The Phantom of the Opera, where he sang the title role during 300 performances. In 1997, he played Old Firehand in the Bad Segeberg performance of Winnetou and Old Firehand.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1994, but managed to conceal it with self-discipline and medication. He finally revealed his disease in 1999, and ended his career with his Christmas tour in 2000. After that, he suffered a fairly rapid and severe physical decline.  At the end, he was unable to speak, to eat without assistance, and he was bound to a wheelchair.

Looking at the above, his death was probably a kindness. His image at least was that of a very physical and athletic person, and for someone like that being so physically decreipt must have been the proverbial fate worse than death.

I still remember when I first heard him. It was when his debut rock album, Rock Classics, came out. I had no idea who he was, I just heard a song from the album on the radio and thought, “This guy will fail in the business. Because he can actually sing.” I found out afterwards that he was actually already a famous opera singer who was, let’s say, slumming in popular music. I loved his interpretations of those rock songs (and C&W), and his own songs as well. I have several of his albums, and I’m actually listening to one of them as I type this.

He made opera cool.


29. November 2010

RIP Irvin Kershner

Irvin Kershner was born on April 29, 1923 and died on November 29, 2010, at the age of 87.

The second shock today, after the death of Leslie Nielsen.

Irvin Kershner had a background in music and art, and attended the Temple University – Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Then he went to New York and Princeton, to study under the famous paiting teacher Hans Hofmann, before he went to study photography at the LA Art Center of Design.

His film career began as a teacher of photography at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he also studied cinema. He went on to work as a photographer for the US State Department, which led to assignments as a director and cinematographer of documentaries about Iran, Turkey and Greece. After his return to the US, he did television work, developing and directing the TV series The Rebel, as well as several TV pilots. Then he turned his attention to feature films, and directed several that were both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, such as A Fine Madness, The Flim-Flam Man and The Eyes of Laura Mars.

I don’t think I need to do more than list the titles of his three best-known movies. If you read this, you probably know what I’m talking about just by the titles.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

James Bond: Never Say Never Again (1983, with Sean Connery as Bond)

RoboCop 2

Today is a black day to be a geek and a movie buff.

RIP Leslie Nielsen

Born February 11, 1926, in Saskatchewan (Canada); died November 28, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, of pneumonia, at the age of 84.

According to his family, he died peacefully in his sleep.

It’s nearly impossible to list all the movies and TV roles he played in the course of his life. According to his Wikipedia page, he played in 100 movies and 1,500 TV programs, portraying more than 220 characters.

Can you say “Wow?” Then say, “Wow.”

Let’s face it: Nielsen was part of a very cool family. His father was a Mountie. His brother Erik was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s. His uncle was Jean Hersholt, a very famous silent film and radio actor of his time.

Nielsen actually credits his uncle as the inspiration to become an actor. Which he set about for after WW2, during which he was trained as an aerial gunner, but the war ended before he saw any action. After the war, he worked as a DJ and enrolled in the Lorne Greene (yes, that Lorne Greene) Academy of Radio Arts. While there, he received a scholarship for the Neighborhood Playhouse acting academy in New York.

He made his first TV appearance on an episode of Studio One, alongside Charlton Heston. Two years later, he had about 50 TV appearances to his credit. His feature film debut was 1956, in The Vagabond King, where he caught the eye of Producer Nicholas Hayfack, who offered him a part in the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. The movie was a big hit in the 1950s, and lived on to be a classic of the genre. It led to more work, and Nielsen got to play both dramatic and romantic roles.

After he left MGM, he was all over the place. The next couple of years saw him on TV shows like Rawhide, Hawaii 5-0, Big Valley, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, M*A*S*H… As a rule of thumb, you can almost say that if it was on TV, Leslie Nielsen was there. He also did a lot of movies.

I don’t know how he felt about it, but with 20/20 hindsight… He had a strong start with Forbidden Planet, but after leaving MGM his career didn’t really follow as strongly. He was lucky for an actor, he always worked. But nothing really stood out, he didn’t became a star.

Not until 1980. Not until Airplane!. (In my opinion, the funniest movie ever made.) Again, he played a supporting role in this comedy movie, and delivered one of the most memorable movie quotes of all: “Surely, you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” When the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, the men behind Airplane!, decided to bring their type of humor to television, they cast Leslie Nielsen as the main character for their TV series, Police Squad.  It ran for only 6 episodes in 1982. Nielsen’s character was a spoof of all the straight-laced police detectives of that era’s TV shows, a detective named Frank Drebin.

Nielsen, who had not worked in comedy outside of his Airplane! appearance, continued to do horror, drama, mystery and everything else. In 1988, the Zuckers decided to make a feature film based on Police Squad, and they knew they couldn’t do it without Frank Drebin.

The movie came out in 1988: The Naked Gun. If I need to say more, then you aren’t worth talking to. Anyway, The Naked Gun spawned two sequels, in 1991 and 1994, and made Nielsen into a comedy star.

On the downside, it typecast him: the characters he played after The Naked Gun were mostly thinly disguised Frank Drebin copies in spoofy of genres and popular movies: Father Jebedaiah Mayii in Repossessed (a personal favorite), a parody of the Exorcist movies. Dracula: Dead and Loving it. Spy Hard. Wrongfully Accused. 2001: A Space Travesty.  He played Mr. Magoo in the live-action version of the cartoon. Most of these movies were both critical and box-office failures.

In 1993, he published The Naked Truth, a Naked Gun-style absurdist novel pretending to be his autobiography.

He remained an active actor throughout his life. His last credits were Stonerville (2010) and the upcoming The Waterman Movie. Always busy, always working.

Since the 1980s, Nielsen’s image had become that of a clown, and he played that image to the hilt in his public appearances. However, a German journalist who interviewed him once wrote that at the beginning of the interview, Nielsen had been his standard absurd and silly persona. But once he realized that the interviewer wasn’t really interested in that, he became a well-spoken, well-informed, intelligent and thoughtful conversationalist. The Leslie Nielsen the world saw was not the real one. It was an act.

I was very sorry to hear of his death this morning. But he was 84, he was very good and successful at what he did, which was to make people happy, and he died peacefully in his sleep. A man can’t really ask for more.

 

11. November 2010

RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Born August 8, 1919 as Agostino de Laurentiis in Torre Annunziata (Italy), died November 11, 2010 in Los Angeles at age 91.

Like a lot of these obituaries that I post here, this came as something of a shock. For one thing, I had no idea he was even still alive. Then again, since he was a producer, he was more behind the scenes, with the actors and directors hogging the spotlight of his films.

His biography indicates a man who always knew exactly what he wanted, and who went about to get it. He dropped out of school at the age of 17 because he wanted to work in the movie business, and had his first acting role in a movie in 1938: Il grandi magazzini. During WW2, he served in the Italian army, afterwards he started to produce movies. His first credit as a producer was the Aquila Nera (1946). His first international success was the 1949 Riso amaro (Bitter Rice), directed by Guiseppe de Santis. The same year, he married the Italian actress Silvia Mangano, a marriage that was to last until her death in 1989.

He joined forces with fellow Italian producer Carlo Ponti, and together they produced several prestigious films. Most notably La Strada (directed by Federico Fellino and starring Anthony Quinn), which won several international awards, including the Oscar. Together, the two also produced the first Italian movie in color. De Laurentiis and Ponti broke up because De Laurentiis had a taste for huge blockbusters that Ponti didn’t quite share in this way.

And boy, did he produce them. Some bombed, inevitably, such as Hurricane, or Tai Pan, or the 1976 King Kong remake, or Maximum Overdrive. But whether they were bombs or hits, or controversial, or attracted a cult following, or became critical darlings, they always, always attracted attention.

I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard of at least some of these (in no particular order):

Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Death Wish, Orca, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising, Army of Darkness, Dune, The Last Legion, Danger: Diabolik, Ragtime…

And those are only a very few, which he produced after he moved from Italy to Hollywood. De Laurentiis went bankrupt a couple of times. His companies went out of business. But he never stopped making movies. His six children are also in various ways associated with the movie business. Most notably his daughter Rafaella, who is almost as famous a producer as Dino.

My own view of De Laurentiis films was that they were upscale B-List. The production values were usually not first rate. It was usually visible that the production had to remember their budgets. What they did have, always, was spectacle. Show. Grandeur.

In a word: fun.

Looking back, it seems clear that the artistic leanings of the movies he made before relocating to Hollywood were not so much his doing but rather that of his partner, Carlo Ponti. Granted, some of the movies he made after separating from Ponti and before going to Hollywood try to combine the best of both worlds: art and spectacle.

His last movie was 2007’s Virgin Territory, a romantic comedy based on the classic Decameron, starring Hayden Christensen and Misha Barton. That and the fact that it went straight to DVD in the US should tell you all you need to know about it. So let’s rather consider The Last Legion (also 2007) , which was much more of a success, De Laurentii’s last movie, okay?

I look at the list of the movies he produced, and I am shocked, shocked I say, at how many of them I have seen. At how many of them I have among my DVDs. Of course I haven’t always enjoyed the movies he made. But usually, yes, I did. I for one will definitely miss the particular brand of over-the-top craziness that his movies usually had.

De Laurentii’s took creative risks. That’s why his companies failed several times. But he always came back, and did the same as before: think big, take chances, be a little bit off-beat. So what if his movies failed? If they did, they failed spectacularly. And even many of the failures live on as cult hits. I’ll bet they’ll be remembered when the last 10 years of Hollywood remakes will be long forgotten. Today’s Hollywood suits should look at De Laurentiis’s resume and learn from it: it’s good to take risks, it’s good to be creative, and if you fail, you can rebuild from the goodwill that your creativity has earned you.

Rest in peace, Dino De Laurentiis. You will be missed, not in the least because there is no real worthy successor.

16. October 2010

RIP Simon MacCorkindale

Simon Charles Pendered MacCorkindale (born February 12, 1952 in Ely, UK) lost his four-year battle against cancer on 14 October 2010 in London, UK. He was 58 years old.

Most people associate the actor with a short-lived scifi-action-TV series that was broadcast in the 1980s: Manimal. In this show, which lasted 8 episodes, MacCorkindale played the lead, Dr. Jonathan Chase, a scientist who could transform himself into any animal he chose, and used that ability to fight crime. In the years since, the show moved on to become a camp cult classic.

While it was something of his main claim to fame, MacCorkindale frequently proved that he was a far better actor than that. After his original plan to become a pilot for the RAF (like his father) failed because of bad eyesight, he joined the theater instead, intending to become a director. He then joined a drama school to learn acting, in order to better understand actors and be a better director. Instead, he became the school’s star pupil and remained an actor.

In the years after that, he appeared on stage and in several highly acclaimed British TV productions, such as I, Claudius and Jesus of Nazareth. In 1978, at age 25, he made the jump to the US to play Simon Doyle in the movie Death on the Nile. It would have been his breakthrough role, but when he refused to lose his British accent, he discovered that producers wouldn’t hire him because of that: he sounded too intellectual. With movie roles few and far between, he did a lot of television work and appeared in Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, Dynasty, Matt Houston and a host of others. He had a recurring role in Falcon Crest and co-starred with Christopher Plummer in the Canadian/French TV action series Counterstrike. In the last few years, he had a continuing role in the British TV series Casualty.

MacCorkindale was of the same school of charming and debonair British actors as Pierce Brosnan. He’s actually frequently mentioned in the same breath as Brosnan, because they have something in common: in the 1980s, both were considered for the lead part in the James Bond movies. As the story goes, MacCorkindale did not get the role because the producers were concerned that people would be unable to pronounce his name.

You can count me among those who liked Manimal. Every Saturday, I would sit by the TV and be entertained by the rather silly stories the series told. What carried that show was not so much the stories or the cheesy/cheap special effects, but the sense of dignity MacCorkindale projected throughout. It always felt as if he was not an actor trapped in a bad show, it felt as if he was in on the joke, but wasn’t fazed by it and bore it with grace.

Other than Death on the Nile and Manimal, I also enjoyed The Sword and the Sorcerer, where he played a minor character to Lee Horseley’s barbarian hero. I remember being disappointed when someone else was picked to be James Bond.

In this spirit, let me end this on something else than the Manimal into that I expect everyone else will use to torment you.

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