Thursday, February 11, 2021

Farewell to Christopher Plummer & Other Fallen Favorites

There once was a thing called the Celebrity Death Rule of Threes, in which over a short period of time there were three well known figures who passed away. One example would be a week in September, 2003, in which Warren Zevon, John Ritter, and Johnny Cash died in quick succession. There are many other examples, but that one sticks out in my mind. The phenomenon is even mentioned in the Dirty Harry movie, THE DEAD POOL (1988).

But over the last several years or more, it seems that celebrities aren’t dying in threes; they’re simply dying daily as I feel like I’ve been posting obituary after obituary lately.

Last week, I just finished writing and posting my tribute to the great Hal Holbrook (read it here) when I learned that another great actor, Christopher Plummer, died. This is my attempt to catch up on paying respects to Plummer and a few other favorite folks who have recently passed, with hope before we lose any more legendary performers.

I’ll start with Plummer. As a kid, the first film I ever saw with the grand actor was Blake Edward’s 1975 comedy, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER. This movie, the third in the Peter Sellers Pink Panther series, wasn’t mentioned in many of Plummer’s obituaries, but it’s still notable to me as he appears to be acting in a very different movie than the one featuring Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau antics. Plummer was taking over the role of Sir Charles Litton aka “The Phantom” from David Niven, who played the part on the first movie in the franchise.

The next film of Plummer’s I saw was John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (also 1975). Plummer, billed third after Sean Connery and Michael Caine, portrayed legendary writer Rudyard Kipling, one of many historical figures he embodied including Leo Tolstoy, Captain Georg von Trapp, Julius Caesar, John Barrymore, Aristotle, Captain Christopher Newport, King Herod, and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace.

On the fictional character front, Plummer took on Abraham Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Nicholas Nickleby’s Uncle Ralph, Ebenezer Scrooge, Oedipus, and Santa Claus.

One role I had forgotten about was Plummer’s performance as the Shakespeare-quoting Klingon Commander Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. I was told by a few friends on Facebook that he also narrated the movie’s teaser trailer, and he voiced the character in two video games.

This wide range of roles, which only scratches the surface of Plummer’s career, shows that the man could bring his unique brand of dignity to every genre whether it would be a silly parody like DRAGNET, schlocky sci-fi like STARCRASH, romantic time-travel dramas like SOMEWHERE IN TIME, heist thrillers like THE SILENT PARTNER, psychological thrillers like DOLORES CLAIBORNE, rom coms like BEGINNERS, which won him his only Oscar; and multiple animated features including AN AMERICAN TAIL, BABES IN TOYLAND, THE GNOMES’ GREAT ADVENTURE, and the HOWARD LOVECRAFT franchise, which were among his final films.

Again, this is a broad overview largely because there’s a lot of Plummer’s filmography that I’ve not seen. I haven’t even seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC! Actually I think I saw parts of it in the ’80s but that still doesn’t count. I’ve admired his rich work thoroughly throughout the years, and hate seeing him go, but after over 200 performances, the 91-year old actor certainly deserves his rest.

R.I.P. Christopher Plummer (1929-2021)

Cloris Leachman, the most awarded actress in Emmy history, sadly passed away at the end of last month. Although primarily known for her work in television, she won an Academy Award for her role as lonely housewife Ruth Popper in Peter Bogdonavich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971).

But she’ll probably be best remembered as landlord Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Leachman was a delightfully acidic presence on the classic sitcom even if her spin-off show, Phyllis, wasn’t great (it only lasted two seasons).

Leachman’s turns in a few classic Mel Brooks movies (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, HIGH ANXIETY, and the lesser quality HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I) made up for that, as did her roles on Malcolm in the Middle and, oh jeez, I forgot she was on The Facts of Life! Leachman even voiced a character in BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA!!! Despite that last credit, she was a class act all the way. Sue Ann Nivens could not be reached for comment.

R.I.P Cloris Leachman (1926-2021)

Speaking of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I learned from a tweet by James L. Brooks that his old writing partner, Allan Burns, passed away on January 30. Burns co-created and wrote for The Munsters, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rhoda. He also wrote for The Bullwinkle Show, Get Smart, My Mother the Car, The Duck Factory, and the MTM spin-off shows, Phyllis, and Lou Grant. He also created Cap’n Crunch! Sounds like a comedy deity to me.

For more on Burns, I highly recommend the New York Times’ obituary by Richard Sandomir:

Allan Burns, a Creator of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Dies at 85

This image is from the That's Entertainment blog (2021)

R.I.P. Allan Burns (1935-2021)

Now, despite the title of the post, I can’t really say that Dustin Diamond was a favorite. Like some other folks posted, I’ve never saw the teen favorite sitcom Saved by the Bell, but somehow was aware of Diamond’s character Screech. As some folks do when hearing of someone’s demise, I read up on the actor and this is what I learned:

Things I didn't know about Dustin Diamond: His middle name was Neil - that's right, full name Dustin Neil Diamond. He put out a sex tape called Screeched – Saved by the Smell in 2006, which he acted in and directed. He was in a heavy metal band named Salty The Pocketknife for which he played bass and wrote many of the songs. He wrote a book called Behind the Bell that angered his Saved by the Bell co-stars. He did time for his involvement in a bar fight. Interesting life for sure.

Rest in Screech: Dustin Neil Diamond (1977-2021)

Another figure that I can’t say I’m a fan of is pornographer Larry Flynt, best known for his ultra sleazy magazine, Hustler, who died just a day ago. But I am a fan of MiloŇ° Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996), which is why I am featuring a still of Woody Harrelson playing Flynt in one of the film’s excellent court scenes. It’s how I prefer to think of him.

R.I.P. Larry Flynt (1942-2021)

More later...

Friday, February 05, 2021

Hal Holbrook: A Film Babble Blog Appreciation

arlier this week, one of my all time favorite actors, Hal Holbrook, passed away at 95. The grand performer brought his brand of folksy gravitas to many movies including ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, CAPRICORN ONE, MAGNUM FORCE, THE FOG, WALL STREET, THE FIRM, and INTO THE WILD, which earned him an Academy Award nomination (he should’ve won).

Holbrook’s presence also stole many episodes of such television shows as Evening Shade, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, Sons of Anarchy, NCIS, ER, and Designing Women, where he acted alongside his wife Dixie Carter.

But his defining role, one that nearly every obit had in their headlines, has to be as the legendary author and orator Mark Twain, who he portrayed 2,200 times over 63 years. The one-man show entitled Mark Twain Tonight, which Holbrook devised and updated through its long run, won the actor a Tony and an Emmy nomination for the CBS broadcast of the play in 1967. There were also three record albums featuring different performances of the material, one of which I own and consider great stand-up comedy (I need to seek out the others).

Here’s a clip from the 1967 special, Mark Twain Tonight (much of the rest of the program can be found on YouTube):

Back to his film work, as that’s how I first came to know him. The first film I saw of his when I was a kid was Peter Hyam’s CAPRICORN ONE (1978). The conspiracy thriller involved NASA faking a mission to Mars, and Holbrook was the Mission Controller who had to convince the astronauts, portrayed by James Brolin, Sam Waterson, and O.J. Simpson (!), to go along with the scheme.

This gave the grand thespian to do what he did best, deliver a wickedly compelling speech which you can watch here (ignore the foreign subtitles; I couldn’t find it without them).

Holbrook played essentially the same role, a dignified yet corrupt authority figure, in Hyam’s THE STAR CHAMBER. The 1983 Michael Douglas legal thriller concerned a secret group of judges who carry out sentences of criminals who beat the rap because of technicalities. This gave Holbrook the chance to make another great speech, but I can’t find it on YouTube so we’ll move on.

It’s possible that the part that led to these dark thrillers was his shadowy (literally he was bathed in the shadows of a dark parking garage) portrayal of Deep Throat, the informant whose meetings with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) helped break the scandal surrounding the Watergate break-in. It’s a small but incredibly juicy role, one so mysterious that we didn’t know who the real man it was based on until 30 years later when his identity was revealed to be FBI agent Mark Felt.

Holbrook’s distinguished demeanor was used to great effect in many parts with political leanings. In one of his earliest films, WILD IN THE STREETS, a wonderfully campy ‘60s romp about teen rebellion, he played a Senator trying to coral the youth vote. This has a crazy scene in which Holbrook and other legislators in Congress are dosed with LSD – quite a different take on an insurrection.

In the short-lived TV series, The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970-71), Holbrook plays another lawmaker, Senator Hays Stowe. He won his first Emmy of five for his performance which I have not seen, but will correct that soon (it’s available on DVD thankfully). He won another Emmy for his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln in the 1974 mini-series, Sandberg’s Lincoln

Holbrook also played Lincoln in the 1985 mini-series, North and South, and appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film LINCOLN, as Francis Preston Blair. In George Washington, a 1984 TV movie about the first President, he took on the role of John Adams, and played fictional Commander in Chiefs in The Kidnapping of the President, and UNDER SIEGE. So yeah, there was definitely something Presidential about the guy.

One of my favorite parts he played was in Oliver Stone’s 1987 financial thriller WALL STREET. As Charlie Sheen’s brokerage boss, it’s another small but juicy role, but every line Holbrook’s Lou Mannheim says packs a punch as you can see below:

This post just touches on Holbrook’s rich career as there is a lot of his work that I haven’t seen. I’m intrigued by a TV movie he made in the early ‘70s called That Certain Summer, in which Martin Sheen and he play a gay couple, but it looks like it’s hard to find. Incidentally he was in a few other projects with Sheen – WALL STREET, and The West Wing series.

Although he hasn’t acted since 2017, and he hung up his white suit as Twain a few years before that, I’m seriously going to miss this excellent actor. Luckily the bulk of his career is accessible, and will keep fans like me entertained for years to come.

R.I.P. Hal Holbrook (1925-2021)

More later...