So Long, Farewell to Galaxy of Stars

010806 article rex So Long, Farewell to Galaxy of StarsIt’s always tough to say farewell to great and cherished folks, but 2006 took an unusually high toll. My heart is heavy when I think of June Allyson, a legendary film star and my close personal buddy, who shared a few tears and a lot of hearty laughs with me through the years. Singing and dancing her way through those glorious MGM musicals of yore, making movie history with perennial co-star Van Johnson, or playing the brave wives of William Holden, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart and dozens of other World War II heroes in the days of Peter Pan collars, pageboys and saddle oxfords, she was a box-office sensation whose unique presence and foghorn voice will live forever on the silver screen. On a personal note, I will never forget our crazy cruises together, the late-night phone calls from her home in Ojai, or the time in Hawaii when we visited Pearl Harbor with Maxene Andrews, who roped us into re-creating the Andrews Sisters. June never stopped laughing, and from that day on she called me Dimples Laverne. Rest warm, Junie Moon. I miss you already.

I will also miss Shelley Winters, my next-door neighbor, who inspired the famous line “I’m not hungry, I’ll just pick.” It seems like only yesterday that I was sharing five desserts with the blond bombshell at Elaine’s. On a perennial diet between Oscars and love affairs, no plate of food at an opening-night party was safe in her presence. Shelley had a heart as big as her girdle, and the Actors Studio will be poorer without her. She was one tough broad, who made the label respectable. A few days after Shelley took the cab, ex-husband Anthony Franciosa followed. A few years ago, she spotted him at a party and said, “You look familiar—do I know you from somewhere?”

If you called Glenn Ford a Method actor, he would probably have reached for his Colt .45, but that’s exactly what he was. The screen won’t be the same without his cool, sweet mix of Mr. Nice Guy and “Don’t tread on me.” As a ghetto teacher in Blackboard Jungle, a Communist agitprop merchant in Trial, a gunslinger or a sheriff in dozens of westerns, a harassed single parent in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father or Silly Putty in the hands of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, he was a master of moment-to-moment realism who made every moment ring true, during an ego-resistant career that was miraculously quiet by Hollywood standards. I’ll miss him too, probably because he looked so much like my own father. He died at 90.

The final bow of the sensational Maureen Stapleton has left me wordless. From her Oscar-winning performance as the Jewish Communist labor leader Emma Goldman in Reds to pulsating hits by Woody Allen and Neil Simon, she played comedy and drama with equal honesty, relish and emotional intensity. Privately, she was always unpredictable. She once showed up at my apartment four hours late for an 8 p.m. dinner and spent the rest of the night on the sofa. And she was one of the funniest women on the planet. At the movie premiere of Bye Bye Birdie, after everyone toasted the star, a drunken Mo stood unsteadily and announced to the press: “I guess I’m the only one here who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret!” Then she passed out on the floor, to tumultuous applause. What a character. When God finished designing Maureen Stapleton, he threw away the key.

The alluring Italian-Austrian film star Alida Valli, a great artist whose career was effectively sabotaged by Hollywood, died in Rome at age 84. What a life! After her mother was murdered by Mussolini’s Fascists, she starred opposite Orson Welles in The Third Man and got whisked off to Hollywood by David O. Selznick, who crowned her “the new Garbo,” then cast her as an implausible Polish burlesque queen in a B picture with Frank Sinatra. What America lost was postwar Europe’s gain as she was “rediscovered” by Visconti, Bertolucci and Antonioni. She married the songwriter who wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” landed in a sex-and-drugs scandal involving the son of an Italian foreign minister, and ended up in trashy horror films playing various witches, vampires and ghouls. I hope she’s found peace. She sure earned it.

We reluctantly bid adieu to Oscar-winning funny man Red Buttons, who returned to Broadway with a one-man show in 1995 that was still knocking them in the aisles at age 76. It was one last curtain call for Dennis Weaver, who went from selling pantyhose to a 50-year career in acting, nine years of it as Chester on Gunsmoke. Best work: the frustrated motorist pursued by a homicidal truck driver in Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Another television staple who turned off the test pattern: Darren McGavin, a set painter at Columbia who found his way into fodder like Mike Hammer and The Night Stalker, but who also appeared in Macbeth and Death of a Salesman.

I hated to see Jack Palance go. The gravel-voiced villain, born Volodymir Ivanovich Palahniuk in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, worked as a professional boxer, bomber pilot, sportswriter and cattle rancher before he landed with a splash on the screen, terrorizing the pioneers in Shane. Hedda Hopper described him as “a man who could play Frankenstein without makeup,” but although his face could frighten horses, he was actually a sensitive vegetarian who wrote poetry and painted landscapes. Ironically, he will probably be best remembered for the night he finally won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1992 and shocked the world by dropping to the stage at age 73 to do one-arm pushups.

Other reliables who signed off: Dana Reeve, who sublimated her own career to take care of husband Christopher (a.k.a. Superman), then died 10 months after he did; Jane Wyatt, everybody’s favorite Emmy Award–winning TV mom on Father Knows Best; brainy, perky Phyllis Kirk, star of House of Wax; lanky, durable Arthur Hill, who won Broadway’s coveted Tony Award for the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; ageless veteran Barnard Hughes, who won the Tony in 1978 for Da; Bettye Ackerman, a hospital regular on Ben Casey; Chris Penn, the younger, lesser-known brother of Sean Penn (he was only 40); Jack Warden, a former dockworker, boxer and merchant mariner, who played gruff but engaging characters in more than 100 movies; veteran Asian-American actor Mako, who triumphed in works as versatile as Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Pacific Overtures and last year’s film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha; Kurt Kreuger, the tall, blond, blue-eyed heavy who specialized in playing handsome Nazis in World War II epics with Bogart, Flynn and Tyrone Power; French character actor Philippe Noiret; Edward Albert, active conservationist, musician and actor son of Eddie Albert, who rose to fame as the blind mama’s boy opposite Goldie Hawn in Butterflies Are Free; bumbling comic actor Don Knotts, who always looked like he just stuck a finger in a wet socket; and Frankie Thomas, the all-American boy next-door who played the teenage sleuth’s hapless partner in crime in four Nancy Drew movies and won fame on his own as star of the TV series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. He died at 85 and was buried in his signature Tom Corbett costume. It was also adios for Billy Crystal sidekick Bruno Kirby; Joseph Bova, the unforgettable Prince Dauntless opposite Carol Burnett in the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress; Jack Wild, who played the Artful Dodger in the 1968 film Oliver!; Arthur Franz, whose popular best-buddy image in Hellcats of the Navy wiped the floor with co-stars Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis; Robert Sterling, handsome actor and husband of both Ann Sothern and Anne Jeffreys, whose attractive virility enhanced MGM movies in the 40’s, as well as the 50’s hit TV series Topper, in which he and Jeffreys played two fun-loving ghosts; Jean Byron, who was a living-room regular as Patty Duke’s mother in the 1960’s; Osa Massen, 91, Danish-born femme fatale in 1940’s Hollywood movies like A Woman’s Face with Joan Crawford; Justine Johnson, the soprano who, as the fading opera star, sang “One More Kiss” in the original Broadway cast of Follies; Anne Meacham, elliptical cohort of Tennessee Williams and star of many of his plays; French sexpot Annette Stroyberg, who drained the blood from Elsa Martinelli’s neck in the lesbian vampire flick Blood and Roses and was one of the five wives of horny French director Roger Vadim (between Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda); and Peter Boyle, the tap-dancing monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, who went on to become the grouchy dad on Everybody Loves Raymond. Did you know that John Lennon was the best man at his wedding?

The lights dimmed this year for Dick Cavett’s actress wife, the smoky-voiced, Mississippi-born, Tallulah-talking Carrie Nye. Dry as a martini without the olive, this underrated actress was one of the greatest Amanda Wingfields (The Glass Menagerie) I ever saw on a professional stage. And what a sense of humor! I was once engaged to interview her at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. The night before, I slipped on a broken sidewalk and, on the day of the big event, I looked like the victim of a Chinatown Tong War. Gamely, I appeared onstage with my eye injury camouflaged by dark sunglasses. Out came Carrie and Dick in dark glasses, to tumultuous laughter and applause, and we all went on with the show like three blind mice. She was a Southern belle without a plantation of her own who made Scarlett seem like a cotton-pickin’ amateur.

The notes in Broadway musicals will sound flatter without Joan Diener, the busty, big-voiced beauty who scored as Dulcinea in Man of La Mancha; Elizabeth Allan, the lovely singing star of the Sondheim-Richard Rodgers show Do I Hear a Waltz?; and Isabel Bigley, the original Tony-winning Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls. Where will we be without their high C’s? And where will we be without Cy Feuer (Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Little Me) to produce musicals with taste, or the fabulous Betty Comden to write the songs? She died on Thanksgiving Day, after more than 60 years of witty, memorable lyrics composed with her late writing partner, Adolph Green. With movies like Singin’ in the Rain and stage shows like Wonderful Town, On the Town, Bells Are Ringing and Peter Pan, their praises will be sung forever. For years, people thought Comden and Green were married to each other. “Not true,” they used to joke. “Right now, we’re seeing Nichols and May.”

Dance is out of step with the last pirouette of luscious Moira Shearer, the Titian-haired ballerina who made film history in 1948 as the star of The Red Shoes, and the final Terpsichore of Katherine Dunham. Where is the joy without the swirl and twirl of Fayard Nicholas, the surviving half of the acrobatic Nicholas Brothers (his younger brother Harold died in 2000). Their “Jumpin’ Jive” number in Stormy Weather was declared “the greatest dance ever filmed” by Fred Astaire, but prejudice limited their exposure. As late as 1948, when they shared the screen with Gene Kelly in The Pirate, Southern theater owners refused to show the picture. “If I was white, I coulda danced with Ginger Rogers,” Fayard said. They will not be forgotten.

The important film directors who framed their final shots include Robert Altman, Richard Fleischer, Gillo Pontecorvo and Vincent Sherman, 99, the Warner Brothers perfectionist in the days when they still knew how to tell stories. He was famous for eliciting powerful performances from strong-willed women like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both of whom he loved—on camera and after work. The writers beside whose deft touch today’s incomprehensible scripts seem like faded faxes, at last sent their old Smith-­Coronas into storage: playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret), Joseph Stefano (Psycho), Leonard Schrader (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Joseph Hayes (Desperate Hours).

Gordon Parks, the first black photographer at Life magazine, and Sven Nykvist, who turned Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen movies into high art, sent their cameras to that screening room in the sky. And don’t forget the contribution made by Joe Rosenthal, the A.P. war photographer who snapped the historic shot of American troops planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood didn’t.

A number of valued posts were vacated in the music world. Opera will never resonate with the same fire and passion after the loss of feisty conductor Sarah Caldwell, lyric soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Australian queen of operatic parody Anna Russell, and Wagnerian diva Birgit Nilsson. Movie music will never top Malcolm Arnold’s theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Pop music lost the Grammy-winning jazz and gospel icon Lou Rawls. The rhythm is off the downbeat without soul king James Brown, “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, 60’s teen idol Gene Pitney and my dear friend, the swinging Ruth Brown. Country and western lost a jubilant twang with the fadeout of Buck Owens. Jazz will struggle along without trumpet whiz Maynard Ferguson, conga drummer Ray Barretto, virtuoso Duke Ellington drummer Dave Black, Kansas City pianist Jay McShann and record mogul Ahmet Ertegün, who produced many of their greatest hits. Pop charts sagged with the loss of Eileen Barton and Georgia Gibbs. Another nail in the coffin of big-band swing accompanied the last eight bars by Benny Goodman vocalist Martha Tilton and swinging Stan Kenton jazz alum Anita O’Day. As indestructible as she was inimitable, Anita survived abortions, divorces, arrests, jail sentences, nervous breakdowns and addictions to nicotine, booze and heroin to become the queen of bebop. “O’Day” was pig Latin for the “dough” she made and wasted in a career that spanned the ages of 19 to 87. Her 1981 book High Times Hard Times lived up to its title, but she was elegant in hats and gloves even in the lowest dives.

Broadcasting will seem pale after the values of talk-show host Mike Douglas, Wall Street reporter Louis Rukeyser and 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley; journalism will be tamer without R.W. Apple Jr., Oriana Fallaci and A.M. Rosenthal; and the world of literature will be dull as a rusty fork after William Styron; lurid, violent potboiler czar Mickey Spillane; charming author Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, whose family stories became a popular book and movie called Cheaper by the Dozen; British sophisticate Muriel Spark; crime novelist William Diehl; and Jaws’ Peter Benchley, who made everyone afraid of the water till the end of time. We heard the final filibusters from politicians good (wise, down-home former Texas Governor Ann Richards, President Gerald Ford, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick) and bad (Serbian butcher Slobodan Milosevic and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and let’s forget about Saddam Hussein in a New York minute, O.K.?). Heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson hung up his gloves; Oleg Cassini designed his last fashions; economists Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith left me worried about money; Edna Lewis baked her final pecan pie; crocodile hunter Steve Irwin survived more wildlife perils than Tarzan, only to be killed in a freak accident by a stingray; Coretta Scott King did her last good deed; Betty Friedan tutored her last feminist; Aaron Spelling surrendered his crown as the Titan of Tasteless TV; and Florence Klotz, Broadway’s most flamboyant costume designer, dazzled her last audience with museum-quality gowns that knocked our socks off.

Like I said, a terrible year—let’s hope that 2007 is more cheerful. To all and sundry, go and be well.