Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Road Not Taken


Just found out Larry Hagman died. He's best known for I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas. Both fun shows. Both dumb shows. Well, dumb can be fun, can't it? Remember Cousin Otto's New Year's Eve party? The one where your Aunt Hazel got so drunk she tried to play the harpsichord with your Uncle Lester's buttocks after he passed out over the pool table? Not too intellectually stimulating that, yet you laughed so hard you fell backwards into the goat cheese stuffed tomatoes. So let's not get snooty.

I plan to write about I Dream of Jeannie (as well as Bewitched) sometime next year. For now, let me say Hagman was perfect as Major Anthony Nelson, a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age--he was an astronaut in the 1960s--who tried to remain a sober-minded participant in the greatest scientific endeavor of his age even after coming in possession of a sexy, supernatural vase-bound domestic. As for Dallas, Hagman was perfect as JR Ewing, a greedy, lecherous industrialist who tried to remain a greedy, lecherous industrialist even after getting plugged full of lead by Bing Crosby's daughter. Even though Jeannie was a sitcom and Dallas was, charitably, a drama, Hagman may have been funnier, intentionally funnier, in the latter.

In his autobiography, Hagman referred to his success as a fluke. By "success" I'm assuming he meant fame and fortune. But what about artistic success? He was no Robert Duvall. But then Robert Duvall would have had a difficult time being Robert Duvall on Dallas. Was there perhaps a higher, more nobler fluke that skipped right by the rich and famous Hagman? A movie early in his career may offer a clue.



Fail-Safe came out in 1964, a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crises. In it, a malfunctioning Pentagon computer orders an attack on the Soviet Union. Unable to stop it (computers crashed even back then) President Henry Fonda offers to make it up to the Russians for the destruction of Moscow by dropping the Bomb on Manhattan. All's fair in love and nuclear war. Fonda dominates the following clip (as does the impending demise of the Big Apple), but keep an eye on Hagman as the interpreter who has to relay the opinions of the Soviet Premier to the President. This lowly White House functionary has been instructed by his boss to capture every little nuance of the Premier's comments, to not just interpret but to inhabit the Russian leader, right down to the accent. Actor Hagman is essentially playing a actor, and he's superb. Is the fear we see in his eyes his or the Premier's? Probably both.

SPOILER ALERT: This movie doesn't really have what you would call a happy ending:


Here's Larry Hagman many decades later at a Q&A session with Jeannie co-stars Barbara Eden and Bill Daily:

 
As Larry Hagman himself said, thank Gawd Jeannie came along  
  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Going for the Old


Every so often, I skim through a page on Wikipedia titled "Deaths in 2012." Two months from now I'll be skimming through "Deaths in 2013." Last year, I was skimming through "Deaths in 2011." You get the idea. I do this to see if anyone obscure but notable has passed on but whose obituary didn't make my daily paper, or if it did I missed it because it was too small, or too far below the fold, or whatever. By "obscure but notable" I mean has-beens or never-weres, folks who are not, or are no longer, famous, but aren't quite unheard of either. That's how I found out about this fellow's passing:

Clive Dunn, 92, British actor (Dad's Army) and singer ("Grandad"), complications following operation.
             
 If you're not familiar with Dad's Army, it was a situation comedy popular in Great Britain from the late '60s to the mid- '70s. Taking place during World War II, it concerned a unit of the Home Guard, British volunteers deemed unfit to serve in the regular army, often due to age, and so did their part in this special service as a secondary line of defense in case the Nazis invaded, which, fortunately, they never did. I discovered Dad's Army about 15 years ago on a Youngstown PBS affiliate and found it hilarious. Dunn, though not the star of the show, was memorable as Lance-Corporal Jones, an elderly veteran of previous wars who couldn't stop talking. Here's Dunn in action:

 


While he was still on Dad's Army, Dunn released a song called "Grandad" that sat on top of the UK singles charts for three weeks in 1971, making him an unlikely pop star:


Some rather nubile granddaughters he's got there, huh?

When I read that Dunn was 92 at the time of his death, I originally thought nothing of it. Dad's Army first aired in 1968, quite a while ago, and Dunn had played an old man on it, so it was only natural that he'd be up there in years.

Then I did the math. As I said earlier, Dunn's character was a veteran who couldn't stop talking. Especially about earlier military engagements. In more than one episode, he mentions the Boer Wars, which were fought at the end of the 19th century. At the very least, Lance-Corporal Jones would have been close to 70 by the time of World War II. If the actor who played him was 70 in 1968, he'd...suddenly, 92 no longer seemed old but unusually young.

I did some research on Clive Dunn. He was actually 48 when he first appeared on Dad's Army. Here's a picture of him around that time, but out of character:


A middle-aged man. A touch of grey, laugh lines, but nothing that cries out "elderly." To play Jones, Dunn must have died his hair white, and further obscured his true age with glasses, but I think it was mostly his skill as an actor that made him such a convincing senior.

And it wasn't his first senior moment, either. In 1960, when he was 40, Dunn played a doddering old man on another British sitcom called Bootie and Snudge. After Dad's Army went off the air in 1977, Dunn played an elderly character yet again in a kids show called, appropriately, Grandad. That lasted until 1984, by which time Dunn was an actual senior citizen.

He then promptly retired.

Over the years, there have been other actors who've risen in their profession. Dunn's fellow Brit Alastair Sim made a career out of playing old men. Americans probably know him best as Ebenezer Scrooge in the '51 film version of A Christmas Carol. Sim himself was 51 at the time. Here in the States, Walter Brennan played elderly roles from the late 1930s, when he was relatively young, all the way to the early 1970s, when he was decidedly old. Redd Foxx was all of 50 when he first portrayed the 65-year old Fred on Sanford and Son. Foxx's childhood friend LaWanda Page played 60-something Aunt Esther on the same show. Estelle Getty was one year younger than Bea Arthur when she played the latter's mother on The Golden Girls.

And so, while the rest of us wash that grey right out of our hair, cover up those liver spots and wrinkles with anti-aging creams, have face-lifts, eye-lifts, neck lifts, and pump our faces up with Botox in a futile effort to hang on to our youth, there are those hardy souls among us darting in the opposite direction.

While they're still able to dart.     





             

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-War, er, Post-Election Analysis

I'll try and make this brief. Barack Obama won last night. Those of you aware of my politics will know I see this as a good thing. But not too much of a good thing. The President will still have to contend with a divided Congress, a divided nation, a divided world, and, if the Hubble telescope ever detects life on another planet, probably a divided galaxy as well. Like Bill Clinton before him, Obama may just end up a lonely centurion on guard duty at the gates of Rome, nervously flailing his sword at the approaching barbarian hoards.

Maybe it's unfair of me to call them barbarians. They're just well-meaning folks who simply want to return this country to those halcyon days of yore when blacks were serfs, women were indentured bedmates who knew how to cook, gays were unimaginable, indigenous people were trespassers, Genesis was science, literacy was a luxury, arsenic cuisine was unregulated, soot was a precaution against sun stroke, windows were for dumping out chamber pots, and you didn't have all these meddlesome laws prohibiting four-year olds from earning an honest living working in iron smelting plants with a half-day off for Christmas. These are the people, some of them either in Congress or just financing it, that Obama has to contend with for the next four years. I don't know that he'll have time to do anything else. So, if you're expecting some sweeping changes in his second term that will transform this country into a fairer, more equatable place with justice and opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, gender, or social status, then...

You must be a right-wing Republican. That's exactly what they're afraid will happen

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Quips and Quotations


Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.

--Stella Adler, acting teacher. Among her students were Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch, Harvey Keital, and Warren Beatty, though probably not all in the same class.