Friday, March 7, 2008

Deceased Artistes: on the march!

(Well, actually February.) In the Deceased Artiste department, I’m always glad to shine the light on folks whose death merits “lesser” coverage in the media (read: a short mention on TV entertainment news, if at all, and an obit in Variety, the New York and L.A. Times). This compilation features four such individuals.

Lois Nettleton, who died at 80, was a hard-working actress who had started on the stage (she understudied “Maggie the Cat” in Hot Tin Roof on B’way), but is best remembered for her work on TV. Her sweaty turn as a woman in a world suffering from global warming on Twilight Zone, in the episode, “The Midnight Sun,” endeared her to countless fanboys, but I will also admit a fondness for the very cheesy TV movie Women in Chains (1972) which featured Lois being ruled over by nasty bitch warden Ida Lupino. Here I present a sliver of her in a strange role: as an Italian (with a very Russian-sounding accent) on the beloved Naked City TV series. Naked City was generally a top-notch show, with several absolutely classic episodes in its run (check out the DVDs currently available for several milestones, including the Rip Torn/Tuesday Weld “Case Study of Two Savages”). The episode “Debt of Honor” (1960), which features Lois’ Italian character, is a lesser show that is notable for two reasons (besides the reason EVERY Naked City episode is notable, amazing NYC locations): it was directed by Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and written by the man who gave us the American gangster movie, W.R. Burnett (he wrote Little Caesar and worked on Scarface, and also wrote the perfect High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle). Not one of his finer days, but Lois deserves a salute, if for no other reason than she put up with one of our heroes, the great humorist Jean Shepherd, in real-life.

Yes, she was Shep’s wife for seven years, and can be heard on at least one of the surviving shows, talking in a phone up to Shep’s ear (they couldn’t broadcast phone calls on the air back in those days). She was the “baby” he spoke to in a series of extremely hokey “couple argues” bits he did on the air (in which you only heard his side of the argument—always ending with him running out and getting her a pastrami sandwich). She was some kinda woman to stand the extremely cranky Shep for that long a time.

Barry Morse, who died at 89, was a British actor who also started on the stage, but was only known for his work on the tube. His best-known part was the “cop” role on The Fugitive TV series, but I also remember him well for the very dull Space: 1999 and the cool but extremely short-lived Zoo Gang series, where he costarred with Brian Keith, John Mills, and Lilli Palmer as former WWII allies who gather together to take on modern-day criminals. I offer Barry in a Naked City sliver (all the character folks did the show) from a 1962 episode called “Memory of a Red Trolly Car.” The single best scene in the ep is the opening, which doesn’t feature Barry, so I offer a classic proto-noir pursuit scene, set in a bus depot, which, given the terrific NYC locations in the show, was no doubt a very real NYC bus depot.

The odd gal out in this quartet is Eva Dahlbeck, but I include this gorgeous blonde Swede because she was very important in the work of Ingmar Bergman. She died a few weeks back at 87, having quit show biz back in the 1960s to write novels (but did have a costarring role in the very enigmatic and unusual sci-fi flick by Agnes Varda, Les Creatures). She was the most conventionally pretty of Bergman’s women, and is best known for her starring role in Smiles of a Summer Night, but I chose to include very disparate moments from two lesser known Bergmans, both currently unavailable in the U.S.: as a woman whose baby has just died in the maternity-ward meller Brink of Life (1958, some excellent Ingmar-style anguish in this pic), and in a farcical scene from the much lighter A Lesson in Love (1958), with the great Gunnar Bjornstrand. The subtitles on Brink are classic white-on-white rep-house terrible, but the scene is primarily about Eva's misery and how it plays out on her face (who would want it any other way in a Bergman film?).

As a capper for the montage, I couldn’t resist paying tribute to Roy Scheider’s finest performance, his shoulda-won-the-Oscar starring turn in Bob Fosse’s self-loathing but smart and sexy (in that wonderfully sleazy Fosse-kind of way) All That Jazz (1979). Both Scheider, who died in Feb at 75, and Peter Sellers lost out on the Oscar in 1979 because the idiots in the Academy were playing catch-up with Dustin Hoffman (who should’ve won at least two or three times over by that point). I had the feeling back then that Roy wouldn’t get another great shot at a major award, and wouldn’t get another juicy part like “Joe Gideon,” the Fosse surrogate. He will forver be remembered for his starring roles in two blockbusters (The French Connection and Jaws, obviously), but it seems like he put his heart and soul into Jazz (even warbling in the compelling finale). I debated including a scene from the underrated 52 Pickup or a bit from my fave, Paul Schrader’s Mishima (which he narrated), but sometimes the YouTube 10-minute limitation is a blessing in disguise. For trivia buffs, here’s a great Scheider double-bill that will never play at your local rep house: L’Attentat, Roy playing opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jean Seberg in an international coproduction (I have a version of this dubbed in German or something) and the never-heard-of-this A Man is Dead, wherein hitman Trintignant is on the loose in L.A., meeting folks played by Scheider, Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Georgia Engel (the Conformist meets “Georgette,” yes), and Jackie Earle Haley. They don’t cast ’em like that anymore.

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