Cue the Credits: In a Year of Few Memorable Contributions, Many Unforgettable Acts Bowed Out

'I will always love you'

The curtain also fell for Nicol Williamson, the intense, neurotic, emotionally unstable but critically lauded actor who won numerous awards, only to die in obscurity and poverty in Amsterdam late in 2011 (too late to be included in last year’s roundup, so he gets pride of place in this one). Once acclaimed as “the best Hamlet of his generation,” he had a nasty temper that slowly dragged him down, and he became as famous for his onstage tantrums and antics as he was for his acting. He once punched out his Hamlet producer, David Merrick, and threw him in a garbage can. Ironically, he later played the ghost of John Barrymore in a play called I Hate Hamlet, disrupting rehearsals, publicly criticizing the playwright onstage, and stopping the show mid-performance to tell his co-stars how to play their roles. He ended up smacking another actor with his sword, the curtain came down and the play closed in a storm of lawsuits. He smoked 80 cigarettes a day, drank heavily and eventually gave up acting to sing country-western music with a Scottish accent. They don’t make Broadway eccentrics like that anymore.

It was a year of farewells to old reliables of stage and screen—the character actors who form the backbone of show business. Ernest Borgnine, who specialized, with equal aplomb, in working-class stiffs (Marty) and brutal villains (the sadistic Fatso in From Here to Eternity), leaves memories that cannot be duplicated. He won an Academy Award for playing a lonely Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty in 1955, but I liked him best opposite Bette Davis in the same writer’s The Catered Affair the following year. His one-month marriage to Ethel Merman in 1964 was dismissed in her published autobiography with two pages that were printed totally blank.

Andy Griffith, who popularized the cornbread-and-buttermilk drawl adopted by so many others who followed, was an icon. From the power of backwoods politics in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd to the folksy cracker-barrel humor of The Andy Griffith Show, he endured as an American lug nut. Jack Klugman was best known for playing Oscar, the messy, unmade-bed half of The Odd Couple opposite Tony Randall’s fussy, neurotic Felix, as well as for seven TV seasons as L.A. coroner Quincy, M.E., but my favorite memory of him was as the long-suffering Herbie in Broadway’s Gypsy. Mr. Klugman survived throat cancer, operations on his vocal cords—which almost destroyed his career—and Ethel Merman before kicking the bucket at 90. Charles Durning died the same day, on Christmas Eve—a special irony, since he played Santa Claus five times, most memorably opposite Angela Lansbury in Jerry Herman’s original 1996 TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus. A decorated World War II veteran who landed at Normandy during the D-Day invasion, the stout singer-dancer-dramatic actor started his acting career late, but made up for lost time with dozens of historic performances in every medium, especially as the postman who finds love with widowed grandmother Maureen Stapleton at a dance hall for senior citizens in the acclaimed 1975 TV classic Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.

Movie bad guys won’t be as suave without Turhan Bey, the Turkish-Czech actor whose exotic looks made him a popular choice to play psychics, swamis, spies and villains of every ethnicity opposite screen sirens like Maria Montez, Merle Oberon and Gloria Grahame in lavish Technicolor Arabian desert fantasies with Sabu and Jon Hall. We also lost Larry Hagman, Mary Martin’s flamboyant son and TV’s favorite villain for 14 years on Dallas (when J. R. Ewing was shot, it made the cover of Time); handsome Chad Everett, 1970s star of the Medical Center TV series as well as such films as The Singing Nun; distinguished British actor Simon Ward, who leaped to fame as Churchill in Richard Attenborough’s 1972 film Young Winston and also played Lawrence of Arabia in a London revival of the great Terence Rattigan play Ross; William Windom, sturdy character actor whose wide range extended from Angela Lansbury’s small-town sheriff sidekick in the TV series Murder, She Wrote to the Southern prosecuting attorney playing the race card in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird; Al Freeman Jr., militant black star whose versatility extended from playing angry young men in works by James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones and Spike Lee to singing and dancing in Finian’s Rainbow; Sherman Hemsley, best known as Archie Bunker’s neighbor George Jefferson on All in the Family and its popular spin-off The Jeffersons; Detroit Lions football star Alex Karras, who punched out a horse in Blazing Saddles and played a dad opposite real-life wife Susan Clark on the ABC sitcom Webster; and James Farentino, dashing leading man on Dynasty and ex-husband of Elizabeth Ashley and Michelle Lee.

It was the last roundup for Harry Carey Jr., a favorite staple in the John Ford Western stock company, and for 8-by-10 glossy Peter Breck, the hunky actor who played Barbara Stanwyck’s middle son on The Big Valley. And don’t forget Herbert Lom, the pirate who led the slaves out of Italy in Spartacus before playing Peter Sellers’s boss in seven Pink Panther farces; Dick Tufeld, the robot voice in the loopy sci-fi series Lost in Space; David Kelly (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); Warren Stevens (Forbidden Planet); Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who found unwanted celebrity as the vampire Barnabas Collins on TV’s Dark Shadows; Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes and popular host of game show Family Feud); George Lindsey, who played Gomer Pyle’s dim-witted cousin Goober; Victor Spinetti, who appeared alongside the Beatles in three of their movies; Davy Jones, the child star who played the Artful Dodger in the 1963 Broadway production of Oliver! and later was a member of the British pop group The Monkees; TV host and master of the Miss America Pageant Gary Collins; Ron Palillo, the whiny nerd Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter; Michael Clarke Duncan, who was a sensation as the hulking 6-foot-5 death row inmate opposite Tom Hanks in The Green Mile; lanky Jerome Courtland, who gave Shirley Temple her first grown-up lip-lock in Kiss and Tell, co-starred with Barbara Cook in the Broadway musical Flahooley and married Polly Bergen; and Bob Anderson, the movie swordmaster who taught Errol Flynn in all of his swashbucklers and was the one behind the Darth Vader mask in the famous Death Star light-saber battle. He was 89. And though few knew his name or face, millions remember the liltingly boyish voice of Dick Beals, known for decades as the sound of Speedy Alka-Seltzer, proclaiming “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is!”