Monthly Archives: July 2010

Let Freedom Ring

Let Freedom Ring

July 22, 2010

Some people like improv music—which could be described as music in real time—though many tend to hate it. Nevertheless, Birmingham is home to two of the most revered artists on the international improvisational scene, Davey Williams (guitar) and LaDonna Smith (violin), who have performed free-expression improv for more than 30 years. In Birmingham the month of August will be devoted to the spontaneous sounds of the 2010 Improvisor Festival, a four-week celebration of 30 years of improv music from the area.

Percussionist/composer Andrea Centazzo, violinist LaDonna Smith, and guitarist Davey Williams. (click for larger version)



The festival will take place in several cities in the Southeast, with satellite performances nationwide, throughout August. Birmingham will host its share of gigs at various venues, including WorkPlay, Bottletree Café, Pepper Place venues, including the Farmers Market, and Bare Hands art gallery.

“This is really esoteric stuff, very cutting edge,” says Lee Shook, assistant executive director of the Improvisor Festival, though he readily admits that the cacophony of sound can sometimes put nerves on edge and prompt eyes to roll. But he offers a more refined observation: “Improv has a lot to do with the idea of aleatory music [or 'chance music,' according to Wikipedia] that John Cage developed in the early half of the 20th century.” (Aleatory is derived from the Latin word alea, meaning dice.)

Ut Gret, who will be performing at this year’s festival. (click for larger version)



“Aleatory music is the idea of spontaneous composition where people are literally composing music with no idea or preconceived notion about what the music will be,” says Shook of the basic philosophy behind improv music. “A lot will think, ‘This is a bunch of racket, this is a bunch of noise.’ And some of it can be like that. It depends on the players, it depends on the personalities involved. To some people [improv] can be quiet and gentle and like looking out over the ocean at dusk.”

In the 1980s, Williams and Smith began publishing The Improvisor, a newsletter dedicated to the genre that currently exists only online ( It established Birmingham as hallowed ground for cultivating improv music, art, spoken word, and dance.

“It began as a little four-page, Xeroxed mailout that went out to fellow musicians and artists in the genre of free improvisation,” says Lee Shook. “Improv is really a remarkable contribution that Birmingham has made to progressive art and music in America.”

Improv is complete freedom of expression. “Like with Davey Williams [who, at age 19, played guitar with blues great Johnny Shines], if he wants to throw in a blues lick, if he wants to quote an old Robert Johnson song in the middle of someone playing a theremin—it’s whatever,” says Shook. “It’s putting together all these interesting combinations of people, which is what we’re doing. We’re going to have Oteil Burbridge from the Allman Brothers playing with Davey and this guy Chris Cochrane. He used to play with Davey in Curlew, one of the great avant-jazz funk bands. Those guys could smoke!”

On Friday, August 6, Grammy Award–winner Henry Kaiser will perform his world–renowned guitar experiments. Kaiser has performed on soundtracks for Werner Herzog films and is one of the key members of the U.S. Antarctica Dive teams that film footage for underwater sea life in Antarctica for National Geographic and Animal Planet. Colonel Bruce Hampton of the Aquarium Rescue Unit will also perform, with the Shaking Ray Levis, who describe themselves as an old-timey, avant-garde synthesizer and drums duo. Shook explains that Hampton might do anything from playing incredible guitar to spoken word, to “riffing on some vocal technique.” Visit for performance schedules and festival details. &


Dead Folks: Film, Part 2

Dead Folks: Film, Part 2

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

January 21, 2010

Patrick McGoohan
Though born in New York City, Patrick McGoohan was raised in Ireland, where his acting career established him as one of the new crop of Angry Young Men storming the stage during the 1950s. Any plans to become the next Richard Burton changed when McGoohan became a TV star on the long-running UK series “Danger Man” (repackaged as “Secret Agent” for the American audience). McGoohan then turned that simple career move into high art. After three seasons of “Danger Man,” McGoohan essentially took his spy character and placed him in the ambitious sci-fi setting of “The Prisoner.”

Patrick McGoohan (click for larger version)

McGoohan produced, wrote, directed, and starred in what became one of the 1960s most subversive TV shows. The title character of “The Prisoner” was only known as Number Six. Each episode presented him clashing with a new Number Two, whose job would be to psychologically break Number Six among the trappings of the luxury resort that served as his prison. Before it was over, “The Prisoner” became a brilliant mix of libertarian politics torn between Cold War paranoia and hippie hysteria.

McGoohan worked infrequently after that success. He gave up on television after a frustrating stint as a diagnostic physician in 1977′s “Rafferty.” He fared better on the big screen, with great villainous turns in 1976′s The Silver Streak and against Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. He also appeared in David Cronenberg’s Scanners and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

McGoohan also stayed busy working on the “Columbo” TV movies. He played four murderers and directed other episodes. Unfortunately, McGoohan matched only Sean Connery when it came to bad decisions later in his career. His big-screen genre return was a 1996 cameo in The Phantom, based on the popular comic strip. He turned down roles in The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films. McGoohan’s last big appearance was returning as Number Six in an episode of “The Simpsons.” The AMC cable channel aired a remake of “The Prisoner” this year. Some wondered if McGoohan dropped dead because he saw how badly the network screwed up the concept. (80, natural causes)

—J.R. Taylor

Jack Wrangler
In the midst of 1970s porn chic, only one gay porn star was able to go legit. Jack Wrangler—born John Stillman—came from a showbiz family in Beverly Hills, and started out as a child actor. He took roles in gay-themed stage productions as a young man, before moving to New York. He ended up working on the stages of Manhattan’s gay bars as a go-go dancer. That’s when he became Jack Wrangler. He was soon discovered by gay porn filmmakers and made his X-rated debut in 1970′s Eyes of a Stranger. The proudly out star became a regular in fashionable Manhattan hot spots. Wrangler later moved on to heterosexual porn in the late 1970s—his most notorious role remains his turn as Satan in 1982′s The Devil in Miss Jones 2. By then, he had scored a legitimate off-Broadway hit with his role in the popular play “T-Shirts.”

Jack Wrangler (click for larger version)




He was a heavy smoker, but a lot of people were surprised that Wrangler was outlived by his wife. Actually, a lot of people were surprised that he had a wife. He had first met Margaret Whiting in 1976. That was several decades after her heyday as a popular singer.

Wrangler went on to promote Whiting’s career and ended up as a busy producer on the cabaret circuit. The couple married in 1994, and raised eyebrows one last time in 1998 when they sued the city of New York for $3 million after Whiting (then 74 years old) broke her hip after tripping on broken pavement. The lawsuit included a $1 million claim over the loss of conjugal relations. (62, emphysema) —J.R.T.

Ray Dennis Steckler
One of Hollywood’s worst directors had a promising start. Ray Dennis Steckler made his directorial debut with 1962′s Wild Guitar, which is actually a stylish—and inept—tale of the rise and fall of a young rockabilly star. The nebbishy Steckler then wrote a role for himself (starring under the name of Cash Flagg) as Mort “Mad Dog” Click in 1964′s The Thrill Killers. Steckler also used his pseudonym to direct himself in that same year’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? The title alone made it an instant cult classic. The film became notorious as a touring show that featured real monsters running through the theater and abducting girls from the audience.

Ray Dennis Stecker’s most famous film. (click for larger version)

Steckler never got a chance at a decent script, though, and his reputation went downhill while making notoriously cheap films like the “Batman” parody Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and directing porn in the 1970s.

He made X-rated films up to 1983, and then began to enjoy some notoriety as his earlier films were discovered on VHS. The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979) plays more like a nihilistic wallow on the level of Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer. Steckler had moved to Vegas by the end of the ’70s, which makes The Hollywood Strangler equally impressive as a travelogue of that city’s sleaziest ’70s settings.

Steckler was happy to be rediscovered and had a pretty good attitude about his career. He was still right to be angry when one of his movies showed up as fodder for an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Nothing really came of his attempted comeback with 1986′s Las Vegas Serial Killer, but he seemed happy to concentrate on his own Las Vegas chain of video stores.

John Quade

Sadly, the director never pursued his idea of reuniting with cast members from his old films to make Steckler’s 11. He did, however, reportedly finish shooting The Incredibly Strange Creatures: One More Time before his death—and for one-tenth of the original film’s $38,000 budget. (70, cardiac arrest) —J.R.T.

John Quade
From the 1960s until just recently, Quade’s mere physical presence made him a first choice for the role of a heavy in any TV series or motion picture requiring an ill-tempered troll. A thick, balding head (sans neck), slits for eyes, and the torso of a young bull combined to suggest an inevitable encounter with menace and mayhem. Yet in dozens of westerns or crime thrillers, something about Quade’s demeanor hinted that he fell squarely into two bad-guy categories: mean and stupid. While one easily imagines him ambling out of a saloon and crossing the street so he can pummel some victim into dust, one just as easily suspects that Quade will forget why he bothered to cross that street once he reaches the other side. Therefore he represented, in most of his roles as a corrupt lawman, renegade biker, or frontier bully, a kind of dangerous nuisance as opposed to a deadly threat. That’s Quade in High Plains Drifter, Any Which Way You Can, and similar fare attempting to open a can of whoop-ass, but ultimately making Clint Eastwood’s day. (71, natural causes) —D.P.

David Carradine

David Carradine
The star of the 1970s drama “Kung Fu” enjoyed a few legitimate screen roles, including Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and an Oscar-nominated turn as Woody Guthrie in 1976′s Bound for Glory. There were also plenty of classic drive-in epics, from Boxcar Bertha to Death Race 2000. He was always one of Hollywood’s wildest eccentrics, constantly going barefoot and eager to discuss eating the placenta of the child he had with Barbara Hershey in 1972. (That was back when his Boxcar Bertha co-star called herself Barbara Seagull after hitting a seagull with her car.)

His brother Keith went on to the classier acting career, while Robert Carradine got the Revenge of the Nerds franchise. Carradine spent the 1980s and ’90s making tons of direct-to-video schlock with the occasional classy role—including the classic monster movie Q and working with his brothers in The Long Riders. He also spent 10 years working as the writer, director, and star of Americana. That one is a real lost gem worthy of directors like Monte Hellman and David Lynch.

Carradine also kept the Kung Fu franchise going by playing his own ancestor in a long-running syndicated series. He made a true comeback replacing Warren Beatty in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. That didn’t stop Carradine from going right back to making schlock—including the Bangkok-set actioner he was filming when found dead in the closet of his hotel room.

The initial reports of suicide were later clarified as autoerotic asphyxiation. That was certainly in keeping with Carradine’s kinky reputation. The indulgent actor left Los Angeles with something to remember. A few months before his death, Carradine participated in a panel discussion after a screening of Bound for Glory. He complained about the evils off labor unions, threw a microphone at a woman in the audience, and berated cinematographer Haskell Wexler for ruining the movie. Wexler won his second Oscar for his work on Bound for Glory. (72, autoerotic asphyxiation) —J.R.T.

Gene Barry
A handsome leading man in some very minor films and two popular TV series, Barry might have been a bigger star if not for an accident of birth. He did have a starring role in one “A” picture. Playing Dr. Clayton Forrester in the 1953 science-fiction epic The War of the Worlds, Barry sported tortoise-shell horn-rim glasses and a debonair swagger. Forrester provided nerds and science geeks everywhere with the best possible pick-up line: when his fetching female co-star mentions the glasses, he removes them, moves into her space, and intones, “When I want look at something up close, I take them off.”

Gale Storm (click for larger version)

By the time he took a starring role in the TV western “Bat Masterson,” Barry was older—and looking older—than most of his peers who were holding positions as ladies’ men. The detective series “Burke’s Law” had him gadding about Los Angeles in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, solving crimes and turning away eager dames. The show’s bevy of willing babes and surprisingly frank sexual content were intended to maximize Barry’s potential as a major swankster. But in 1965, he looked like the much older brother of Hollywood’s most dashing lads. (90, natural causes) —D.P.

Gale Storm
The filmography of Gale Storm ends like you would expect from an aging star of the 1950s. Her final credits were “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Storm was no typical starlet, though. The former Josephine Cottle spent the 1940s making lots of banal films for RKO Pictures. Things suddenly turned around with the unexpected success of the TV show “My Little Margie.” She was 30 years old when the summer replacement for “I Love Lucy” became a hit in 1952. That was ancient by Hollywood standards, but Storm launched a new career as a hit singer and nightclub act—and followed up “My Little Margie” with “The Gale Storm Show,” which kept her on the air until 1960. (87, natural causes) —J.R.T.

Charles Schneer
Serving in the U.S. Army Photographic Unit during WWII alongside John Ford and John Huston, Schneer got a big case of the movie bug and headed to Hollywood after the war. In the mid-1950s, he joined Columbia Pictures and hooked up with Ray Harryhausen, who had learned a few things about stop-motion animation from the experts who had made King Kong. This was especially appealing for Schneer, who was obsessed with the kind of science-fiction and adventure stories known in the movie industry at that time as “creature features.” Harryhausen was already figuring out how to make those creatures come to life, and Schneer knew how to manage a production unit. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Shooting scale-model monsters on miniature sets (one frame at a time) requires an intimidating amount of time and money, and Columbia Pictures was rarely the studio for big budgets. It was Schneer’s particular genius to find the means to make those pictures anyway. For the duo’s first feature film, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Schneer determined that a giant octopus with only six tentacles would take less time for Harryhausen to pose and shoot than would an anatomically correct cephalopod. He correctly gambled that audiences stunned by the sight of a sea creature tearing out portions of the Golden Gate Bridge wouldn’t take time to count tentacles.

A genre was spawned, aided by Schneer’s youthful fascination with H-bomb tests, UFOs, and any story in the newspapers covering a strange new phenomenon. His collection of clippings was the impetus for low-budget, high-impact wonders such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth. Nontheless, it occurred rather quickly to both Schneer and Harryhausen that alien invaders and radiation-enhanced creatures were tired subjects by the end of that decade. Maybe they could bring a little class to the joint by making pictures about the original gods and monsters of Roman and Greek mythology.

The idea resulted in a second genre of pictures, coinciding with—and borrowing from—the sword-and-sandal epics being made in Europe. Using Mediterranean locations, Bernard Herrmann’s rousing, brassy scores, and Harryhausen’s visual effects system “Dynamation,” Schneer provided three generations of moviegoers with a series of indelible images. Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, and others each offer at least one unforgettable moment. The sword battle with that skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts might be the Schneer/Harryhausen masterwork. (89) —D.P.

Maurice Jarre
A list of the most recognizable motion picture scores would probably include Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Nino Rota’s The Godfather. Henry Mancini’s theme from The Pink Panther and John Barry’s score for Goldfinger also make the cut. In all likelihood, Maurice Jarre’s compositions for Dr. Zhivago

(specifically “Lara’s Theme”) will appear in any survey of the most recognizable soundtracks in motion picture history; Dr. Zhivago might even belong in the top five.

Jarre himself might belong on another list: the top 10 hardest working composers in show business. He was meeting impossible challenges early in his career and simply never let up. When producer Sam Spiegel called on Jarre to provide incidental music for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the plan was to have heavyweights Benjamin Britten and Aram Khachaturian handle all the theme music. The studio then settled on yet another major composer, Richard Rodgers, but the notoriously picky Lean was not satisfied with anything he heard. The entire score was left up to Jarre, who had less than 40 days to compose themes, arrange the score, rehearse with an orchestra, and then conduct that orchestra to synchronize all music tracks with the film. That score, which employed Arabian music for certain motifs, earned Jarre his first of three Oscars. Lean insisted that Jarre work on his next film, Dr. Zhivago, but again the composer was left with the daunting task of crafting a theme and an entire score within a limited schedule. And again, he earned an Academy Award.

His body of work isn’t all lush symphonic music and chart-busting themes. There is often restraint and ingenuity in the orchestration, especially when he is conveying human emotions or signifying key charactters. Witness the off-kilter strains used to suggest madness in Night of the Generals, The Collector, or most ingeniously in George Franju’s horror cult classic Les Yeux Sans Visage. Indeed, there are numerous instances in his career where Jarre’s music outclasses—and out-entertains—the picture itself, certainly in the case of some forgettable westerns. His early scores for Franju, along with those for several French films made before Jarre came to the United States, are essential listening. Highly recommended is a very rare boxed set of Jarre’s early work, “Anthologie-80ème Anniversaire,” released by the French label Play Time in 2005. (84, cancer) —D.P.

Brittany Murphy
A lot of people were shocked when Brittany Murphy died young. Those people hadn’t been following her film career. The former child actress broke big in her late teens, starting with her role as a girl in need of a makeover in 1995′s Clueless. Her next film was the bizarre indie classic Freeway, and Murphy closed out the 1990s with Girl, Interrupted and Drop Dead Gorgeous. The latter was an underseen comedy that still catapulted Murphy into lead roles. She made some bad romantic comedies in the next decade, but Murphy did fine work in 8 Mile and Sin City. She also kept her day job as the voice of trashy Texan girl Luanne Platter on the FOX animated series “King of the Hill.”

By the mid-2000s, though, Murphy was in trouble. Lindsay Lohan made the headlines, but Murphy was going through a similar celebrity meltdown. Her erratic behavior soon had her reduced to crappy direct-to-video productions. Murphy hit rock bottom with 2009′s MegaFault. The disaster movie debuted on the SyFy Channel in a slot usually reserved for films starring Judd Nelson and Coolio.

The biggest project Murphy had going was the upcoming action film The Expendables. She doesn’t star in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle, though. She is part of a kitschy cast featuring faded stars like Eric Roberts and Dolph Lundgren. Sadly, Murphy didn’t leave much to be rediscovered at the end of her career. She had ruined her looks with plastic surgery, and her eyes were as dead as any veteran porn star’s. Plenty of pills were found in her home. Murphy’s husband and her mother, however, insist that their meal ticket didn’t do drugs. They say she died of a heart murmur. “It was hard for anyone to imagine that somebody was so high on life,” explained Mom. She got that right. (32, cardiac arrest, officially) —J.R.T.

Dead Folks: Television

Dead Folks: Television

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.


January 21, 2010

Henry Gibson
Philadelphia-born Henry Gibson moved to New York City after finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of London. The starving actor had trouble sleeping in the Hell’s Kitchen bathtub that served as his bed, so he stayed up all night writing poetry in the voice of a naïve Southern boy from Fairhope, Alabama. He began to perform the poems live—originally with classmate Jon Voight, and then solo after Voight decided to pursue more serious roles.

Henry Gibson (click for larger version)

Gibson was born James Bateman, but chose his stage name because it sounded like “Henrik Ibsen” with a Southern accent. His big break came with a chance to read his poems on the “PM East/PM West” TV show hosted by Mike Wallace. Gibson knew he would never be allowed on the show if the producers knew he was an actor. He recalled his audition in an interview from 1997:

I visited the studio, and they brought in Mike Wallace. He practically exhausted me with questions about my background. I had to create an entire biography, depicting this idealized version of a town I had never even seen. Then Wallace asked me, ‘Henry, can you make up a poem on the spot?’

I nearly died. My entire repertoire had seven poems, maybe eight. The dumber the poems sounded, the more time it had taken to create them. The intricacy and complexity of them wasn’t something that just happened. So I foolishly said, ‘Yes,’ and came up with a poem about sunshine:

There’s sunshine in the mountains
There’s sunshine in the trees
There’s sunshine right here in the office
But, most of all, it’s in me

Well, that did it. He put me on the show the next day. Sad to say—or happy to say—Henry Gibson, the poet, was launched.

That appearance turned Little Henry from Fairhope, Alabama, into a star. He was a regular on the national talk shows of the early 1960s, and Gibson frequently took phone calls from Alabama newspapers wanting to chronicle the exploits of a favorite son. Little Henry became a regular on “The Joey Bishop Show,” and fans like Jerry Lewis and Phyllis Diller encouraged his bizarre stand-up comedy act.

Gibson had moved on to legitimate theater by the time he began reciting his poems on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” The hit show made Gibson a countercultural icon. His most controversial messages involved peace and environmental causes.

By the end of the 1970s, Gibson had enough clout to publish a poem in the editorial pages of the Washington Post. (“I was especially pleased to learn that President Carter found it offensive.”) Gibson also remained busy as a character actor, picking up new fans with an appearance in 1980′s The Blues Brothers. He could also be found in films such as Magnolia and Nashville. Gibson worked constantly (and Twittered) right up to his death. He never did get to visit Fairhope. (73, cancer) —J.R. Taylor

Edward Woodward (click for larger version)

Edward Woodward
Few Americans know the full career history of this versatile English actor. Blessed with good looks (a blend of Peter O’Toole and Christopher Plummer) and a gentle tenor, Woodward found his way onto the English stage—and for a short time, Broadway—where he rubbed elbows with Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, and sundry leading lights of the National Theatre. Thanks to numerous BBC radio programs and TV roles, Woodward was a household name in England by the 1960s. During the early 1970s, the long-running spy series “Callan” established him as the go-to guy for international man-of-intrigue roles whenever Michael Caine was unavailable.

Woodward was adept at playing humorless authority figures, which made him an excellent choice as Sergeant Howie, the pious police investigator who encounters a pagan cult on the remote Scottish isle in The Wicker Man. The ne plus ultra of British horror/fantasy films, that picture enjoyed cult status practically from the moment of its release in 1973, by which Woodward became a kind of international cult star. A decade later, several American TV shows offered variations on Woodward’s man-of-intrigue background, the most notable of which was “The Equalizer.” (79, pneumonia.) —David Pelfrey

Soupy Sales
One of New York City’s biggest local stars started out as a Southern boy. Soupy Sales was born as Milton Supman in North Carolina and was one of many comics who got their start entertaining their fellow enlisted men during World War II. Sales worked his way around America as a local TV show host in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Detroit—where he established his weird mix of a daytime talk show that entertained both kiddies and adults with puppets and pie fights.

Soupy Sales (click for larger version)

A (quickly canceled) local show in Los Angeles made a fan out of Frank Sinatra, who signed Sales to his Reprise record label. Sales didn’t hit the pop charts until 1965, though, after finding success with his show in New York City. “The Mouse” became a huge novelty single, and word began to go beyond the East Coast about Sales and his cast of characters—and White Fang (“The Meanest Dog in the USA”) became a true breakout character.

Sales broke through nationally after a live New Year’s Day broadcast in 1965. He instructed his kiddie audience to sneak into the bedroom where their parents were presumably still asleep after the previous night’s parties. Sales told the kids to mail him the “funny green pieces of paper” in their parents’ pants and purses. Enough money came in that the concerned network suspended Sales for two weeks.

He became a popular talk show guest, as well as appearing on (and hosting) several game shows. A lot of his young fans in New York City grew up to work in Hollywood, and Sales could always find employment. He became part of the pop firmament, with his survivors include the legendary Sons of Soupy—that being the ace rhythm section of Tony and Hunt Sales, who have worked with David Bowie’s Tin Machine and Iggy Pop. Sales also lived long enough to see his name become one of the many pop-culture references in the script to Juno. He died in the Bronx, which only endeared him more to his New York audience. (83, natural causes) —J.R.T.

Beatrice “Bea” Arthur
Bea Arthur had a seven-decade career in theatre and TV, but was best known as the tall, rapier-witted “Golden Girl” and “Maude,” both of TV fame. Arthur was a successful stage actress and singer prior to her career in TV. In “Maude,” Arthur broke ground playing a 40-year-old, four-time-married liberal with a tough sense of humor. In the show’s first season, Maude dealt with the realities of pregnancy and abortion later in life (at age 47). The controversial episode aired two months before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case making abortion legal, was decided. Two CBS affiliates refused to air the episode, and Arthur received a shower of hate mail for it.

Bea Arthur (click for larger version)

“Maude” came about when Arthur’s friend, Norman Lear, convinced her to do a guest spot on “All in the Family.” Lear created a role for her in Maude Findlay, a cousin of Archie Bunker’s wife Edith. Maude’s spunk and sparring with Archie was a hit with viewers, and CBS demanded a new series from Lear, with Maude as the main character.

Arthur’s subsequent role, as Dorothy on the long-running sitcom, “The Golden Girls” (1985-92) was similarly edgy in that its lead characters—three ladies in their “golden years” living together and all actively dating—dealt with touchy contemporary topics such as gay rights and gun control. (86, cancer) —Christina Crowe

Wendy Richard
“Are You Being Served?” was a corny British sitcom that ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985—and then became a beloved favorite of the PBS audience in America. The beleaguered sales staff at the Grace Brothers department store certainly built a following in Birmingham. Many viewers were admirers of Wendy Richard as the sexy (and oblivious) sales clerk Miss Shirley Brahms. Richard moved on to the long-running “EastEnders” soap opera, where she starred as proud local matriarch Pauline Fowler. She appeared in more than 1,400 episodes between 1985 and 2006. She had become one of Britain’s most familiar faces, and her battle against cancer became a public affair that sadly culminated in February of last year. “Are You Being Served?” fans will be further saddened to learn that Wendy was followed in death by 86-year-old Mollie Sugden, who had played senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe. (65, breast cancer) —J.R.T.

Val Avery (click for larger version)


Wendy Richard (click for larger version)


Val Avery
As a longtime friend and drinking buddy of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, Avery was for all practical purposes a “made guy” in acting circles. The owl-faced, glaring character player usually portrayed some variation of mob enforcer or wise guy, and he was a staple of TV westerns and crime dramas. He appeared at least once (and often several times) in “The Untouchables,” “The Fugitive,” “The F.B.I.,” “Dragnet,” “N.Y. P.D.,” “Ironside,” “McCloud,” “Mannix,” “Police Story,” “Kojak,” “Baretta,” “Columbo,” and “Starsky & Hutch,” among some 140 other shows. From the fall of 1955 to the summer of 2001, Avery portrayed either extremely intimidating mobsters, fairly unpleasant tough guys, or untrustworthy losers getting deeper into some kind of trouble with the authorities—or bringing to some unfortunate soul his own special brand of problem. He also had roles in more than 100 motion pictures, chief among them The Pope of Greenwich Village, Donnie Brasco, The Wanderers, Gloria, and Papillon. Considering his more than 400 TV or movie roles, Avery was an excellent choice for a round of “Hey, it’s that guy!” (85) —D.P.

Gidget the Chihuahua became an advertising icon in the late 1990s by proclaiming, “áYo quiero Taco Bell!” She wowed audiences until she was put out of a job by Hispanic advocacy groups claiming that she perpetuated stereotypes. The protestors actually did Taco Bell a favor. The commercials were popular, but didn’t do anything for restaurant sales. Gidget actually killed creative commercials for a while. Dull clients loved to remind ambitious ad agencies that being clever didn’t do anything for Taco Bell.

Gidget also harmed the reputation of TBWA Chiat/Day. The ad agency gladly took credit for coming up with the idea of the spokesdog, but Taco Bell was later successfully sued for stealing the idea from a small ad agency in Michigan. Oblivious to it all, Gidget remained an untarnished icon. (16, stroke) —J.R.T.

Ken Ober
Before there was reality TV, cable TV offered a different kind of weird new fame. Former stand-up comic Ken Ober was a perfect example as the host of MTV’s “Remote Control” game show from 1987 to 1989. Ober later found success writing and producing TV shows such as “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” (52, natural causes) —J.R.T.