By Scott Ross
Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year — as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.
Carol Channing, 97.
It was common when I was young to hear people lamenting that Channing didn’t get to play Dolly Gallagher Levi in in the movie of her most famous stage musical. Had those people seen Thoroughly Modern Millie? (Had the Academy, which gave her a Best Supporting Actress nomination for it?) With her popping eyes, elaborate wigs, wide mouth, facial tics, grand gestures, deliberate baritone (sometimes bass) singing voice, and teasing, outsized persona, Channing’s affect was less feminine than that of a drag queen with a uterus. On stage, as Dolly, she probably seemed ingenious; in her few screen roles and with the camera capturing each grimace and moue and the mike picking up every nuance of her kewpie-doll gushing Channing was, like Ethel Merman (another absurdly outré performer these same ignoramuses used perpetually to cite as “wasted by the movies”) a freak, lacking only the appurtenances of the side-show. With her character in it limited to dialogue only (or better still, re-cast) and with no elaborate musical numbers to show her off her freak attributes, Millie might have emerged as a minor comedy classic rather than the pleasant but overblown (and, because overlong, tiring) exercise it became.*
Kaye Ballard, 93.
Ballard (née Catherine Gloria Balotta) was another Broadway freak, with a huge voice, a good range, and, in comedy, an arch performing style perhaps best suited to TV farce like The Doris Day Show and The Mothers-in-Law, where she played her excited volubility against Eve Arden’s dry acerbity (although the plots were strictly from I Love Lucy.) Yet her appeal was considerable — she was more human than Channing — and when she got her teeth into a great, sultry ballad like the Jerome Moross / John La Touche “Lazy Afternoon” in The Golden Apple, she could be incandescent, even hair-raising. Her tandem act with the treasurable Alice Ghostly in the original, Julie Andrews-starred 1957 Cinderella, in which the pair sang the knowing “Stepsisters’ Lament” duet, remains indelible. Another splendid Ballard recording: “There’s Always a Woman”, a bitch-fest cut from Anyone Can Whistle which Ballard performed with the great Sally Mayes on the Unsung Sondheim album. The way she rolls the word “delicious” off her spiteful tongue is a vest-pocket tutorial in how to get the absolute, zesty most out of a tiny line reading.
Was Ballard a Lesbian? To quote Robert Preston in S.O.B., “Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?”
Julie Adams, 92.
Adams was fine in a very good 1953 James Stewart Western, Bend of the River, but, cultural memory being what it is, will likely be remembered longest for being menaced, in a white one-piece, by the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Albert Finney, 82.
Although he walked away from Lawrence of Arabia before it began, Finney triumphed as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the hilariously earthy 1963 adaptation by John Osborne and directed by Tony Richardson; the famous “eating scene” between Finney and Joyce Redman is still among the most paralyzingly funny sequences in post-war movies. As adept at comedy as he was at drama, Finney was also as devoted to the stage as to film, ever returning to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Feydeau, his true métier. He could be subtle or hammy, as required, and his conviction was total; even in the veriest trash he is never less than watchable. Among his best movie performances: Opposite Audrey Hepburn in the time-shattering Stanley Donen/Frederic Raphael dramatic comedy Two for the Road (1967); a delicious Ebenezer in Scrooge (1970); unrecognizable as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974); the conflicted, and increasingly frightened, police detective of Wolfen (1981); the agonizingly obsessive husband in Shoot the Moon (1982); the Donald Wolfit-inspired “Sir” in The Dresser (1983); the doomed, alcoholic British consul in Under the Volcano (1984); the unsinkable Irish mobster in Miller’s Crossing (1990); as Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1994); the paterfamilias of Sidney Lumet’s astonishing final feature, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007); and, movingly, the unbowed ancient caretaker of Skyfall (2012). In 1975, he performed an amusing cameo in Gene Wilder’s spoof The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. It’s difficult for me, who grew up watching him, and who cherished his presence, to imagine to a world without an Albert Finney in it.
Jan-Michael Vincent. 73.
Once both disarmingly attractive, and charmingly amiable (“Danger Island” on The Banana Splits Show, The World’s Greatest Athlete, Bite the Bullet, Big Wednesday), later a victim of alcoholism and diabetes, Vincent ended up a bitter, angry and staggeringly homophobic single amputee. A sad ending to a once-promising career.
Beverley Owen, 81.
The original Marilyn on The Munsters, for them as cares. Which I don’t. Why did I post this? Because I care about you…
Katherine Helmond, 89.
When she played the perpetually confused Jessica Tate on Soap, one puzzled stare into the camera by this woman, perfectly timed, was enough to put me on the floor. She had her best movie role as Jonathan Pryce’s cosmetically-obsessed mother in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Gilliam’s depiction was prescient; we’ve since witnessed 35 years’ worth of women, and men, whose every gaze into a mirror must include a profoundly disorienting lack of immediate recognition.
Denise Nickerson, 62. Remembered by moviegoers of my generation as the obnoxious Violet in the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Seymour Cassel, 84.
Active largely in American independent movies, especially for John Cassavetes (Too Late Blues, Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams) he also had roles in more mainstream pictures such as Coogan’s Bluff (1968), The Last Tycoon (1976), Valentino (1977), Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) and Indecent Proposal (1993).
Georgia Engel, 70.
With her slightly breathless, baby-doll voice, zany logic and sweetly expressed forthrightness Engel, a late addition to the cast, was an endearing Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (and, later, Ray Romano’s mother-in-law on Everybody Loves Raymond.)
Peter Mayhew, 74.
Mayhew was the man beneath the mask and the shaggy, bandoliered body as Chewbacca in five Star Wars pictures and, like so many giants (he had Marfan syndrome), a gentle soul.
Barbara Perry, 97.
A reliable character actor known for her series performances (The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, Bewitched) Perry earned her immortality in the Ross household as the first Pickles Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Peggy Lipton, 72.
I’ve never been happy my friend Michael Dorfman committed suicide, but I’m slightly relieved he’ll never have to hear of the death of his first big TV crush.
Tim Conway, 85.
The Carol Burnett Show didn’t really need Tim Conway; it was funny enough already, and a much more devastating blow than Conway’s never being on it would have been the loss of Harvey Korman (as time eventually proved) or even Vicki Lawrence. But Conway, in his recurring guest appearances, gave the series some of its funniest, and most memorable moments… particularly when the rest of the cast was reacting to him on-camera. What most civilians didn’t know (a friend and fellow young actor complained to me when we were both 12 that the people on the Burnett show were “unprofessional”!) was that Conway, like Nancy Walker, merely walked through rehearsals; what we were seeing on the air the cast was also seeing for the first time. And while his actions were certainly devious, and perhaps a little sadistic, the break-ups became part of the shtick of the show. My father used to relish the way Conway broke Korman up, and he wasn’t alone; their double-act became one the classic running-gags of 1970s American television. In addition to his Oldest Man character, which he’d performed in his nightclub act with Ernie Anderson Conway also contributed to the show his phlegmatic Swedish businessman Mr. Tudball (a character he created), forever battling Burnett as his inept secretary Mrs. “A-Wiggins” and once, in the soap spoof “As the Stomach Turns,” had a memorable slow-motion fall down a staircase. (Conway always knew exactly how, and where, to put the button on any physical gag.) He also, infamously, got broken up himself by Lawrence during one of his elongated, un-scripted interpolations, an agonizingly pointless anecdote about a “Siamese elephant.” As with Jonathan Winters, whom in his improvisational genius Conway in some ways resembled, his gifts were never fully employed, or appreciated, in his movie work, although he developed a third double-act on-screen, this time with Don Knotts. Those pictures are variable, but Conway’s work on the Burnett show is evergreen and, quite literally, peerless. There was no one like him.
Sylvia Miles, 94.
Brash personality more than actor, Miles was a hard-edged Sally Rogers in the Carl Reiner pilot Head of the Family which eventually became (with, blessedly, Rose Marie in the role) The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won the first of her two Oscar® nominations as a kept woman who ends up taking not sex but money from Jon Voight’s Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969) and her second for her boozy, blowsy loser in Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Miles famously dropped a salad into the lap of the critic John Simon, a comestible that grew to become all manner of hefty dishes in her retelling. Miles also starred, with Joe Dallesandro, in Andy Warhol’s 1972 Sunset Boulevard spoof Heat. Didn’t Warhol get that Sunset Boulveard was a black comedy to begin with?
Max Wright, 75.
An idiosyncratic and often very funny character actor (Reds, Simon, All That Jazz) Wright found his greatest fame in the aggressively stupid alien-puppet situation comedy ALF, and is now associated solely with tabloid sleaze-stories about his addictions and sexual encounters with homeless men. Sigh.
Arte Johnson, 90.
Remembered almost solely for his run on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, where he introduced such indelible characters as a German soldier who seems not to have noticed that the War had ended years earlier (“Very interesting…”) and Tyrone F. Horneigh (pronounced, in a sop to the era’s network standards and practices, as “Horn-eye”), the degenerate old man who plunked himself down on the park bench occupied by his unwilling inamorata Gladys Ormphby (Ruth Buzzi), rasped indecent nothings to her, and was rewarded by a smack with her handbag, eventually toppling off the bench while intoning some dopey “punch”-line. It was a predictable, one-joke running-gag… and, especially if you were an 8-or 9-year old as I was, a very funny one; the only Laugh-In character I imitated as often as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine was Johnson’s Tyrone.
Freddie Jones, 91.
Onstage Jones was the originator of “Sir” in Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, and while he appeared in movies as divergent as Marat/Sade and Far from the Madding Crowd (both 1967), The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (1968), Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula (1973), Juggernaut (1974), the delightful John Cleese/Chekhov short film Romance with a Double Bass (1975), Ladies in Lavender (2004) and seemingly countless British films and television series, he stays most vivid in the theatre of my mind as the abusive, terrifying ringmaster of the 1980 The Elephant Man.
Bill Macy, 97.
God finally got you for that, Walter.
Rip Torn, 88.
Famously widowed by Geraldine Page (the bell on their New York apartment read “Torn Page”) and older cousin to Sissy Spacek, Torn once attacked Norman Mailer with a hammer (well, which of us at one time or another wouldn’t have liked to?), allegedly pulled a knife on Dennis Hopper (again, who didn’t want to?) and was a notable drunk. And while he appeared in prominent or supporting roles in movies such as Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Tropic of Cancer (1969, as Henry Miller), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nasty Habits (1977), Coma (1978), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1969), Cross Creek (1983, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award®), Men in Black (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000) he was infinitely less interesting an actor than his wife and cousin. Machismo is a fucking bore.
David Hedison, 92.
Immortal in some circles as The Fly (1958), Hedison was the most congenial of Felix Leiters, twice: Live and Let Die in 1973 and License to Kill (1989) in which he first married, then suffered the fate Ian Fleming devised for the character in the novel Live and Let Die. (“He disagreed with something that ate him.”)
Russi Taylor, 75.
The curse of having the longest-running animated series in television history is that over time your voice actors tend to die. Taylor was a Simpsons stalwart from the beginning, providing the voices for the twins Sherri and Terri, the German exchange student Üter and the conniving nerd Martin Prince.
Peter Fonda, 79.
The less-talented of Henry’s children, Peter enjoyed his greatest success with the appallingly overrated Easy Rider in 1969, in which, as co-scenarist and co-star of this annoying, pretentious, self-indulgent mess, he bore much responsibility for the subsequent inundation of numbingly bad “youthquake” movies that washed up on shore in its wake. Considering the profoundly dysfunctional family from which he sprang, I am unsurprised to have discovered that Fonda, enraged at President Trump’s immigration policies (very little different from Obama’s) Tweeted that, “We should rip Barron Trump from the arms of First Lady Melania Trump and put him in a cage with pedophiles.” (He also “suggested that Americans should seek out names of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in order to protest outside of their homes and the schools of their children.” – Lisa Gutierrez, The Kansas City Star) Thus was Fonda a typical liberal, trumpeting his concern for others while wishing harassment and rape on minors. Imagine his outrage had anyone suggested such things about the Obama daughters, or the children of Obama’s officials. But then, I guess the children of prominent figures are only off-limits if their parents are perceived as liberals. On the subject of Millennials voting, to parents concerned their children might cast a vote for Trump, Fonda’s advice was to “take their early ballots, fill them out [emphasis mine] and mail them in, or take the ballot to the voting place and give it to the officials… no more worrying!” I think we can easily imagine his reaction had his father suggested such a thing in, say, 1968. But as I’ve often said (and tire of having to say): Scratch a liberal, find a fascist. (Thanks to Eliot M. Camarena for Fonda’s Tweet advocating paternal voter-fraud.)
Anna Quayle, 86.
Warmly recalled by musical aficionados for her Tony® award-winning performance in the Newley/Bricusse Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, Quayle was also the women with whom John Lennon has a funny dalliance on the stairs in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the child-hating Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and as the maid of Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
Valerie Harper, 80.
Adults of (ahem!) a certain age will vividly recall their first glimpse of Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern, washing the windows of the Minneapolis apartment she thought was going to be hers on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970 and memorably sparring for the next seven years with Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis Lindstrom. Her subsequent spin-off, Rhoda made her, arguably, the most famous Jew on television, but Harper was a Gentile. (So — and please brace yourself—was Nancy Walker.) Although Rhoda was never as good, or as respected, as the show that spawned it, it was sometimes gut-bustingly funny (it helped if you relished Jewish humor, which I did, and do) and Rhoda’s wedding was the highest-rated television episode of the ‘70s before Roots.
Carol Lynley, 77.
Lynley, who was strikingly pretty, had a tendency to extreme emotionality (Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Poseidon Adventure) but in the right role (as Darren McGavin’s grounded girlfriend in the 1972 television movie The Night Stalker for example) she could be quite engaging.
Phyllis Newman, 86.
Newman won a Tony® for her comedic role in the Jule Styne/ Betty Comden and Adolph Green musical Subways Are for Sleeping, a spread in LIFE magazine, and Green’s undying love. (They married soon after and were together until his death.) Newman’s character appeared in a nothing but a towel the entire evening, and her 4-minute solo “I Was a Shoo-In” was a comic goldmine. I also cherish the way she introduced “Who’s That Woman?” in the 1986 concert version of Follies; when Newman says, “If I do this number… we all do this number!” there can be no argument.
Diahann Carroll, 84.
The first black performer to win a Tony® for Best Actress (Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, 1962) Carroll was also in the movies of Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959) and had the lead in the Broadway musical House of Flowers whose rich Harold Arlen/Truman Capote score included the exquisite ballad “A Sleepin’ Bee.” From 1968-1973 she was the young widowed mother Julia for NBC, often cited as the first non-stereotyped black woman on television. (Although Carroll herself said Julia was “the white Negro.”) But it was a sweet series, often poignant and sometimes very funny, as in this exchange between Julia and her new employer (Lloyd Nolan as what Harlan Ellison would have called “a crusty-but-lovable doctor”), with whom she has been placed by an agency:
Julia: Did they tell you I’m colored?
Dr. Chegley: What color are you?
Julia: Why, I’m Negro.
Dr. Chegley: Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?
Rip Taylor, 88.
Two Rips loosed in one year! Taylor’s shtick — the toupee, the flamboyant (read, “screaming queen”) persona, the confetti — was so over the top you either roared, or rolled your eyes and switched channels. I often roared.
Michael J. Pollard, 80.
From Bye Bye Birdie on stage to Bonnie and Clyde on screen is quite a leap, and while Pollard lacked the physical attributes ever to become a star, he was always engaging, even when, as in Bonnie, he was practically a moron. (While Beatty infamously vetoed the manage David Newman and Robert Benton wrote into their Bonnie script, which would have involved Pollard, had his objection been aesthetic rather than cowardly I wouldn’t have blamed him.) Pollard later had a charming role in Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne and an unexpectedly moving one in Scrooged (1988).
Joan Staley, 79.
A model and an actor, Staley will always occupy a warm chamber of my heart for her delightful performance opposite Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
Philip McKeon. 55.
McKeon replaced Alfred Lutter after the pilot as the son in television’s Alice, weirdly spun from the far superior movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I include him largely because he was never spoken of as being involved with a woman and also never declared himself one way or another, for which some smug fool on Pinterest praised him for “keeping [his private life] where it belongs.” Hey, buddy — would you still say that had McKeon posed for photos with a wife and children?
Ron Leibman, 82.
Leibman was the very definition of a working actor in America. He divided his time between stage, movies and television, racking up an array of marvelous, buoyant performances in each: The Hot Rock (1972), superb as the union organizer Reuben in Norma Rae (1979), breaking his wrist while making a typically vehement point as the D.A. in Night Falls on Manhattan (1996); racking up an Emmy® in the title role of the short-lived Kaz (1978-79); playing Kilroy in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real in 1959 and appearing in productions of A View from the Bridge, Dead End, The Deputy, Uncle Vanya (as Astrov), Beckett’s End Game (as Clov), Volpone, The Three Sisters, We Bombed in New Haven, Richard III (as Richard), I Ought to Be in Pictures, Tartuffe (in the title role, naturally), Neil Simon’s Rumors, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (as Roy Cohn, a performance that yielded him a Tony®), Angels in America: Perestroika, The Merchant of Venice (as Shylock) and Kushner’s version of A Dybbuk. His zest for acting was obvious, and infectious, and only once (in the 1974 The Super Cops) have I seen him give a bad performance. But since the picture itself was conceived and executed as a cartoon, Leibman’s overacting was of a piece with the rest.
René Auberjonois, 79.
A year before his sweetly ineffectual Father Francis “Dago Red” Mulcahy in MASH, Auberjonois was camping up a storm on Broadway as Katharine Hepburn’s gay rival Sebastian in the Alan Jay Lerner/Andre Previn Coco, singing the vicious satirical tango “Fiasco” and winning a Tony® in the process. He went on to perform in three additional pictures for Robert Altman: 1970’s Brewster McCloud, in which he played a lecturer who slowly evolves into a giant bird, the glorious McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Images (1972). He did more television than movies (Benson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and I also remember him as a robust swashbuckler in a 1976 TV movie called Panache, which, being an inveterate fan of Cryano de Bergerac and Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, I had to watch. On Broadway he was Malvolio in Twelfth Night (1972), The Good Doctor, Neil Simon’s 1973 adaptation of several short Chekhov plays; the Duke in Roger Miller’s Huckleberry Finn musical Big River (1984), the 2004 revival of Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox and, in the Cy Coleman musical City of Angels (1989) had a veritable field day with Gelbart’s trademark mixed metaphors and David Zippel’s too-clever-by-half lyrics. In 1987 Auberjonois gave perfect voice to the rapacious, Inspector Clouseau-like French chef in The Little Mermaid (1987), gleefully singing, in the best Folies Bergère style, Howard Ashman’s delicious lyric “Les Poissons.”
Carol Spinney. 85.
The once and future Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Danny Aiello, 86.
Aiello’s stardom, such as it was and for as long as it lasted, came late: He was for years a union rep for bus workers, and a bouncer at The Improv, before being cast in Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and as Tony Rosato in The Godfather Part II (1974), in which he ad-libbed the line, “Michael Corleone says hello!” during the failed hit on Michael V. Gazzo’s Frank Pentangeli. He was a frightening racist cop in the excellent Fort Apache — The Bronx (1981), Mia Farrow’s abusive husband in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1085) and Cher’s hapless, mother-ridden fiancée in Moonstruck (1987). His best work on film, and his most prominent role, was as the pizzeria owner Sal in Spike Lee’s literally incendiary Do the Right Thing (1989). An essentially decent man, Sal is too hidebound to budge even slightly. It’s his pizza shop; why should he accommodate his black patrons… even though they’re pretty much the only ones he has? Sal’s tragedy is that he could have easily prevented the conflagration that explodes in the movie’s gripping last act, but didn’t know how to integrate his Italian pride with a responsibility to the neighborhood in which he makes his living.
Sue (née Suellyn) Lyon, 73.
Lyons became an overnight pop icon in 1962 as Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Nabokov’s book, itself wildly controversial when it was published in 1955. Lyon’s casting was, one presumes, a compromise: Too advanced in age and too developed physically at 14 to really represent the 12-year old “Lo” of the novel (she looked at least 16, and yes, those two year jumps matter) Lyons took some of the heat off the filkmmakers — but she also turned in an exceptional performance opposite James Mason’s peerless Humbert Humbert. Two years later she was the lubricious teenager in love with Richard Burton’s defrocked minister in the superb John Huston movie of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana in which among other things she had a strange, wonderful scene, suggested by Williams, in which the pair walk on broken glass in their bare feet. She was very good as a missionary in China in John Ford’s final picture, the underrated 7 Women (1966) and had leading roles in The Flim-Flam Man and Tony Rome in 1967. Aside from her beauty, which was obvious, she brought a sharp intelligence to everything she did. Whenever I see Carol Lynley in a movie I mentally re-cast her role with Lyons; it improves whatever I’m watching by at least 25 per cent. Lyons’ final acting role was in 1980. Her loss was the audience’s as well.
Harold Prince, 91. The last of the great, visionary super-dirctors of the American musical theatre, the man who put together such shows as Cabaret, Company and Follies the way a great playwright does.
Betty Corwin, 98.
Corwin’s was not a name known outside New York, or theatre and library circles (or New York theatre and library circles) but anyone who cares about plays and musicals should give her a tip of the hat. It was her idea to create archival video records of the offerings on and Off-Broadway, and to house them in a special collection (Theatre Film and Tape Archive) at the New York Library for the Performing Arts. And while these are obviously not the flashier, and more professional, two-and-three camera affairs later developed for PBS programs such as Theatre in America (remember when PBS actually cared about theatre? Remember when PBS cared about anything other than money?) they are a treasure-house nonetheless. How else would you be able to see a video tape of the original Follies, or A Chorus Line? Bless you, Betty.
Sir Jonathan Miller, 85.
Hearing that anyone has dementia or has died of Alzheimer’s is depressing, but especially so when the person in question has lived a life of the mind. Miller was such a polymath his theatrical career is almost the least of his interests, and achievements. Miller began as a member of Beyond the Fringe, all of whom became important figures in theatre and movies and British comedy, particularly the actor/playwright Alan Bennett. He was also a physician, a theatrical director (the agonizing Merchant of Venice with Olivier was his) and an author. For 40 years I have treasured his Fringe monologue “The Heat Death of the Universe” with its immortal last line: Turn your face to the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen… trot by.
* Channing could also be a beast. I strongly suspect what she put Mary Martin and James Kirkwood through during rehearsals and road-tour for the latter’s comedy Legends! hastened his death by heart attack two years later. (And that’s not to mention Martin’s increasing deafness or her justifiable fury at her character’s monologue about breast cancer being cut by the producer, which caused her to back out of an eventual Broadway production, killing the show’s chances. See Kirkwood’s Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.)
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross