Here I am again, reluctantly counting my losses. Beloved, hated or just plain “Who cares?”, more celebrated people died in 2007 than any year in my memory. I always forget somebody, but here is the nucleus of the ones who will light up the headlines no more.
I suffered a particularly rough blow when my dear friend June Allyson dimmed the lights of the MGM musical era to a final fadeout. Watching her sing and prance her way through “Thou Swell” in the Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll by was a historic footnote to my early moviegoing education. Sailing her way across the Tait campus in Good News and nailing the role of tomboyish Jo in the lavish Technicolor remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women made such an impression on me that I couldn’t believe my luck when, years later, I found myself interviewing her on a Hawaiian cruise. After putting her husband, David, to bed, we watched her old movies in the ship’s theater, munching popcorn while she whispered naughty, unprintable secrets in my ear about what was going on before and behind the camera as each scene rolled. We became such tight friends that we took a second cruise together, and another guest, the great Maxene Andrews, taught us how to sing the Andrews Sisters arrangement of “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” for the passengers. “I want to do the part that goes ‘No, No, No!’ between bars,” I insisted. “That was Laverne,” said Maxene. So June sang Patty, Mackie sang herself, and for the rest of the trip I was called “Dimples Laverne.” Thou swell, Junie, and thou always will be.
Another close friend who waved adieu was Kitty Carlisle Hart, the epitome of gracious charm, a favorite companion of mine at the theater and one of New York’s top hostesses. I’ll never forget the night she seated me between Lillian Hellman and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, then scolded me because I paid more attention to the mesmerizing, opinionated and legendary playwright than the breathy, flirtatious and frankly boring former first lady. After dinner, Frank Sinatra arrived unexpectedly, and she hid me and Alan Jay Lerner behind the living room curtains because he had no affection for either of us, and she didn’t want blood on the Aubusson carpet. Nearing the end, she still grabbed an occasional cabaret “gig,” a word she liked almost as much as “room service,” and loved to tell you how much she got paid at 96. She was proposed to by everyone from George Gershwin to Theodore Dreiser, who once asked her, “Why didn’t you marry me? I’m a better writer than Moss Hart.” “Perhaps,” she replied demurely. “But he asked me first.” In a world of imitations, she was a true original.
Other top-rung stars who took their final bows in 2007 included Deborah Kerr, whose patrician beauty distinguished more than 50 films in four decades of cinema; Yvonne de Carlo, the glamour puss who gave ghouls a good name on The Munsters, and stopped the show nightly singing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” in the original Broadway production of Follies; Laraine Day, who started out as Lew Ayres’ pretty nurse in the popular Dr. Kildare series at MGM but became equally familiar to the American people as “first lady of baseball” when she married New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and launched a TV interview show from a booth at the Polo Grounds. And who can forget the bombastic energy of showstopping Betty Hutton, who earned millions in a spectacular career and lost millions more in a tragic personal life that plummeted from stardom in films, Broadway musicals, concert stages, nightclubs and her own television series, down to scrubbing floors in a Catholic rectory in Rhode Island. This is a show-business soap opera just waiting to be filmed—a life almost as tumultuous as Edith Piaf’s, except that the melodrama lasted longer.
There’s a hole in the screen without legendary Jane Wyman, Oscar winner for Johnny Belinda and first wife of Ronald Reagan, who remained a household name in the film industry long after both their divorce and her own retirement because of those famous L.A. bumper stickers during the Reagan presidency blasting the words “Jane Wyman Was Right!”
Among the men and women perched on lower rungs of the ladder to fame but shining just as bright were movie and stage star Janet Blair; lovely Mala Powers, who played a memorable Roxane to Jose Ferrer’s 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac, then tested the censors the same year as a rape victim in Ida Lupino’s controversial film Outrage; Myoshi Umeki, the Japanese dumpling who captured hearts in Sayonara and became the first Asian to win an Academy Award; hilarious Alice Ghostley, a comedienne extraordinaire who stopped the show cold when she played a cross-eyed femme fatale singing “Boston Beguine” in the hit Broadway revue New Faces of 1952; Lois Maxwell, who played the secretary “Miss Moneypenny” in 14 James Bond movies; character actor Dick Wilson (“Mr. Whipple”), who loved to squeeze the Charmin; movie and stage actress Carol Bruce; French actor Michel Serrault, who played Zaza, the flamboyant drag queen in La Cage aux Folles; Ulrich Mühe, the fantastic German actor who won acclaim as the sentimental Communist spy in East Berlin who developed a crush on the people under his surveillance in the great Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others (he was only 54); Kerwin Matthews, handsome leading man from the 1950’s who battled dragons, skeletons and Cyclops in stop-motion animated potboilers like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Boy Who Cried Werewolf; dancer-choreographer Thommie Walsh, who created the role of Bobby in the original production of A Chorus Line; Gordon Scott, hunkiest of the screen Tarzans, who replaced Lex Barker’s loincloth in six films, married Vera Miles and died at 80, a father of five, and penniless; neurotic, superfunny Charles Nelson Reilly, whose “nutty professor” persona on Hollywood Squares and The Match Game overshadowed his serious work as a prize pupil of Uta Hagen, a drama coach for Liza Minnelli and the Tony-winning director of The Belle of Amherst (Julie Harris went on record as being a “grateful student of his theatrical genius”); Shirl Conway, the brassy blond singer who belted out the opening number in the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy; Gretchen Wyler, Broadway soubrette who played the sexpot in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings and later turned her energies to animal rights campaigns; Brett Somers, the popular raspy-voiced panelist on Match Game and the wife of Jack Klugman (I’ll never forget the time I walked into a restaurant and she stopped her dinner companions cold, yelling, “Kiss ass—he writes!”)
The list goes on. My friend and Connecticut neighbor George Grizzard got his final standing ovation, but I’m still applauding. It was adios for durable Broadway leading man Barry Nelson, who co-starred in his day with Lauren Bacall, Deborah Kerr, Barbara Bel Geddes and Dorothy Loudon. The projectors stopped rolling for famous French actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, who appeared in more than 100 films; bon vivant Roscoe Lee Browne, whose deep, melted-cocoa voice was a surprisingly perfect fit for sharecroppers, judges and jungle voodoo kings; and Bruce Bennett, a 1928 Olympic silver medal champion who became a Hollywood staple, playing everything from the Lone Ranger and Tarzan to Joan Crawford’s husband in Mildred Pierce. He lived to be 100 years old. Finally, I won’t laugh as much after the death of Tom Poston, a bug-eyed regular on the old Steve Allen Show who went on to become a weekly fixture on Newhart, where he met his wife, smoky-voiced actress Suzanne Pleshette, who survives him. Both in failing health for the last few years but never losing their edgy sense of humor, they sent out one of the best Christmas cards of 2007. Following a page crammed with a Webster’s dictionary of fatal diseases, a drawing of both of them in bed with thermometers in their mouths and the words: “DON’T SEND US ANY PRESENTS THIS YEAR—WE HAVE EVERYTHING ALREADY!” Without laughter, we are doomed.