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Archive for April, 2016

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Elisha Cook Jnr

Elisha Cook Jr.

“Independent” obituary by Tom Vallance from 1995:

One of the finest and most familiar of screen character actors, the short and shifty-eyed Elisha Cook Jnr was the eternal loser.He could play anything, from farce (riddled with bullets in Hellzappoppin’, he drinks a glass of water which spurts through a dozen holes) to tragedy (as the luckless homesteader gunned down by Jack Palance in Shane – one of his rare good guy roles), but his memory will be treasured most for his gallery of petty hoodlums whose aspirations and bravado rarely equalled their abilities. ”Keep on riding me,” he tells Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, ”and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver”, but his quavering voice and outsize overcoat make the threat derisory.

Born in San Francisco in 1906, Cook studied at the Chicago Academy of Dramatic Art before making his stage debut in vaudeville at 14. Joining the Theatre Guild, he appeared on the Broadway stage with Ethel Barrymore, and came to London in Coquette (1929). After an isolated film role in The Unborn Child (1929), repeating the romantic lead he had on stage, he returned to the theatre until 1936, when he settled in Hollywood.

Roles ranged from a brainy collegiate in Pigskin Parade (1936) to an ingenuous song-writer in Tin Pan Alley (1940), but it is to the genre of film noir that he made his most memorable contributions. In Boris Ingster’s The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) which, with its moody lighting is often credited as the first true film noir, Cook was an innocent taxi- driver convicted of murder. He followed this with perhaps his best known role as Wilmer, Sydney Greenstreet’s twitchy henchman, in Huston’s classic The Maltese Falcon (1940).

Often vulnerable to and exploited by women, he had a lethal passion for Carole Landis in I Wake Up Screaming (1941), was a disc jockey who kills for love of the venal Jane Greer in The Falcon’s Alibi (1945) and a small- time hoodlum who dies to protect Sonia Darrin in The Big Sleep (1946), a role which gave him some rare, if pathetic, integrity. After he has witnessed Bogart being beaten up and Bogart asks why he did not come to his aid, he replies, ”Listen, when a guy’s doing a job, I don’t kibbitz.” (The line, cited by Cook as his favourite piece of dialogue, was written by the director Howard Hawks.)

Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) includes one of the most famous sequences in cinema history in which Cook, as the trap-drummer Cliff March, works himself to an orgiastic frenzy drumming in a jazz-club while sensuously encouraged by Ella Raines garbed in clinging black silk. It is both a prime example of how film-makers would circumvent the Production Code and a quintessential piece of noir cinema, its extreme angles, harsh lighting and staccato editing influenced by German Expressionism. In Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Cook and the splendid Marie Windsor give the most indelible performances of a fine cast as the passive race-track cashier involved in a doomed caper, and his disdainful wife. Rising to her baiting, Cook tells Windsor that he is going to get half a million dollars. “Of course you are darling,” she replies. ”Did you put the right address on the envelope when you sent it to the North Pole?”

Andre DeToth’s Dark Waters (1944), in which Cook perishes in quicksand, Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), in which he dies amid sand dunes, and Jules Dassin’s under-rated Two Smart People (1946), where he meets a macabre death during a Mardi Gras, were among other noirs where he was the perennial loser. Even when well-meaning, as in Roy Baker’s Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), he gets bashed with an ash-tray after arranging a baby-sitting job for his neurotic niece (Marilyn Monroe).

Cook later did a lot of work in television, including a continuing role as a crime baron in Magnum P.I.; and he was still making films until his eighties. In a 54 year career, Elisha Cook Jnr was always a welcome presence on the screen.

Tom Vallance

Elisha Cook Jnr, actor: born San Francisco 26 December 1906; died Big Pine, California 18 May 1995.

The above “Independent” obituary can also be accessed online here.

TCM Overview:

Diminutive, wiry character player memorable for his numerous roles as cowardly villians and neurotics. Originally from vaudeville and the Broadway stage, Cook, who briefly entered films in 1929 before returning to the stage, made a strong impression with his definitive sniveling gunsel in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), and followed with similar roles as weaklings or sadistic loser-hoods: Harry Jones in “The Big Sleep” (1946) and George Peatty in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) over a more than sixty-year care

 

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Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

 

 

TCM Overview:

The son of a runaway slave turned minister and a schoolteacher, Paul Robeson proved to be an unique figure in American history. A tall, handsome man with a commanding stage presence and mellifluous, booming baritone, he was not only a distinguished actor and singer but also a scholar, athlete and lawyer. Born and raised in New Jersey, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers and was only the third black to enroll at the school. He excelled at athletics, earning letters in four sports (basketball, track, baseball and football) and was twice named to the All-American Football Team. Robeson made Phi Beta Kappa and was his class valedictorian. Moving to NYC, he entered Columbia University’s Law School, playing professional football for three seasons (1920-23) and acting and singing to help defray the expenses. In 1921, he had an early stage role in the biblically-themed “Simon the Cyrenian” and later joined the cast of the all-black musical “Shuffle Along” in 1922. Admitted to the New York State Bar, Robeson found work at a law firm but left when a Caucasian secretary refused to take dictation from him. Gravitating towards the stage, this singularly versatile talent found success alternately the leads in two Eugene O’Neill dramas, “The Emperor Jones” and the controversial “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” As the latter depicted an interracial marriage, it was the subject of debate and condemnation, but the actor triumphed.

His stage success led to film work. Robeson debuted in a dual role of an unscrupulous preacher and his more virtuous brother in Oscar Micheaux’s silent “Body and Soul” (1924). While Jerome Kern wanted the singer-actor to originate the role of Joe in the Broadway premiere “Show Boat” (Robeson had even signed a contract), production delays and conflicting bookings led to Robeson being replaced. He did get to play the role in London and his stirring delivery of “Ol’ Man River” became the definitive version of the song for generations. Settling in Europe where he felt a person of color could find more diverse employment opportunities, Robeson appeared in the experimental feature “Borderline” (1930). He briefly returned to America to film “The Emperor Jones” (1933), considered by many critics to be his best work despite the inherent flaws of the material. Declining the opportunity to perform in “Aida” in Chicago, he returned to England to undertake the role of an African chief in the ill-advised “Sanders of the River” (1934). He fared only slightly better in a similar role in the first filming of H Rider Haggard’s adventure novel “King Solomon’s Mines” (1937). Robeson accepted the film version of “Show Boat” (1936) primarily for the money, but it at least provided a record of his signature vocals for “Ol’ Man River.” As roles for blacks in Hollywood were severely limited to caricatures and menials, he returned to England and appeared in a handful of films that, while routine, at least offered less stereotypical roles. He twice played a dockworker in films that also showcased his rich baritone. “Song of Freedom” (1936) cast him as a laborer turned opera star who discovers he is heir to an African throne while “Big Fella” (1937) teamed him with Elizabeth Welch in an offbeat tale of blackmail and kidnapping. “Jericho/Dark Sands” (1938) saw Robeson portraying a court-martialed American who escapes to Africa. Some find the film charming while others decry its now blatant racist overtones. He was again a noble figure in “The Proud Valley” (1939), playing a coal miner in Wales who sacrifices his life for his fellow workers. It was to be the last of his leading roles. Robeson returned to the USA and made only one other film appearance in the omnibus “Tales of Manhattan” (1942), teamed in a sketch with Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson and Ethel Waters that reduced these fine performers to ridiculous stereotypes as sharecroppers. That same year, he narrated the civil rights documentary “Native Land” which received a very limited release.

Robeson returned to the stage, starring in an acclaimed 1942 production of “Othello” that cause some controversy over his kissing his Caucasian co-star Uta Hagen. The show began in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and went on to play nearly 300 performances on Broadway in 1943 and toured extensively. As the decade wore on, though, Robeson came under attack for many of his political views. Having been warmly welcomed in the Soviet Union, he became a vocal advocate of Communism and other left-wing causes. Willing to risk his career for viewpoints that some found objectionable, he constantly called attention to bigotry and the limited opportunities for persons of color, including picketing the White House and calling for a crusade against lynching. Called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1946, Robeson proved a strong presence. Responding to a query as to why he didn’t go to live in the USSR, he told the Committee “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” Yet, some of his views were controversial, notably his call for black youth not to participate if there was a war with the Soviet Union. Like many other artists of the time, Robeson was blacklisted and his passport was revoked for eight years (1950-58). By the time the US Supreme Court restored his right to travel, his health had begun to fail. In 1958, he published his autobiography, “Here I Stand” but few major newspapers would review it. He twice tried to commit suicide and suffered a series of breakdowns that led him to withdraw from public life. He died of complications from a stroke in 1976. Three years later, he was the subject of the documentary “Paul Robeson: Portrait of an Artist” and over the next thirty years, his reputation as an artist and world citizen was gradually restored.

The above TCM Overview can also be accessed online here.

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Virginia Christine

Virginia Christine
Virginia Christine

 

“Independent” obituary from 1995:

In 1975, the TV Times described Virginia Christine as “one of the small but select band of character actresses who are indispensable to any casting director”. At the time Christine had appeared in more than 50 films, hundreds of television shows, and was currently starring in one of the longest-running commercials in television history.
Swedish on her mother’s side, Virginia Christine was born in Stanton, Iowa, a town she described as “All Swedes”. At 17 she won a national drama competition. While attending college in Los Angeles, she met the comedy character actor Fritz Feld. They were married in 1940, and two years later Feld directed her in a Los Angeles stage production of Hedda Gabler, to which he invited representatives from the major film studios.

Christine accepted a contract with Warner Bros, for whom she made Truck Busters, Edge of Darkness, Mission to Moscow and a recruitment short for the Women’s Army Corps called Women at War (all in 1943). Warners then dropped her, and she accepted a contact with Universal Pictures, starting with The Mummy’s Curse (1944), in which she played Princess Princess Ananka, an Egyptian mummy who, restored to life, joined fellow mummy Lon Chaney Jnr in terrorising a small Louisiana community. She wore a black wig over her blonde hair and a clinging white nightgown, inspiring the New York Post’s film critic to write: “You will be safe in assuming that there never has been a mummy half as well-built or a quarter as good-looking.” For the next five years, she played, in the main, cowgirls, saloon girls, vamps, convicts and gun molls in a succession of “B” movies and serials.

Christine’s career took an upturn when she was cast as the wife of a paraplegic war veteran in Marlon Brando’s first film The Men (1950). Hers wasn’t a prominent role, but the film’s producer, Stanley Kramer, liked her work, and used her as a nun in Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) and as a townswoman in High Noon (1952). When he made Not as a Stranger (1955), he gave her a two-way contract: both to coach Olivia de Havilland in her Swedish accent and to play a friend and countrywoman.

In Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), Kramer cast her as the German housekeeper of American judge Spencer Tracy, chillingly disavowing any national responsibility for the Holocaust. Her most impressive role in a Kramer film was as Katharine Hepburn’s haughty business associate in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). On hearing that Hepburn’s daughter (Katharine Houghton) intended to marry a black doctor (Sidney Poitier), Christine reacted with undisguised horror, after which Hepburn walked her briskly down to her car and sacked her – a scene which rarely failed to draw applause.

“I only ever fought for one part,” said Christine, who campaigned vigorously for the role of Kitty Collins, the femme fatale in the first screen version of Hemingway’s The Killers (1946). She lost out to Ava Gardner, but Mark Hellinger, the film’s producer, was impressed with Christine’s test, and cast her as the sympathetic wife of policeman Sam Levene. Eighteen years later, she appeared in Don Siegel’s remake of The Killers (1964), having also acted in his Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Flaming Star (1960).

She also acted under the direction of Vincente Minnelli in The Cobweb (1955), Billy Wilder in The Spirit of St Louis (1957) and Mark Robson in The Prize (1963). She and Fritz Feld acted in two films together: Wife of Monte Cristo (1946) and Four for Texas (1963). They had been married for 53 years when Feld died in 1993.

As well as the feature film Dragnet (1954), Christine appeared in its earlier television incarnation. Her other TV series included 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Abbott and Costello Show, Mr Ed, The Adventures of Superman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, The Long Ranger, Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Tales of Wells Fargo.

Virginia Christine’s most lucrative television assignment began in 1960, when Bob Palmer, the casting director who had given her the part of Princess Ananka, persuaded her to audition for a commercial. For the next 20 years she played Mrs Olson, a kindly, Swedish-accented housewife who kept solving domestic problems by recommending Folger’s Mountain-Grown Coffee to a succession of married couples. The citizens of Stanton, Iowa somewhat bizarrely celebrated the celebrity status of their native daughter by converting a local water tower into a giant, ornately decorated coffee- pot.

Dick Vosburgh

Virginia Ricketts (Virginia Christine), actress: born Stanton, Iowa 5 March 1917; married 1940 Fritz Feld (died 1993; two sons); died Los Angeles 24 July 1996.

 

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Chester Morris

Chester Morris
Chester Morris

Wikipedia entry:

Chester Morris (February 16, 1901 – September 11, 1970) was an American stage, film, television and radio actor. He had some prestigious film roles early in his career, and was nominated for an Oscar. But he is best remembered today for portraying Boston Blackie, a criminal-turned-detective, in the modestly budgeted Boston Blackie film series of the 1940s.

He was born John Chester Brooks Morris in New York City, one of four children of Broadway stage actor William Morris and stage comedian Etta Hawkins.[1] Morris dropped out of school and began his Broadway career at 15 years old opposite Lionel Barrymore‘sThe Copperhead.[2] He made his film debut in the silent comedy-drama film An Amateur Orphan for Thanhouser/Pathé.[3]

After appearing in several more Broadway productions in the early 1920s, Morris joined his parents, sister and two brothers, Gordon and Adrian (who also became a film actor), on the vaudeville circuit.[4] The family’s act consisted of a comedy sketch entitled “The Horrors of Home”. Morris toured with his family for two years before returning to Broadway with roles in The Home Towners (1926) and Yellow (1927). While appearing in the 1927 play Crime, Morris was spotted by a talent agent and was signed to a film contract.[1]

Morris made his sound film debut as “Chick Williams” in the 1929 film Alibi, for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award.[5]He followed with roles in Woman Trap (1929), The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1930) and The Divorcee, starring Norma Shearer in 1930. Later that year, Morris was cast as one of the leads (opposite Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery) in the M-G-M prison drama The Big House. For the next two years, he worked steadily in films for United Artists and M-G-M before being cast opposite Jean Harlow in the 1932 comedy-drama Red-Headed Woman.[6]

By the mid-to-late 1930s, Morris’ popularity had begun to wane and he was cast as the lead actor such B-movies as Smashing the Rackets (1938) and Five Came Back (1939).[3] In 1941, Morris’ career was revived when he was cast as criminal-turned-detective Boston Blackie. Morris appeared in a total of fourteen Boston Blackie film serials for Columbia Pictures, beginning with Meet Boston Blackie. He reprised the role of Boston Blackie for the radio series in 1944. He was replaced after one season.[7] During World War II, Morris performed magic tricks in over 350 USO shows. He had been practicing magic since the age of 12 and was considered a top amateur magician.[8]

While appearing in the Boston Blackie series, Morris continued to appear in roles in other films mostly for Pine-Thomas films forParamount Pictures.[3] After appearing in 1949’s Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture, the final Boston Blackie film, Morris largely retired from films.[2] During the 1950s, he focused mainly on television and regional theatre role. During this time, Morris also appeared in guest spots for the anthology series Cameo Theatre, Lights Out, Tales of Tomorrow, Alcoa Premiere, Suspense, Danger, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Web, Phillip Morris Playhouse, Studio One, and Kraft Television Theatre. He briefly returned to films in 1955 with a role in the prison drama Unchained, followed by a role in the 1956 science-fiction horror film The She-Creature. In 1960, he had recurring role as Detective Lieutenant Max Ritter in the CBS summer replacement series,Diagnosis: Unknown. After the series was canceled after a year, Morris appeared in the NBC television film A String of Beads. In November 1960, he returned to Broadway as “Senator Bob Munson” in the stage adaptation of the 1959 novel Advise and Consent. Morris remained with the production until it closed in May 1961. In October, he reprised his role for the touring production.[9]

In the early to mid-1960s, Morris appeared in guest spots for the dramas Route 66, The Defenders, and Dr. Kildare. In 1965, he replaced Jack Albertson in the Broadway production of The Subject Was Roses.[3] He reprised his role in the play for the touring production in 1966.[10]

Morris was married twice. He first married Suzanne Kilbourne on November 8, 1926. They had two children, John Brooks and Cynthia.[1]Kibourne was granted an interlocutory divorce in November 1939 which was finalized on November 26, 1940.[11][12] On November 30, 1940, Morris married socialite Lillian Kenton Barker at the home of actor Frank Morgan.[13] They had a son, Kenton, born in 1944. The couple remained married until Morris’ death in 1970.[2]

In mid-1968, Morris starred opposite Barbara Britton in the touring production of Where Did We Go Wrong?.[1 After the production wrapped, he returned to his home in Manhattan where his health began to decline. Morris was later diagnosed with stomach cancer.[15]Despite his declining health, Morris began work on what would be his last film role, as “Pop Weaver” in biographical drama The Great White Hope (1970). The film was released after his death.[16][17] After filming wrapped, Morris joined the stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.[8]

On September 11, 1970, Lee R. Yopp, the producer and director of Caine, was scheduled to have lunch with Morris. After Yopp could not reach Morris by phone at his motel room, he went to Morris’ room where he found the actor’s body lying on the floor.[14] The county coroner attributed Morris’ death to an overdose of barbiturates.[18][14] His remains were cremated and scattered over a German river.[19]

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Gwen Watford

 

 

 

 

Gwen Watford
Gwen Watford

“Independent” obituary from 1994.

IF EVER the portents looked right for a would-be actress of Gwen Watford’s endearing young charm – which was to endure on stage and television for the next half-century – it was while she was a schoolgirl in Sussex. Her dream of being a concert pianist had been shattered by her music teacher after 10 years of application to the keyboard.

The next best thing, the teacher decided, must be the theatre. What about the school play? It was to be Girls in Uniform, a German Expressionist story of a highly strung schoolgirl sent to boarding school for the first time who finds solace from the aggressive, authoritarian atmosphere in the company of a sympathetic schoolmistress. This was a powerful role, with its lesbian undertones; and who should be coming to see it but John Gielgud and Hugh Beaumont, then ruling the West End stage (it was 1943). They were looking for likely young nuns for a play called Cradle Song.

She didn’t get a part, but she got the next best thing: a tip from Gielgud to Tony Hawtrey, who ran the Embassy Swiss Cottage as a try-out theatre for the West End, that here was a newcomer to watch.

She found herself in three successive productions by Hawtrey, two of which went into the West End. Networking? It is the only way most players can get on; and in the 1940s and 1950s there was perhaps more hope and scope for a novice, since apart from Swiss Cottage there were regular purveyors of transfers to town like the Arts and the Oxford Playhouse and other provincial houses whose stages did not differ markedly from London’s.

Thus it was that Frank Hauser’s Midland Theatre Company production of Ugo Betti’s The Queen and the Rebels transferred in 1955 from Coventry to the Haymarket to give Watford her third West End chance after five years in rep. She played the queen to the usurper (Irene Worth). It was the dethroned Watford who usurped our hearts because, as the rightful monarch and wronged victim of persecution, she never tried to assert herself. And she was greatly assisted, as was all her acting, by those large brown watery eyes, the warm, expressive voice that could reach to the rafters if required, and the ability to convey inner torment with poise.

Indeed the victim of persecution which she then presented with such touching charm was to become an increasingly familiar role from 1955 – not so much in the theatre but certainly on the television screen. That was the year in which she first appeared on it, impressively, as the Virgin Mary in Joy Harrington’s Jesus of Nazareth. And all her work for television, by today’s standards of television acting, became something to cherish. It brought her so near to us. Nor were the plays as contemptible as so many television plays seem to be today.

It was early days for the medium. Writers like David Mercer, James Saunders, David Hare, Willis Hall, Hugh Leonard and Roy Minton were supplying the scripts; and because the supply has since dried up we have learned to call them single plays. They made some marvellous material for Watford who, perhaps more than any other actress of her generation, knew how to express the pangs of despised love, the betrayals, the maternal fears and miseries with sympathy and sensibility.

It was an era of so-called ‘live’ television, when the players in the drama had to be on their mettle and the acting had a tension almost comparable to the theatre, where something could go wrong at any moment.

Things went so right for Watford that if she fancied a role in a new script that had come through the post her word was often reckoned good enough to merit production. Two particular triumphs came as Queen Elizabeth in Clemence Dane’s Till Time Shall End, and opposite George Cole in the 1977-79 series Don’t Forget to Write which Charles Wood wrote for them both. In the title-role of Willis Hall’s Afternoon for Antigone, she reminded the viewer of her tragic powers.

Then came the chance to play on the stage yet another kind of usurped queen, Schiller’s Mary Stuart at the Old Vic, when it was still the nearest thing we had to a national theatre, delving habitually into the classics. Up against Valerie Taylor’s Elizabeth, Gwen Watford more than held her own especially in the famous fictitious encounter between the two women. Again it was the quietude that told – the controlled emotion.

In that same 1960-61 season she also played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lady Percy in Henry IV part 1; and admirers had every reason to suppose that the theatre had reclaimed her. It was not to be. Not for a long time anyway.

Drama critics are rightly jealous of the stage, as the only place where acting comes up for ultimate judgement; and Gwen Watford, it seems, had not come up often enough. At any rate her reputation on the small screen had grown so great that by then she and Billie Whitelaw had become its two leading ladies.

We had to wait another five years to see her in the theatre, but it proved a most rewarding occasion. It was a new play by the youngest writer in living memory to achieve a play in the West End (he was 20), and it was staged by someone who had never directed a play before. Robert Kidd’s production without decor on a Sunday night at the Royal Court of Christopher Hampton’s When Did You Last See My Mother? (1966) gave Watford one of her most exquisitely delicate, decorous yet moving chances as an unusually sympathetic (and in other hands unbelievable) parent who went to bed with her schoolboy son’s best friend.

Thereafter the stage took a firmer hold on her career. As a woman whose marriage survived an almost unendurable strain in EM Forster’s Howard’s End (New, now Albery, 1967) she was again well- cast; and as the wearily married Masha, faithful to her schoolteacher husband but painfully in love with Keith Baxter’s Colonel in Three Sisters (Greenwich), she distilled the essence of Chekhovian suffering in a way that I had not felt since Margaret Leighton played the part.

Not until the 1980s and 1990s did parts of similar consequence in the theatre come her way. In Coward’s Present Laughter (Vaudeville) she won a SWET award for her performance as the managerial secretary to Donald Sinden’s matinee idol. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival of All’s Well That Ends Well her regal Countess almost ranked with Peggy Ashcroft in the same role. Curiously enough both actresses shared voices which were prone to bring their classical characterisations nearer to the 20th century than they should have been because – as more than one critic remarked – you could tell they came from Kensington or Wimbledon. Such was Watford’s authority only a couple of years ago as Lady Hunstanton in the same company’s revival of Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance that one experienced playgoer was heard to murmur the name of Edith Evans.

Would that Gwen Watford could have been a company actress all her days: but then millions would have been deprived of that endearing gift, tragic or comic, for winning with a glance or a smile or a catch in the voice our deep concern for everything she did.

She also had a mysterious gift for being able, to the amazement of her colleagues, to unravel, with poise as usual, the most complicated of balance sheets at charity committees in aid of her fellow players.

The above “Independent” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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Ricky Valence

 

Ricky Valence
Ricky Valence

 

Image result for ricky valance

 

 

Wikipedia entry:

Born David Spencer in Ynysddu, Monmouthshire, near Wattsville, South Wales, he is the eldest of seven children.[1] He joined the RAF at the age of 17.[1]

He started his musical career after leaving the military.[1] He performed in local clubs for a couple of years before he was discovered by an A&R representative from EMI, placed with the record producer Norrie Paramor and signed to EMI’s Columbia label.[2] At the first recording session, Valance was given the chance to cover Ray Peterson‘s Americanhit, “Tell Laura I Love Her”.[2] He was rewarded with a number 1 hit in September 1960, thanks to airplay on Radio Luxembourg.[2][3]   The BBC refused to play teenage tragedy songs like “Tell Laura I Love Her”. Many American death rock records were simply never released in the United Kingdom.

Ray Peterson‘s original version of “Tell Laura I Love Her”, which was co-written by Jeff Barry, was not released in the United Kingdom, because Decca Records considered it in bad taste.[4] EMI subsequently arranged for Valance to cover the song.[5] Valance thus became the first Welshman to reach the top spot – Shirley Bassey being the first Welsh female.   After topping the UK Singles Chart, Valance appeared in the 1961 A Song For Europe competition, hoping to represent the UK in the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. His song, “Why Can’t We?”, placed third out of the nine entries; the winner was “Are You Sure?” performed by the Allisons.

Further singles included “Movin’ Away”, “Jimmy’s Girl” and “Six Boys”.[1] Over 100,000 copies sold of “Jimmy´s Girl”, and “Moving Away” made it to number one in Australia and Scandinavia, with 150,000 copies sold. In being unable to replicate his initial UK chart success, he thus remains a one-hit wonder.   Valance now lives in Cabo Roig on the outskirts of Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca in Spain, where he still performs on a regular basis. He also has a home in Blaenau Gwent in Wales.

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James Earl Jones

 

 

 

 

James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones

TCM Overview:

One of the preeminent stage and screen performers of his generation, award-winning actor James Earl Jones primarily functioned as a high-quality supporting player after a brief run in the 1970s as a leading man. But more famous than any onscreen role was his deep, resonant voice that first gave authority and menace to Darth Vader in “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) – a startling achievement due to his overcoming a debilitating childhood stutter that remained with him throughout his career. Prior to his iconic voice performance in “Star Wars,” he made a name for himself on the stage, especially in Shakespearean roles not normally associated with being played by African-Americans. Once his voice became famous, it was only a matter of time until his face became renowned as well, which happened after appearing in a range of movies, from John Sayles’ small independent “Matewan” (1987) to “Field of Dreams” (1989) to a trio of blockbusters based on the novels of Tom Clancy, “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), “Patriot Games” (1992) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1994).

Born on Jan. 17, 1931 in Arkabutla, MS, Jones was raised by his mother, Ruth, a tailor and teacher, and his grandparents, John and Maggie, both farmers, after his father, Robert Earl, left the family before his birth. When he was five, the family uprooted itself to his grandparents’ farm in rural Jackson, MI – a move he later credited to causing his debilitating childhood stutter, in which he barely spoke to anyone but his family from ages 6-14. In fact, his stutter was so bad that he left his church because he was unable to read Sunday school recitations without the other kids laughing at him. When Jones reached high school in Brethren, MI, he overcame his stutter with the help of his English teacher, Donald Crouch. Crouch read a poem Jones had written, but challenged its authenticity by claiming he plagiarized it. Shocked by the accusation, Jones was further challenged to prove he wrote it by reciting the poem by heart in front of the class. Jones did, taking his first tentative steps toward overcoming his stutter, which remained with him throughout his career.

Meanwhile, in 1949, Jones earned a scholarship and enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he initially majored in pre-med. But Jones felt the lure of the stage and made his acting debut in a university production of “Deep Are the Roots” (1949). Soon he found himself enrolled in the drama program, while also eventually becoming a second lieutenant in the school’s Reserve Officer’s Training Program. After graduating in 1953, he spent two years in the Army Rangers, then left the service to pursue acting fulltime. He landed his first paying job as the understudy to Ivan Dixon in “Wedding in Japan” (1957), then debuted on Broadway as an understudy for the roll of Perry Hall in “The Egghead” (1957). Jones was back on Broadway the following year in “Sunrise at Campobello” (1958) and began his long affiliation with the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1959, with which he honed his craft in the title roles of “Othello,” “Macbeth” and King Lear.” He appeared off-Broadway in the seminal and acclaimed production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks” (1961), then made his feature debut as the dedicated bombardier on Major King Kong’s B-52 in Stanley Kubrick’s classic satire, “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964).

Jones had his real breakthrough with a Tony-winning turn as first black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in “The Great White Hope” (1968), a role he reprised for the 1970 movie of the same name, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. In 1969, Jones filmed several short segments for the fledgling kids’ show, “Sesame Street” (PBS, 1969- ), which were used to test whether or not children would be receptive to the show. The test audience responded most favorably to Jones slowly counting from 1-10. The segments were used when the show later aired. Meanwhile, he began taking leading features roles, including “The Man” (1972), in which he was the first black president; “Claudine” (1974), playing the garbage man-love interest of a ghetto mother (Diahann Carroll); “The River Niger” (1975) opposite Cicely Tyson; and “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings” (1976), where he portrayed a fictional character based on Hall of Fame Negro League catcher, Josh Gibson.

Though working consistently on screen, his star burned brightest on the boards where – in addition to his celebrated work in Shakespeare plays – he inaugurated a long-standing collaboration with South African playwright Athol Fugard, acting in “The Blood Knot,” “Boseman and Lena” (1974) and “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys,” among others. He also portrayed Lennie in a 1974 Broadway revival of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” then performed the controversial one-man show “Paul Robeson” on Broadway (1977), which caused an uproar with Robeson’s son, who mounted a campaign to stop the production on the grounds that the story was “grossly distorted.” Nonetheless, Jones reprised the show in London the following year. That same year, Jones – or rather his voice – became unwittingly famous when “Star Wars” was released and became not only the highest-grossing movie at the time, but also a cultural phenomenon that would stretch far into subsequent generations. Though director George Lucas hired actor David Prowse to play Dark Vader on screen due to his towering 6’8″ height, he wanted a different, more imposing voice. So he found Jones and paid him $9,000 for less than three hours of work. But because he was only a voice actor, Jones did not receive points on the gross – a luxury given to the other actors by Lucas. When “Star Wars” made tons of money, Jones missed a big payday. Lucas did, however, make up for most of it with a generous Christmas bonus.

Back to appearing on screen, Jones was Balthazar in “Jesus of Nazareth” (NBC, 1977), then starred opposite Robert Duvall as Malcolm X in “The Greatest” (1977), starring Muhammad Ali as himself in this biopic about how he overcame obstacles to become the greatest boxer of all time. Jones then had great success on television in the groundbreaking roles of Dr. Jerry Turner on “As the World Turns” (CBS, 1956- ) and Dr. Jim Frazier on “The Guiding Light” (CBS, 1951-2007), becoming one of the first African-American regulars featured on the networks’ daytime dramas. He ventured into primetime series as the titular star of “Paris” (CBS, 1979-1980), playing the erudite police captain of a special detective unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, then portrayed author Alex Haley in the acclaimed miniseries sequel “Roots: The Next Generation” (ABC, 1979). After starring in two miniseries – “The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story” (NBC, 1980) and “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones” (CBS, 1980) – Jones once again provided the rich, menacing voice to Darth Vader in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), including immortalizing the famous line, “Luke, I am your father.”

That same year, Jones made a return to the stage, appearing in Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes” (1980) before delivering an acclaimed performance as “Othello” (1982) on Broadway in a production where he starred opposite future wife Cecilia Hart. Following a third turn as Darth Vader for “Return of the Jedi” (1983), he appeared in two forgettable features, “City Limits” (1985) and “Soul Man” (1986), before playing a former Negro League baseball player-turned-bitter garbage man in August Wilson’s “Fences” (1987), for which Jones earned his second Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play. Also that year, he appeared in “Matewan” (1987), John Sayles’ compelling drama depicting a violent labor dispute in 1920s rural West Virginia. Following a co-starring turn in the antiwar drama “Gardens of Stone” (1987), Jones was the picture of patriarchal kingship in “Coming to America” (1988), playing the regal father of Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), the heir to the thrown of the fictional African country of Zamunda, who refuses to enter into an arranged marriage and instead sets off to find his true love in America. He next delivered a fine performance both comic and moving in “Field of Dreams” (1989), playing a reclusive author kidnapped by an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) who is building a baseball field instead of planting corn.

After playing a CIA official in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), Jones turned to the small screen, where he delivered an Emmy-winning performance as Junius Johnson in “Heat Wave” (TNT, 1990), a compelling drama about the 1965 Watts riots. He earned a second Emmy Award that year playing a disgraced cop-turned-private investigator in “Gabriel’s Fire” (ABC, 1990-92). Though a hit with critics, the series failed to generate an audience and was soon cancelled. Jones next starred opposite Robert Duvall in the period western, “Convicts” (1991), written by Horton Foote, then played Police Inspector Nkuru in “The Ivory Hunters” (TNT, 1992). Following his portrayal of the judge in “Sommersby” (1993), two rare starring turns came his way; first as the South African preacher searching for his son in the remake of “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1995), and then as Robert Duvall’s half-brother in “A Family Thing” (1996). Though he brought his usual majesty to both roles, in each case, his acting was grander than the material itself, but at least his fans were able to savor his extended minutes before the camera. Prior to both films, Jones’ distinct baritone was put to excellent use in “The Lion King” (1994), when he voiced the powerful Mufasa, king of the pride and father of the cub, Simba.

Around the time of “The Lion King,” Jones made another stab at series television with the family drama “Under One Roof” (CBS, 1995), but once again, he saw a worthwhile project cut short. After playing Hume Cronyn’s best friend in “Horton Foote’s Alone” (Showtime, 1997), Jones voiced Mufasa for the direct-to-video sequel, “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” (1998), then hosted segments on the Kennedys and Somalia for “CNN Perspectives” (CNN, 1998), for whom he also intoned the words “This is CNN” for their cable network ID. Jones also starred as a retired physician whose friendship with a young white boy sparks a racial conflict in a small town in the Showtime movie “Summer’s End” (1999), a role that earned him a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in a Children’s Special. Meanwhile, he enjoyed a series of recurring roles on several series, including “Homicide: Life on the Street” (NBC, 1993-99). Meanwhile, throughout his career, Jones put his voice to good use in numerous commercials, including spots for Chrysler, Goodyear, Reuben’s dinners, coverage for the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, and The Bell Atlantic Yellow Pages.

As his career entered its fifth decade, Jones found himself performing less in films and more on the small screen, including an appearance in the miniseries “Feast of All Saints” (CBS, 2001), based on the Anne Rice bestseller, and a guest-starring role on “Everwood” (The WB, 2002-06), for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination. In 2005, he enjoyed tremendous reviews for his high-profile turn playing crotchety Norman Thayer opposite Leslie Uggams in an all African-American interpretation of Ernest Thompson’s play “On Golden Pond” at Broadway’s Court Theater. For the third time in his career, Jones was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, though a bout with pneumonia forced him to quit the show, which caused the show itself to close prematurely. That same year, Jones revisited his most iconic role, once again voicing Darth Vader for George Lucas’ final prequel film “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005). A few years later, he joined Debbie Allen’s all-African-American production of Tennessee Williams’ classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (2008), which was produced on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre. In 2009, Jones received a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.

The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.

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Stephanie Lawrence

Stephanie Lawrence
Stephanie Lawrence
“Guardian” obituary from 2000.
Glamorous leading lady of the British stage musical

Stephanie Lawrence, who has died suddenly at the age of 50, was a musical actress of rare glamour, which made her natural casting for a show about Marilyn Monroe. But, although she was a pillar of British musical theatre over the past 20 years and played lead roles in Cats, Evita, Starlight Express and Blood Brothers, she never fully achieved the 40-carat stardom that came to her no-more talented peers.

She was born in Hayling Island, Hampshire, into a performing background. Her father was a musician and her mother, Gladys Kent, was a classically trained dancer who later formed a children’s dance troupe, the Kent Babes. The young Stephanie went to the Arts Educational School in Hertfordshire and made her West End debut as a roller-skating tap-dancer in Peter Nichols’s Forget-Me-Not Lane (1971): a prophetic move since she spent a good part of her later musical career on skates.

It was hard to miss her in the Nichols play since she embodied the adolescent sexual fantasies of the play’s autobiographical hero.

Her stunning looks were accompanied by a fine voice and a dedicated professionalism and it was no surprise when she took over the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita in 1981 and made no less an impression than Elaine Page as the Argentinian icon.

The choreographer on that show, Larry Fuller, was also the director of a musical called Marilyn which opened two years later at the Adelphi Theatre. The show was intended as a tribute to another popular icon who died young, but it failed to capture the public imagination. The one person who emerged with credit was Stephanie Lawrence. She not only captured the externals of Marilyn Monroe – the wiggle, the walk, the passionate pout, the vocal breathiness – but conveyed the carmined innocence and soft vulnerability within. It should have been her passport to fame but the show failed to live up to its star.

Undaunted, she picked herself up and got on with it. In 1983 she played the reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, in an ITV play called Doubting Thomas. In 1984, she was back on roller-skates in Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express at the Apollo Victoria Theatre. Amid the hi-tech efficiency of Trevor Nunn’s over-busy production, she once again caught the eye. As I wrote in my review: “The first number to really grab me was He Whistled At Me which worked because Stephanie Lawrence, as a pink-suited steam-buff, was allowed to stand centre-stage and communicate a recognisable human emotion: unfulfilled longing.”

Lawrence remained a popular figure on the musical scene. Succeeding Barbara Dickson and Angela Richards, she spent four years in Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. As well as appearing at the Phoenix Theatre, she also led the cast of the company that took the production to New York in 1993 where, thanks to the determination of producer Bill Kenwright, it survived mixed reviews.

She was a renowned animal lover and someone who put her career before long-term relationships although she married Laurie Sautereau only this year. She also brought to the West End musical stage a luminous glamour that has been extinguished cruelly early.

• Stephanie Lawrence, actress, born December 16 1949; died November 4 2000.

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Karin Dor

Karin Dor
Karin Dor
Karin Dor
Karin Dor

Karin Dor was born on February 22, 1938 in Wiesbaden, Hesse, Germany as Kätherose Derr. She is an actress, known for You Only Live Twice (1967), Topaz (1969) and Winnetou: The Red Gentleman (1964).

IMDB Entry:

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Bernard Lee

Bernard Lee
Bernard Lee

TCM Overview:

An English actor whose screen career spanned more than 100 roles on film and television over nearly five decades, Bernard Lee was best remembered for his recurring appearances as ‘M,” the no-nonsense head of the British Secret Service in the first 11 James Bond films. The son of a music hall performer, Lee trained with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art prior to launching a prolific stage career in London’s West End. Early film roles usually saw him cast as either a policeman or military officer in such features as “The Third Man” (1949) and “Seagulls over Sorrento” (1954), but it was with a relatively minor appearance as Bond’s superior in “Dr. No” (1962) that indelibly linked him to Ian Fleming’s legacy. For most of the two decades that followed, Lee steadily took on roles in projects like “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), but increasingly it appeared as though audiences and producers alike only saw him as the authoritarian MI6 chief. Two years after appearing as M for the final time in “Moonraker” (1979), Lee succumbed to cancer. Although he was eventually replaced in the role, for the majority of die hard Bond fans, Bernard Lee would always be considered the one true personification of M.