It’s a wrap
I garner a lot of reader response from my annual end-of-year tribute to film actors who passed away. People tell me they like that I included one of their favorites, or berate me (in a friendly way) about the ones I neglected. I can’t mention everyone, and my list is based in great part on personal preference. So here, in alphabetical order, is my farewell tribute to some of my favorites who passed into cinematic heaven in 2009.
Betsy Blair may be best remembered for being Gene Kelly’s wife and for her Academy Award-nominated performance in 1955’s Marty, as the shy woman the equally shy Ernest Borgnine goes for. Her career stalled during the McCarthy era, when she came under suspicion for being involved in left-wing causes. She penned a well-written autobiography, The Memory of All That (2003), which details her life and career and relationship with Kelly.
David Carradine The eldest son of actor John Carradine broke into films and television in the early 1960s (remember him as the title character in the short-lived Shane TV series?). Film stardom sort of eluded him, though he’s in one of my favorite 1970s exploitation films, Death Race 2000, and Quentin Tarantino played up his Kung Fu martial-arts image in the Kill Bill films.
Farrah Fawcett OK, so she never became a movie star. So what? She was the hottest thing on TV for young teen guys like me in the 1970s, and who can forget such cinematic flops as Somebody Killed Her Husband, Sunburn, Saturn 3, and The Cannonball Run? I wonder what I did with that classic swimsuit poster of her that I hung on the wall of my bedroom for about 20 years.
Karl Malden You didn’t leave home without your American Express card, thanks to him. (Too bad for me; I ran up considerable debt on it.) He was good in bad movies; better in great movies. Among his more impressive credits: The Gunfighter, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, and Patton. But I even like him in Phantom of the Rue Morgue (which co-stars a guy in a gorilla suit!) and the Dean Martin/Matt Helm flick Murderers’ Row. He wrote an excellent autobiography, When Do I Start?, in the late 1990s.
Ricardo Montalban “Movies were never kind to me; I had to fight for every inch of film,” he said in a 1970 interview. “Usually my best scenes would end up on the cutting-room floor.” Born in Mexico City in 1920, he was hired by MGM in the mid-1940s to be one of its Latin-lover types to do the breast stroke with Esther Williams. Now and then he scored in hard-hitting roles, as in Battleground and Border Incident. He worked continually in television from the mid-1950s until the 1980s, and made a welcome return to films in Star Trek: TheWrath of Khan. He may be best known for his hit TV series Fantasy Island.
Jane Randolph She was never a great actress, but she was in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (remember the famous swimming-pool scene?), the Bowery Boys’ film In Fast Company, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, so how can you complain? She was also memorable in a couple of Anthony Mann noirs. Randolph retired from films in the late 1940s and lived the life of a socialite in Europe.
Natasha Richardson Her unexpected death last March, after she took a fall in a skiing accident, shocked everyone. The daughter of director Tony Richardson and actress Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson was never afraid to tackle challenging roles in such films as Gothic, Patty Hearst (as the title character), The Handmaid’s Tale, and the creepy The Comfort of Strangers. She displayed a surprising flair for comedy too, as seen in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap.
Gale Storm She was the queen of Monogram Studios in the 1940s— high praise, in my view! She worked with Dan Duryea, Audie Murphy, The Three Stooges, Rod Cameron, and burlesque stripper Margie Hart before moving into a successful television career with My Little Margie. She also wrote an autobiography, I Ain’t Down Yet.
Joseph Wiseman He was a great actor. Wiseman was Dr. No, but that film’s success didn’t buy him a string of great films; he prospered instead on television and on stage. His notable films include the Paul Newman dud The Silver Chalice, the offbeat John Huston Western The Unforgiven, and the saucy comedy The Night They Raided Minsky’s (which I was really too young to see when I caught it in a drive-in back in 1968). “I had no idea it would achieve the success it did,” he later said of Dr. No, the first James Bond movie. “As far as I was concerned, I thought it might be just another grade-B Charlie Chan mystery.”
Also gone (but certainly not forgotten): Brittany Murphy, Jennifer Jones, Patrick Swayze, Pat Hingle, Arnold Stang, and Ron Silver, among others.
Finally, a local film celebrity almost passed away but got put back on life support: the Center for Contemporary Arts, reportedly slated to close at year’s end, got a reprieve. That means its respected Cinematheque, helmed by Jason Silverman, will continue to screen art-house, foreign-cinema, and retro film titles, offering patrons a view of other worlds. Applaud that last-minute save, ladies and gentlemen— that’s one obit I don’t want to write. ◀