Tag Archives: By David Pelfrey

Dead Folks 2011: The Icons

Dead Folks 2011: The Icons

A lot of stars, celebrities, heroes, villains, and movers and shakers left us in 2011—and we have their stories.


January 26, 2012

Elizabeth Taylor

As a child film star, an icon of feminine beauty, a sex symbol, the first celebrity tabloid queen, the last reigning queen of Hollywood, and, as film critic Pauline Kael famously pegged her, “a force of nature,” Elizabeth Taylor merged the arcs of her screen image and personal life into a single amazing trajectory. Her star of fame zigged and zagged and finally stopped rising, but it has never fallen. With her passing, however, the world may have seen its last authentic movie star.

Elizabeth, first and foremost, was blessed with beauty. Even as she approached the delicate age of seven, adults were struck by her “ladylike” demeanor and physical presence. On the large screen in Technicolor—for example, in National Velvet—the 12-year-old Taylor was a stunning doll with a tender, lilting voice and eyes that quickly welled with tears. The eyes were blue, as a matter of fact, but once the notion of lavender or violet eyes gained momentum, photographers would often process their results to lend a darker cast to what, during the 1950s and early 1960s, were nonetheless regarded as the loveliest peepers on the planet.

Once Taylor was MGM’s leading child star, it seemed like mere months before Taylor, an adolescent proper lady in several of MGM’s period pictures, suddenly emerged as a leading ingénue with adult roles. The transition was seamless (on screen), but years later Taylor would remark how her ambitious mother and MGM bosses conspired to deprive her of a childhood and treat her as “chattel.”

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There was some hint given in 1950, while Taylor was still a teenager, of the sexual dynamo that would arrive later, and observers received more than a clue that perhaps adulthood and stardom had come to the young actress too soon. In A Place in the Sun Opposite Montgomery Clift (with whom she would form a close and lasting friendship), Taylor’s society girl Angela Vickers practically glowed and hummed with repressed desire for the incredibly handsome fellow from the wrong side of the tracks. Taylor provided a new image (and notion) for post-war bobbysoxers and 1950s teenagers: sexual energy in a socially acceptable package. Subsequent roles for the now established star, along with a very public and notorious personal life, would rip the bow off of that package.

Taylor married Conrad Hilton in 1950; nine months later Hilton’s wild ways led to Taylor’s miscarriage and a divorce. Bareley a year later Taylor tied the knot with Michael Wilding; that marriage (to a man twenty years her senior) lasted less than six years. A month after that divorce, Taylor was married to Mike Todd, a stage and film production hustler and all-around guy’s guy, and the first man who would hold Taylor’s sincere attention.

It was during these marriages and divorces (and two pregnancies) that MGM provided Taylor with almost no decent roles. She was still considered to be the most beautiful woman on the modern screen, and the celebrity press kept her front and center, usually combining mild Hollywood gossip with updates on the actress’s domestic bliss. An under-appreciated performance in the Warner Bros. epic Giant had Taylor playing second fiddle, in terms of public attention, to a new teen idol named James Dean. Then in 1958 the world got a dose of Maggie the Cat.

Starring with Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor offered more than mere glimpses of simmering sexuality, doing for silk slips what Marlon Brando did for T-shirts that decade. She was currently the biggest box-office draw in America. Still more attention, of a salacious nature, arrived with Suddenly Last Summer, in which for one memorable scene Taylor rose from the surf in a white bathing suit that was sufficiently soaked to render it, shall we say, less than modest. It was at this time that the screen persona and the real-world image became inseparable.

Michael Todd had perished in a plane crash in the spring of 1958. Todd’s buddy, entertainer Eddie Fisher, began to console the distraught widow, and romance blossomed once again for Taylor. The problem was that Fisher was married to one of America’s screen sweethearts, Debbie Reynolds. Fisher’s subsequent divorce and marriage to Taylor became publicity fodder thus far unmatched in celebrity scandal history. The entire drama, as it played out for years, makes today’s Angelina/Brad/Jennifer saga look like a dispute over a parking space at a Beverly Hills restaurant. In any case, the world was just getting a peek at the drama that would emerge in the next decade.

After a much-publicized emergency room adventure involving a tracheotomy (chronic illness would become a feature of the Taylor saga), the semi-notorious home wrecker won an Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl/home wrecker in BUtterfield 8. But authentic scandal was already brewing overseas, where Taylor had taken the lead role in the 20th-Century Fox epic Cleopatra.

By now absolutely irresistible to the press, the sex symbol, home wrecker, and recently $1 million-salaried star was the topic of basically every dispatch from the Cleopatra production. First was the very serious case of pneumonia, resolved by that emergency tracheotomy that many agree earned Taylor sympathy with Oscar voters. After the film’s key player returned to the set, the press turned their attention to the chemistry between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton. They were not referring to the daily rushes. Thus commenced the dawn of an epic which would dwarf the historic tale of Egypt’s queen: Liz & Dick.

The two married stars carried on a scandalous affair, one so public, audacious, and well-chronicled that the Vatican actually weighed in with disapproval. It wasn’t merely a matter of tabloid covers and paparazzi and news reels. Liz & Dick were headlines and top stories with legitimate media. From a strictly Who’s Who perspective of the celebrity realm, during the early 1960s there was JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, and Liz & Dick—not necessarily in that order. When the two finally exchanged vows in the spring of 1964, it was difficult to distinguish between on-screen Liz & Dick and real-world Liz & Dick. They made seven pictures together, none more absurd than The Sandpiper, in which a tormented, married pastor (Burton) has an affair with a Big Sur artist and free spirited single gal (Taylor). It was art imitating—and then shamelessly exploiting—life.

It was around this time that one might reasonably have debated whether Elizabeth Taylor could actually act. The debate was resolved in 1966 when Taylor and Burton conducted a booze-addled, over-the-top, phenomenally caustic, marital grudge match in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Taylor played the volatile Martha, and, long story short, everyone was afraid of her. Taylor took home a second Academy Award for that one.

Taylor’s roles during the late 1960s and early 70s are a curious collection. She offered a fine turn opposite Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, a picture only slightly less bizarre than Boom!, Secret Ceremony, or X, Y, and Zee. By the 1980s, no one cared what Taylor was doing, unless some comedian was cruelly mocking the aging actress’s weight gain, another marriage, or some awful television appearance.

Yet, being a force of nature, it did not occur to Taylor that she might not find a way to make, say, a second small fortune to match the sums gained from her Hollywood career. It took a while to parlay her famous $150 million jewelry collection into a marketing angle/product image, but Passion and White Diamonds, Taylor’s personal fragrances, were pulling in 60-plus million dollars annually by the late 1990s. That’s alongside the $270 million Taylor ultimately raised, starting in 1985, for AIDS-focused charities and projects. Despite spectacular health problems (many of which led to chemical dependencies and related difficulties), being essentially banished from motion pictures, and often being her own worst enemy in terms of public image, Elizabeth Taylor, in her dwindling years, was fully engaged in major business endeavors and award-winning charitable enterprises.

It makes sense, really. In many of those screen roles in which she drew from her own strong-willed spirit to create a character, Elizabeth Taylor invariably hinted that she should never be counted out. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Paul Newman asks Taylor, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” The best looking woman in Hollywood purrs her response, “Just staying on it I guess—as long as she can.” —DP

Owsley Stanley

Few people influenced the ’60s like Owsley Stanley. He would be known just for his long stint as the road manager for the Grateful Dead. The young audio technician designed the elaborate custom equipment that helped to turn the Dead into one of the era’s legendary live acts. Regardless of the music, nobody sounded better in concert than the Grateful Dead—which helped to inspire the bootlegging of shows that would turn the band’s tours into major events for the length of their career.

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Stanley—also known as “Bear” to Dead fans—had another important skill. In fact, he first met the Dead members at a party where everyone was checking out the latest stash of LSD from the Stanley home lab. His potent acid didn’t just inspire the Dead as musicians. He also used his drug money to fund the Dead’s early career. Stanley didn’t need the band’s notoriety to become a celebrity dealer, though. “Owsley” was already becoming a code name for the not-so-enigmatic figure producing mass quantities of acid to eager hippies. That was mostly between 1965 and 1967, and it should be noted that the “Owsley” name was known for reliable product at a reasonable price.

Stanley was lucky that LSD wasn’t illegal back in 1965. He also got a break when the Sandoz Laboratories removed their pharmaceutical LSD from the market in the mid-60s. That’s when Stanley began to move in celebrity circles as a supplier—making the most of his musical connections through his association with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. LSD finally became illegal in 1967, and Stanley’s celebrity status quickly caught up with him. He was busted with 350,000 doses of acid. The judge didn’t believe Stanley’s claim that it was for personal use, and sentenced the dealer to three years in prison.

He got out to find a job waiting for him with the Grateful Dead, but Stanley turned out to be a bad influence. Almost the entire band would end up arrested while on tour with Stanley in 1970. Stanley would spend two more years in prison for traveling with his stash of LSD and barbiturates. The Dead were inspired by the bust to write “Truckin’,” so that worked out pretty well for them.

A lot of people in the ’80s decided that Australia was the safest place to avoid the nuclear and/or environmental holocaust that was sure to result from the Reagan years. Stanley was one of them, and headed off to his own happy life in the Australian outback while having lots of kids. He was no hippie-dippy type, though. Stanley loved to pontificate on all kinds of things, including the virtues of his all-meat diet. He thought vegetables were poisonous to the body. (He blamed his bout with throat cancer on being served broccoli as a child.) The guy might have been onto something, since Stanley’s own body held up pretty well to a chemical onslaught. Sadly, no diet could have prepared Stanley for a car accident near his Queensland home. (76, car accident) —JRT

James Arness

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Remember that big, lumbering creature terrorizing soldiers at an arctic outpost in the science-fiction classic The Thing From Another World? That was big Jim Arness, and rightly so; no one else in Hollywood at the time stood 6’7” tall. That’s also Arness as a lanky farm boy in The Farmer’s Daughter, and as a deranged member of the Clegg clan in John Ford’s downbeat western Wagon Master. A dozen more minor turns in forgotten westerns followed before his boss at Batjac Films (one John Wayne) recommended that CBS hire Arness to play Matt Dillon for a planned television version of “Gunsmoke,” which was still a hugely successful and critically-acclaimed radio series. Arness got the part, and what followed has never been matched in television history.

The series ran from 1955 to 1975, the longest run so far for any television series. That’s 635 episodes, but it took Arness only a few of the early ones to establish himself as the definitive U.S. Marshall, a stern but decent lawman managing the untamed territories near Dodge City, Kansas. By its third season, “Gunsmoke” held the number one ratings slot and stayed there for three more years. It remained in the top ten, though not consecutively, for fourteen of its twenty years on the air. In other words, for two full decades James Arness was the most recognized western star in America—apart from his old boss John Wayne, who introduced Arness to viewers in a rather lengthy monologue at the beginning of the first episode on September 10, 1955 (“He’s a young fellow and maybe new to some of you, but I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you’ve had to get used to me.”)

During “Gunsmoke’s” unmatched run on television, thirty other western programs came and went, starring such big names as Walter Brennan, Robert Conrad, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Richard Boone. Arness outlasted all of them. (88) —DP

Dead Folks 2011: Sports


Dead Folks 2011: Sports



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January 26, 2012

Joe Frazier

Boxer Joe Frazier was the perfect foil for Muhammad Ali. Unlike Ali, the blue-collar Frazier was a man of few words. The fighter was the perpetual target of Ali’s taunts and insults, calling Frazier ignorant and saying he resembled a gorilla. Ali even labeled Frazier’s black supporters as “Uncle Toms.” Unable to forget the humiliation, Frazier remained angry at Ali for most of his life.

Frazier got a job at a slaughterhouse in Philadelphia at age 16. He stayed in shape by punching slabs of beef while on the clock. Known as Smokin’ Joe Frazier, the fighter’s style was to stalk opponents around the ring, staying close to them to relentlessly throw jabs to tire them out. After retirement, he had a brief career as a bad singer, and could often be seen on TV struggling through the national anthem at some ball game.

But he’ll be forever linked to Ali. Frazier won their first fight in 1971 and then lost to Ali in 1974 and 1975. The only other two losses in Frazier’s career were to George Foreman. Frazier was keenly aware that he and Ali needed one another to captivate the American public. The two warriors were the giants who put heavyweight championship bouts back in the realm of popular sports. Frazier once told the New York Times, “Ali always said I would be nothing without him. But who would he have been without me?” Their third meeting, “The Thrilla in Manila,” is considered by many as the greatest boxing match in history. Immediately after winning the grueling bout, Ali said the fight was “the closest you can be to death.” (67, liver cancer) —ER

Dan Wheldon

Despite being one of the Indycar Series’ top drivers and personalities, 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon found himself without a sponsored race team in 2011. The cheerful, charismatic British racer quickly landed a couple of other jobs in the meantime, however. Wheldon was an engaging and insightful commentator on TV broadcasts of Indycar races. His other job was that of primary test driver for the revolutionary and purportedly safer 2012 Indycar, which features fenders covering the rear tires—a design that might have saved Wheldon’s life.

Dan Wheldon finally found a team in time for the 2011 Indianapolis 500, where he stunned the racing world when he captured his second Indianapolis 500 victory when rookie and race leader J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall 2,000 feet from the finish line. It was Wheldon’s first race of the season. Five months later he was killed in a 15-car wreck on the 12th lap of a 200-lap race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the last event of the Indycar season. One of his front tires ran over a rear wheel on Paul Tracy’s car, sending Wheldon’s racecar airborne for 300 feet before his car caught the catch-fence and his head hit a supporting fence pole. Starting from last place, he would have won $5 million had he won the Las Vegas race. There had been apprehension from veteran drivers about fielding 34 racecars on the high-banked oval track (usually the field consisted of 20 to 25 cars.). Drivers with little experience at such speeds were also to be feared. Wheldon was the first open-wheel driver killed on a track since Paul Dana crashed in 2006 while warming up for the season opener in Florida. Wheldon went on to win that race.

The afternoon Wheldon was killed, however, the race was never resumed. Drivers slowly drove five laps as “Danny Boy” was played at the speedway. In a blog he was writing for USA Today, Wheldon had predicted the following: “It’s going to be a pack race, and you never know how that’s going to turn out.” He added that it would be “an amazing show” with “pure entertainment.” (33, auto racing crash) —ER

Bubba Smith

Bubba Smith finished his NFL career in 1976 and soon learned that was a great time for a massive football star to move into popular culture. The former number one draft pick found lots of showbiz work as a 6’7″ punch line. He easily stood out amongst the slew of pro players drafted into the Miller Lite Beer television commercials, where Smith tore the top off a brew while declaring his love for the “easy opening cans.” Smith also made the rounds of sitcoms and detective shows. He got his biggest break just as other pro athletes saw their ’70s fame begin to fade, providing and imposing presence in 1984′s Police Academy as Cadet Moses Hightower; he would continue as Officer Hightower in five of the six sequels. (66, heart disease and diet pill overdose) —JRT

Randy “Macho Man” Savage

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Savage was one of professional wrestling’s most flamboyant stars during the 1980s and ’90s, sporting oversized sunglasses, sequined robes, and neon spandex. Known as the “Macho Man,” Savage’s real name was Lanny Poffo. The wrestler often entered the ring to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” His signature move was a flying elbow drop off the top rope as he hurled himself onto an opponent. As a spokesman for Slim Jim snacks, Savage wore cowboy outfits away from the ring. He was as adept at playing a “heel” (bad guy) in the ring as he was a “face” (good guy). His colleagues said that the secret to being a good pro wrestler is the art of improv as an entertainer and the ability to read a crowd. Savage was a master at both. (58, car wreck) —ER

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

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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.