By Scott Ross
George Steiner, 90.
A French-born Austrian literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, and educator whose most well-known work is both a literary novel and a probing work of philosophy. Steiner’s family escaped the Nazis, twice, before settling in America where they became citizens (although the majority of Steiner’s life was spent in British academia.) He is known to me for his superb 1981 short novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. In it, Steiner imagines the 90-year old Hitler being found by Nazi hunters in the Amazon, his transport to the nearest city a trial and a philosophical argument with no decision. In its way, the book is sister under the skin to the actor and writer Robert Shaw’s provocative novel and stage play The Man in the Glass Booth; both were designed to spur intellectual curiosity and serious debate. The latter, of course — in America at least — does not exist. Here, only screaming matches and name-calling will do. I can only imagine that Steiner’s book, if published today, would itself be called anti-Semitic.
Gene Reynolds, 96.
A former teen movie actor whose performing credits don’t amount to much, Reynolds achieved a form of immortality by producing (as well as occasionally writing and directing for) two of the most highly-regarded television series of the 1970s and ’80s. Prior to working with Larry Gelbart on M*A*S*H, his career as a television director tended to such sparkling festivals of wit and perspicacity as Leave it to Beaver, The Farmer’s Daughter, My Three Sons, F-Troop and Hogan’s Heroes (although he did manage to log work on The Andy Griffith Show and Room 222 as well.) I don’t mean to knock Reynolds for this; one goes where the work is. Still, those are not credits to bestir the heart, are they?
M*A*S*H (1972 – 1983) neither asks for not requires a defense, although Reynolds and CBS kept it on the air much too long, and its later years were more often doleful than either witty or affecting, as an air of “Let’s just put another in the can, shall we?” became the prevailing mood. But Lou Grant (1977-1982), which Reynolds helped launch, was bracing: Spun off from a beloved situation comedy, Lou Grant eschewed the comic, instead taking advantage of the post-Watergate esteem in which the American press briefly found itself to examine issues important to a free press, itself vital to the health of a democracy. In addition to Ed Asner, the show featured a terrific ensemble cast: Robert Walden, Linda Kelsey, Mason Adams, Jack Bannon, Daryl Anderson and, as the publisher — a seeming combination of Katherine Graham and Dorothy Schiff — the redoubtable Nancy Marchand. The show, a hit for five seasons, was axed by the network under highly dubious circumstances: Asner, then President of the Screen Actors’ Guild, was vehemently opposed to Ronald Reagan’s genocidal wars in Central America. CBS suits naturally denied the actors’ advocacy had anything to do with his series’ cancellation, but a cursory look at the ratings for 1982 proves them liars: It still had a 27 share in its final season, and networks routinely renew series with far more dismal numbers than that.
Terry Hands, 79.
Hands, whose work with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1966 to 1986, including the years (1978 – 196) in which he ran it with Trevor Nunn and those in which he was the solo Artistic Director and Director Emeritus, includes the 1983 Cyrano de Bergerac (performed in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing) starring Derek Jacobi, arguably the most beautiful edition of Rostand’s romantic verse comedy ever produced. What Christopher Plummer’s Cyrano was to the 1970s, Jacobi’s was to the 1980s.
Kirk Douglas (né Issur Danielovitch), 103.
Douglas was not a great actor — his emotional range was too limited — but in the right role he could be a very effective one, and very few stars of his stature played unpleasant characters as often. His specialties were an unyielding stoicism, often physical, and a barely submerged rage that bubbled under the surfaces even of his more lighthearted performances such as his Ned Land in the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). And while his old-fashioned liberalism was the driving engine for some of his better movies, and performances, such as Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory (1957) and as the titular hero of Spartacus (1960), both of which he also produced. (Douglas hired Kubrick to direct those two, which are now acclaimed as genius director pictures but were in fact producers’ movies.) He was fascinatingly sexually ambiguous in Out of the Past (1947), seemingly in love with both Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum; self-righteous as a radio dramatist in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) for Joseph L. Mankiewicz; an authentic Jim (the Gentleman Caller) in the otherwise terrible, botched film of The Glass Menagerie (1950); frighteningly tormented and dangerously enraged in Detective Story (1951); a mesmeric Hollywood bastard in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952); tormented again as Van Gogh in the somewhat romanticized Lust for Life (1956) and in which his sexual equivocation really bothered his friend John Wayne; an engaging Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957); the cheerful villain of The List of Adrian Messenger (1963); and wryly amusing as Wayne’s friendly rival in The War Wagon (1967) in which, although his character was pretty obviously straight, he once again wigged out his co-star by ostentatiously wearing a ring over his gloved finger.
His best role occurred in what is also likely his best movie: The ruthless and amoral reporter Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (aka, The Big Carnival) for Billy Wilder. It was a picture that received no love in 1950; the press, seeing itself at its worst, hated it, and the public stayed away. But Douglas’ astonishingly fulsome portrait of a conniver who sees in one man’s misfortune the opportunity of a lifetime, and whose heartless ambition and growing egomania blind him to his fatal errors is a performance that, while encouraging censure and holding viewers both rapt and repelled, somehow manages to keep us from hating him completely. That’s a neat balancing act, and whatever Douglas’ limitations, you have to admire his achievement.
Surviving first a helicopter crash in 1991, then a debilitating stroke in 1996 that took away what, after his dimple, was his most distinctive attribute — his highly imitable voice — Douglas is, in death, being vilified by a highly dubious accusation which in the absence of any proof stronger than an old anonymous online rumor I will not dignify by repeating. That it might conceivably be true (and just as conceivably might not be) is, under the circumstances, less than compelling. I might be anything you choose to label me, but under our laws you must demonstrate my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As Christopher Hitchens was fond of noting, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Paula Kelly, 76
Primarily a dancer — she had a Masters in modern dance and experience with the Martha Grahame, Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey companies — Kelly was better known for her acting and musical theatre performances: Heading the Los Angeles company of Mikki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972); in the Ivan Dixon-directed movie of Sam Greenlee’s incendiary novel The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973); as, appropriately, the sexy “Leggy Peggy” in the very entertaining 1974 Bill Cosby/Sidney Poitier comedy Uptown Saturday Night; for a recurring role on Night Court; and as one half (with Lonette McKee) of a besieged Lesbian couple victimized by their neighbors in the 1990 television film of Gloria Naylor’s 1982 novel The Women of Brewster Place.
Kelly made an unexpected splash at the 1969 (read: 1968) Academy Awards, dancing to, of all things, the nominated song “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and, later that year, re-created her London stage role as Helene in Bob Fosse’s movie of Sweet Charity. Kelly (along with Rita Moreno) had her best moments in the “(Hey) Big Spender” number and (with Shirley MacLaine) the exhilarating trio “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” These things are a matter of taste, of course, but for me their rooftop dance is the highest moment in the picture: In music (Cy Coleman), lyrics (Dorothy Fields), choreography, staging, cutting (Fosse, Fosse, Fosse), cinematography (Robert Surtees), orchestration (the irreplaceable Ralph Burns) and, especially, performance, it is for this viewer the quintessential 1960s movie dance. Hello, Dolly! cost more than Sweet Charity, and The Sound of Music made one hell of a lot more. But neither has a moment as exciting as these six minutes.
Robert Conrad, 84
An actor known more for his machismo than any particular thespic resonance, Conrad was a likable fixture on our television screens for four years (and for endless seasons of re-runs afterward) as the James Bond-lite co-star, with the extremely amiable Ross Martin, of the truly strange, anachronistic comic adventure series The Wild, Wild West (1965–1969).
Kellye Nakahara, 72 or 73
In M*A*S*H, Nakahara was the warm, funny Nurse Kellye (the character named by episode director Alan Alda, who objected to calling her character “Nurse 1”) who, while a minor supporting figure, became an essential part of the show’s ensemble. She was especially memorable in the episode “Hey, Look Me Over” in which she read Hawkeye Pierce the riot act for his superficial view of her.
Pearl Carr, 98.
Only Monty Python fanatics will know why I am highlighting Carr, and her most famous song. (Hint: Mao Tse-tung.)
Zoe Caldwell, 86.
Caldwell won four Tony Awards (for Slapstick Tragedy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Medea and Master Class). This, coincidentally, tied her for a time with another performer in Master Class, the redoubtable Audra McDonald (who now has six… meaning, if one takes these things seriously, McDonald is officially the Greatest Actress in American Theatre History.)
Ja’Net DuBois (née Jeannette DuBois; aka, Ja’net DuBois, Ja’Net Du Bois), 88, 82 or 75.
Good Times was one of those television series that began well, devolved badly, and ended up emphasizing all the wrong things. The show’s frequent director, John Rich, for example, was responsible for the ubiquitousness of supporting actor Jimmie Walker’s incredibly annoying catch-phrase “Dy-no-miiiite!” and for insisting it be said in every episode, to which Norman Lear reluctantly acceded. (Had Rich made a similar demand during his tenure as house director on The Dick Van Dyke Show, I think we can imagine Carl Reiner’s response.) Thus, a show that was conceived as a serio-comic examination of the socio-economic reality of all too many black Americans, then and now, became a showcase for an astoundingly un-funny comedian who dragged it down to a level of stupidity so crass and destructive the series’ star left after Season Four. But from the beginning, the cast (Walker excepted) was half the reason for Good Times‘ success, and one of its brightest aspects was the presence, as the Evans family’s reliable neighbor Willona Woods, of Ja’Net Du Bois. Du Bois (who co-wrote and sang the exuberant theme for another Lear spin-off, The Jeffersons) brought a dry wit and a sense of style to her performance and became for this viewer half the reason for tuning in. In a sane world, she would have had great stage comedies written for her. Du Bois’ way with a comic line was so indelible a single exclamation of hers has stayed with me for decades: In an early episode, in which it appeared an elderly woman was reduced to eating dog food, and in which the neighbor in question had invited the family to dinner, Du Bois’ parting shot (“Bone apetite, y’all!”) made me roar. It sounds a bit cruel but in context, and considering Willona’s literacy and sense of fun, the line was exactly right for her. And no one could have delivered it as well, or as charmingly, as Ja’Net Du Bois.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross