Who will replace these legends? Who will feed them now that Vincent Sardi has thrown away his last spoon? Who will give them luster after the deaths of costume designer Donfeld and self-made fashion icon Liz Claiborne? Who will interview them with the same panache after the deaths of talk-show hosts Merv Griffin, Tom Snyder (he probed everyone from Marlon Brando to Charles Manson) and Rat Pack survivor Joey Bishop, whose announcer was Regis Philbin? Who will review them with the same silliness as Joel Siegel? Who will guide them after retiring the megaphones and clapboards of the last professional directors in the business? Few of the 2007 hacks passing themselves off as filmmakers can compete with veterans like Ingmar Bergman, who explored myths, illusions and dreams in countless Swedish masterpieces and created an industry of his own; Italy’s Michelangelo Antonioni, famous for bleak and empty canvases of angst, alienation and nothingness (I once described struggling through an interview with him as being like in a room with a dog having a bad dream); Stuart (Cool Hand Luke) Rosenberg; Delbert (Marty, Middle of the Night, Separate Tables) Mann; the creepy, macabre cult films of Curtis Harrington (remember the psychotic mermaid who dragged Dennis Hopper to a watery grave in Night Tide?). Where are the distinguished cinematographers like England’s Freddie Francis, who earned praise for the rich patina that gave the films of Joseph Losey, Karel Reisz and John Huston such distinctive looks, and Hungary’s László Kovács, who made history as a Budapest film student who documented the revolution by borrowing a camera from school with his best friend Vilmos Zsigmond, hiding the camera in a paper bag with a hole for the lens, and carrying 30,000 feet of footage across the border into Austria, finally editing it into a documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite. Who knew he would end up shooting Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and New York, New York, among others. A loss of a different kind was Bob Clark, the young director of the popular holiday perennial A Christmas Story, killed at 67 by a drunken driver.
And where will we be without the iconic voices of jazz singer Dakota Staton; gorgeous jazz-pop vocalist Barbara McNair, who co-starred with Sidney Poitier in They Call Me Mister Tibbs!; blues belter and 1940’s Capitol recording star Nellie Lutcher, who was playing piano for Ma Rainey at the tender age of 11; and chart-busting firecracker-voiced Teresa Brewer, who exploded from every jukebox in the world in the 1950’s? A special loss for me, for serious jazz aficionados everywhere and for fans of the salad days of the Las Vegas club scene: throbbing, driving Mary Kaye, the centerpiece of Decca recording artists the Mary Kaye Trio. They were giant lures on the casino-lounge scene for two decades, and their devoted fans included Elvis Presley and Howard Hughes. It was also eight bars and out for Frankie Laine, who blended blues, jazz and country music into more than $100 million in sales, and was still singing “Mule Train” and the theme from Rawhide up to the time of his death at 93. Not bad for a man christened Francesco Paolo Lo Vecchio in Chicago’s Little Italy, where his father was a barber who cut Al Capone’s hair between mob massacres.
Leave us not forget John Wallowitch, beloved pianist, pixie-faced cabaret performer and bow-tied Manhattan bon vivant; composer Murray (“Guess Who I Saw Today?”) Grand; comely British songbird Pat Kirkwood, whose one and only MGM musical, No Leave, No Love, despite co-star Van Johnson and special songs penned by the legendary Kay Thompson, was such a flop she attempted suicide and returned to England, where Noel Coward and Cole Porter saved her career and turned her into a star on the London stage; and Broadway’s golden-voiced Ellen Hanley, a star in posh 1950’s watering holes like the Upstairs at the Downstairs and the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Fiorello! And yes, we finally waved off Robert Goulet, who strutted across the stage in Camelot and remained a wobbly-voiced star for years, until he posed in tights once too often and inspired Truman Capote, who despised the overrated and the mediocre, to coin the oft-quoted put-down: “Poinsettias are the Robert Goulet of botany!”
Oscar Peterson, the swinging pianist who revolutionized jazz, played his final riff in chords, accompanied by drummer Max Roach; Bobby Rosengarden, band leader on The Dick Cavett Show; jazz guitarist Al Viola; blues trombonist Jimmy Cheatham; clarinetist Tony Scott; and big-band trumpet wizard Buddy Childers, a featured star with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Les Brown. Hawaiian tourist attraction Don Ho threw away his lei, and you can turn off the mike for Ike Turner, Dan Fogelberg and country-western star Porter Wagoner. More tragically, the opera world was diminished with the last score sheet of Giancarlo Menotti, founder of the Spoleto Festival and composer of two Pulitzer Prize operas, The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street, even though I prefer two of his lesser works, Vanessa and Maria Golovin. The music world is definitely poorer for the loss of Mstislav Rostropovich at age 80, the Russian cellist who championed the separation of music and politics throughout the Cold War. Nobody could spell his name, but he was admired, harassed and punished, his passport revoked by the Soviets for years. Meanwhile, temperamental, tortoise-shaped tenor Luciano Pavarotti and everybody’s favorite soprano turned administrator and fund-raiser Beverly Sills sang their last arias. She achieved international renown but remained the world’s most down-to-earth diva, known simply as “Bubbles from Brooklyn,” running the gamut from the Met to the Muppets.
Who will make me laugh like Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, who rose from wife of scandalized televangelist Jim Bakker to head of a Christian ministry called the PTL Network. The letters stood for “Praise the Lord” but the cynics labeled it “Pass the Loot” and “Pay the Lady.” She wore tattooed eyeliner and Tammy Faye Wigs and became a gay icon who starred on televised “drag bingo.” Oh, where the hell is she, now that we need a good laugh? Former first wife Lady Bird Johnson planted her last bluebell on the Texas highways at 94. The kitchen closed for Peg Bracken, the domestic wit who liberated American housewives in 1960 with the riotous I Hate to Cook Cookbook, featuring recipes that called for cornflakes, onion soup mix, canned fruit cocktail and Spam. I shed no tears for Jerry Falwell; white-haired hypocrite Henry Hyde, who orchestrated the impeachment of President Bill Clinton while hiding a mistress of his own; or convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley, real estate dominatrix and “Queen of Mean.” I will save my Kleenex for Yankee shortstop and baseball announcer Phil (“Holy Cow!”) Rizzuto and songwriters Timothy Gray (“High Spirits”) and Ray Evans, half of the great team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who wrote hit songs for Doris Day (“Que Sera, Sera”), Bob Hope (“Silver Bells”) and Nat King Cole (“Mona Lisa”). The world of letters goes blank with the loss of grouchy, peripatetic Norman Mailer; hugely revered über-thinking Kurt Vonnegut; Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby); historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; political columnist Molly Ivins; TV writer David Shaw, brother of Irwin and a linchpin during the great days of live TV dramas; George Tabori, Hungarian playwright and husband of the late Viveca Lindfors; New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett; novelist Mark Harris (Bang the Drum Slowly); Bob Carroll Jr., who created and wrote 180 episodes of I Love Lucy, cementing the star’s dizzy brand of humor for posterity; brainy Lesley Blanch, pristine British author of critically acclaimed novels with exotic underpinnings and ex-wife of Romain Gary, before he married ill-fated movie star Jean Seberg; satirical Washington columnist Art Buchwald; political journalist David Halberstam; and blockbuster one-man writing industry Sidney Sheldon, who penned movies (Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway), novels (The Other Side of Midnight) and TV series (Hart to Hart, The Patty Duke Show). The man printed money.
Who did I forget? Well, there was Playhouse 90 producer Martin Manulis, one of the good guys who elevated the I.Q. every week with the most brilliant dramatic anthology series in the history of television. And Carlo Ponti, better known as the inventor husband of Sophia Loren. Marcel Marceau, the best mime since Chaplin, shed his final whiteface tear. Astronaut Wally Schirra, commander of Apollo 7, hung up his wings. Evel Knievel, popular daredevil whose broken bones in violent motorcycle collisions led to an assortment of physical ailments from which he never recovered, made his last ringsider scream. Dancer-actor-choreographer Michael Kidd was famous for the unique, thrilling production numbers he created for screen (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and stage (Brigadoon, Guys and Dolls, Li’l Abner are just a few), and for dancing with Gene Kelly through the canyons of Manhattan with their feet tied to garbage can lids. Joe Edwards drew Archie, Betty and Veronica. British critic Sheridan Morley filed his last London theater review. Paul Tibbets was famous for being the pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and Anna Nicole Smith was famous for—well, just being famous.
I told you it was a sardine can of a year, overstuffed with indigestible, salty sadness. To all a happier New Year, with renewed hope to grow on.
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