Dead Folks: Film, Part 2
Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.
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.”
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)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.