By Scott Ross
Submitting a comprehensive, annotated list at the end of 2019 was an exhausting exercise, so I’ve decided to prepare a monthly (or quarterly, depending on the density of lists of the dead) accounting in 2020. The entries below are chronological.
Buck Henry, 89.
America first became aware of Buck Henry not as Buck Henry but as the Dickensian (or perhaps Fieldsian?)-monikered “G. Clifford Prout,” a character the comedian Alan Abel devised as part of a longstanding (1959-1962) hoax. Prout was allegedly the president and spokesman of something called The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA.) On various talk shows of the period Henry-as-Prout would discuss his desire to clothe all naked animals, citing such slogans of the Society as, “A nude horse is a rude horse.” (You can just hear him saying that, can’t you?) He was actually taken seriously, by the hosts of the shows on which he appeared and by some viewers, who sent in unsolicited donations of money. When Walter Cronkite found out he’d been duped by Henry and that Abel was behind the hoax he called him up, furious. Abel: “I’d never heard him that angry on TV — not about Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Fidel Castro.” (Naturally; Hitler, Saddam and Castro didn’t nearly make a fool of Cronkite on national television. Nice to know Uncle Walter had his priorities right.)
Henry divided his interests largely between comedic acting and screenwriting, but had his earliest success in television when he and Mel Brooks created the idiotic spy spoof Get Smart! (Henry also devised the much shorter-lived William Daniels series Mr. Nice.) His notable screenwriting credits include The Graduate (1967, with Calder Willingham), Catch-22 (1970), the smart (if initially fag-bashing) adaptation of Bill Manhoff’s The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), the wildly funny Streisand/Peter Bogdanovich hit What’s Up, Doc? (1972; Henry did the polish on a previous screenplay by Robert Benton and David Newman), Heaven Can Wait (1978) and To Die For (1995). He was a regular on That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965) and hosted Saturday Night 17 times. His best-remembered role on that show was as “Uncle Roy,” the paedophilic babysitter in sketches which, although written by two women (Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts) would almost certainly cause the censorious youth of today to experience mass cardiac arrest. Among Henry’s movie directing credits is the charming Heaven Can Wait (1978, with Warren Beatty) and as an actor his pictures include The Graduate (he’s the owlish desk clerk at the hotel where Dustin Hoffman carries out his trysts with Anne Bancroft), Catch-22 (as Lieutenant Colonel Korn), Taking Off (1970), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Heaven Can Wait (as the officious Escort), Old Boyfriends (1979), Gloria (1980), Eating Raoul (1982), The Player (1992, as himself, hilariously pitching a Graduate sequel to Tim Robbins in the opening sequence), Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Short Cuts.
This last appearance stands as a warning against unchecked improvisation: Peering up Lily Tomlin’s skirt Henry, as a boorish amateur fisherman, murmurs, “Sometimes there’s God…” This is false as hell: I doubt the man Henry was playing had ever even seen A Streetcar Named Desire, much less have been prepared to quote from it. Henry’s improvisation was an actor’s showing off his knowledge, and Robert Altman should have known better than to leave the line in the movie.
Ivan Passer, 86.
A noted screenwriter in his native Czechoslovakia (Intimate Lighting, Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) Passer, along with his colleague Miloš Forman, fled the country in 1969 during the Prague Spring. Forman, with his superficial charm, became an honored and successful director in America, twice winning Academy Awards® for facile work while the more honest and introspective Passer struggled. Passer nevertheless made two of the best, if least known and remembered, pictures of the 1970s and ’80s. Passer’s Born to Win (1971, also co-written, with David Scott Milton) is one of the finest of all cinematic depictions of addiction, with George Segal as a likable junkie whose life is slowly spinning out of control and Karen Black in a remarkable performance as his girlfriend. It’s one of those time-capsule New York movies of the period, although its look is far warmer and less threatening than that of The French Connection. Even better was Cutter’s Way (1981, written by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin from Newton Thornburg’s novel), one of the key American movies of its era, a picture its financer, United Artists, might have gotten behind with greater gusto had it been made six or seven years earlier, or by Robert Altman. A rich character study in the form of a low-key thriller, it contains one of Jeff Bridges’ best early performances and a pair by John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn that could scarcely be bettered. But it was a movie out of another time; the Star Wars-jazzed 1980s audience couldn’t care less.
Lord Tim Hudson (née George Timothy Hudson), 79.
Best known as a disc-jockey, both in his native England and in Los Angeles, Hudson contributed his voice to a pair of Disney animated pictures. In The Aristocats (1970) he’s an anachronistic long-haired, bead-wearing, guitar-playing cat in 1912 Paris; he was much more memorable in The Jungle Book (1967) as the lugubrious, Liverpudlian vulture who both looks and sounds suspiciously like a certain shaggy Beatle.
Jack Kehoe, 85.
The Sting: Robert Earl Jones, Robert Redford and Jack Kehoe
Kehoe was one of those actors whose presence automatically elevated the movies he was in. He studied acting with Stella Adler, and with Sandy Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse. (For those who associate the “Method” solely with Lee Strasberg, it should be noted that Adler broke with the Group Theatre, and with the autocratic and wrong-headed Strasberg, in the 1930s, after a trip to Moscow to study with Stanislavski, and that it was she, not Strasberg, who taught Marlon Brando.) Among the pictures in which Kehoe appeared were The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Serpico (1973), Car Wash (1976), On the Nickel (1980), Melvin and Howard (1980), Reds (1981), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), The Untouchables (1987), D.O.A. and Midnight Run (both 1988). It was in the wonderfully-cast The Sting (1973) that I first became aware of him; he was Joe Erie, whose face Charles Durning memorably slams into a barroom table.
It says something about the nature of the movie business that Jack Kehoe’s first Hollywood role was as a bartender in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) and one of his last, in 1990, was “Customer at Raid” in Dick Tracy
Torn Jersey, 77.
Terence Graham Parry Jones was, with his Oxford writing partner Michael Palin and the Cambridge men Eric Idle, John Cleese, and Graham Chapman (plus the American animator Terry Gilliam) one of the creators of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and, more than anyone else, responsible for the show’s unique structure. Jones’ aversion to traditional punchlines was endemic to the surrealistic nature of the show, and to much of its pleasure, but also led to its eventual dissolution; his penchant for long-form sketches, sometimes lasting the full 30 minutes, alienated Cleese (whose absence in the final series was as obvious as it was lamentable) and, one assumes, the troupe’s audience as well.
He fared better as a filmmaker: As a co-director, with Gilliam, of their feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and, solo, as the director of Life of Brian (1979). Perhaps because they were of necessity more complex than a half-hour television show and required more in the way of both characterization and of narrative, these pictures were far funnier than that last Python season, and infinitely more satisfying. Indeed, Brian is so tightly controlled and so beautifully made, in every way, one wonders why Jones never again directed a movie as good. (Neither he nor Gilliam were involved in the direction of either the 1971 And Now for Something Completely Different, a collection of their best television sketches re-shot in a more expensive format, or the very funny 1982 Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, although the latter was really just a record of the live shows the Pythons had been doing for years and not a fully-fledged saga.)
The team’s final effort, The Meaning of Life (1983) was their most elaborate (especially the charming Gilliam-directed opening, the short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance) but also their sourest and most militantly unpleasant. Grail and Brian are not merely funnier movies, they include self-contained segments that are among the Python’s most classic bits: In Grail, the French soldier taunting King Arthur; The Knights Who Say “Ni!”; the killer rabbit and The Holy Hand Grenade; the flagellants; Connie Booth as the “witch”; bringing out the dead; the anarcho-syndicalist peasants (one of whom is, of course, Jones, in drag) arguing with Arthur over his right to rule them; the Bridge of Death. And in Brian, the Shirley Bassey spoof main title; the internecine in-fighting of The People’s Front of Judea; the Latin lesson from Cleese’s Roman guard; the rhotacistic speech impediment of Palin’s Pilate (“Stwike him, Centuwian — vewwy woughly!”), not to mention his friend Biggus Dickus; the hilariously ironic commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the cheesemakers…”); the mob chasing Brian under the mistaken belief that he’s the Messiah; and, of course, the “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” finale. In a period not especially noted for its movie comedy the Pythons, and Jones particularly, split a lot of sides with intelligent laughter.
Palin maintains that Jones was “the spirit of the Pythons,” and the warmest of the bunch. (Apart, one presumes, although naturally he would not say so, from himself. However much one admires Idle, Cleese and Chapman, one hardly thinks of them, the way one does of Jones and Palin, as a bit cuddly.) Agonizingly, for a man as verbal as Terry Jones, his final years were afflicted with progressive aphasia, a form of dementia that eventually left him unable to speak.
My personal favorite Jones moment is also my single favorite bit from the original BBC Monty Python series. Quite why this strikes me as so funny I leave to my psychiatrist, but it takes place during the extended alien invasion sketch in Episode Seven. Palin is describing the thing that ordered 48 million kilts from him, something “not so much a man as… a blancmange!“:
Palin: He was a strange unearthly creature — a quivering, glistening mass…
Jones: Angus Podgorny, what do y’ mean?
It’s every bad, cliché horror/science fiction movie inquiry rolled into one, and with a wig, a pair of half-glasses and a Scots accent. Of the Pythons, only Jones and Palin, I suspect, could have made it so hilarious yet so ineffably sweet.
Sonny Grosso, 89.
The more likable (or, at the very least, less psychotic) of the two real-life police detectives whose exploits were chronicled somewhat fictionally in Robin Moore’s book The French Connection, and almost wholly so in the subsequent 1971 movie. What Moore either didn’t know, or downplayed, was that the massive cocaine shipment from Marseilles that made NYPD stars of “Cloudy” Grosso and Eddie (“Popeye”) Egan was a CIA operation. Win some, lose some; the Agency had better luck importing crack in the 1980s and “suiciding” the reporter who exposed it.
Grosso, played by Roy Scheider in the picture, was cast in it as well, as was Egan; that’s Sonny next to Scheider, above. He also served as a technical adviser on that movie, on The Godfather and The Seven-Ups (1973) — almost a continuation of The French Connection — and, for television, popular 1970s cop-shows like Baretta and Kojack.
Egan was a cop people feared; Grosso was one they liked.
Jack Burns, 86.
Burns and Schreiber performing their taxi driver bit at The Hollywood Palace, 1966. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
A minor blip on the comedy radar screen of the 1960s and ’70s, Burns had the ill luck to replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show (as if anyone could replace Don Knotts) and was quickly written out of the show. He was more successful teamed with the handlebar-mustached Avery Schreiber — Burns had earlier partnered, of all people, George Carlin — whom he had met while with Second City. I remember them best for their television commercials, and for their 1973 summer replacement series The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour. (Everybody got one of those in the ’70s, even mimes.) Burns’ last minor accomplishment was as a writer, announcer and occasional performer on the short-lived Fridays, a doomed attempt by ABC to concoct a rival for Saturday Night. On Fridays. In prime-time. If I saw the Andy Kaufman incident I don’t recall it; I remember exactly one sketch from that one, involving Howdy Doody. That should give you an idea of how fresh and cutting-edge the series was.
Harriet Frank, Jr., 96.
With her husband Irving Ravetch (above, right), Frank comprised the preferred screenwriting team of the director Martin Ritt, with whom he made eight movies between 1958 and 1990. And while they occasionally worked with and for others (Vincente Minnelli, Delbert Mann, Mark Rydell, Richard Flesicher and, under a pseudonym and on a picture he disowned, Blake Edwards) the bulk of their work was for Ritt. Frank and Ravetch made their names with two Faulkner adaptations, the entertaining The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and the rather strange The Sound and the Fury (1959). Hud (1963) out of Larry McMurtry was theirs, as was the very interesting Hombre (1967) and, from Faulkner again, The Reivers (1969). They botched William Dale Jennings’ splendid original The Cowboys (1972) with a ham-fisted re-write for the ploddingly literal Mark Rydell but returned to form (and Ritt) with Conrack (1974). Frank and Ravetch wrote two well-regarded late pictures for Ritt, the gentle 1985 comedy Murphy’s Romance and 1990’s Stanley & Iris. Their best screenwriting work, however, was on Norma Rae (1979). Ritt, who was blacklisted, made from the story of the North Carolina textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton one of a tiny handful of unabashedly pro-union American pictures, and in Frank and Ravetch’s screenplay one of the sharpest, smartest and savviest of a smart and savvy era of movies. Despite some romanticization, the movie was largely true to its subject: Its best scene, one of the greatest in 1970s American film, of Sally Field as Norma holding up a hand-lettered union sign as her co-workers slowly begin turning off their machines, happened pretty much as it’s depicted.
Nearly as good, in a much less dramatic manner, is this exchange between Norma and the wonderful Rob Leibman as Reuben, the union representative fighting a losing battle at her plant, until Norma joins him. When he first signs her up for the union, Reuben smiles, “You’re the fish I wanted to hook.”
Norma Rae: Well… You got me. So what the hell are you gonna do with me?
Reuben: Make a mensch outta you, kid.
Norma: You are?
Norma: What is that?
Reuben: Somebody who goes to the old folks’ home on Saturday morning instead of playin’ golf. Somebody who puts a dollar in a blind man’s cup for a pencil.
Norma: I’d do that.
Reuben: Uh-huh. But would you take the pencil?
Norma: Of course. I paid for it.
Reuben: Somewhere between logic and charity, there falls a shadow.
I’d always felt uncomfortable taking a “prize,” however insignificant, for dispensing some eleemosynary token. Since seeing Norma Rae, I’ve dropped a few dollars but I’ve never taken another pencil.
That is the power of movies to make an impression, to get you to think, or to reconsider your thoughtlessness. And it starts, as these things nearly always do, with the thought… whose natural expression is not the image, but the word.
Fred Silverman, 82.
It will doubtless be incomprehensible to many young people that there was actually a time when television shows were not something one ordered from a streaming service and watched on-demand, whenever (and wherever) we pleased: That one actually waited an entire week to see a program (and 20 or more to see an entire season unfold), and if one missed that, had to wait for something called “summer re-runs.” For those of us who recall those antediluvian days, Silverman’s was a name to recon with. At CBS, he was behind the so-called “rural purge” of 1971 in which the ax fell on some of the network’s most popular series, to some outrage — although who could really have mourned the demises of Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies? Especially when their replacements were the likes of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Waltons and Kojak? And, with a sense of integrity that would be shocking to a network executive of today, Silverman actually stood behind the shows he approved. Without that precedent, both All in the Family and M*A*S*H would have been wiped out in their first seasons, not to mention (at NBC, to which Silverman later decamped) Hill Street Blues. I don’t make a habit of praising television programmers, but if there was such a thing, after the early 1950s, as “good television,” Silverman was responsible for programming much of it. It was he who helped develop Maude, Good Times and Rhoda as spin-offs (a new term then) and The Bob Newhart Show. Silverman greenlit his share of losers that were also hits: The Jeffersons, The Price is Right, the revived Match Game and that lox of a show for which one of the leading characters (Freddy Jones) was named for him, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! But during his watch just about the only great program on CBS for which he was not responsible — and virtually all the great television series in those years were on CBS — was The Carol Burnett Show.
At ABC, Silverman saved one bad show (Happy Days) and spun off another (Laverne and Shirley) from it. He also approved so much meretricious trash that for years his network was, while hugely profitable, a hiss and a byword to anyone with a taste that ran beyond Cheez Whiz, Burger King Whoppers and Tits ‘n’ Ass: The Bionic Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Donny & Marie, Eight is Enough, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Good Morning America, Battle of the Network Stars and…
The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.
The only times I can recall tuning the network in during those years were when Soap was on the air (if we could find it — as with the earlier The Hot l Baltimore, a lot of affiliates, particularly in the South, refused to air it) and during the broadcast of Roots. Later, at NBC, Silverman backed one bad idea after another, perhaps proving the seldom-cited corollary to Fitzgerald’s dictum: There are no third acts in American lives. True, Hill Street was his, and the wonderfully demented and frequently hilarious daytime David Letterman Show, which, while it made me roar on the few occasions when I caught it, doubtless had housewives (there were housewives then) scratching their heads from coast to coast and wondering whatever happened to that nice J. Fred Muggs.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross