Dead Folks: Television
Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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
“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.
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.
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.