Here we go again. New year, new decade, new century. And time to say goodbye to 1999 and the illustrious people who left it (and us) behind before we usher in a new millennium. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? You would have batted in the year 2000 with style. So would John F. Kennedy Jr., George C. Scott and Mel Tormé. Here is a tribute to all who made an exit before the ball fell on Times Square. They leave us diminished.
It was a sad year for the movies. I will miss the beauty of Susan Strasberg just as I will never forget her balcony scene in Sidney Lumet’s marvelous film Stage Struck , playing an inspired Juliet on the staircase of Henry Fonda’s penthouse before she disappeared into a snowy dawn in Central Park. She was only 60 when she died, and still beautiful. I’ll also remember the great Richard Kiley, who lit up stages and screens in every role large and small, from Man of La Mancha to Blackboard Jungle . And who could erase the delicious comic sexiness of Madeline Kahn, who once told me, “My dear, I would play a black lesbian nun riding a camel if I make someone laugh.” She made me laugh, in all those Mel Brooks movies. And, boy, could she sing!
I will, of course, miss George C. Scott, opinionated, two-fisted, hard-drinking superstar in middle age with a voice like traprock grinding under Goodyear tires. Most people love him or hate him for his Oscar-winning Patton , but I will also remember him as Fagin, Scrooge and Mussolini. I lament the loss of Dirk Bogarde, one of the last of a dying breed of the truly debonair in the British tradition, who made movie history in such distinguished films as The Servant , Darling and Death in Venice . England also lost Oliver Reed, the heavy-smoking, hell-raising actor who played the villainous Bill Sikes in Oliver! , and the coal miner’s son in the nude wrestling scene in Women in Love . The perennial “bad boy of Piccadilly,” he couldn’t have planned his final caper any better if it had been scripted: He dropped dead in a pub in Malta after a night of fun. And while I’m on the subject of Brits who departed too soon, don’t forget Anthony Newley, actor-singer-songwriter and bon vivant whose rousing hits live on. Somewhere in the world, on a nightclub stage, somebody is probably busting a gut on “What Kind of Fool Am I?” this very minute.
One of the movie legends I will fondly remember is Victor Mature, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the 1940′s who played noirish detectives in trench coats and hunks in loincloths with equal aplomb. Discovered singing with Gertrude Lawrence in Broadway’s Lady in the Dark , he was whisked off to Hollywood to languish in Betty Grable musicals where he never sang a note, until Cecil B. DeMille catapulted him to super hunkdom opposite Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah . Whether he was wielding an automatic or the jawbone of an ass, he had a great sense of humor about his career and loved to tell about his rejection by a snooty country club that refused memberships to actors. “Let me know when you meet next,” he told them, “and I’ll bring over a projector and all my films–and I’ll prove to you I’m no actor.”
I will also miss glamorous Ruth Roman, funny girl Peggy Cass (the original Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame ), the beguiling Marguerite Chapman and Nancy Guild, charming Vanessa Brown, indestructible Ellen Corby (Grandma Walton on The Waltons ), Shirley Stoler ( zaftig actress from Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties ) and Hillary Brooke, the icy blonde “other woman” in so many 1940′s B-movie programmers. And I doubt if any movie nut will ever erase the memory of bullets-and-brains Hollywood leading lady Sylvia Sidney, a legend in her own right and Queen of Needlepoint.
More character actors who took their final bows: Rory Calhoun, the rugged cowboy star who also appeared in romantic leads opposite Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable; Kirk Alyn, 88, the first Superman in movie serials; Desmond Llewelyn, 85, who played Q in all of the James Bond films; David Manners, 98, hero of the original Dracula and The Mummy ; Huntz Hall, 78, the last living member of the Bowery Boys; and all-American Don Taylor, who played Elizabeth Taylor’s groom in Father of the Bride .
The legitimate stage witnessed the final curtain calls by British singing star Douglas ( Irma La Douce ) Seale, Ireland’s greatest actor Donal McCann, New Faces alumnus and classy clown Ronny Graham, piercing actress Bethel Leslie, dancer Buzz Miller who famously created the legendary “Steam Heat” number in The Pajama Game , veteran actor Lee Richardson, Oliver! composer Lionel Bart and the great Lucille Lortel, an innovative force on New York’s Off-Broadway scene who had her own theater named after her in Greenwich Village. It won’t be the same without the eccentric one-man shows of Quentin Crisp, the gorgeous sets by Ben Edwards or the dazzling creations by Tony-winning costume designer Patricia ( Cabaret , Sweet Charity ) Zipprodt.
There are so few directors left with taste, style and intelligence. We lost some great ones in 1999. The movies cannot replace the iconoclastic genius of Stanley Kubrick, but we also lost the guiding spirit and tough-mindedness of James Goldstone, the excellent but underrated director of Red Sky at Morning and the Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward film Winning , along with unjustly blacklisted directors Abraham Polonsky and Edward Dmytryk, the man responsible for such classics as Crossfire , Murder My Sweet , The Young Lions and the lavish Raintree County . Much sophistication and fizz will disappear with legendary Garson Kanin, playwright ( Born Yesterday ), Tracy and Hepburn screenwriter ( Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike ), Broadway director ( Funny Girl ), saxophone player, husband of Ruth Gordon for 43 years, witty raconteur and a dear and revered pal. I miss him already. Broadway also lost the sensitive genius of the great José Quintero, and the panache of musical director Mike ( Crazy for You ) Ockrent. No more quality shows on the boob tube, either, with the loss of Buzz Kulik, another fine director from TV’s “golden age” and a major force behind such staples of my youth as Kraft Television Theater and Playhouse 90 .
The music world hit many sour notes. My buddy and singing idol Mel Tormé wanted more than anyone I know to live to the year 2000, but I imagine his velvety tones and technical expertise have the angels in awe somewhere in that jam session in the sky. No living vocalist can surpass him down here, that’s for sure. It was also eight bars and out for ace big-band jazz arranger Ernie Wilkins, Count Basie trumpet wizard Harry (Sweets) Edison, legendary Dixieland trumpeter and unofficial King of New Orleans Al Hirt, progressive trumpet star Art Farmer, Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson and saxophone superstar Grover Washington Jr. Who will keep the art of the American popular song alive after Bobby Troup, veteran songwriter (“Route 66″) and singing pianist whose albums will always be collector’s items in my library?
We also heard the final definitive stylings of Duke Ellington’s much-imitated bop-scat band vocalist Betty Roche, British pop star Dusty Springfield, boogie sensation Ella Mae Morse, jazz legend Joe Williams, 50′s pop singer Guy Mitchell and Roberta Sherwood, the brash senior citizen who became a nightclub and recording sensation belting out the blues while playing a cymbal. And last but never least, we said adios to the great Helen Forrest, whose dreamy voice symbolized the ballad style of the big-band era when she made the first platinum records with Harry James and Artie Shaw. Music will be sadder without violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Oscar-winning Exodus composer Ernest Gold, and peculiarly named but never forgotten Bidú Sayão, the Metropolitan Opera’s Brazilian soprano of the 1940′s.
The world of letters published the last pearls of wisdom by Morris West, the Australian author of longwinded novels such as Shoes of the Fisherman ; Mario Puzo, whose gangster epics made the word Godfather glamorous; England’s matriarchal prose perfectionist Penelope ( The Pumpkin Eater ) Mortimer; legendary exiled American novelist Paul Bowles, whose steamy, exotic works like The Sheltering Sky put Morocco on the map; Meg Greenfield, whose insightful columns in Newsweek and The Washington Post made me an avid subscriber; England’s erudite and enigmatic Iris Murdoch; and our own Joseph ( Catch-22 ) Heller. Finally, I miss Willie Morris, the little boy from Mississippi who grew up to be the cherished editor of Harper’s . Willie would have loved the movie they just made of his childhood memoirs, My Dog Skip , but he never lived to see it. He took a lot of style with him.
For laughs, I can scarcely bear to say farewell to cartoonists Saul Steinberg and Shel Silverstein, and who will I turn to for one-liners after the demise of the beloved Joey Adams, who on the opening night of Cats cornered me to announce, “This show is a cat-astrophe!” Broadcast fans will fondly remember Ed Herlihy (the voice of so many “live” television dramas in the 1950′s), Señor Wences (the weirdo ventriloquist who became a regular on the famous Ed Sullivan Show ), movie critic Gene Siskel, TV cowboy star Rex Allen, game show host Gene Rayburn, renowned choral conductor Robert Shaw, Candid Camera snoop Allen Funt and the one and only Kathryn Murray, co-host of the popular TV show Arthur Murray’s Dance Party , who outlived her husband and dancing partner Arthur by 10 years, finally retiring her ballroom pumps at age 92. The news won’t be the same without Jim Jensen, the popular New York newscaster, and I’ll miss the homespun radio humorist Jean Shephard. And sitcom fans are still shocked by the mysterious death of Brooke Shields’ handsome Suddenly Susan co-star David Strickland, a suicide at 29.
Finally, there was Muriel Bentley, the fascinating ballet star who danced in works created for her by Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, retiring to climb the ladders of society. She was a nightly regular wherever her friend Mabel Mercer performed. And I remember stripper Lili St. Cyr, burlesque queen Ann Corio whose Broadway debut was raided by the cops, Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman, hilarious female impersonator Charles Pearce, Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis, who lost her long battle with cancer at the peak of her career, and the revolutionary fashion photographer known only as Horst, whose elegant formality defined the pages of Vogue for decades. Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast, published his last magazine, and whisky-voiced Anne Francine, social duenna turned throaty chanteuse, left the cabaret scene forever.
Where will we look for flamboyance in the absence of overweight camp movie producer Allan Carr? Who will model his oversized caftans to Hollywood premieres? These people illuminated their time, enriched our sense of art and fun, and stood out from the crowd by being special. They are loved, envied, revered, gossiped about and gone. Here’s a toast to their final year, and a thimble of hope for our new one.
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