Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

No More Mr. Tough Guy.

Source: IndependentThere’s something special about character actors. Whether they’re deep background, doing cameos, or in supporting roles they add depth and color. And some of them stand out, like Jon Polito. Chances are you’re like me and don’t recognize Polito’s name but recognize his face. When I saw his picture I said, “Hey, it’s that guy who was in…that thing.” Lots of things, actually. He was a favorite of the Coen Brothers, appearing in Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski as well as appearances on Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, and Modern Family. He also lent his voice–his distinctive voice–to several animated works.
And I was sorry to hear of his passing. I didn’t even know his name, I just knew him as that guy. Known for mostly playing tough guy roles, whether as a cop or gangster, the characters Polito played weren’t exactly people I’d like to know but there was something about him I did like. Like any great actor he inhabited every role completely, and even when he was only playing a cameo role, supporting the main cast, he was always more than just background.
Hail and farewell Jon Polito.

 

No Escaping Destiny.

Source: Wikipedia

Are we born the person we become or are we made by the events that follow? I know that “a little of both” is waffling on the nature versus nurture question, but who really thinks waffles are a bad thing? Excuse me. There’s something I want to discuss but I’m trying to avoid it at the same time. Let me start over.

In different interviews, such as one he gave on Inside The Actors’ Studio or this one for PBS Gene Wilder credited his mother with turning him into an actor, although indirectly. She had a heart attack when he was seven or eight and her doctor told Gene that if he got angry with his mother it could kill her, “but try to make her laugh.”

Maybe that’s why he was so perfect for roles ranging from The Frisco Kid to The Waco Kid, and more than one generation grew up with Wilder as Willy Wonka. In his roles he was so often a man tap dancing on the edge, and sometimes he kept dancing even as he toppled over and went spinning into empty space. Then there were his collaborations with Richard Pryor, where the two played off each others’ weaknesses, turning them into strengths. But was Wilder made into an actor by the trauma he shared with his mother or was it simply the spark that ignited something that was already there?

No actor, especially one whose played such diverse roles as Gene Wilder, can be summed up by a single role, but in addition to being one of my favorite movies–one that always makes me laugh–Young Frankenstein, which was originally Wilder’s idea and co-written with Mel Brooks, seems to me the most personal of Wilder’s films. Frederick Frankenstein is born into an infamous family, seemingly fated by his decision to become a doctor to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, and yet fate isn’t enough–a whole series of events and characters push or drag him to his destiny. And Gene Wilder runs the whole range, playing straight in one scene and funny in the next, going from morose to manic and around again, always terrified but focused on giving life.

Hail and farewell Gene Wilder.

Him & His Shadow.

Source: The Guardian

Another kid and I were arguing about Star Wars. This was the late ‘70’s and we were both kids so of course Star Wars was on our minds. If we weren’t talking about it we were acting out scenes and making up our own stories, and if we weren’t doing that we were arguing about it. I was telling him about an article I’d read about the special effects in Star Wars and how they were done. He was shocked that C-3PO and R2-D2 were played by people, that they weren’t real robots. He got pretty upset about it too and finally went off in a huff saying, “Well the spaceships didn’t have people in ‘em! They were real!”

I feel kind of bad for spoiling the illusion for him but for me, as much as I would have liked to be in a world of real robots and spaceships, there was something just as cool about knowing the robots were real people.

Kenny Baker, the very real person who played R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars films, passed away recently.

The funny thing is when I heard the news I didn’t think about Star Wars. My first thought was Terry Gilliam’s movie Time Bandits, which came out between the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I saw it in the theater and while there was a lot about it that stuck with me—I was just discovering Monty Python at the time—the main thing was Kenny Baker was in the main cast. I purposely looked for him in the film, always thinking, That’s the guy who plays R2-D2.

That seems strangely poignant now considering that Time Bandits is about a young boy who gets dragged into a fantastic adventure by a quintet of time travelers—one of whom is Kenny Baker. Fantasy in Time Bandits isn’t an illusion; it’s simply another layer of reality. And he helped make it real.

Hail and farewell Kenny Baker.

One Less Idiot.

worldofmadMAD Magazine was verboten at my house when I was growing up so the only chances I ever got to read it were when I was at friends’ houses. And while I treasured those brief chances in retrospect I realize I never got the chance to really study the incredible amount of detail that went into MAD’s parodies, especially in the art itself. MAD artist Jack Davis, part of the “usual gang of idiots”, recently passed away and it’s amazing to look at some of his work, such as this cover of It’s A World, World, World, World, MAD. As a kid I could have, and probably would have, spent hours going over pictures like this with a magnifying glass examining the details.

I feel like my childhood was deprived when it could have been depraved. Studio 360’s story on MAD Magazine’s influence highlights how the magazine created a generation of smartasses, or at least tried to. It was the preadolescent counter-culture, mocking the culture we knew—everything from TV sitcoms to Star Wars was fair game. MAD Magazine never talked down to kids. Instead it tried to raise us up—by taking everything else down a notch.

Here’s a portrait by Davis of MAD’s publisher William Gaines, fellow illustrator George Woodbridge, and writer Dick DeBartolo from the book Completely Mad by Maria Reidelbach.

Hail and farewell Jack Davis.

jackdavis

 

 

One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today I posted a happy birthday to Firesign Theater’s Phil Austin. I don’t check the Firesign Theater website as often as I should because I missed this note posted there a few months later.

[6/19/2015 – From Phil Proctor to all our Dear Friends and Firesign Fans:]

“Nick Danger has left the office.

Our dear friend and Firesign Theatre partner for over 50 years succumbed to various forms of cancer early this morning at his home on Fox Island, Washington, with his wife Oona and their six beloved dogs at his side. It is a tremendous and unexpected loss, and we will miss him greatly; but in keeping with his wishes, there will be no public memorial.

Rest in Peace, Regnad Kcin.”

I hope he won’t mind a belated hail and farewell. Here’s a great ensemble piece from Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him.

It’s A Post About Garry Shandling.

As a kid I watched a lot of sitcoms even though I felt like they insulted my intelligence. And, let’s face it, most of them, even the smart ones, did. The idea that the same group of usually “average” people would spend most of their time in one location, usually a living room, making witty remarks at each other is pretty ridiculous. Even the smart ones required a pretty large helping of suspended disbelief because the cast and crew know the biggest joke is the one in plain sight: the idea that this spectacle is supposed to be real. And then one night I tuned into a sitcom that took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. Actors spoke into the camera and there were even cutaways to the audience. It was one of the rare times I could watch a sitcom knowing the laughter wasn’t canned. With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show Garry Shandling was a sitcom emperor who came out saying, “Yeah, I know I’m not wearing ‘new clothes’. I’m naked,” and invited everyone to laugh.

Some other comedians or actors couldn’t pull it off. They’d either be too sharply sarcastic to sustain the joke or they’d fall prey to the cheap sentimentality that got into other sitcoms. Shandling was a comedic alchemist who could be sharply satirical but likable at the same time. My favorite moment of the show was when Jeff Goldblum was the guest star. Shandling says his “neighbor’s son” is such a huge Goldblum fan “he’s seen The Big Chill fifteen times, he’s seen The Fly seventeen times, and he’s seen almost all of Transylvania 6-5000.” It was hilarious and I’m also pretty sure it was improvised because Goldblum seemed genuinely surprised.

It’s that same alchemy that I think makes Shandling’s film What Planet Are You From? an underappreciated romantic comedy classic. He took an overwrought comedy cliché—the differences between men and women—and broke it down. If you really think it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Shandling seemed to be saying, you must not be from this planet. Roger Ebert called it “an exercise in feel-good smut” but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Shandling was trying to elevate the most lowbrow kind of humor. Some other comedians wouldn’t have been able to pull off the gag of a hyperactive alien penis, but I think he succeeded because of his comedic alchemy which was so unique I have to wonder, what planet was he from?

Hail and farewell Garry Shandling.

Sponsored By The Monongahela Steel Foundry, Makers Of Ingots For The Home.

Sometimes all it takes to make something funny is to give reality just the tiniest nudge. Take for instance, reporter Wally Ballou touring the historic Sturdley House, home of Fabian Sturdley, which was going to be torn down to build a combination bowling alley and car wash before a group of civic-minded citizens banded together to save it. A tour of the Sturdley House takes approximately four and a half minutes and you can see Mr. Sturdley’s collection of National Geographics as well as his picture of a blank Mount Rushmore. Not too many of those around.

That, of course, comes from the comedy duo Bob and Ray. After more than forty years of working on radio together they were separated in 1990 when Ray Goulding passed away. Bob Elliott continued working, including appearing with his son Chris Elliott. Bob played Chris’s father on the show Get A Life. That sounds like a premise for a Bob And Ray bit: What’s it like playing your son’s father on television?

Their wit was dry as a bone and I think that’s what keeps me going back and listening to it. Or reading it since a lot of it works just as well in print—their book From Approximately Coast To Coast…It’s Bob And Ray includes some great bits, including an interview with historian Alfred E. Nelson whose history of the United States mistakenly puts the Civil War in 1911. Nelson admits that’s a mistake and goes on, “I could have checked by asking almost anybody. But, here again, when I sit down at the typewriter, I just like to take off and go. Know what I mean?”

In a genuine interview with Mike Sacks, collected in Poking A Dead Frog, Elliott said, “We did what we wanted to do and we got away with it. And it was fun.”

Yes. Yes it was. Hail and farewell Bob Elliott.

As a final twist I first learned about them from a 1979 NBC television special. The clip below includes one of my favorite things ever, which starts at the 7:33 mark. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing skip to that. It’s four and a half minutes you won’t regret.

He Licked The Big C.

schimmel

In the late 1990‘s, when the web was still a novelty, long before YouTube, there was a website, khaha.com. It’s defunct now. It played continuous streaming comedy, mostly standup bits from every comedian you’ve ever heard of and quite a few you’ve never heard of. Doing some mindless task I’d sit and revel in the jokes. One voice stood out. Did he just say what I think he said? This is the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard. And then I started laughing. And I started listening for the sharp-tongued sarcasm of Robert Schimmel, whose birthday is today.

Unlike other X-rated comedians Schimmel often made himself the butt of the joke–sometimes literally. He told a joke about a woman suggesting he try anal beads. He balked at first but then thought, who’s gonna know? Beat. “So I’m in the emergency room…”

He also sometimes went too far. As he told an audience he’d been banned from a late night talk show after telling a joke about the time his dentist said, “You’re gonna feel a little prick in your mouth…”

And he wasn’t always dirty either. He applied that same intense wit to everyday situations, like his daughter’s pet rabbit.

I got her a rabbit like Easter time and about three days later it’s actin’ real sick and it’s just layin’ around and my wife goes, Gee, maybe we should take him to the vet. I said, Yeah, why don’t you just let me take him for a drive? I’m not gonna take a five dollar rabbit to the vet.

Beat. “So we’re at the vet…”

It didn’t surprise me that Schimmel was recognized as a major new talent. He got an HBO special and a sitcom deal.

And then came cancer. Specifically non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In his book Cancer On $5 A Day* (*chemo not included) he describes getting the diagnosis.

“Just my luck,” I say. “I get the one not named after the guy.”

He has a show that night. He then goes on,

I realize instinctively that even though I’ve been told I have cancer, I haven’t been told that I’m going to die. And to prove it, I’m going to do the one and only thing that shows that I am very much alive.

I am going to make the audience laugh.

The original title of his book, by the way, was I Licked The Big C. When he was in remission he went on a late night talk show. He opened with, “I licked the big C!” When the audience’s cheers and applause died down he added, “And I beat cancer!”

The joke wasn’t just cut by the producers. They stopped taping and took him backstage for a little chat.

When I got my own cancer diagnosis I thought of Schimmel. His doctor told him, “If you can keep your sense of humor you’re going to be okay.” I’d read his book years earlier and I didn’t just remember the jokes. I also remembered how honest he was about the trauma of chemotherapy, and a conversation he had at his lowest point with his father. His parents survived the Holocaust, and the conversation saved his life.

I have mixed feelings about sharing this because even though Schimmel beat cancer, even though he went on to make jokes about how he celebrated remission by swimming with dolphins and was told not to stick anything in the blowhole–”What’d I spend fifty bucks on then?”–he died in September 2010 following a car wreck.

But four years later I knew if I could keep my sense of humor I could lick the big C.

Hail and farewell Robert Schimmel. And happy birthday.

 

Pause.

Great acting is not becoming another character. It’s using your unique gifts and putting yourself into a character to give words on a page, an imagined situation, real life and depth. Alan Rickman was an actor who embodied that. Whether the role was drama or deadpan comedy, which he did so well, it was what he brought to it that made it special.

Hail and farewell.

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