Monthly Archives: February 2005

Dead Folks 2005, Music

Dead Folks 2005, Music

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.


By David Pelfrey, Ed Reynolds, J.R. Taylor

February 24, 2005
Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw (click for larger version)

Music fans, especially big band enthusiasts, love and respect Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. But if any were forced to take just one bandleader’s work to a desert island, or place the same CD or vinyl album in a time capsule, they might very well choose one by Artie Shaw (94). The clarinet-playing bandleader, in at least three recordings, offered definitive tracks of the swing era: the lilting “Frenesi” (a Shaw original last used to great effect in Woody Allen’s Radio Days), a flowing, magnificent arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which practically blew Benny Goodman off the charts, and a stunning rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” one of the most instantly recognizable recordings in popular music. Another of Shaw’s compositions, “Nightmare,” is a sultry, gloomy three minutes that evolved into the distinctive sound of films noir, as the scores for countless detective thrillers and crime melodramas all hearken, in some way, to Shaw’s 1938 recording. Throw in the fact that Shaw was a virtuoso clarinetist with looks that made all the girls cry, and it’s understandable that in 1939 there wasn’t a bigger star in the music galaxy.

Shaw’s musical ability was not matched by an ability to win friends or influence people; he broke up bands almost as soon as they made the big time. He wasn’t an egotist, but as a pathological perfectionist he was often devoid of patience with anything or anybody. Oddly enough, that in no way prevented the exceedingly handsome musician from being a ladies’ man (Lana Turner and Ava Gardner are numbered among his many brides), nor did Shaw’s irascibility imply insensitivity. It was Shaw’s idea to work publicly with black composers and players (Billie Holiday was the band’s lead vocalist for a short while), and he was an outspoken advocate for black musicians throughout his career.

Nonetheless, he wasn’t called “the reluctant king of swing” for nothing. Shaw regarded celebrity as an impediment to creative excellence, so his public performances temporarily came to a halt just before 1940. He organized several other groups during the war years and began performing again, but he was never completely comfortable with touring. Although he was approaching new heights in the 1940s and 50s by moving away from swing and into jazz, in 1954 he simply walked away from the music scene to take up a number of other pursuits. —D.P.

Elmer Bernstein

Speaking of his collaboration with Bernstein (82), Martin Scorcese said, “It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it. It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”

The gifted composer didn’t just create marvelous, memorable films scores; he elevated the lyric quality of incidental music in movies. Bernstein’s legacy includes more than 200 movie scores, 50 years in the film industry, and an inestimable influence on three generations of film composers. So engaging and appropriate were his best works that it is difficult to imagine certain films without their scores. The rousing theme to The Magnificent Seven (later the “Marlboro man” theme until cigarettes ads were banned from television) is a textbook example, being cowboy music par excellence; its distinct “great American West” motif derives from Aaron Copland, under whom Bernstein studied. The martial, upbeat march from The Great Escape (1963) is another instance where melody and tone perfectly suit subject and style. Yet if ever there was a movie score that defined a film’s style, it must be the pure jazz score (a first for a Hollywood film) for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), a downbeat, gritty melodrama starring Frank Sinatra that dared to explore drug addiction. The first minutes of Bernstein’s gripping score pretty much establish that things aren’t going to go well.

Indeed, the composer had a natural ability to convey urban angst and mean-street sensibility, as the jazzy, sleazy themes for Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on the Wild Side, and Some Came Running indicate. Yet for minimal orchestration and gentle, lyric passages, Bernstein also displayed an innate skillfulness; the tender, wistful score for To Kill a Mockingbird is exhibit A in that regard. His music is also associated with Hollywood actors and icons, most obviously John Wayne, for whom Bernstein provided scores for The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, and several others. He worked with Martin Scorcese on seven projects, notably The Age of Innocence and The Grifters, the latter being an example of Bernstein’s interest in various offbeat and independent productions such as Rambling Rose, Far From Heaven, My Left Foot, and The Field.

Bernstein’s stunning versatility is apparent from this partial list of compositions: Hud, The World of Henry Orient, Animal House, The Gypsy Moths, An American Werewolf in London, The Carpetbaggers, The Great Santini, the ballet music for Oklahoma and Peter Pan, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “The Films of Ray and Charles Eames,” and themes for “The Rookies,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Ellery Queen.” —David Pelfrey


Jerry Goldsmith

Last year when the record label Varese Sarabande announced the release of a series of film scores entitled “Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox,” orders started coming in the next day. The first run of the boxed set sold out nine days later. Put another way, everybody digs Jerry Goldsmith (75). His name might not ring a bell, but the motion picture scores and television themes Goldsmith arranged or composed for more than half a century certainly do. A deadly serious student of music since the age of six, Goldsmith learned classical piano and absorbed music theory before taking a film music class at the University of Southern California (under legendary composer Miklos Rosza, no less). Afterwards he landed a pretty good gig at CBS, where he scored several episodes of a show that was getting a lot of attention called “The Twilight Zone.” Dozens more television commissions came, but Goldsmith’s acquaintance with another famous film composer, Alfred Newman, led to his long career in motion pictures. He began as a contract composer for 20th Century Fox, and then basically established himself as the sound of the movies. Even a partial list of his film scores and television themes is daunting: Alien, L.A. Confidential, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Patton, Seconds, Logan’s Run, In Like Flint, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Omen, Papillon, Basic Instinct, The Boys From Brazil, Poltergeist, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “The Waltons.” —D.P.

John McGeogh

Like any founding guitarist who’d been in classic—and still listenable—bands such as Siouxsie & The Banshees, Public Image, and Magazine, John McGeogh (48) had both gotten a day job (as a nurse) and was trying to record dance music by the end of the ’90s. That’s kind of a shame since McGeogh was probably one of the rare punks who really had the versatility to thrive as a session man. It’s certainly no secret that he was a huge influence on subsequent generations. At least to those funky punks who don’t try to get away with citing old blues guys as their heroes. —J.R.T.

Johnny Ramone


Johnny Ramone’s headstone (click for larger version)

He didn’t have many songwriting credits, and that’s probably not even him playing guitar on some of your later favorite Ramones songs. Still, Johnny Ramone (55) got to retire as the wealthiest member of the band because he had 100 percent of the merchandising rights. How did that happen? It’s a long story that certain people can’t wait to tell if certain long-awaited books don’t reveal the whole story. Suffice to say that Johnny benefited from being one of rock ‘n’ roll’s proud conservatives, cashing in on the hypocritical peacenik attitude of certain other band members. The greatest testimony to Johnny, however, is that he was always well-loved in the music community, even after expressing his support for President Bush while being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We lost him to prostate cancer, which leaves C.J. and Marky to helm various tribute nights in the future. Jeffrey’s somewhere out there, too. —J.R.T.

Elvin Jones

The younger brother of pianist Hank and trumpeter/bandleader Thad was a drummer who changed the way we hear jazz. Jones (77) played with major figures like Sonny Rollins and J. J. Johnson in the ’50s, but it was with the iconoclastic quartet of John Coltrane (1960-66) that Jones’ fluid, polyrhythmic blankets of sound found their ideal setting. Jones’ beat was implied more than defined, and although one always knew where it was, the surrounding percussive accents and colors were endlessly fascinating, opening up the rhythmic options for the other players unlike what any drummer had done before, even since. Coltrane greatly appreciated Jones: “I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms. He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.” Jones played on Coltrane’s classic albums My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme; he led his own bands from 1967 until his death, incubating such talent as Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane early in their careers. His unique approach, seemingly limitless ideas, and sheer power led many to regard Jones as the world’s greatest drummer, and following a much-ballyhooed “battle” with Cream’s Ginger Baker in the early ’70s, Jones became something of a celebrity, even appearing in the cult film Zachariah. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever sounding like him again. —B.G.

Rick James


Rick James (click for larger version)

The guy would’ve made an interesting footnote just for signing to Motown with bandmate Neil Young as the Mynah Birds back in the ’60s. Of course, Rick James (54) had to take a stranger path to fortune and disgrace. He finally got to make a record for Motown in 1978 and was a popular R&B star until the release of Street Songs in 1981. “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” were huge hits that made James briefly seem like another Prince in the rock-crossover sweepstakes. He was a steady performer through 1989—following his move to the Reprise label—but it still felt like nostalgia to the masses when MC Hammer sampled James for “U Can’t Touch This.” By then, James’ drug problems had plunged him into several embarrassing legal situations. He spent the ’90s with critics hoping for a comeback, but James’ last high profile moment was as a punch line in sketches on “The Dave Chappelle Show.” He was probably pretty happy with that, but any future opportunities—say, on VH1′s “The Surreal Life”—were lost after James’ death from a heart attack. At least he got to date Linda Blair. —J.R.T.

Illinois Jacquet

Tenor sax man Illinois Jacquet (82) was one of the jazz piledrivers: he typically hit his solos full throttle, with clearly developed musical phrases based in the sophisticated vocabulary of the great Lester Young, but run through a rough-edged dialect of Jacquet’s own creation. The latter included “honking,” later to be overdone by a multitude of R&B and rock horn players, and squealing in the altissimo range (i. e., above where the tenor is normally supposed to sound), an effect that was also subsequently overdone by lesser players. He became a star at 19 when he recorded a rousing solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” (1942), and was a featured player in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the ’40s and ’50s. He also led a septet in that era that featured the likes of Fats Navarro and J. J. Johnson. After becoming the first jazz musician to serve a long-term residency at Harvard in the early 80s, Jacquet formed a his first big band, which had a big success, recording the irresistible Jacquet’s Got It (1987, Label M). Almost everyone who plays the tenor sax owes something to this guy. —B.G.

Robert Quine

Lefty hipsters were pissed off that Ronald Reagan’s death overshadowed not only the death of Ray Charles but that Robert Quine’s death was completely squeezed out of all the NYC newspapers. To be fair, Quine (61) was an innovative guitarist and overaged punk who—while unable to make Richard Hell & The Voidoids sound interesting—went on to a stellar career enhancing (and occasionally saving) the work of artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. Quine was depressed over the recent death of his wife, but don’t believe anyone who called his heroin overdose a suicide. If you want to see Quine in action, track down the 1983 concert DVD A Night with Lou Reed. —J.R.T.

Barney Kessel

One of the greats of jazz guitar, Kessell (80) was one of the first generation of guitarists influenced by Charlie Christian, and as an Okie from Muskogee (literally), the sole white member of local jazz bands. It was in that setting that he met Christian, perhaps the most influential jazz guitarist of all, and his direction was set. Kessell played in big bands (Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Barnet’s, and even Chico Marx’s), when Gjon Mili made the short film Jammin’ the Blues in 1944, Kessell was again the only white face, but since an integrated ensemble was not to be shown on the screen, he remained in shadow or silhouette.

Kessel became famous after recording with Charlie Parker (1947) and touring with Oscar Peterson (1952-1953), but it’s likely that many more people heard his studio recordings with pop artists, from Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” to his work with Elvis, Rick Nelson, and the Beach Boys, to numerous movies and TV shows. Phil Spector was his student and protégé; Kessel advised the young man to get into record production and later played on almost all of Spector’s big hits (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” et al.). He introduced Brian Wilson to the theremin that was used on “Good Vibrations” and Pete Townshend wrote a song in honor of Kessel after the latter’s 1969-70 residency in London. Throughout, Kessel found time to make numerous jazz recordings, and from 1976 on toured with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. —Bart Grooms

Randy VanWarmer

There was a brief window of opportunity in the late ’70s when lite-pop songwriters discovered they could put on a skinny tie and seem vaguely cool while turning out mellow sounds. Randy VanWarmer was able to break through with the modest hit “Just When I Needed You Most”—modest in its humble wimpiness, that is. The song still made it to number four on the Billboard charts. The solo career went downhill from there, but VanWarmer (48) was already establishing himself as a hit songwriter for country acts. The band Alabama scored with “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” one of VanWarmer’s earliest compositions. VanWarmer would spend most of his subsequent career in Nashville—including a brief comeback as a solo artist in 1988—although he was settled in Seattle when he finally succumbed to leukemia. —J.R.T.

Jerry Scoggins

Jerry Scoggins’ (93) rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” is one of the best known musical motifs in television history. The show originally ran from 1962 to 1971, with 60 million viewers at one point. Accompanying Scoggins on the theme were bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. —E.R.

Hank Garland

As king of the Nashville studio guitarists, Hank Garland (74) was in constant demand. Switching effortlessly between jazz and country, he played with an impressive list of performers ranging from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Patsy Cline to Charlie Parker. He pioneered the use of the electric guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. A 1961 car wreck left Garland in a coma for months. When he regained consciousness, he received more than 100 electroshock treatments that forced him to relearn not only how to play the guitar, but also how to walk and talk again. —E.R.

Terry Melcher

Many people wanted to kill Terry Melcher (62) for co-writing “Kokomo” with the Beach Boys, but Charles Manson had a personal grudge against Doris Day’s son. As an A&R man in the wake of his early days guiding The Byrds, Melcher passed on Manson as a recording artist. Charlie was also still pissed about the Beach Boys altering his song “Cease to Exist,” so Melcher’s association with the band didn’t help matters. Anyway, Melcher moved out of the house he was renting, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate moved in, and the speculation continues about how things might have changed if Charlie had kept his address book up-to-date. Melcher kept working with some of the great pop acts of the era, and the ’60s lost a key figure when the California icon passed away from cancer. —J.R. Taylor


Billy May

He could have retired in 1942 as a brilliant arranger, but Billy May (87) was lured away from his staff position at Capitol Records to provide Frank Sinatra with some of his most unforgettable and brassy settings. The association began with “Come Fly With Me” in 1957 and continued to the end of the ’70s. —J.R.T.

Ernie Ball

Every would-be star who has attempted to play a screaming guitar solo is intimately familiar with Ernie Ball Slinky guitar strings and their neon-colored packages. Endorsed by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and a million other rock stars, Ernie Ball strings are sold in more than 5,500 music stores in the United States and 75 other countries. They were made to be stretched, but, inevitably, they do break, thereby simultaneously rendering them the most revered and cursed guitar string in the world. Ball was 74. —Ed Reynolds.

Jan Berry

As one half of the duo Jan and Dean, Jan Berry (62) and partner Dean Torrence pioneered the surf music sound with hits such as “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Surf City,” and “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena).” Berry had been in poor health for much of his life after suffering brain damage in a car crash in 1966. —E.R.

Al Dvorin

Al Dvorin was the concert emcee who made the phrase “Elvis has left the building” a staple of pop culture. The 81-year-old Dvorin was thrown from his car following an accident on a California desert highway after delivering his famous line at the conclusion of an Elvis impersonator contest. —E.R.

Estelle Axton

Estelle Axton (85) was the “ax” in Stax Records, which she started with her brother James Stewart (he was the “St”). Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers were just a few on the Stax roster of hitmakers. Her son Packy Axton was saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, an instrumental group on the label that often accompanied the singers. She later took over her son’s record label Fretone Records, whose only hit was in 1976 with the novelty “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees. —E.R.

Johnny Bragg

Leader of The Prisonaires, a singing group composed of black Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates that put Sun Records on the map with the hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” Johnny Bragg (79) and his fellow convicts traveled under heavy guard to Memphis to record in 1953. In 1961, Elvis Presley visited Bragg (who had been convicted of rape in 1943), in prison. The Prisonaires were among the first rhythm and blues groups to have hit records in the South. —E.R.

Alvino Rey

As a bandleader who made the steel guitar popular during the swing era, Rey (95) billed himself as “King of the Guitar.” Rey had a hit in 1942 with “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” —E.R.

John Peel

To discerning music fans, John Peel (65) was best known as the legendary BBC radio DJ who promoted any number of really forgettable ’80s acts via assorted live “Peel Sessions” releases. There’s certainly no denying that Peel got really excited about way too many forgettable art/punk/new-wave/grunge acts over the years. In his defense, though, Peel would often just as easily lose interest in the struggling acts that he would grace with needed airplay. At least he was always interested in new acts, which was pretty good for a guy who’d been spinning discs since 1965. Peel could legitimately claim much credit for breaking acts ranging from David Bowie to The Smiths. —J.R.T.

Lacy Van Zant

He couldn’t match the output of Olivia Osmond, but Lacy Van Zant (89) made an impressive musical contribution through his rockin’ DNA. This ultimate band parent oversaw the Southern Rock dynasty of Ronnie, Johnny, and Donnie—which covers two Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalists (one, sadly, deceased) and a member of the underrated .38 Special. Van Zant worked hard to help out his kids in their early musical years, and his home also served as a museum. Lacy looked the role, too, with a long white beard and a penchant for overalls. If his image hasn’t been put on an album cover, it should be. —J.R.T.

Timi Yuro

She was pretty much forgotten at the time of her death, but Timi Yuro (63) cast a striking figure while ruling the early ’60s charts with gloriously overwrought tunes such as “Hurt” and “I Apologize.” Despite the exotic name, she was pure American pop. Still, it didn’t even help her career when Morrissey singled her out as his favorite vocalist in the 1984 tour program for the Smiths’ Meat is Murder tour. While the subject matter helped, Morrissey might have also been influenced by Yuro’s bizarre ability to look androgynous even when dolled up in evening gowns. —J.R.T.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

She made some forgettable Parisian punk, but Lizzy Mercier Descloux (47) went out as a goddess to French hipsters. The very young gal was hanging out in NYC during the days of the New York Dolls, and she made it back to Paris in time to start up a pioneering punk clothing boutique. Descloux eventually went into the studio with her musician pals to record two fairly useless albums at the end of the ’70s. (This past year’s CD reissues reminded us why she was promoted mainly as a moody sex symbol.) Nobody was paying much attention to Descloux when she suddenly came up with an international chart hit in 1984. “Mais où sont passées les gazelles” was recorded with South African musicians about two years before Paul Simon got the idea, and the World Music genre was suddenly off and running. Descloux didn’t benefit much, though. Her major-label career was over by the ’90s, and she had moved on to a successful career as a painter before succumbing to cancer. —J.R.T

Alf Bicknell

From 1964 to 1966, Alfred George Bicknell (75) chauffeured The Beatles to concerts and other appearances. The inspiration for the song “Drive My Car,” Bicknell wrote the 1999 autobiography Ticket to Ride: The Ultimate Beatles Tour Diary!, in which he recalled the moment John Lennon reportedly snatched his chauffeur’s cap from his head and declared, “You don’t need that anymore, Alf. You are one of us now.” After The Beatles ceased touring, the former circus clown began driving business executives. A chainsaw accident ended his driving career in 1980, and he joined a Beatles convention circuit giving speeches and selling memorabilia. —E.R.

Skeeter Davis

One of the few women who serve as both a footnote and a legend, Skeeter Davis (72) spent her very long career skirting the pop and country markets. She started out as a rockabilly pioneer with her partner Betty Jack Davis, in 1953, before the duo ended up in an automobile accident that left her as a solo act. It took another decade before she finally became a huge solo star with “The End of the World.” Her public profile would later be that of a one-hit wonder. Within the Nashville scene, though, Davis was much admired and often sought out for duets. She aged pretty well, too, as NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato noticed when he began courting her back in the ’80s. —J.R.T.

Arthur Kane

You can find at least two CD booklets from the ’90s that refer to the late Arthur Kane, while others believed that the New York Dolls’ bass player had simply disappeared after a jilted groupie cut off his thumbs. The only person who seemed willing to insist that Kane (55) was still alive was Keith Richards, and everybody probably thought that was just a hallucination. Anyway, Kane made a triumphant reemergence with his old band in 2004, after Morrissey invited the Dolls to perform at a UK music festival he was curating. Sadly, Kane succumbed to leukemia before the Dolls could follow up with any American dates. —J.R.T

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 2

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 2

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.



February 24, 2005Bob Keeshan

Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo (click for larger version)



Far sillier (and better dressed) than Mr. Rogers could ever be, Bob Keeshan, otherwise known as the walrus-faced Captain Kangaroo, ruled children’s television programming on CBS from 1955 to 1984. The “Captain Kangaroo” show, which finished its run at PBS in the early ’90s, followed the Captain and his ragtag cast of puppets and characters, including Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Dancing Bear, and Mr. Green Jeans (who, despite rumors, was not the father of Frank Zappa) throughout their adventures at Treasure House. Keeshan entertained his audience with cartoons, the mysterious Magic Drawing Board, and sundry other gags. When Mr. Moose told one of his ridiculous knock-knock jokes, a shower of ping-pong balls was inevitable.

Keeshan (76), who started his career armed with a pair of horns and a bottle of seltzer water as Clarabell the Clown on “The Howdy Doody Show” in the late 1940s, couldn’t dance, sing, or even play an instrument, but he always had an eye-popping outfit and a knack for making funny faces. —D.M.

Robert Pastorelli

Robert Pastorelli

He enjoyed a fine career as the housepainter Eldin on seven seasons of “Murphy Brown,” plus successful big-screen turns in Michael and Eraser. However, it seems Robert Pastorelli (49) was speaking a little too soon when proclaiming himself to be a former druggie in recent interviews he gave. In his defense, though, Pastorelli’s heroin overdose may not have been an accident. It turns out the cops were very eager to question the actor about the increasingly questionable “suicide” of his live-in girlfriend back in 1999. —J.R. Taylor.

Jan Miner

Madge: “You’re soaking in it.”

Customer getting manicure: “Dishwashing liquid?!”

Madge: “Relax. It’s Palmolive.”

Viewers who recall those television advertisements, which ran for a stunning 27 years, are all too familiar with stage actress Jan Miner (82). She played Madge the Manicurist, a wise broad (of a certain age) whose mission in life was to alarm customers before spreading the good news about Palmolive dish detergent, those green suds that “soften hands while you do the dishes.” —D.P.

Mary-Ellis Bunim

The next time you witness a drunken hook-up on “The Real World,” thank Mary-Ellis Bunim (57), one of the founding producers of MTV’s original reality series—or just turn off the television. Bunim, a TV “pioneer,” is responsible for changing the face of television in 1992. Bunim/Murray Productions bypassed actors and selected seven real unemployed post-graduates, er, strangers, to get real (eat, sleep, get wasted) while hanging out in a posh pad together for three months—without television—as the cameras rolled 24 hours a day to catch every droll, er, dramatic act.

MTV plans to air five more seasons of the show, carrying “Real World” through its unnecessary 20th season. If being solely remembered for producing the show that married Pedro, kicked off Puck, and let Coral rule as queen bitch wasn’t enough, Bunim/Murray Productions can also be blamed for the Fox Network’s “The Simple Life,” starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. That’s hot. —Danielle McClure

Ed Kemmer

Ed Kemmer (84) appeared as Commander Buzz Corry in the popular science fiction television program “Space Patrol,” broadcast live each week on the ABC network from 1950 to 1955. Kemmer switched from portraying heroes to villains when appearing on “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” and “Maverick.” He was also featured in daytime dramas “The Edge of Night” and “All My Children.” Lampert once said that of all his roles, he was most proud of “Space Patrol” because engineers told him they were inspired to careers at NASA after watching the sci-fi series as children. A German POW for a year in 1944, Kemmer staged plays in prison camp. —Ed Reynolds

Art James/Gene Wood

It’s sad when a creative voice is stilled, but we’re also losing far too many non-creative voices—specifically, those legendary figures of game shows who didn’t even get to cash in on the genre’s short-lived recent revival. Art James (74) was certainly unique in his field, having served as both an actual host (Concentration and Blank Check) and announcer for shows including The Joker’s Wild and Tic Tac Dough. Gene Wood’s (78) long association with Mark Goodson Productions allowed the legendary announcer to achieve two cultural milestones. His rave-up intro to Family Feud would later be appropriated by the World Wresting Federation, and that was his voice whispering the secret word on variations of the popular Password series. —J.R.T.

Isabel Sanford

As a not-so-young character actress, Isabel Sanford (86) built a fairly amazing filmography, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The New Centurions, and Lady Sings the Blues. The real fame for the former stage actress began in 1971, though, when she made her first appearance as Archie Bunker’s neighbor on “All In The Family.” A quick recast of her husband, and the groundwork was laid for “The Jeffersons.” She invested her money much more wisely than co-star Sherman Hemsley, so it was probably just a good sense of humor that kept Sanford repeating her role long after the series had ended in 1985—including in Denny’s commercials, a “Tonight Show” cameo, and a turn in the big-screen comedy Mafia! —J.R.Taylor

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 1

Dead Folks 2005, Television part 1

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005

Tony Randall

Tony Randall (click for larger version)

Tony Randall’s best act (employing a trademark, withering gaze of surprised indignation) in his later show biz years was at feigning impatience with David Letterman, on whose program he made a record 70 appearances, often in cameos lasting only a few seconds. For most of his career Randall (84) was all over television, most effectively as himself during the halcyon era of “What’s My Line,” “The Tonight Show,” and the entire panoply of celebrity television that, in retrospect, seems like the best reality programming ever broadcast. His shining moment, of course, was the five-year run of “The Odd Couple,” in which Randall played the fastidious hypochondriac Felix Unger. The chronic allergies were Unger’s issue, but the fussiness was definitely a Randall matter, so much so that, as an entertainment persona, Randall exists in the gray area between straight and gay.

He’s been known to take a seat before Carson or Letterman and recite some very damp passage by Ernest Dowson, Oscar Wilde, or Gilbert and Sullivan, casting himself as a kind of throwback fin de siecle dandy. In the bedroom farces starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson and similar romantic comedies of the era, Randall was the stereotypical Madison Avenue executive, turned out in a trim-fit suit and skinny tie, relentlessly mixing martinis and chasing girls. It’s just that everyone watching wondered what Randall might do, precisely, if he caught one. Never a sissy floorwalker or a fey decorator (early Hollywood code for homosexual), Randall nonetheless asks Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, “Need a light, cowboy?” and winds up in a bed with him in Lover Come Back.

Rock Hudson was the fully masculine romantic lead in those pictures, while Randall was . . . whatever he was. Of course in real life, Rock, well, let’s simply observe that human history is a cavalcade of paradox and irony. Let’s also recognize that Randall was never a mincer, nor a prancer for that matter. He was a brilliant whiner. Exactly where he might be placed on a continuum with Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, and Rip Taylor is a topic for debate, but it can be safely stated that Tony Randall was flamboyantly theatrical, and very often damn funny. —D.P.

Jerry Orbach

Early in the morning, when our vocal cords are fully relaxed, who among us has not sung in the shower (where voices resonate most effectively) that number from The Fantasticks? We manage a deep baritone or, on a good day, a basso profundo rendition: Try to remember the kind of September . . . Not knowing the full verse, we immediately skip to . . . and fol-low.

There’s no getting around it. “Try to Remember” is Jerry Orbach’s baby, and it always will be. Orbach was a veteran of the stage, most notably for The Fantasticks (the world’s longest-running musical when it closed in 2002), Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises, and the original production of Chicago. He’s best known as detective Lennie Bresco on “Law & Order.” He played the same character on “Homicide: Life on the Street” and on three “Law & Order” spinoffs, which must be some kind of record. In motion pictures, Orbach offered excellent portrayals in Dirty Dancing, Prince of the City, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Last Exit to Brooklyn. That’s also Orbach as the voice of Lumiere the candle, singing “Be Our Guest” in Beauty and the Beast. —D.P.

Jack Paar

Jack Paar (l) with John F. Kennedy (click for larger version)

After Steve Allen and before Johnny Carson there was Jack Paar (85), hosting “The Tonight Show,” that is. When Paar came on board several months after Allen’s departure, the show was in trouble and no one had any ideas about how to fix it. He chose to drop the variety format and simply have guests arrive, sit down, and chat for a while. It worked, especially since some of the guests were Judy Garland, Woody Allen, and Richard Nixon. It was high-profile conversation, even if it was decidedly not highbrow. Many viewers who saw the show during Paar’s tenure argue, often persuasively, that he was the best host the show ever had. Paar’s catch phrase “I kid you not” entered the popular lexicon fairly quickly, undergoing a slight variation in the Marine Corps, where the altered phrase was employed on a full time basis at boot camp. Paar left the show in 1962 at the top of his game. Letterman and Leno should take heed. —D.P.

Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke (click for larger version)

As the first trumpet notes of Jean Mouret’s rondeau in B-flat from “Symphonies and Fanfares for the King’s Supper” catch viewers’ attention, the camera focuses on a distinguished gentleman seated in a highback chair with a book in his lap. That’s Alistair Cooke (95), the host of “Masterpiece Theater.” The music, his BBC diction, and the PBS program are inseparable in the public mind. He referred to his role on “Masterpiece Theater” as “headwaiter.” “I’m there to explain for interested customers what’s on the menu, and how the dishes were composed.”

The Cambridge educated Cooke (he became an American citizen in 1941) also produced the world’s longest running radio program (an awe-inspiring 58 years) called “Letter from America,” a 13-minute BBC piece that was nothing more nor less than Cooke offering his random thoughts on the American scene. From 1946 onward, he composed the entire program on a typewriter, exercised total editorial control, and only missed a few weeks during the program’s run. The former London correspondent for NBC worked from memory to provide listeners across the pond with his take on such disparate topics as brunch with Groucho Marx, hanging around a movie set with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, diners, taxi cabs, lunar landings, television commercials, or his presence at the assassination of Robert Kennedy (I heard somebody cry, “Kennedy, shot,” and heard a girl moan, “No, no, not again.”). Someone ought to have all those “letters” organized in a giant boxed set of CDs, as Cooke has provided what may be the most comprehensive personal history of America after the Second World War. It is easily the most erudite and charming. —D.P.

J.J. Jackson

Well, it’s not exactly like counting down Beatles or Ramones. Still, J.J. Jackson (62) set a milestone of sorts by becoming the first founding MTV VJ to pass away. He was the most beloved—or at least the most tolerated—of the original crew, thanks to his prior life as a notoriously knowledgeable DJ. That still doesn’t make up for Jackson trying to convince us that the lyrics to “All Touch” were genuine poetry. Anyway, it was a rare moment in rock when an older guy was actually welcomed as a valuable resource. His token spiritual predecessors would be Dave Kendall and Matt Pinfield. After that, MTV gave up and hired folks with less personality than one of Alan Hunter’s old shirts. —J.R.T.

J.J. Jackson (second from left), surrounded by Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, and John Goodman. (click for larger version)

Harry Babbitt

Harry Babbitt (90) was the voice behind the infectious laugh of Woody Woodpecker. Prior to his cartoon gig, Babbitt sang with the Kay Kyser big band on hits such as “The White Cliffs of Dover,” “Three Little Fishes,” and “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle.” He also did a Christmas novelty tune called “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” complete with a lisp. —Ed Reynolds

Danny Dark

According to the trade paper Radio & Records, the voice of Danny Dark (65) was heard in more award-winning commercials than any announcer in broadcast history. Known as the “voice-over king,” Dark’s unique voice was heard admonishing Charlie Tuna for not being the best-tasting tuna in the sea with his trademark “Sorry, Charlie.” He made the phrase “This Bud’s for You” common even with non-drinkers. Dark was also the voice of Superman in the “Super Friends” cartoon. —E.R.

Jerry Nachman

With his ever-present cigar, charming humor, imposing girth, and commanding grasp of current events, award-winning newsman Jerry Nachman was one of the more appealing television commentators in the business. Nachman (57), the editor in chief of the MSNBC cable network, was also a staff writer and executive producer for “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” —E.R.

Jeff Smith

As the “Frugal Gourmet,” Jeff Smith (65) was at one time the host of the nation’s most-watched cooking program. But in 1997, seven men filed a lawsuit accusing Smith of sexual abuse. He left the airwaves soon thereafter. Six of the complainants said that Smith, a Methodist minister, abused them while they worked at his Chaplain’s Pantry restaurant in the 1970s. Smith denied the accusations and was never formally charged. —E.R.

Dead Folks 2005, Cinema part 2

Dead Folks 2005, Cinema part 2

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005

Peter Ustinov

Peter Ustinov (click for larger version)

The Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe winning Sir Peter Ustinov (82) is best known as pompous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in the film versions of Agatha Christie’s Death On the Nile and Evil Under the Sun. He’s also known for turns in upscale sword-and-sandal epics Spartacus and Quo Vadis, the latter being Ustinov’s opportunity to provide us with a definitive Nero. He excelled, in other words, at playing characters imminently full of themselves but just this side of ridiculous. Ustinov’s portly frame was a plus, yet his mellifluous voice carried most of the load; he sounded like an ideal blend of James Mason, Lawrence Olivier, and George Sanders. A master of dialects and accents, and fluent in almost a dozen languages, Ustinov was a motion picture wonder at times, never more so than in 1961 when he wrote, directed, produced, and acted in the stunning naval drama Billy Budd (one of the great underseen, under-appreciated films of modern cinema). —D.P.

Frank Thomas

From 1934 to 1978, Thomas (92) worked at the same company doing the same thing everyday. Since his office was at Walt Disney Studios, that’s not such a bad thing. Indeed, film scholars agree that his long, hard labor was a very good thing, as Thomas was a member of an elite squad of Disney animators known as “the nine old men.” He worked on such iconic animated pictures as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio, later displaying a knack for crafting some unique characters and moments (the Queen of Hearts from Alice In Wonderland, Captain Hook from Peter Pan). That spaghetti dinner scene in Lady and the Tramp was also his idea. —D.P.

Walt Gorney

Walt Gorney achieved screen immortality in Friday the 13th as “Crazy Ralph,” the old hermit who warns those kids to stay out of the woods. “You’re all doomed!” he intones, only to be laughed at by those pot-smoking teens. Crazy Ralph was killed off in Friday the 13th Part 2, but every subsequent rural slasher film would include a similar character. Meanwhile, Gorney lived to the ripe old age of 92 because he didn’t go into the woods! —J.R.T.

Noble Willingham

Along with numerous appearances on “Rockford,” “The Waltons,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Home Improvement,” and several other series, Willingham (72) found plenty of work on the big screen (Paper Moon, Good Morning Vietnam, City Slickers, The Hudsucker Proxy) portraying sheriff’s deputies, congressmen, oil men, car salesmen, and military types. His characters often exhibited a right-wing, menacing, good-ol’ boy demeanor, but occasionally the actor could effortlessly manifest the quiet decency of an American Joe from the heartland (if such a being exists). In short, he seemed less like an actor and more like a fairly interesting “real” person who just wandered onto the set. Such is the magic of Hollywood. —D.P.

Joe Viterelli

The characters he played were always named Salvatore, Vinnie, Fat Tony, or Dominick—their last names ending with a vowel, of course. He had a face that looked like a basset hound wearing a medium pizza for a Halloween mask, thus providing, atop his rotund frame, a clueless visage that might be amusing were it not so damn intimidating. Viterelli (66) was that Hollywood casting creation known as the “mobster meatball,” and as Robert de Niro’s enforcer “Jelly” in Analyze This, he practically defined the dimwitted wiseguy. It was almost as though Joe were bringing past experience to his roles; after all, his former occupation is listed as “New York businessman,” and he died in Las Vegas of “complications after surgery.” There’s no sense in reading too much into that, though. —D.P.

Joe Viterelli (click for larger version)

Spalding Gray

Many a person wanted to kill himself while enduring a Spalding Gray monologue—especially when somebody had the bad taste to put in one of his videos like Swimming to Cambodia or Monster in a Box before letting everybody get really stoned first. His final stage show ended with him celebrating life by jumping around to Chumbawamba, which was certainly so embarrassing that no one was surprised when Gray (62) killed himself by jumping into the East River of Manhattan. Still, Gray had a nice film career going as a George Plimpton type who gave vague class to bad indie films—and How High, too. He also had small parts in respectable films such as The Killing Fields. Let’s also not forget his early X-rated work in The Farmer’s Daughter and Little Orphan Dusty. You can also supposedly spot him in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks. —J.R.T.

Julius Harris

Last year’s “Dead Folks” issue cited how the late dictator Idi Amin claimed that it was God’s will when Godfrey Cambridge died while playing him in the 1976 TV movie Victory at Entebbe. The joke was on Idi, though, since Cambridge was replaced by Julius Harris (71), who’d live long enough to read Amin’s obituary. Sadly, though, this amazing character actor passed away this year, leaving behind one of the best ’70s legacies of all time. Harris’ bulk provided menace and humor in classic blaxploitation films ranging from Shaft’s Big Score! to Superfly to Trouble Man—and that was only 1972. That set him up to take on James Bond in the blaxploitation-themed Live and Let Die. After that, his work in films like Friday Foster would be mixed with big-budget productions including Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the remake of King Kong. —J.R.T.

Carrie Snodgress

Carrie Snodgress became an overnight star when she appeared in the title role of 1970′s Diary of a Mad Housewife. The film bombed, despite her Oscar nomination, and her follow-up, Rabbit, Run, was another disappointing adaptation. Snodgress (57) had disappeared by 1972, and the gossip columns were asking “whatever happened to?” by 1976. The answer was that she’d run off to live with Neil Young and was raising their son Zeke, born with cerebral palsy. She returned to the screen in 1978 in Brian DePalma’s The Fury, which coincided with her having to endure coverage of record producer Jack Nitzsche’s trial for assaulting her. Fortunately, the worst details were too sordid to make the papers. After that, Snodgress worked steadily in both indie and major productions, right up to her death from heart and liver failure. —J.R.T.

Ingrid Thulin

Ingrid Thulin (click for larger version)

Liv Ullman is better known, but Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin almost vaulted to international stardom in the wake of her films with Ingmar Bergman. Her stint with the famed director included 1957′s Wild Strawberries and 1972′s Cries and Whispers. Unfortunately, her bid to win over Hollywood stalled after Angela Lansbury had to dub her voice in the 1962 Glenn Ford film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This was still schlock cinema’s gain, since Thulin (77) would later contribute a stunning performance as the madame of a Nazi whorehouse in the fabulously trashy 1976 classic Salon Kitty. Thulin remained one of Europe’s most respected stage actresses after retiring from the screen in 1988. —J.R.T.

Christopher Reeve

In an ironic twist, actor Christopher Reeve (52) went from playing the definitive Superman to living as a quadriplegic after a horseback riding accident nine years ago. Though admitting that suicide was his first thought, Reeve eventually became a champion for paralysis victims, and was determined to one day walk again. He was a willing guinea pig for new medical treatments and eventually was able to partially leave the respirator he had been on after electrodes embedded in his lungs allowed the actor to breathe on his own for an hour or so each day. Reeve said those precious minutes were a highlight in his later years, as he cherished being able to turn off the machine and listen to the sound of his own breath again. Neither Reeve nor his wife lost their senses of humor, however. His wife appeared on Howard Stern’s television show to plug the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation one evening, and smiled through Stern’s cruel jokes that she should have just let Reeve die. Reeve passed away following a heart attack. —Ed Reynolds

John Drew Barrymore

Drew’s no longer the only Barrymore to escape the family curse. Her father, John—son of acting legend John Barrymore—could claim to have lived for about five more decades than anyone could have ever expected. This notorious Hollywood casualty began his career as a total embarrassment to the Barrymore dynasty, giving horrific performances on stage and screen. He disappeared for a few years, changed his billing from “John Barrymore, Jr.” to John Drew Barrymore (72), and made several bad foreign productions during the ’60s. He was especially suited for historical roles, thanks to his love of long hair and hatred of shaving. There were plenty of drug busts, and the guy ended up living in the woods. Some would call him a dropout, but he was pretty much just homeless and crazy. He was an absentee father, naturally, and his daughter wisely didn’t have much to do with him. A wheelchair-bound Barrymore ended up being provided with a court guardian in 2003. He was certainly very handsome, though. —J.R.T.

Theo Van Gogh

He was a direct descendant of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, but Theo Van Gogh (47) had made his own fame as a daring filmmaker in his native Netherlands. Sadly, a Dutch television showing of his short film Submission—about the mistreatment of women in Islamic culture—led to Van Gogh’s murder in the streets of Amsterdam. In a typically European display of bravery, the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival planned to honor Van Gogh by showing Submission as part of a debate on free speech, but then showed submission by canceling the screening after more threats of Muslim violence. —J.R.T.

All in the family — An interview with Tom Smothers

All in the family

An interview with Tom Smothers

February 24, 2005

In 1959 Tom and Dick Smothers began as a singing duo before evolving into one of the most enduring comedic teams of all time. “Mom always liked you best” was Tom’s most often repeated charge in the long-running, put-on feud with brother Dick. Their first national television appearance was on Jack Paar’s show in 1961. In 1967, CBS decided to give the Smothers Brothers a shot at the “kamikaze hour,” the 9 p.m. time slot opposite NBC’s “Bonanza.” Nine shows had gone down in flames attempting to break “Bonanza’s” seemingly insurmountable hold on television ratings. CBS hoped that “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” would appeal to a younger audience, but Tom and Dick assumed that they would fail as others had. According to Maureen Muldaur’s documentary Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the team had nothing to lose, but the brothers hoped to get at least half a season out of the deal and then “go fishing in Mexico” the rest of the year.

If Tom Smothers was going down, he was going down throwing his best punches. He demanded that the network give him complete creative control. The result was an hour of political satire that caught network executives and the nation off-guard. The reactionary youth movement of the 1960s had been defined by hippies, Black Panthers, and other insurgent characters, so no one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. The show reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed. Frank Stanton, the president of the network, often watched the program with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House, which resulted in Monday morning messages to Tom and Dick to tone down the controversy. By the second season, CBS was censoring the show and eventually canceled it halfway through the third year because a script was supposedly turned in too late to be reviewed. The brothers later won a $30-million lawsuit against CBS for breach of contract.

The Smothers Brothers: Tom and Dick. (click for larger version)

In 1988, CBS invited the brothers to do a “Comedy Hour” reunion. The network requested that the pair be as cutting edge and controversial as they had been two decades earlier, but Tom and Dick refused to comply. They decided to stick to just being funny. The Smothers Brothers will appear with the Alabama Symphony on Thursday, March 3 at the BJCC Concert Hall. Tom Smothers even promised to perform his astonishing yo-yo tricks.

No one expected a pair of short-haired, clean-shaven brothers to take on the Vietnam War, racial integration, and other social issues of the day. When “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” reached number one in the ratings as CBS observed with horror the subversive monster it had unleashed.

B&W: I’m having trouble picturing the Smothers Brothers performing with a symphony.

Tom Smothers:
We do about eight or 10 symphonies a year, and we think they are the most fun of all the jobs we do. We do about 75 to 100 dates a year.

B&W: What makes the symphony dates so much fun?

Smothers: There’s something about the formality of a symphony. For a comedian, the easiest place to get a laugh without any effort is a schoolroom, courtroom, or a symphony hall (laughs). There’s something formal about it, and comedy kind of breaks that little formality. We always put monitors in back so that they [symphony members] can hear the dialogue and stuff—and I always turn around and look, and they are always laughing. They have the best time. It’s like having an audience behind us and an audience in front of us.

Are you and Dick the longest-running comedy team?

Smothers: We are the longest-lived comedy team in history. That form is very difficult to do. The kids today all do stand-up, you know . . . Being in a comedy team is like a marriage. It’s very complicated, and that’s why they don’t last very long, ’cause you get in each other’s face (laughs). Dicky and I had couples’ counseling about six years ago. Eighteen hours of these people. It cleared up a lot of stuff. [The therapist] said, “Stop treating each other like brothers and grow up, and treat each other like professionals.” Someone asked, “How do you guys get along?” Dicky said, “Well. It’s like an old marriage. A lot of fighting and no sex.”

B&W: I used to feel sorry for Dick because you were the one getting all the laughs. Did he ever want to be the funny guy?

Smothers: We’ve tried it before, but he’s very comfortable with being the straight man. In the early days, I got more attention than he did. The comic always did. It was 1978 or ’79, and we were watching Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Martin and Lewis, and I realized the straight man does most of the talking. Bud Abbott is doing all the talking, and that’s where the balance came in. If the audience believes the straight man, they’ll believe the comic. In the early days of vaudeville, the straight man was paid more money because it was a skilled position. It was the most difficult one, because a good straight man can bring people out of the audience and up on the stage and get laughs off of them. So Dicky and I understand that now, so there’s no problem with who recognizes his place. He’s basically keeps the tempo; he’s the rhythm section for the comedy. And he’s really good. Dicky ranks up there with Bud Abbott and Dean Martin and Dan Rowan and George Burns. He’s really that good.

Were you two ever tempted to work as a more raunchy act?

Smothers: Never. We started in the era of working clean, so it was very easy to keep it going. And now it’s darn near a point of difference—there’s not that many comedians that work clean. We get the same laughs but even better, and don’t have to use the F-word. Offstage, when I’m not working, sometimes I say, “What the f**k’s going on here? Give me the f**king hammer. Who f**ked this up?” Because that’s the way I talk when I’ve had a couple of drinks. My wife goes, “Ooohhh.” I’ve got a nine-year old and an 11-year old. Occasionally I’ll let out a word. I’ve got a swear jar. It’s got about 150 bucks in it now.

We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” had an impressive list of writers (Mason Williams, Steve Martin, Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein, among others). I only knew Mason Williams for writing and performing the song “Classical Gas.”

Smothers: We [introduced] that song on the air. He’s also the one who wrote the Smothers Brothers theme. He was a major moral compass for me. We were roommates at the time we started the show. We were both single and we’ve got a television show, and Mason would read the script and he’d say, “That’s bullshit.” Then I’d go to the meeting and pretend it was all my idea. I’d go, “This doesn’t seem to work.” The whole thing was that we were trying to make some comedy that was at least relevant or had some factual background or something of interest or educational or something, so we tried to insert that kind of stuff into the “Comedy Hour.” Bob Einstein [comedian Albert Brooks' older brother, who is better known as comedic stuntman of sorts, Super Dave] was 21, Rob Reiner was 21. We had all these young writers. Dicky was 29, I was 30 during that time. It was a fun time; it made an impression. We started in 1959, we were fired in 1969, so we had 10 years of unparalleled success. Everything we did was ripe. And then in the ’70s, we called [those years] the dark ages (laughs). We could hardly get a job after that. We were untouchable. Very little eye contact in Hollywood. So we all moved away, and Dicky started a winery up in Sonoma, in northern California. He started racing cars and I did some theater. Then we started doing dinner theater, and then we ended up doing a Broadway show for about two years. And then we started working again in 1980 as The Smothers Brothers. It was like starting from scratch, but there was a residual respect that we got from that firing. We never wore out our welcome because we were on for so short a time. Then the winery started happening, so we’re in the food section (laughs). Then when we went to court with CBS, we were in the legal section. Then we would occasionally get another television show, so it was a pretty good career.

The show had an unusual mix of music. You’d have the Jefferson Airplane one week and Kate Smith the next.

Smothers: (Laughs) We had a rare opportunity to have one foot in the past. So we got the Jimmy Durantes and the Kate Smiths and Betty Davis. So we always had those rock groups and contemporary groups and classic old traditional stars, which was a great combination. We loved that. Music was our first thing. Dicky and I started off as musicians first, and the comedy just slowly edged its way in. And then when the Kingston Trio started working, folk music started happening. And I said, “Oh boy, this is really good stuff. Good stories.” So that’s when the comedy started happening, and Dicky started talking a little more and a little more, and pretty soon there was the comedy team.

Were you as shocked as everyone else when The Who played the “Comedy Hour” and Keith Moon got blown off his drum kit at the end of “My Generation”?

Smothers: (Laughing) It was a surprise to everybody. The union guy put the charge in, then Keith Moon went and put another charge in, and the first charge hadn’t gone off. There were three charges in that thing. So when that went off, man . . . Peter Townshend still can’t hear (laughs).

B&W: Was it prearranged when Townshend smashed your acoustic guitar?

Yeah, I knew he was going to do that. We bought a much less expensive guitar that looked like mine. His ears were ringing, and I was looking around to see if anybody was injured. He staggered over to me because he knew he was supposed to take my guitar (laughs). And it looks so real because I was distracted, I was so concerned. When it first happened, I thought Moon’s drum had exploded, but now I look back and it didn’t. There were limiters on the microphones or else it would have blown out all the mics and everything.”

The current FCC crackdown is focused on profanity, exposed breasts, and other things of a suggestive nature more so than the political comedy that got you and Dick fired by CBS. Do you see any parallels at all?

Smothers: During the time that we were on in 1968 and ’69, there was a Senator Pastori, who was a raving, crazy man about the terrible stuff that was going on in television back then (laughs). So when we were on, we couldn’t say the words “sex education,” we couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” All the censorship was set up, basically, to protect the people from bad words and sexual innuendos. We didn’t do that. We were talking politics. So on April 4, 1969, we were fired from our show. We were fired for our viewpoints on Vietnam. People would come up to us before this last FCC and Janet Jackson stuff happened, and ask, ‘Don’t you wish you were on television, because now you can say anything you want?’ There’s that illusion that sexual content and violence and scatological talk is freedom. But there was nothing being said except sophomoric focus on the crotch. People would say, ‘We’re free, we’re free!’ and I would say, ‘No, no. Political criticism and satire since that time has been relegated to the fringes of television, which is cable, “Saturday Night Live,” at 11 o’clock where the viewing audience is way, way down and [the show] doesn’t create a big issue.’ So things have gone backwards, I think . . . The thing that offends me the most is that Howard Stern has become the poster boy for First Amendment rights. What a crock. Of all the people to pick, a guy that just talks about lesbians and tits and ass and stuff, and that’s the free speech thing? What a contradiction of values (laughs). I was at one time a poster boy for First Amendment rights. I was chosen. I didn’t volunteer.

B&W: Were you and Dick constantly getting pressure from CBS to tone down the controversy on the show?

Smothers: Oh, yeah. It was constant. I didn’t even know I was saying anything important until they said, “You better stop.” It’s amazing. It’s been over 35 years since that show was on the air. It was only on for two and a half seasons, but it made a pretty big impression. Because it’s still a point of conversation. I look back on these old shows and I kind of cringe a little bit. We did some shows in ’88 and ’89 for CBS where we introduced the Yo-Yo Man and stuff, and that was some of the best work that Dicky and I have ever done, next to our albums. The performances on the original show were not up to snuff, because I was so busy producing and worrying about other stuff. Everything except Dicky and I.

B&W: What was the final straw that made CBS cancel the show?

Smothers: David Steinberg did a sermonette . . . But it would have been something else. Nixon had just gotten elected and wasn’t going to listen to The Smothers Brothers criticize Vietnam policy (laughs). We became a threat (laughs) . . . The truth is what you persuade other people to believe. I’m so depressed. (Speaking in a weary voice). People aren’t thinking clear. But I’m kind of a liberal progressive, so I’m always on the other point of view, and I haven’t changed. I just turned 68 two days ago on Groundhog Day. There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Old age is anyone 20 years older than you.”

B&W: I’ve seen photographs of Richard Nixon at the Grand Ole Opry playing with a yo-yo, and he looked like he was pretty good. Would the Yo-Yo Man philosophy apply to Nixon?

Smothers: (laughs) Well, yeah . . . The philosophy is basically a perserverence. And the yo-yo, if you miss it, you just get right back on and you keep practicing. Your failures are what head you toward success. Around the World [a yo-yo trick] is like you go out every day and do stuff, and sometimes we fail and we have to try it again and never quit. It’s got a nice philosophy to it. The Yo-Yo Man does not talk, and Dick is kind of the play-by-play announcer. So with the yo yo, I don’t make every trick every time the first time sometimes. Dicky will say, “Oh, the Yo-Yo Man is out of his groove. Come on, Yo-Yo Man, concentrate. Don’t give up. Tom has made a lot of mistakes; he’s learning a lot. He’s working on his doctorate (laughs).”

B&W: Did you and Dick make Nixon’s enemies list?

Smothers: No, we were his first success. It was after that he said, “Hey, let’s make a list.” The plumbers were setting us up with drug busts and all kinds of stuff. It was dirty. I didn’t know what hardball was. It was right after we were fired. We were also doing a movie; it was called Another Nice Mess. This was 1970, and it was a movie with Rich Little and a guy named Herb Bolen, and we dressed them up to look exactly like Nixon and Agnew. But they talked and acted like Laurel and Hardy, and Nixon was always looking at Agnew and going (imitates Oliver Hardy), “That’s another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.” So out of the midst of that, I had a friend who was a former Marine and later worked at the CIA who called me and said, “Tom, I met a guy down at the federal building who asked me, ‘Do you know Tommy Smothers?’” And my friend said, “Yeah.” The guy then said, “I thought I’d tell you that if he’s a friend of yours, there’s a drug bust being set up for him. Tell him to have someone with him at all times, have his car sent to the car wash everyday.” So I got the word, and I started looking up all my friends and let them know that they better clean up their act. So I’m supposed to be on a plane coming up to San Francisco where I was living with my grandfather at the time. I missed the flight. I was busy doing some editing. At about nine o’clock, he called and said, “There’s a bunch of guys here, federal and state narcotics people going through the house.” That was an exciting time of my life. I hid out for a week. I had smoked some grass, but my house was clean as a whistle because I was warned in advance.

B&W: Would you like to have another TV show to take on the conservative establishment these days?

Smothers: It’s not the conservative establishment; it’s a question of fairness and common sense. When you look at stuff and kind of criticize things that don’t make sense, it doesn’t matter what side it comes from—left or right. The problem is that we’re at the age now where we’re age-discriminated against. We’re a little too old. They have MTV for the kids. When are they going to get a network for the adults so we can have some interesting and smart stuff? Then we’d be on!

B&W: I read that you have a lot of respect for Ralph Nader. Did you take issue with him when liberals complained that he drew electoral votes away from Gore?

Smothers: No. I happen to have more than respect for him. He’s one of the rarest people in the world. He never compromised standing up for the little people. His whole thing is standing up for the consumer. Where everybody jumped on him for supposedly throwing the election to Bush, that’s all bullshit. People ask, “Why would you vote for Nader? He’s not going to win.” I say, “Well, when you vote for a Republican or a Democrat, one of them’s not going to win either.” You vote for what you believe in. You never hear him yell, you never hear him talk dirty, you never hear him get angry with people. He keeps this real calm demeanor, and he makes absolute sense. I haven’t voted for a Republican or Democrat in 18 years. Both those parties are so corrupt now. It’s a joke. I mean, they’re all bought and paid for by corporations.

B&W: What’s it going to take to break the stronghold the two parties have on American politics?

Smothers: It’s going to take a revolution (laughs). I think the biggest problem is that since the media has become so consolidated . . . I think we should make an amendment to the Constitution, the First Amendment—freedom of speech—we should add “freedom of hearing.” Some smart things are being said, but we don’t get to hear them. They don’t come out through the microphone. So this country remains ignorant. You have to really get out there and dig to find the truth. I’m still pissed off. But it’s not in our show. Our show’s pretty darned middle-of-the-road. It’s a family show, and we make a few social comments in there that aren’t pointed enough, but people get it.

B&W: Lots of people are referring to the war in Iraq as another Vietnam.

Smothers: Well, it is! It is. What was the Vietnam war about? Well, we’re going to stop the domino thing. And over in someone else’s country, fighting for the hearts and minds. And we’re going the same way. There’s no exit strategy. Rumsfeld and McNamara are the same people. And they look alike, too! It’s amazing how collective memory just went away. You saw it coming from a mile away . . . God, you know when the Dixie Chicks said that thing about Bush? They disappeared. No stations would play them. People are scared to death. You can see this totalitarian thing, militarism. If anybody questions anything, it’s treason. We’ve gotta keep our sense of humor, because last time I lost it for about two years. I was just a dreadfully dull dude (laughs). Finally, I saw Jane Fonda on television one time and she was just . . . eyes all crossed and angry. I was watching her and I said, “Oh man, I’m starting to look like that. I better stop that. Find the joke again (laughs).” &

The Set List — Alicia Keys/John Legend, The Smothers Brothers, and more


February 24, 2005

Alicia Keys/John Legend

There’s little to add to the success story of Alicia Keyes and her collection of bowling pins that are better known as Grammys. Casual fans should still go see her in concert, because they’ll be very impressed by the power of songs that they mainly know through osmosis. Opener John Legend is also a major rising star, although people react a little too defensively when you file him under hip-hop. The critics like to pretend that Legend is a genuine R&B guy—but if that were the case, his album, Get Lifted, would pale in comparison to Terence Trent D’Arby. The years spent working with Kanye West have turned Legend into a hook-happy soulster with an identity of his own. That still leaves him sounding like a really inspired hip-hop artist, and everybody should just be grateful for that. (Wednesday, March 2, at BJCC Concert Hall, 8 p.m. $38-52) –J.R. Taylor

The Smothers Brothers

Once one of the most important musical acts of all time, The Smothers Brothers are now the most neglected act in the history of CD reissues. Their 1961 debut with At the Purple Onion and the next year’s The Two Sides of . . . remain an example of the greatest leap for a performing artist in the shortest distance, as Tom & Dick went from being weird folkies to one of the funniest—and most disciplined—teams of all time. Tommy’s role of the befuddled innocent was handled with a perfect sweetness that would become even more touching in the wake of stoner comedy. Meanwhile, Dick had to serve as both straight man and a parody of a sincere folkie.

They were already working with Pat Paulsen by then, too. The later albums tilted even more towards comedy, and they were polished showbiz professionals by the 1967 debut of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Their battles with the censors overshadowed what was some brilliant mainstream work. Sadly, the brothers didn’t have Sonny Bono’s knack for goofing on changing times, and Tom & Dick were soon back on the nightclub circuit.

The ’80s were particularly unkind to the act, as Tom & Dick began to buy into some notion of themselves as important artists, and they undermined their own gentle chemistry. You were better off skipping the ’88 revival of their primetime show. They’ve never quite regained their early chemistry, but all political persuasions can still enjoy their live act. The occasional alleged insight is still comic relief. (Saturday, March 5, at BJCC Concert Hall, 8 p.m. $18-$85) –J.R. Taylor

Social Distortion/Backyard Babies

It’s been about 27 years now, and maybe five albums total, for Social Distortion. Remember when we used to think it was Mike Ness’ heroin addiction that caused the gaps between albums? That hasn’t been the problem since the mid ’80s, though. Judging from the discography, Ness is really just an unusually thoughtful songwriter who waits until he has something to say before going into the studio.

1996′s White Light, White Heat, White Trash should have been a huge hit, as Ness didn’t let the passing years keep him from examining his life from an unusually brutal perspective. Thoughtfulness was out of fashion, though, and two solo albums didn’t fare any better. Last year’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll responded by being a lightweight punk-rock expedition that’s still riddled with self-loathing and burdened by the search for redemption. Ness will be in big trouble if anyone ever figures out he’s the father of emo.

The Backyard Babies have only been around since ’87, and too much time was wasted when one member went off to pursue hipster stardom with The Hellacopters. Still, you can’t blame the guy. These Swedes were simply too uncool to be appreciated in the ’90s, but their glammy punk is sorta back in vogue, and they’re way overdue to get a big push for the American market. It probably won’t work out, but this is still a fairly memorable bill that you’ll be able to brag about seeing someday—at least, if you’re ever in Sweden. (Wednesday, March 9, at at Sloss Furnaces, 7 p.m.). –J.R. Taylor

The Vern Gosdin Show/Connie Smith

In 1960, Vern Gosdin and his brother left Alabama for California to play bluegrass with future Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman. The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds, along with Gram Parsons’ cowboy contributions, were the forerunners of country rock, and therefore Vern Gosdin can rightfully be cast as one of the genre’s godfathers. Gosdin later cemented that dignified position by contributing “Someone To Turn To” to the film Easy Rider. To put him in even more elite company, Gosdin is often placed on the holy pedestal of pure country vocalists along with George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Dolly Parton says there are only three female singers in the world: Connie Smith, Barbra Streisand, and Linda Ronstadt. Parton is out of her mind if she really believes this, but little blonde Connie Smith is even more delusional. According to her bio, Smith believes that classic country music is powerful because it has a strong commitment to “home, family, and living life.” She’s obviously has never paid close attention to George Jones, Hank Williams, or any other country music icons whose notions of “living life” are whiskey, sex, and threatening the wife with a shotgun. Nevertheless, Smith remains a legend. She had her first hit in 1964 with “Once a Day,” and her weepy ballads are the essence of genuine country and western music. The opportunity to see her and Vern Gosdin together at the Alabama Theatre is too good to pass up. (Friday, March 4, at Alabama Theatre, 7 p.m. $20-$35.) —Ed Reynolds

City Hall — Funding Travel to George W. Bush’s 2nd Inauguration


February 24, 2005

On February 15, at the request of Councilor Bert Miller, the Birmingham City Council voted to pay the travel expenses of local businessman Richard Finley to attend President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C. The council initially declined to act on the expenditure when Councilor Elias Hendricks demanded to know what the benefit was to the city. After he was located near the conclusion of the city council meeting, Finley addressed the council himself.

“I was invited by the President [Bush],” said Finley, who is chairman of the Alabama Republican Council, the oldest active black GOP organization in the state. “After talking with Councilor Miller about the opportunities to network while we were there, and to meet on some things that we are talking about, he decided that he wanted to participate in covering the expenses. My expenses were well over $3,000. He said he wanted to pick up part of it. So I said, ‘Well, OK, you take care of the travel [$742.50],’ and he did that.” Finley said he also had the opportunity to meet with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and offered to huddle individually with councilors to share the conversation. Finley added that he also spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “So, I think there were a lot of benefits for the city that came out of a lot of contacts,” he surmised.


During a Tuesday press conference, Mayor Bernard Kincaid expressed misgivings about the city covering the expense. Kincaid added that the city council had already signed off on the payment from the council’s travel fund. The Mayor said that since the council had approved the expenditure, it didn’t make any sense to say no. “I had serious concerns about signing it,” said Kincaid, adding that he and Chief of Staff Al Herbert argued over whether the administrative side of City Hall should comply. “In my view, [the trip] had marginal utility [to the city],” said the Mayor. He did concede that there perhaps was a benefit to Finley’s attending. “It’s no secret that Richard Finley is a Republican,” said the Mayor. “It might be that his being there or his rubbing elbows with colleagues and things could benefit the city . . . In tight times you have to make choices. That would not have been a spending choice that I would have made.” Kincaid added that he would not approve someone from his staff attending a presidential inauguration at the city’s expense.

Councilor Carol Reynolds voted to approve the inaugural trip, but only because she had travel expenses to Savannah for the National League of Cities Leadership Training Institute on the same item. Had the two expenses been on separate items, she said she would not have voted to approve Finley’s trip. “I’ve got some questions to ask the Law Department about some of this stuff,” the concerned councilor added. Council President Lee Loder and Councilor Joel Montgomery both abstained.

Councilor Elias Hendricks voted against the presidential inauguration expense. In an interview two days after the council meeting, Hendricks said that he was not swayed to support the item after Finley’s explanation to the city council. “It’s not an effective use of public funds,” said the councilor. “But that’s [Bert Miller's] discretionary funds. It’s his call.” Hendricks added that the fact that Finley met with Clarence Thomas “didn’t help any.”

2005-02-24 tracking Features section Dead Folks 2005, Etcetera — A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

Dead Folks 2005, Etcetera

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005


Jorge Guinle

This once filthy-rich playboy bragged that he had slept with Jayne Mansfield, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, Veronica Lake, and Kim Novak. Jorge Guinle dropped dead at age 88 at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio De Janeiro after refusing surgery to remove an aneurism in his aorta. “The secret of living well is to die without a cent in your pocket,” Guinle once said, adding, “But I miscalculated, and the money ran out.” Indeed it did. Guinle, who was pals with Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, and Orson Welles, squandered his wealth and barely got by during his waning years on a government pension and help from friends. —E.R.

Jorge Guinle (click for larger version)

Joyce Jillson

Famous for her nationally syndicated astrology column in newspapers across the country, Joyce Jillson (58) is best remembered as Nancy Reagan’s astrologer (as reported in a memoir by former Reagan chief of staff Donald Regan). Jillson insisted that it was she who advised Reagan campaign aides to choose George H.W. Bush as Reagan’s running mate in 1980 and claimed to have spent much time at the White House following the assassination attempt on the president in 1981. She was also the official astrologer for 20th Century Fox, advising the studio on the best opening days for films. Her resumé, however, went much deeper than astrology; Jillson played Jill Smith Rossi on the 1960s television series “Peyton Place.” —E.R.

Yang Huanyi

There once was a centuries-old rare script called Nushu that was used by women to communicate secretly with one another in the southern Hunan Provence of China. Yang Huanyi was believed to be the last woman to employ the Nushu code, known both as “witches’ script” and “the first language of women’s liberation.” In early Chinese history, the penalty for creating languages was death, but centuries later, after the invention of words was no longer deemed a capital crime, practitioners were still required to take an oath not to reveal the code to men. Common wedding gifts in Chinese history included booklets filled with Nushu writings that detailed deeply held anxieties by Chinese women that marriage was a tragic event. —E.R.

Joseph F. Cullman

As the chief spokesman for the tobacco industry, Joseph F. Cullman (92) led Philip Morris through the “cigarette wars” as the corporation battled Congress over legislation that forced warning labels on cigarette packs. He testified before Congress with a lit cigarette in his mouth and made the statement, “I do not believe that cigarettes are hazardous to one’s health,” on the program “Face the Nation.” When told that evidence suggested that smoking mothers give birth to smaller babies, Cullman replied, “Some women would prefer having smaller babies.” Cullman smoked almost his entire life, finally quitting a decade before his death. —E.R.

Frank Sanache

Frank Sanache (86) was the last of the eight “code talkers” employed by the U.S. during World War II to use their native tongue as code on walkie-talkies. Sanache was from the Meskwaki Indian tribe, one of 18 tribes that contributed to code talking, which was classified until 1968. He was captured while serving in North Africa and held prisoner for 28 months. —E.R.

Charles Sweeney

Pilot of the B-29 Superfortress known as Bockscar that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, forcing Japanese surrender, Charles Sweeney (84) returned to the city only weeks after he had decimated it. He said he felt neither pride nor remorse for what his duty had called him to do. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was plutonium and was more powerful than the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the crew of the Enola Gay. —E.R.

Olive Osmond

Alan, Wayne, Merrill, Jay, and Donny—not to mention Jimmy and Marie—were only part of the amazing clan spawned by Olive Osmond’s ovaries. Osmond (79) passed away with nine children, 55 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren, and lots of money. —J.R.T.

Pat Tillman

A millionaire professional football player with the Arizona Cardinals, Pat Tillman abandoned stardom to join the Army’s elite special forces to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Tillman eschewed a $3.6 million contract for an $18,000 yearly military salary. He was killed in a firefight at age 27. Tragically, it was later reported by the Washington Post that Tillman had been killed by American troops who did not identify their targets as they shot their way out of an ambush. —E.R.

Pat Tillman (click for larger version)

Harry Lampert

Harry Lampert (88) was the original illustrator who created DC Comics’ wing-footed superhero The Flash in 1940, two years after the appearance of Superman. With a lightning bolt emblazoned across the chest of his red uniform, The Flash’s winged shoes and helmet evoked the Greek god Hermes. Despite the Flash’s success, Lampert preferred to draw humorous material, which is perhaps why he was replaced as The Flash illustrator after only two issues. His gag cartoons appeared in Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. Lampert began his illustration career as a teen, inking Popeye and Betty Boop for famed illustrator Max Fleischer. Lampert later regretted not hanging onto his early Flash drawings after achieving recognition during a comics revival in the 1990s. A near-mint copy of Flash Comics No. 1 recently sold for $350,000. —E.R.

Syd Hoff

Many people probably spent decades thinking that Syd Hoff (91) was already dead. After all, plenty of generations have already been handed Danny and the Dinosaur as a classic children’s book. The writer and cartoonist was still living in Miami, though, and nobody heard about his death without going through a fit of nostalgia. —J.R.T.

Also Dead

Musician John Balance (42), founder of the band Coil and former member of 23 Skidoo, Psychic TV, Zos Kia, and Current 93; Buffalo Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer (58); Singer Laura Branigan (“Gloria”); Broadway composer Cy Coleman (75); Motown singer Syreeta Wright (58); reggae producer Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd (72); rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, aka Russell Jones (35); musician Kevin Coyne (60); Blues singer-guitarist Son Seals (62); Guitarist and violinist Claude (Fiddler) Williams (96); Former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrel Abbott (38); Gilbert Lani Kauhi (66), who played “Hawaii Five-0″‘s Detective Kono Kalakaua, the burly Hawaiian sidekick to the show’s star, Jack Lord; Character actor Victor Argo (69); Comedian and actor Dayton Allen (85), the voice of the characters on the “Deputy Dawg” cartoon show as well as those of mischievous cartoon crows Heckle and Jeckle; Norman Rose, the voice of Colombian coffee mascot Juan Valdez; Comedian Alan King (76); Stage actress and dancer Ann Miller (81); Actress Uta Hagen (84); New Zealand author Janet Frame (79), whose memoirs were the source material for Jane Campion’s film An Angel at My Table; Rape of Nanking author Iris Chang (36), suicide; Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby, Jr., (75); philosopher and literary critic Jacques Derrida (74), sometimes called the “father of deconstruction; football player Reggie White; Leonidas da Silva (90), Brazil’s first superstar of professional soccer, credited with inventing the bicycle kick; Los Angeles Rams’ football player Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch (80), known for his unique running style; fashion designers Geoffrey Beene (77) and Egon Von Furstenberg (57); photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson (95) and Francesco Scavullo (81); MAD magazine illustrator George Woodbridge (75); Drug store magnate Jack Eckerd (91).

Dead Folks 2005, Authors, Inventors, and Astronauts

Dead Folks 2005, Authors, Inventors, and Astronauts

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

February 24, 2005


Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag (click for larger version)

Once viewers catch on that Woody Allen’s 1983 comedy Zelig is a fake documentary about a man who never actually existed, the joke is in how extensively Allen creates a pastiche of the documentary form. The requisite pauses in the story for comments by observers, analysts, and sundry talking heads are the funniest part of Allen’s method, and the funniest talking head is Susan Sontag. That’s not because she has any funny lines. It’s because she doesn’t. So influential, profound, and brilliant are Sontag’s critical views on all matters cultural, that her very presence in the film signifies the ultimate commentary. The scene is equivalent to Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, or Jean Paul Sartre making a cameo appearance in a Bob Hope comedy.

After entering college at age 16 and fairly blowing away everyone at Berkeley, University of Chicago, Harvard, and the Sorbonne, the groovy brunette with a bride-of-Frankenstein streak in her mane decided to share with the world her innumerable ideas about art and life (for her they were indistinguishable). An article published in Partisan Review in 1964 called “Notes on Camp” was, in literary circles, akin to The Rolling Stones appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or maybe even the premiere of Citizen Kane. With that essay, and subsequent “assaults” in The Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The New York Review of Books, and various other intellectually inclined periodicals, Sontag provided a brand new way of discussing significant ideas in Western culture and minor ideas in popular culture. The new Bob Dylan album, Godard’s latest film, William James, and Freud were all part of the same story—or critique. Each was crucial to understanding the human creative experience. Yet during her explosion onto the arts and literary scene of the 1960s, what was most exciting for the hipsters, bohemians, and New York intellectuals who embraced/feared her was that Sontag made feasible the notion that one could read everything and know everything that mattered. She simultaneously demonstrated that no one could do it better. In that context, it’s extremely revealing that Sontag once defined the term “polymath” as “a person who is interested in everything, and nothing else.”

The publication of Sontag’s collection of essays titled Against Interpretation (1968) was virtually tectonic in its impact. Here she argues that understanding any work of art starts from intuitive response and not from analysis or intellectual considerations. “A work of art is a thing in the world, not just text or commentary on the world.” Other important works such as On Photography and Illness as Metaphor brought challenging ideas about contemporary culture out of the academy and into popular discourse. Not on Johnny Carson’s show, of course, or in the daily newspapers, but Sontag did to some extent prop open the doors to formerly exclusive salons. That’s mainly because her lucid, confident writing style, which is reinforced by a devastating (and yet somehow celebratory) wealth of intellectual inquiry and research, remains free of academic jargon and postmodern tics.

Such a position as a cultural critic implies a certain amount of controversy, which Sontag always could generate with a few comments. The left-leaning, radical thinker might be famously wrong at times, but one feather in her cap was confronting her lefty pals and stating that “socialism is the human face of fascism.” She was also right about Sarajevo. But regarding her notorious claim that September 11 was the result of U.S. international policies and actions, well, remain on the far left long enough and you’re bound to self-destruct. —David Pelfrey

Daniel Boorstin

The Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, Boorstin loved books and couldn’t understand why anyone else might not; he coined the term “aliterate” to describe those who could read but chose not to. During his tenure, appropriations for the Library of Congress rose from $116 million to more than double that figure, the vast holdings were opened to the public, and Boorstin established the Mary Pickford Theater to call attention to (and utilize) the library’s huge archive of motion pictures. He was the nation’s top cheerleader for libraries in general. Boorstin’s deepest interest was in history, although he was fond of pointing out that he was an amateur and not a professionally trained historian. That’s actually not worth pointing out, however, as he taught history at the University of Chicago for 25 years, held a post as director and senior historian at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on American history and a subsequent four-volume history of the world. —D.P.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Whoever has seen the horrifying appearance of the postwar European concentration camps would be similarly preoccupied.” That’s Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (78) speaking of her obssession with changing the treatment of dying patients. Kubler-Ross was greatly disturbed by what she witnessed in New York hospitals when she visited the U.S. in 1958. Her interest in death and her intensive study of the behavior of the terminally ill led to the publication of On Death and Dying in 1969. In less than a decade the book was a standard reference text for medical ethics and hospital policy. Her celebrated theory of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) remains a valuable model of human behavior not only for patients, but also for loved ones, medical professionals, and caregivers. —D.P.

Olivia Goldsmith

The film version of The First Wives’ Club was a jaunty celebration of older women getting revenge on the thoughtless husbands who abandoned them for younger women. There were also plenty of jibes at cosmetic surgery, as also found in the source novel by Olivia Goldsmith (54). Too bad the author didn’t take her pro-aging stance more seriously. Instead, Goldsmith died from complications related to anesthesia during cosmetic surgery. —J.R.T.

Norris McWhirter

Along with twin brother Ross, Norris McWhirter (78) founded the Guinness Book of Records. Its first edition was printed in 1955, and among its earliest records was a Russian woman who gave birth to 16 sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets from 1725 to 1765. According to its own records, the Guinness Book of Records is the world’s best-selling copyrighted book, with more than 100 million sold. The McWhirter twins personally crammed 70 people into a compact car just to set a record. Ross was murdered in 1975 after posting a 50,000-pound reward for information leading to the arrest of Irish Republican Army terrorists. —E.R.

Inventors and Innovators

Estee Lauder attracts a crowd (click for larger version)

Estee Lauder

Growing up in an apartment above her father’s hardware store in Queens, Josephine Esther Mentzer was a nice Jewish girl with an ambitious spirit and an intense fascination with the lotions and potions her chemist uncle prepared in a little shop. She liked them so much that in 1946 she began selling skin creams at beach resorts and hotels. The determined Esther expanded her product line and practically bullied her way onto some counter space at Saks Fifth Avenue two years later, by which time she and her husband Joseph Lauder had created a “nice little company.” The products were fine, but the sales program was outstanding: exquisitely attired staff, sophisticated sales patter, and, by the way, madam . . . here’s a free sample (a.k.a. “the gift”). By 1953 the company was a well-recognized force in the cosmetics industry.

Its success was due to Lauder’s making certain that those free gifts and samples found their way into the handbags of the hottest celebrities, the social elite, and the otherwise well-to-do. If that meant entertaining guests on a lavish scale (plenty of fine wine, fine cuisine, and cartons of free cosmetics), well, that was just part of the sales game; “If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard,” she was fond of saying. A more famous, and certainly more profit-generating, quote was “There are no ugly women.” It was that attitude, along with Lauder’s sheer force of will, that helped create a $10 billion enterprise with locations in 130 countries and a daunting product line that includes MAC, Aveda, Clinique, Aramis, and Prescriptives, the sum of which currently constitutes a stunning 45 percent share of the cosmetics business in the United States. Estee Lauder is the only woman on Time‘s list of the 20 most influential business figures of the 20th century. She was 97. —D.P.

Al Lapin, Jr.

In 1958, Lapin and his brother Jerry invested $25,000 and founded the International House of Pancakes. “Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity” was an early marketing slogan for ridiculously sweet fruit-topped pancakes and waffles drenched in blueberry, boysenberry, strawberry, or maple syrup. Lapin (76) later owned the Orange Julius chain. His first venture was Coffee Time, carts that delivered urns of hot coffee to offices. Attractive presentation was of utmost importance, both in his personal attire and restaurants. Among his favorite sayings were “People eat with their eyes before they eat with their hands,” and “You have to look like a dollar to borrow a dime.” —Ed Reynolds

Francis Crick

Everyone who ever suffered through sophomore biology classes in high school has sketched (or traced) in their lab notebook the double helix, that famous twisted ladder of deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA. Today the term has made a complete transition from scientific jargon to the popular lexicon. Disparaging remarks about the origin of someone’s DNA or gene pool are common, as are police investigations (in the real world or in television dramas) that rely on DNA evidence. The business of bio-engineering and gene therapy is a huge industry now. Half a century ago, however, the very structure of DNA was a great mystery.

Francis Crick (click for larger version)

It certainly intrigued the British-born biologist Francis Crick (88) and his young American-born colleague James Watson, both of whom were grappling with this puzzle at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, during the early 1950s. The pair finally concluded with the double helix, although confirmation of their results did not come for years. Crick nonetheless announced to friends at the University that they had “discovered the secret to life.” His approach was more subtle when it came time to publish their results in Nature in 1953, yet one particular understatement may resonate for all time: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” In 1962 Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize. —David Pelfrey

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield

In the 1960s, British electrical engineer Sir Godfrey Hounsfield created the computerized axial tomography scanner—the CAT scan. The CAT scan used X-rays to create three-dimensional images of the body’s interior, revolutionizing medical care. —E.R.

Dr. William Dobelle

William Dobelle (62) developed an experimental artificial vision system for the sight-impaired that involved transmission of electrical signals to electrodes implanted in the brain by way of a tiny camera attached to the user’s glasses. A portable computer receives images that are then sent to electrodes in the brain’s visual cortex. Four years before his death, his creation restored navigational vision to a blind volunteer. “I’ve always done artificial organs,” Dobelle told the New York Times. “I’ve spent my whole life in the spare-parts business.” —E.R.

Tom Hannon

The “father of the automated teller machine,” Tom Hannon pioneered the use of ATMs in locations other than banks. In the early 1990s he had machines in four Southern states. By the time he sold his U S. operation in 2002 to enter the British market, he had 2,500 machines in 40 states. —E.R.

Samuel M. Rubin

Popcorn was probably reasonably priced when Sam Rubin (85) began selling it in movie theaters during the Depression. He’d already built an empire with assorted New York City locations, but Sam changed the way we enjoy movies when he took his popcorn stands into theater chains such as RKO and Loews. His empire signaled the end of vending machines as the preferred mode of movie snacking. Rubin can also claim credit for inventing those oversized boxes of candy that sell for five times what you’d pay outside a movie theater. —J.R. Taylor

Red Adair

During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait set fire to oil wells in the high-producing Ahmadi and Magwa fields, creating a potentially monumental economic and environmental disaster. All the task forces and experts, along with the team working for legendary oil well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair (89), agreed that extinguishing these mammoth fires would take three to five years. Thanks to the consultation, logistical support, and special equipment provided by Adair’s organization, the task was accomplished in nine months. This was a stunning feat, but observers familiar with Adair’s history were not really shocked. At the time, Adair already had more than 40 years of experience battling wild wells, blow outs, and other conflagrations in the deserts and on the high seas. (Adair’s amazing story is told in Hellfighters, starring John Wayne.)

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, any time an oil rig exploded Adair’s team was called into action; the media coverage of these events justifiably portrayed Red Adair as an American hero. One of his more spectacular deeds involved the huge oil flame in the Sahara known as “The Devil’s Cigarette.” Today the highly specialized devices designed by Red Adair Service and Marine Company, Inc., are regarded as the Rolls Royces of firefighting equipment. —D.P.

Space is the Place

Gordon Cooper

One of the original seven Mercury astronauts, Gordon Cooper (77) was perhaps the most controversial for his belief that the U.S. government was keeping secrets about UFOs. In 1951, Cooper was part of a squadron scrambled into the air over Germany after metallic objects resembling saucers were spotted flying in formation. Cooper also maintained that he saw a UFO crash at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He filmed the incident, but the film was confiscated by government officials. While orbiting the earth in Gemini 5, Cooper infuriated federal authorities when he inadvertently photographed the top-secret Nevada military base known as Area 51 while shooting outer space photos as part of a Pentagon film experiment.

Cooper was the first American to remain in space for an entire day when he flew the last Mercury mission in 1963. Despite his controversial UFO fascination and associated conspiracy theories, he was the backup commander for the Apollo 10 mission that flew to within 50,000 feet of the moon. On his Mercury mission, the electrical system failed, and Cooper had to pilot the spacecraft manually back to earth to splashdown. Cooper’s belief in UFOs was so strong that he testified about them to the United Nations in 1978 in hope that the U.N. would become a repository for collecting UFO sightings. He also wrote a book urging the government to tell what it knew about UFOs. Most, however, probably remember Cooper through Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of the astronaut in The Right Stuff. —E.R.

Gordon Cooper (click for larger version)

Maxime Faget

While scientists were designing rockets to launch astronauts into outer space, Maxime Faget’s job was to bring space travelers home in one piece. Designer of the Mercury space capsule, which ushered the U.S. into the age of manned space flight, Faget’s dilemma was to protect a spacecraft and its occupants from heat when re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. (Astronauts return at 17,000 miles per hour in a craft that reaches temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.) Earliest theories called for a needle-nosed spaceship to cut down on air resistance, but Faget (83) scoffed at such Buck Rogers notions and designed a blunt-bodied craft that entered blunt end first to deflect most of the heat away from the craft. —E.R.

Fred Whipple

Originator of the “dirty snowball” concept, comet expert Fred Whipple (97) introduced the idea in 1950 that comets were balls of ice. This broke from the popular notion that comets were wads of sand held together by gravity. Whipple recognized that a comet’s arrival at a particular destination in outer space did not follow the predictability of gravitational pull only. He instead theorized that as a comet approached the sun, sunlight vaporized ice in its nucleus. Jets of particles resulted, functioning as a rocket engine to speed up or slow down the comet. Close-up photos of Halley’s Comet in 1986 proved Whipple to be correct. Whipple was also responsible for coming up with the idea of cutting aluminum foil into thousands of pieces and releasing the fragments from Allied aircraft over Germany. The tiny bits of foil confused the enemy; it appeared that thousands of planes were attacking. Some speculate that this is where the phrase “foiled again” originated. —E.R.

William H. Pickering

Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California from 1954 to 1976, Pickering (93) was in charge of the United States’ first robotic missions to the moon, Venus, and Mars. Three months after Russia put the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957, America launched Explorer I, its first orbiting spacecraft. A New Zealand-born electrical engineer, Pickering was a central figure in the Ranger and Surveyor landings on the moon, precursors to the Apollo flights that landed men on the moon. Initially, the Army oversaw Jet Propulsion Lab activity, but turned it over to NASA after the Russians launched Sputnik. —E.R.

Dead Folks 2005, Politics and Sports

Dead Folks 2005, Politics and Sports

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.


February 24, 2005Politics/News

Pierre Salinger


As one of the lesser lights of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, Pierre Salinger (79) worked hard to maintain his fame after serving as Presidential Press Secretary to JFK and Lyndon Johnson. He rushed the book A Tribute to John F. Kennedy into bookstores after the Kennedy assassination and would later be appointed as a Senator in 1964 after the death of a California incumbent. Then he was promptly voted out of office when he sought legitimate election, partly because he didn’t really live in California. After that, Salinger showed up as an attorney in an episode of “Batman,” and was a panelist on two episodes of “What’s My Line?” The former ABC news correspondent finally went away for good after making an ass out of himself in 1997. Salinger held plenty of news conferences proclaiming that he had absolute proof that the U.S. Navy had shot down TWA Flight 800, which had crashed with no survivors off of Long Island in 1996. It turned out Salinger had found all of his revealing documents on this new thing called the Internet, and nobody had explained to him that any crackpot could put together a collection of conspiracy theories and post it on a web site. Not surprisingly, Salinger passed away in France. —J.R.T. 

Pierre Salinger (click for larger version)

Charles Woods

Perennial political candidate and Dothan media and real estate tycoon Charles Woods (83) was the butt of many a cruel grade-school joke. Severely disfigured after a fiery World War II B-17 crash, Woods ran for governor of Alabama several times during the 1960s and ’70s, and even launched a bid for the U.S. presidency that once landed him a guest spot on David Letterman’s show. His bald, earless head, which sported an eyepatch, inspired children across Alabama to stylishly transform their thumbs into the head of Woods, complete with the eyepatch courtesy of a ballpoint pen. —E.R.

Mary McGrory

An outspoken liberal reporter on the Washington, D.C., political scene for 50 years, Mary McGrory (85) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her columns on Watergate. McGrory first made a name for herself reporting on the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 (“an Irish bully” was her assessment of Senator Joseph McCarthy). Her final pieces criticized the Bush administration for invading Iraq. McGrory often referred to Congress as the “federal entertainment center.” Among her accomplishments was inclusion on President Nixon’s famous enemies list. —E.R.

David Dellinger

Often described as a “radical pacifist,” David Dellinger (88) was a leading organizer of nonviolent antiwar protests in the 1960s; it was Dellinger who created the encirclement of the Pentagon immortalized by Norman Mailer in his 1967 account, “Armies of the Night.” His close contact with North Vietnamese officials allowed him to escort several American airmen held as prisoners back to the United States. Civil disobedience was his game. He got the harshest sentence in the political conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven: five years and a $5,000 fine. Dellinger was a devoted follower of Rev. A. J. Muste’s movement supporting pacifism during World War II. He went to prison for a year in 1943 for draft evasion. Upon his release, he refused to report for his military physical, though he was exempt from actual induction because he was a seminary student. This got him locked up for two more years at a maximum security prison. —E.R.

Archibald Cox and Samuel Dash

Former President Richard Nixon shocked more than a few folks when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Oddly enough, Cox, (92) died the same day as 79-year-old Samuel Dash, the chief counsel to the U.S. Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. It was Dash who urged a White House aide to reveal that Nixon was taping conversations with officials. Cox subpoenaed the recordings while investigating the burglary and subsequent cover-up. When Cox refused edited versions of the tapes, Nixon fired him. The former president resigned in 1974. Samuel Dash, an ethics adviser to Kenneth Starr, who investigated former President Bill Clinton, resigned from that position when he felt Starr was abusing his powers as an investigator by advocating Clinton’s impeachment. —E.R.

Yasser Arafat

The celebrity buzz in Hell right now is that Arafat and Hitler are sharing an apartment. That’s not so shocking; the two are both known for their “let’s kill all the Jews” world view. Yet one wonders what else they could possibly have in common. (A deep and abiding fondness for denial and subterfuge? Not much to build a marriage on.) Anyway, one also wonders just who is making whom wear the shiny boots. —D.P.

Abu Abbas

Abu Abbas (55) was the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLO) terrorist behind the 1985 hijacking of the Italian passenger ship Achille Lauro. An elderly, wheelchair-bound Jewish American tourist was pushed overboard during the seige. A 1995 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians included immunity for PLO members for any terrorist activity committed before September 1993, the month the two sides established a mutual recognition agreement. As a result, Abbas made his first visit to Gaza in 1996 after Israel declared that he was no longer a threat. Abbas was captured by American forces in Iraq in April 2004. He died in U.S. custody. —E.R.



Tug McGraw


Tug McGraw (click for larger version)

Nowadays, a wacky sports figure is somebody who runs over a nun while eluding the cops in the aftermath of a drug bust. Tug McGraw (59) represented a more genial age. He would’ve been eccentric enough as a left-handed pitcher leading the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series. McGraw pretty much summed up the quotable ’70s when—asked for his preference between grass and Astroturf—he responded that he’d never actually smoked the latter. McGraw also knew how to stage a photo op, as when he arranged for fellow Phillie Mike Schmidt to jump into his arms after winning the 1980 World Series. After his retirement in 1985, McGraw made appearances in a custom suit that combined his Mets and Phillies uniforms. He died in the home of country star Tim McGraw, who only discovered Tug was his real father after finding his birth certificate at the age of 11. The father had originally agreed to pay for Tim’s education as a condition for no further contact, but apparently he was just too damn lovable to leave it at that. —J.R. Taylor

Larry Ponza

Lorenzo “Larry” Ponza perfected the modern pitching machine, a marvelous invention that has entertained many a drunken tourist as they swat at baseballs in batting cages up and down the Florida coastline. Ponza (86) created the prototype for pitching machines with his “Power Pitcher” in 1952. In 1974 he built “The Hummer,” an invaluable tool used for batting instruction by both Little Leaguers and major leaguers. The inventor kept improving on his work with the “Casey” in 1983, the “Ponza Swing King” in 1987, and the “Rookie” in 1988. —E.R.

John H. Williams

As the son of legendary baseball icon Ted Williams, John Williams (35) got his name in the history books after a much-publicized bout with his sister over whether their father’s body should be cremated or cryogenically preserved for future resurrection. The male Williams prevailed, and his father’s head was removed and frozen. However, the cryogenics company later threatened to thaw out the late slugger’s head for disposal unless the younger Williams paid the laboratory $111,000 it was owed. No word on what was done with the younger Williams’ noggin upon death. —Ed Reynolds

John Kelley

John Kelley (97) ran in 61 Boston Marathons, finishing 58 and winning two. Running in his first in 1928, he finally won in 1935, and completed his last in 1992 at age 84, running the entire 26 miles. At age 65 he said his motivation to continue competing was “to try to beat the girls.” —E.R.

Brian Maxwell

One of the top marathoners in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian Maxwell (51) made a fortune after he and his wife created the Powerbar, a sports energy snack, in their kitchen in 1986. Maxwell died of a heart attack at age 51 while waiting in line at the post office. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young was an early customer who began eating the Powerbar when they were still being made in the Maxwells’ apartment. Young credited the Powerbar for revolutionizing the sports world’s approach to healthy living. “[Before the Powerbar], players smoked at halftime in the locker room,” said Young. —E.R.

Joe Gold

Joe Gold (82) was an early bodybuilding pioneer. He opened Gold’s Gym in the Venice section of Los Angeles in 1965 and sold it in the early 1970s. They were subsequently franchised across the country. In 1977, Gold started World Gym, the setting for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Pumping Iron. As a teen, Gold discovered California’s “Muscle Beach,” which set in place his devotion to bodybuilding. He often worked out with railroad ties and buckets of hardened concrete. —E.R.

Sidney James

In 1954 Sidney James became the founding editor of Sports Illustrated. The first issue sold for 25 cents. James, who had coordinated the first televised coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1948, convinced William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck to contribute pieces to the magazine. —E.R.

Walter F. Riker, Jr.

As drug adviser for the NFL, Riker was an expert on the effects of drugs on muscular and neuromuscular systems. Riker advised professional football in the early 1970s when amphetamine use by pro athletes was booming. In the 1980s, he addressed the escalation of cocaine among players and warned that steroids would one day be a major dilemma. —E.R.

Marge Schott

Anybody who thinks racism isn’t funny never saw Marge Schott (75) in action. The outspoken former owner of the Cincinnati Reds constantly made headlines with her idiocy, and got the occasional fine for racial slurs. That’s what happens when a trashy broad inherits an empire after her husband dies. Schott had been best known in Cincinnati for her dopey TV ads for her car dealership—in which she co-starred with a dog—but she spent the ’90s as the spokeswoman for privileged obliviousness. Reds owner Carl Lindner said, “She will be remembered for her love of baseball and for her passion for the Cincinnati Reds.” There’s some wishful thinking. It’ll be hard to top the memory of Schott proclaiming, “Everybody knows [Adolf Hitler] was good at the beginning, but he just went too far.” —J.R.T.