Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class Acts

Who will take up the hell-raising reigns surrendered by Dennis Hopper? At 74, the cinema’s raunchiest rebel without a cause had long ago overcome his Easy Rider mantle to become a grizzled character actor riddled with repercussions from his excessive early years. He was a mess, but he was also a far cry from his National Enquirer image. (Nervously seated next to him at a lunch a few years ago, I was jarred when he spent the entire time discussing recipes for turkey stuffing). Also: Jill Clayburgh, who lost her 21-year battle with leukemia at 66; Lina Romay, famous “Latin from Manhattan” who sang with Xavier Cugat’s orchestra in a series of MGM musicals; Peter Graves, the square-jawed hunk who spoofed his own image in Airplane! as the closeted pedophile pilot; Nan Martin, a character actress who graced every medium; child star Corey Haim (The Lost Boys), who shocked the world when he died of a drug overdose at 38; Betty Lou Keim, who played rebellious teenagers in some excellent ’50s films; James Mitchell, the brilliant American Ballet Theatre star who danced with Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon and later joined the soap opera All My Children; Adele Mara, B-movie actress at Republic studios who co-starred with John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima; Lionel Jeffries, the British comic famous for family flicks like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Ian Carmichael, Peter Sellers’ owlish cohort in comedies like I’m All Right, Jack; and Christopher Cazenove, English star of Dynasty and Masterpiece Theatre who recently toured America in a revival of My Fair Lady (critics pointed out that unlike the original star, Rex Harrison, “Mr. Cazenove could sing.”)

The list of sayonaras goes on. Corey Allen was the last surviving member of the ill-fated Rebel Without a Cause cast. Ursula Thiess was a German B-movie siren and the widow of screen legend Robert Taylor. Ilene Woods was the voice of Cinderella in Disney’s timeless classic. Have you forgotten Cécile Aubry, the beautiful French actress who co-starred with Orson Welles in The Black Rose? She landed on the cover of Life magazine, then disappeared. It was rumored she was being held captive in a Turkish harem. Turns out she was secretly married to the son of a Moroccan pasha, after which she returned to France and wrote children’s books. Also destined for obscurity but saved by the obituaries was 1970s Albanian heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, the first actor from Yugoslavia to become a Hollywood star and who once romanced Ava Gardner and Brigitte Bardot. What memories remain of Johnny Sheffield, who played Boy in eight Tarzan films, although he could not swim? Later, he dragged his old loincloth out of moth balls for Bomba, the Jungle Boy, retiring in 1955 to import lobsters from Baja. This year marked one last gaze into the crystal ball for Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played Tangina the psychic in Poltergeist. Last but not least, let’s raise a glass to Shirley Bell Cole, the radio voice of Little Orphan Annie, and to Meinhardt Raabe, the Munchkin coroner, and Olga Hardone, who danced as the center member of the Lullaby League in The Wizard of Oz. That leaves only three remaining Munchkins alive today.

The cameras stopped rolling for Kevin McCarthy, regrettably best known as the panicky doctor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; James McArthur, forever youthful son of Helen Hayes and star of a string of Disney classics; Simon McCorkindale, who played the suave murderer in the Agatha Christie thriller Death on the Nile; Gloria Stuart, a glamorous blonde in ’30s horror flicks who made an Oscar-nominated comeback in the 1997 blockbuster Titanic; and Norman Wisdom, England’s beloved slapstick comic who was knighted in 2000. It was one last double take for Leslie Nielsen, a serious actor who never lived up to the potential of his early dramatic work on live TV and films like Ransom! and Forbidden Planet. Sidetracked in dumb Naked Gun farces, he got rich, but the acting career went over the falls in a barrel.

Among the TV pioneers who watched their final test pattern fade in 2010: living-room sitcom favorites Tom Bosley, who went from doorman at Tavern on the Green to Tony-winning Broadway star to Happy Days, and Barbara Billingsley, who, as June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver was the perfect Eisenhower-era wife and mother, wearing pearls even when vacuuming. No more cable reruns for Pernell Roberts, the eldest Cartwright son on Bonanza, a show he hated, equating his participation with “Isaac Stern playing with Lawrence Welk.” No more ratings wars for Art Linkletter, the unpretentious CBS House Party host for 18 years, or for precocious midget Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes), John Forsythe (Dynasty), Robert Culp (I Spy), Harold Gould (Valerie Harper’s father on Rhoda) and blond flapper Dorothy Provine (The Roaring 20’s). Fess Parker, TV’s Davy Crockett, hung up his coonskin cap, and sportscaster Don Meredith called his last shot from the 40-yard line on Monday Night Football. It was a cheerless sign-off for Buff Cobb, a popular staple of TV’s “golden age” who co-hosted two of the first “live” talk shows with then-husband Mike Wallace and appeared as a regular panelist on Masquerade Party; for David Wolper, who produced the miniseries Roots and The Thorn Birds; for witty, rumpled and eternally grumpy newscaster and Today show anchor Edwin Newman; for award-winning news analyst Daniel Schorr; for Clay Cole, producer of American Bandstand and the rock guru who gave teens their first look at the Rolling Stones; for crusading 48 Hours news correspondent Harold Dow; and for controversial Mitch Miller, who, as an influential producer at Columbia Records, steered the careers of Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett before becoming a TV star himself with a nauseating crop of corn called Sing Along With Mitch (one critic suggested it would be best watched with the sound off). He turned down contracts with Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly while forcing Frank Sinatra to record a gimmicky horror called “Mama Will Bark,” accompanied by a pack of howling dogs. (Sinatra never spoke to him again.) I was devastated by the early exits of my two favorite Southern belles–oversexed Golden Girl Rue McClanahan and honey-dripping Tennessee glamour puss Dixie Carter, who used her languid accent from Designing Women in several seasons of acclaimed cabaret performances at Café Carlyle. I guess I shouldn’t overlook Eddie Fisher, who crooned his way off-key through TV shows, hit records, unfathomable marriages and scandalous divorces. It was the mystery career of the century, somewhat explained now in his trashy autobiography and daughter Carrie’s one-woman confessionals. But my favorite summation came the night Debbie Reynolds walked onstage at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall and said, to tumultuous applause: “Look at this place. I guess I married the wrong Fisher.”

Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class Acts