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Archive for the ‘Obituaries’ Category

King Richard

Richard Matheson died on Sunday, June 23, at the age of 87, leaving behind a lovely wife of 60 years, three generations of literal descendants in the family that was always his greatest pride and joy (e.g., the three successful writers he sired), and at least as many metaphoric ones among the creators consciously or unconsciously affected by his incalculably influential 63-year career.  We were never as close as I would have liked, and he hadn’t responded to my attempts to reach him over the past year, so I intuited that something was up.  Yet he had nothing but kind words to say about my many efforts on his behalf, and the hundreds of pages I have written about the man and his work speak for themselves.  He will be sorely missed.

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When Carmine Infantino worked for Marvel in the late 1970s, penciling extended runs of Nova, Spider-Woman, and Star Wars, he was frankly one of my least favorite artists, yet I am the first to admit that his contribution to the comic-book industry, without which there might never have been a Fantastic Four or a Marvel Comics as we know it, cannot be overstated.  In 1956, he and writer Robert Kanigher were given six months to turn around the fortunes of the Flash, and their revamped version (which debuted in Showcase #4 and played to Infantino’s flair for fast-paced, dynamic action) is now considered the start of the post-Wertham Silver-Age revival of the super-hero genre.  Difficult though it may be to believe today, Batman was in similar straits by 1964, and Infantino—who later rose through DC’s ranks as art director, editorial director, and publisher—worked with writer John Broome to create the character’s “new look,” which inspired the successful but divisive live-action TV series.

Margalit Fox’s New York Times obituary also credits Infantino with luring Jack Kirby away from Marvel, “a coup akin to the Yankees’ acquisition of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox,” so you could even say he was indirectly responsible for my beloved Bronze Age…

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The Dreyfus Case

My friend Tom, who hosts our insufficiently frequent Movie Nights, has a legendary antipathy for the work of writer-director Blake Edwards, but while no big fan myself, I always make an exception for his first four Pink Panther films. I mention them today because for 30 years, the steadily deteriorating series gave Czech-born, British-based actor Herbert Lom, who passed away in his sleep on September 27 at the venerable age of 95, a rare chance to show his comedic side as Charles Dreyfus, the long-suffering and increasingly deranged superior of Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Like Kato (Burt Kwouk), Clouseau’s seemingly indestructible manservant, Dreyfus was one of the supporting characters introduced in the second entry, A Shot in the Dark (1964), which was written by Edwards and sometime collaborator William Peter Blatty (yes, that one).

Lom starred in the original London production of The King and I in 1953, and appeared with Sellers and Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955); his film credits also include the original Night and the City (1950), Fire Down Below (1957), Spartacus (1960), and El Cid (1961). Hell Drivers (1957) featured the actors later known for portraying agents James Bond (Sean Connery), John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), while I Accuse! (1958) was an account of the real-life Dreyfus Case directed by its star, José Ferrer, and scripted by the late Gore Vidal. But in later years, Lom was increasingly typecast in genre movies, e.g., Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), the infamous Mark of the Devil (1970), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), Asylum (1972), —And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), The Dead Zone (1983).

From Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) to Masque of the Red Death (1989), Lom made a dozen films with writer-producer Harry Alan Towers, often featuring the latter’s wife and producing partner, then known as Maria Rohm. Most notable were Jesus Franco’s 99 Women (1969) and Count Dracula (1970), two versions of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (1974 and ’89), and adaptations of Oscar Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970) and Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989). Count Dracula added Professor Van Helsing to Lom’s literary and historical roles: Napoleon (The Young Mr. Pitt, 1942 and War and Peace, 1956), Herod Antipas (The Big Fisherman, 1959), Captain Nemo (Mysterious Island, 1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Simon Legree (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1965), General Huerta (Villa Rides, 1968), and the apostle Barnabas (Peter and Paul, 1981).

“Herbert’s death really affected me,” Maria told me. “I liked him very, very much. I loved him in all his roles, he had a great screen presence, and he was a true gentleman of the old school. We used to talk for hours about the world, aristocracy, and the terrors of WWII, which had affected him so sadly. When Herbert went to London at the beginning of the war [fleeing the Nazis], he took his then girlfriend with him, whose papers were not in order, and she was sent back and died. I don’t have any anecdotes as Herbert was not a man of antics. Even in Isfahan [where the ’74 Indians was shot at the remote Shah Abbas Hotel in the Iranian desert], where all kinds of trouble went down, Herbert always managed to keep out of any unpleasantness. He was so very proper and genteel, cultured and most enjoyable to be around. He had studied philosophy before he left for London.”

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Actress/producer Maria Towers has very kindly made my tribute to her late husband, Harry Alan Towers, a separate page on the website that bears her screen name, Maria Rohm.  But you should check it out anyway:  it has trailers, clips, stills, and posters from many of her films, some of which we’ve talked about here, e.g., Count Dracula, Ten Little Indians.  There’s lots of other goodies as well (even an allusion to Robot Monster that I’ll let you find for yourselves), so click without delay and tell ’em BOF sent you.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for publication alerts regarding my James Bond article in Cinema Retro and, if all goes according to plan, a reprinting of my interview with the late Ray Bradbury in Filmfax.

And, as long as I’m here, let me say a brief and long-overdue word about the passing of Ernest Borgnine, who occupied a place in my pantheon similar to that of Robert Shaw.  If you asked me whether either man was one of my favorite actors per se, I’d have to say no, yet each appeared in a disproportionate number of my favorite films.  In Borgnine’s case, that would include—among the B100 alone—The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), John Sturges’s Ice Station Zebra (1968), and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).

But that’s just the tip of the iceBorg.  His diverse filmography also includes the likes of Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity (1953), Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Richard Brooks’s The Catered Affair (1956; adapted by the late Gore Vidal from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky of Altered States fame), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).  Borgnine’s fruitful association with director Robert Aldrich dated back to Vera Cruz (1954), during his early days as an omnipresent Western heavy, and in addition to Phoenix and Dozen included The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Flynn-fave Emperor of the North (1973), and Hustle (1975).

As a former employee of GoodTimes Entertainment, I even wrote jacket copy for a credit with which few people are probably familiar:  Ernest Borgnine on the Bus, a video documentary in which Ernie toured the heartland of the U.S. at the wheel of his customized luxury bus, The Sunbum, while reminscing about his career.  Film fans are also fortunate enough that he lived long enough for his autobiography, Ernie, to be released by Citadel (publisher of The Twilight and Other Zones) in 2008.  So instead of asking—as he was so famously asked in his breakthrough role as Chayefsky’s Marty (1955)—“What do you wanna do tonight?,” go watch some Borgnine.  We’ll miss you, Ernie.

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Epitomizing the expression “one-two punch,” Rex’s nominal owner, Madame BOF’s middle-school friend Diane Robinson, died today of a heart attack at 49, making our permanent custodianship of Foster Rat #3 official.  Her decades of health problems–encompassing some 70 allergies (at least half of them to various foods, which made dining out with her a unique experience), legal blindness, diabetes and, most recently, a failed kidney transplant–are well beyond the scope of this post, if not the entire blog.  But after pronouncing poor Mina’s death sentence yesterday, we received word that Diane, too, was on her last legs, and before doing our best to welcome my Mom for her birthday dinner, we decided to visit Diane at Danbury Hospital, where my daughter was born; we’re certainly glad we did.

Convinced that the bed and then the chair provided in her room were exacerbating her allergies, the increasingly irrational Diane (who tended toward the misanthropic and paranoid at the best of times) insisted on having the bed removed and inhabiting the floor.  When we arrived, she had recently received the Last Rites from the hospital chaplain and was surrounded by a semicircle of her long-suffering parents–whom she constantly harangued and accused of trying to browbeat her–sister, niece, and nephew.  Diane believed that if she could get certain foods they did not provide, she might get strong enough to have her catheter replaced and resume dialysis, so before leaving, we ran to the supermarket and brought back what she’d asked for, but obviously by today, her poor tortured body had simply had enough and gave up.

As long as I can remember, Diane (whom I met when Madame BOF and I became friends in high school) had had a series of rodents as pets, and after the last one died of cancer, she naturally wanted to do what she always did, and get another one right away.  My wife advised against it, since at that point she was in between increasingly frequent periods of hospitalization, but Diane’s tears persuaded Loreen, who would do anything for a friend, not only to take her to the pet store to buy Rex (earmarked as snake food), but also to board him until the time was right for him to go “home,” which it clearly never was.  For weeks, we had believed that Mina’s irregular eating was due at least in part to Rex’s presence increasing her sister’s innate aggression, making Lucy intimidate her, and were desperate to relieve ourselves of the otherwise inoffensive creature, but now that the causes of Mina’s problems are irrelevant, it no longer matters.

Final score:  Rats 1, People/Cats/Snakes 0.

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Welcome to the House of Feline Death.  Got any young, seemingly healthy cats you want eliminated?  Send ’em right on over and we’ll take care of ’em.  Our track record is outstanding:  we’ve killed three cats since we moved into this place in 1998.  Oh, we didn’t literally kill them.  We love animals too much to do that.  It was the curse that did it.  It’s not bad enough that all I seem to be able to post here anymore is obituaries; now it’s one of our own.

Today, just three years and nine days after we lost Muffin, our beloved shelter cat Mina made that one-way trip to the vet.  Weeks of increasingly worrisome behavior, inconclusive diagnoses, and ineffectual treatment had already led us to schedule a follow-up appointment at the vet for Thursday morning.  Must remember to cancel that appointment.  Last night, I got home from work–riding high after getting my affairs in order at the office for a five-day weekend and picking up a bucket of KFC–only to come crashing down to earth when I found Mina staggering around like a drunk and walking into things.

I called Madame BOF at work, but she’d already left, so I sweated it out until she arrived and then we raced Mina to the emergency clinic, where they advised us to have her admitted for testing and stabilization.  Reluctant to leave her alone for the first time since we brought her and her sister Lucy home, but reassured that we were leaving her in the hands of professionals who could care for her far better than we could, we went home and watched an Eddie Izzard video in an attempt to take our minds off of things.

Around 4:30 (only about two hours after we’d gone to bed, since we are both off today), the call came:  some unidentified event during the night had left her unable to breathe on her own, and apparently without any higher-brain function.  We drove back over–in the rain, of course–into a scene from our personal Hell.  Hooked up to a respirator, with her vital signs fluctuating all over the place, Mina appeared to be oblivious to our presence and, to be blunt, looked like she was already dead.  The vet said he’d give it a little more time to see if she could resume breathing on her own, but he was not optimistic, despite Loreen’s customary fierce desire to fight it any way we could.

So we trudged home and passed out for a few more hours, until Lucy came into the bedroom looking for her breakfast, as usual.  I accommodated her, and thus happened to be standing right by the phone in the kitchen when it rang.  The doctor said that Mina had remained totally unresponsive, the cause of her condition still completely unknown (with most of the likelier possibilities being extremely unlikely for a cat of her age), and that there was virtually no hope of her getting better.  So, after a quick and tearful discussion with Loreen, I authorized them to put her to sleep.  The doctor said that if we came back to see her again, it would be solely for our benefit, and if I’d thought that Mina would have derived an ounce of comfort from our presence, I’d have been there in a shot, but as it was, going back seemed like it would do more harm than good.

Loreen is beside herself with grief, rage, and resentment at God for playing this sick joke on us.  Once again, after thousands of dollars and countless tears, one of our cats has died a protracted death with no clear diagnosis; once again, a four-year-old cat (the affectionate one, naturally) that had no business dying of natural causes has done just that.  And that’s not to mention the fact that we also endured the deaths of two foster rats, Renfield and Friend, and now have had a third one, Rex, thrust upon us with no realistic expectation that he will ever be able to go to his nominal owner (a chronically hospitalized friend of Madame BOF’s), having lived with us since the day he was purchased and saved from becoming snake food.

I had planned to take the next two days off partly so that I could care for Mina after tomorrow’s appointment, but now it looks like they will give me ample opportunity to mourn her.  At least I’ll be company for Lucy, who will then have to adjust to the long workdays alone.  Regardless of what the calendar says, I know this is going to feel like the longest day of the year, and on top of that we have to try to put on a happy face, because we’d invited my Mom over to celebrate her birthday today.  There’s no point in cancelling, just so that we could sit here and mope, and at least Mom is low-key and will be sympathetic and considerate.  Maybe we’ll put on a movie to distract ourselves again.

In the meantime, I hope Lucy will stick around for a while, because after this, I’m sure she’s the last cat Loreen will ever allow us to have.

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I already had a vaguely positive impression of Nora Ephron’s work, albeit somewhat muddled by the profusion of fellow screenwriters bearing her surname. She was the daughter of playwrights and scenarists Henry and Phoebe Ephron–whose extensive joint filmography includes such standbys as There’s No Business Like Show Business (1955), Daddy Long Legs (1956), and Desk Set (1957)–and the sister of Amy and frequent collaborator Delia Ephron. She also had an interesting assortment of spouses: author and sometime Playboy contributor Dan Greenburg, whose novel The Nanny was the basis for William Friedkin’s notorious The Guardian (1990); Carl Bernstein of All the President’s Men fame, whose exploits inspired Nora’s autobiographical novel and 1986 film Heartburn; and Nicholas Pileggi, who adapted his own work into Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).

Then, when I heard the news this morning of her death yesterday at 71, and was reminded of some of her credits, I went “Whoa!” I associate her most readily with rom-com stuff like Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and such auteur efforts as Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998); in fact, from This Is My Life (1992) on, she directed her own work in everything except the 2000 films Lucky Numbers, which she did not write, and Diane Keaton’s Hanging Up, which she and Delia adapted from the latter’s novel. But she also co-scripted the super-serious Silkwood (1983), which was directed by one of my favorites, Mike Nichols, and proved to me that Cher could act, with all three rightly nominated for Oscars, as was leading lady Meryl Streep.

I liked Mail more than Seattle, primarily because I thought it was a rare example of a justifiable remake, with Internet anonymity proving a perfect modern-day analog for the pseudonymous letters unwittingly exchanged by coworkers in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop around the Corner (1940). I remember admiring her first Steve Martin vehicle, Herbert Ross’s My Blue Heaven (1990), and not minding her second, Mixed Nuts (1994); typically, as a slobbering Nicole Kid-fan, I even enjoyed one of their most widely panned efforts, Bewitched (2005). And I loved Julie & Julia (2009), with its brilliant rendition of Julia Child by Streep (who had played the fictionalized Ephron opposite Jack Nicholson in Nichols’s Heartburn), which as far as I’m concerned ended Nora’s career on a high note.

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