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.
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.