Sunday, July 19, 2009

Katrin, We Hardly Knew Ye

I don't know if you all got the memo, but today is lights out for the Screengrab. It's been fun. We'll never know for sure whether we were cut down in the prime of life just as we were about to ascend to undreamed-of heights or five minutes before we finally wore out our welcome for good, but either way, I'm going to miss the place when I'm dancing for nickles in front of the bus station. We could go down all stoic and stiff upper lip as if it weren't killing us inside, but who the hell are we, Clive Brook? (That's one of the beloved obscure movie references that have made us such a blockbuster hit.) But if we're going to get maudlin, at least we can show a little class and get maudlin about the loss of something grander than our own paychecks. So, before we leave some cheese on the table for the student loan collection officers and slip out the back window and over that hill there, we'd like to burn off some bandwidth by listing our precursors: some of the people who had barely begun to show what they could do in movies before they were cruelly yanked away.

Two points: Jean Harlow, Jean Vigo, F. W. Murnau, James Dean, Phil Hartman, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Natasha Richardson-- all the prematurely departed who have taken on legendary status or seem well on their way to claiming it, aren't here, not as any implied put-down of them but because we wanted to concentrate on some people who perhaps haven't had their full fifteen minutes of public mourning. And if we missed somebody, the comments box is right there. Do the right thing.

PHILLIP BORSOS (1953-1995)

Borsos built up a strong reputation in the '70s based on his documentary shorts (Cooperage, Spartee, and Nails) before hitting a home run with his first feature film, the 1982 Western The Grey Fox, a Canadian production that won seven "Genie" awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and, for its American star Richard Farnsworth, "Best Foreign Actor." More recently, it was selected for preservation by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. The movie was a cult success when released in the U.S., and Borsos went to Hollywood, though the high-profile pictures he made there in 1985, The Mean Season and One Magic Christmas, failed to keep up the momentum. He made two more features, Bethune (1990) and Far From Home: Adventures of Yellow Dog; it was around the time he working on the last one that he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died before the picture was released in 1995.

BARRY BROWN (1951-1978)

As a young actor makiing his way in the 1970s, Brown developed a screen image as a sweetly decent old-fashioned boy cast adrift, a James Stewart throwback in a Robert Mitchum world. His big break came in 1972 when he was cast in a pair of offbeat Westerns, Phil Kaufman's The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, and, as the lead alongside Jeff Bridges, in Robert Benton's Bad Company. Both films were critically respected but neither was a hit, and his next big movie, Peter Bogdnaovich's Daisy Miller, was an attempted vehicle for Cybill Shepard that did no one involved in it any good. Alcoholism and depression hampered his career, and after starring in a cheesy action film called The Ultimate Thrill, he continued to work on the stage and in TV but made no more movies except for a small role that the director Joe Dante wrote for him in the 1979 horror comedy Piranha. He died a year before its release, a suicide.


In his short life, Butrick managed to get involved in two different TV-based cults. He first attracted attention on Anne Beatts's high school sitcom Square Pegs, where he was cast as a punk. Standards & Practices forced Beatts to soften the character, but Butrick managed to turn this to his advantage, playing "Johnny Slash" not as the stereotypical angry dweeb but a confused, sweet soul whose brain is phoning its instructions to its body in from distant cloud. (Whether through influence, imitation, or great minds thinking alike, Gary Oldman brought much the same spirit to his Sid Vicious.) By the time the show premiered, he had already made his movie debut in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, playing the son of James T. Kirk. (The character was later killed off in a calamitously staged scene in Star Trek III, a low moment for the franchise on every level.) His other movie credits include Head Office, Shy People, and Fright Night Part II, but his most memorable later role may have been on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he played an alien trying to get his hands on a drug to ease the suffering on his home planet, which had been ravaged by plague. At the time, Butrick knew that he was dying of AIDS.


American audiences will always associate Cartlidge for her work with Mike Leigh, though by the time she entered movies, she was already a familiar face to British audiences after five years on the TV serial Brookside. She was stunning in Leigh's Naked as Lesley Sharp's flatmate, huddled in on herself, her eyes bright and wary but not quite comprehending, a woman who always feels as if she might scream but is hoping that something will make her laugh instead. Leigh subsequently built Career Girls around her and also shoehorned her into a small role in Topsy Turvy. She also appeared in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, in the title role of Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan, in Chris Menges's The Lost Son, as Rade Serbedzija's English lover in Before the Rain, as Varya in Mihalis Kakogiannis's film of The Cherry Orchard, in Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight of Water, as a TV reporter in the Bosnian film No Man's Land, and as one of Jack the Ripper's victims in From Hell. She died suddenly from complications of pneumonia and septicaemia. Von Trier's Dogville is dedicated to her.

JOHN CAZALE (1935-1978)

Cazale earned instant immortality by creating the role of Fredo in the Godfather films, thus ensuring that his character's name will come up whenever someone is fumbling for a shorthand way of saying that someone should perhaps not be trusted with matches. This achievement is all the more impressive if you've read Mario Puzo's novel and know that Cazale basically built that underwritten character from the ground up, brick by brick, which in turn must have inspired Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola to be sure and do right by him when they wrote the screenplay for Part II. Not counting a short film made in 1962, The Godfather was his movie debut; in the six years left to him, he played Gene Hackman's assistant in Coppola's The Conversation, partnered with Pacino again in Dog Day Afternoon, and played Sal in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, alongside his fiance, Meryl Streep. If that was a batting average, it would make Ted Williams smash his own slugger and piss on the pieces in envious despair. Cazale had already been diagnosed with bone cancer when he was making The Deer Hunter; he died before it was released.

BARBARA COLBY (1939-1975)

With her deep, nasal twang and the kind of choppers that look as if they were made to chew gum the way a vampire's fangs are made to draw blood, Colby was the stuff of which legendary comic character actors are made. She had a special way of delivering the most devastating wisecracks in a warm way, as if she thought you'd hate to miss out on this great zinger she had about your wardrobe. She got her first real movie roles in 1974 and 1975, making her debut in a little movie called Memory of Us, and then playing Jeff Goldblum's receptionist in California Split and appearing in the road movie Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins. By that time, she had attracted attention for her work on TV, notably in an episode of Columbo that was directed by the young Steven Spielberg, in which she played one of those ninnies who thinks that the best way to handle a man you know is guilty of murder is to blackmail him into marrying you, and a recurring role as a hooker on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Hired as a regular on the spin-off series Phyllis, she had completed the first three episodes before she and a fellow actor were shot to death in a Los Angeles parking lot. The crime was never solved.

RUPERT CROSSE (1927-1973)

In the 1969 William Faulkner adaptation The Reivers, Crosse gave the kind of performance where you can all but see the film's nominal star, Steve McQueen, saluting him and telling him what an honor it is to have the picture stolen from him by such a worthy adversary. Some of the galloping high spirits of that performance can also be seen in his debut, in the 1959 improvisation-based Shadows, directed by John Cassavettes. Cassavettes later gave him a role in Too Late Blues, and he turns up briefly at the start of Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring his pal Jack Nicholson. Crosse was overdue for a breakout role when Nicholson and director Hal Ashby offered him the second lead in The Last Detail, but the routine physical required to get the production insured revealed that he had lung cancer and wound be dead within the year. In Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Nicholson gave props to Ashby for his decision to give Crosse a few days to think about whether he wanted to spend his last months working on the movie or if, as he eventually concluded, he had other priorities.

STEVE GORDON (1938-1982)

After several years in televion, Gordon made his movie debut as a director with the 1981 Dudley Moore film Arthur, which he also wrote. That movie had a lot that was stale in the set-up and a lot that was misconceived in the execution, so the fact that it made audiences howl the way it did is a tribute to Gordon's way with a one-liner. The writer Cynthia Heiml toasted Gordon for finally bringing some new, good jokes, actual jokes, to the screen, and Pauline Kael paid him the back-handed compliment of saying that, as a director, he was a long way from being able to do with images what he could already do with words. Sadly, he would get no farther; Gordon died of a heart attack a year later, leaving Arthur looking very lonely on his IMDB page.

Click here for Part Two

DANA HILL (1964-1996)

Hill started working as a child actress on TV in the late 1970s, then gave a smashing dramatic performance in her 1982 movie debut as the oldest daughter of Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in the classic divorce movie Shoot the Moon. She was almost as good as Rip Torn's daughter, a year later, in Cross Creek. In 1985, she took on the mysteriously ever-shifting role of Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon's European Vacation. However, she was still playing characters at the vaguely pubescent stage while Hill herself was by now in her early twenties; she suffered from diabetes so serious that it stunted her growth and which, by the mid-80s, was affecting her health to such a degree that, except for a cable TV production of Picnic and Jack Fisk's Final Verdict, she shifted the focus of her career entirely to voice work. Her distinctive rasp kept her much in demand until her death from a stroke in 1996.


Jennings was Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1970, and if you think that guarantees you a movie career, try reeling off the names of Playmates of the Year 1971 through 2008. In such drive-in fare as Unholy Rollers, Truck Stop Women, Moonshine County Express, Deathsport, and my personal favorite, Gator Bait, in which she played a Cajun terminator in cut-offs named Desiree Thibodeau, Jennings had the special aura of someone who the camera just loves. (You could practically hear the camera kicking dirt while it tried to work up the courage to ask if she was seein' anybody.) In 1979, David Cronenberg added to her luster by adding her, along with William "Big Bill" Smith and John Saxon, to the thinking-person's exploitation-movie case of his little-seen labor-of-love drag race film, Fast Company. But that same year, she got a sense of the glass ceiling above her career when she was rejected for the cast of Charlie's Angels, reportedly because the network was uncomfortable with the Playboy connection. She died later that year in a car accident.

LARRY RILEY (1953-1992)

Riley had a good year in 1984, when he made his movie debut in Louis Malle's flop comedy Crackers, appeared in a classic episode of Miami Vice (you remember, the one with Charlie Barnett and the killer Jamaicans), and then delivered a sensational performance in A Soldier's Story as C. J. Memphis, the high-spirited, blues-playing barracks musician whose country accent and laid-back affability inspire the self-hating sergeant who sees him as a geechie clown to railroad him into the stockade and drive him to suicide. After that, Riley bounced around in other roles on TV series and TV movies before settling in for five seasons on Knots Landing. When he discovered that he'd contracted AIDS, Riley tried to keep it a secret, and so the first sign most people got that he was ill came when he reported to work after a hiatus with eighty pounds missing from his once-burly frame. He died just months later.

LYDA ROBERTA (1906-1938)

The madcap Mata Hari of our beloved Million Dollar Legs was the offspring of circus performers who, having given birth to her in Warsaw, kept her on tour with them, eventually breaking her in as a trapeze artist. Her mother, a trick rider, got fed up with her father and jumped ship in Shanghai with her daughter in tow. Lyda helped support the two of them by singing, and by 1931, they had made it to the States and Lyda had secured her Broadway debut, charming the patrons both with her talent and with the patchwork carpet accent and manhandled syntax that she'd developed in her travels: she really sounded like that! An established commodity on Broadway and radio, she appeared in such films as The Kid from Spain, George White's 1935 Scandals, and The Big Broadcast of 1936. Slowed by heart disease, she died of a heart attack when she was 31.

DIANA SANDS (1934-1973)

Sands played the younger sister of the hero in the original Broadway cast of A Raisin in the Sun when she was 25, then recreated the role for the 1961 movie version. It was her first real movie role, though she'd had uncredited bits in earlier films, including A Face in the Crowd and Odds Against Tomorrow. It soon became clear that her talent and beauty would take her as far as she could get in an entertainment industry that still had no idea what to do with black actresses more suited to leading lady roles than mammy parts, though it was not immediately clear just how far that might be. She did a lot of TV, appearing on such shows as East Side/ West Side, Dr. Kildare Julia, and I, Spy; appeared on Broadway in The Owl and the Pussycat and The Gingham Dog; and starred in a handful of small movies, including Willie Dynamite, a botched action flick called Honeybaby, Honeybaby, the soapy soft-core Doctors' Wives, and Georgia, Georgia, which was written by Maya Angelou and set in Stockholm. Her best movie, and best role, was in Hal Ashby's The Landlord, in which she was caught in an interracial triangle with Beau Bridges and Louis Gossett, Jr. She won the title role in the 1974 romantic comedy Claudine, but by then, she was already ill and was forced to drop out.

TRINIDAD SILVA (1950-1988)

For most of his career, from the unintentionally hilarious 1979 Walk Proud (starring Robby Benson, in brownface makeup and a Frito Bandito accent, as a Chicano) to his ever-evolving role as Jesus on Hill Street Blues to Dennis Hopper's Colors, Silva was the go-to guy for a Latino gang leader. He also appeared in Alambisto!, The Jerk, El Norte, Crackers, The Milagro Beanfield War, and the Weird Al Yankovich movie UHF, which he was shooting when he killed by a scumbag drunk driver, and which is dedicated to him. He gave an exceptionally fine performance in another film he didn't live long enough to see, the 1988 TV movie Stones for Ibarra, based on Harriet Doerr's novel. There, liberated from having to flash gang signs, he gave a comic heartbreaker of a turn as a Mexican villager who's devoted his life to trying to build a better future for the girlfriend and younger brother who end up running off together.

KELLIE WAYMIRE (1967-2003)

Waymire is a good stand-in for all the actors who never get their name above the title in big movies but who leave a small imprint on the memories of anyone who ever saw them at their best. A quirky comic find, she had small roles in such films as Playing by Heart and also made memorable guest appearances on The X-Files, CSI, The Practice, Wonderfalls, Six Feet Under, and assorted Star Trek spin-offs. For my part, I've been packing around a crush on her since seeing her on a late Seinfeld episode in which she played a single mother who seemed to have contracted a terminal disease in order to threaten Elaine Benes with leaving her custoy of her kids, before doing something with George Costanza on the floor of her kitchen that was clearly dirty and probably illegal and seemed to involve pastrami ("the most sensual of all the smoked meats"). She died of cardiac arrhythmia in 2003.


Williams was a stage veteran best known as the star of Abie's Irish Rose on Broadway, with a short string of forgettable movies to his credit, when Frank Capra cast him as the hero of the 1931 comedy Platinum Blonde, a newspaperman who marries an heiress (Jean Harlow) while the audience keeps pointing at the Loretta Young, as the platonic gal pal standing beside him, and yelling, "What're ya, blind?" Williams's performance here nicely combines the stylized, staccato delivery and wisecracking toughness of the smartass reporter stereotype so popular at the time with the suggestion of a regular-guy sensitivity necessary for the character to function as a romantic hero, and the general consensus at the time was that it would make him a star. General consensus wasn't counting on Williams's appendix, which burst four days after the film premiered.

TREY WILSON (1948-1989)

Wilson made his first movie appearance in 1976's Drive-In and started to get decent roles around 1984, but he really burst loose during the last year or so of his life, by which time he had ripened into the very image of a middle-aged, weather-beaten cracker of a comic authority figure. His performance as Nathan Arizona, the unpainted furniture king who irritably describes the pajamas his kidnapped tyke was wearing at the time of his disappearance--"Jammies! They had Yodas and shit on 'em!"--amounted to handing out to each member of the audience engraved notices announcing that his career had now begun in earnest. As if aware that time was of the essence, he quickly appeared in Bull Durham as the team manager who can barely contain his contempt for lollygaggers; in Married to the Mob, as the FBI director whose explanation of the difference between working for the federal government and working for the Mafia can be, and probably has been, enjoyed by good liberals and militia group members alike; Twins; and the three films released after his death from a cerebral hemorrhage, Miss Firecracker, Great Balls of Fire (in which he played Sam Phillips), and Welcome Home, all of which are dedicated to him. Before he died, he had been set to play the Albert Finney role in Miller's Crossing.

Click here for Part One

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