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Posts Tagged ‘obituaries’

R.I.P. Ray

May 7th, 2013 No comments

Much of what I have to say about special effects master Ray Harryhausen–who died today at the age of 92–was already covered in this post from 2009, so I’ll wait here ’til you get back.

I can recall one time–I’m guessing that it was sometime around 1978–sitting down with a big sheet of paper on a kitchen table and meticulously drawing a mural that included at least one monster from every one of Harryhausen’s films. I thought that it was pretty good at the time. I wish that I still had it.

Growing up a fan of monster and sci-fi flicks, Harryhausen loomed large. It wasn’t just because of his talent or because of the near monopoly of his chosen profession he enjoyed throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He made quality fantasy films, and he made a lot of them. After apprenticing on 1949’s Mighty Joe Young, he worked on fourteen more, from 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Clash of the Titans in 1981. Twelve of them were with producer Charles H. Schneer, whose own contributions should not be underestimated. If there was a science-fiction or fantasy spectacle made during the middle of the 20th Century, odds are it either came from producer George Pal–who also started out as a stop-motion animator–or from the team of Harryhausen and Schneer.

Harryhausen wasn’t just the special effects guy for hire, he was the one dreaming up the action set-pieces around which those stories were built. Admittedly, the scenarios tended to be episodic, with dramatic scenes existing mostly to fill the time between monsters. But what monsters! The seven-headed hydra, the cyclopean centaur, the tragic Venusian Ymir, and the vicious dinosaur Gwangi were only a fraction of his large and varied menagerie.

Ray retired after Clash of the Titans, and never returned to filmmaking. I’m sure that he could tell that the days of the lone animator meticulously animating puppets by hand over a period of months would be ending, due in no small part to the incoming generation of people that he had inspired.

These days, there are vast hordes of anonymous effects artists filling out the endless credit rolls of our modern blockbusters. And this is not a knock on them, but none of them can ever be Ray Harryhausen. For a time, he wasn’t just one of a few, he was one of a kind.

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

Gone In A Flash

April 5th, 2013 No comments

My Facebook news feed was in overdrive yesterday with the passing of film critic Roger Ebert. An Urbana native, he maintained close ties to the community and sponsored an annual film festival that became the biggest event* in our twin cities.

I had the opportunity to meet Roger in person a couple of times, most recently in 2000 when we trekked up to Chicago to record an interview with him for the movie review show that I used to produce.

By that time Ebert had spent many hours in front of television cameras, and was, of course, entirely professional. As someone who grew up watching the original Sneak Previews on WTTW-TV, I found it impossible not to be awed.

A year or two after this interview, I began to be puzzled and annoyed by Ebert’s reviews. He would fixate on picayunish flaws.** He would serve as an outlier on films as widely-praised as the 2009 Star Trek reboot and as thoroughly panned as Nicolas Cage’s Knowing. And then there was his stubbornly ignorant stance on the question of whether video games could be considered art.

Of course, the reason that his opinions perturbed me far more than those of, say, Richard Roeper was the recognition that he was our preeminent film critic–arguably our preeminent critic, period. What he said mattered, even if I thought it was dead wrong.

And few people loved movies more, or did more to promote the appreciation of film, than did Roger Ebert. He might have hated, hated, hated certain films, but that burning rage was borne out of his beliefs that movies could and should be more. He will be missed.

Another great who passed on yesterday was a legend of the Golden and Silver Ages of comic books, penciller Carmine Infantino. His first story for DC Comics in 1947 introduced the Black Canary, a villainess who eventually became one of the industry’s best-known superheroines.

But it was his work on the Silver Age version of The Flash that made his reputation. Infantino was superb at selling the incredible velocity of the crimebuster, depicting him as a series of red-and-yellow after-images.

Later he was the regular artist of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, drawing most every issue during the years between the original film and the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

Infantino’s death is the severing of one of the few remaining ties to comics’ early days.

*The next Ebertfest is less than two weeks from now. No one has said whether they will continue beyond 2013, but I suspect that, given Roger’s failing health, contingency plans must have been considered.

**Really, there were plenty of good reasons to dislike The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but Ebert’s criticism was mostly about its inaccurate depiction of Venice. In a movie in which Mr. Hyde and Captain Nemo fight Professor Moriarty.

Seriously, Now I’m Even Starting To Fear For Bonnie Langford

July 26th, 2012 No comments

The ’10s have been brutal for Doctor Who actors. Last month, there was sad news about Caroline John. And now comes word that Mary Tamm, who played the first incarnation of the Doctor’s Time Lady companion Romana, has died from cancer aged 62.

As with Caroline John, Mary Tamm was only with the show for a year. And I can’t help but think that, like John’s Liz Shaw, the problem was that Tamm’s competent, strong-willed character was perhaps threatening to a lead actor who needed to be the most important thing on the screen.

But, boy howdy, did she draw my attention away from Tom Baker. Whereas Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith was the woman I wanted to marry, Mary Tamm’s imperious ice queen–and her form-fitting white dress–shook my teenage hormones like no actress in a British kids’ show previously had. I was deeply disappointed when, at the start of the following season, Romana “regenerated” into the form of Lalla Ward.

I met Mary Tamm a couple of times at Doctor Who conventions. I’m really not certain how I held myself together long enough to have these photos taken.

Goodbye, Mary.

And now, please, can we have a few more years before the next member of the TARDIS crew passes?

If I Was Katy Manning, I’d Be Worried Right Now

June 21st, 2012 No comments

The last two years have been fatal for Doctor Who actors from the Jon Pertwee era of the show. First Nicholas Courtney, then Elisabeth Sladen. Now comes word that actress Caroline John died earlier this month at the age of 71.

Unlike Courtney or Sladen, I think few people will argue that Caroline John’s no-nonsense scientist Liz Shaw was the beating heart of the show. She was a case of the producers trying to have it both ways by portraying a highly competent researcher who nonetheless wound up wearing miniskirts and fetching coffee for the Doctor.

She was unceremoniously dumped after a single season in favor of Katy Manning’s Jo Grant, whose miniskirt-wearing and coffee-fetching were untainted by book learning and were therefore no challenge to Jon Pertwee. Still, Liz Shaw’s single season–which included such classic stories as “Spearhead from Space” and “Inferno”–was one of the best of the original show’s run, and Caroline John managed to make a lingering impression despite her short time.

Categories: Doctor Who Tags: ,

Golden-Eyed He Was, And Dark

June 7th, 2012 No comments

Like a lot of other boys growing up with an interest in things science-fictional, I was inexorably drawn to the works of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury wrote a lot about ghosts, rocketships and Martians, as well as the joys and horrors of growing up and growing old. I remember devouring my paperback copy of “R is for Rocket” in the back seat of my dad’s car on our yearly trips out west. To be sure, Bradbury was the biggest influence on my early attempts at short fiction, with TV’s The Twilight Zone a close second.* For many years, I claimed Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favorite novel.

During my year in Los Angeles, I attended the 70th birthday party of sci-fi fan extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman. Well, not so much “attended” as “crashed.” Carrying an oversized latex bust of Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. It was that kind of time for me.

Anyhow, there was Ray Bradbury. I stood across the lobby outside the hotel ballroom where the dinner was taking place, watching him talk to whom I presumed to be other sci-fi luminaries. And as much as I wanted to go up and tell the man what a profound impact he’d had on me, I was just too chickenshit to step forward. I greatly regretted the missed opportunity…even going so far as to later draft a “love letter” of sorts that I never actually sent.

Sometime in the mid-’90s, I was watching Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, a TV series featuring an irreverent roundtable of celebrities, experts and comedians. And I was floored by what was coming out of Ray Bradbury’s mouth: vile, sexist talk about women. I’m not certain whether this was the infamous occasion on which Bradbury defended alleged serial sexual abuser Robert Packwood by saying (I’m paraphrasing here) “who hasn’t pinched their secretary?” but it would’ve been around the right time. I was horrified. This was the man who wrote such beautiful, lyrical prose? Who taught me about the eternal rains of Venus and the dangers of stepping on butterflies?

That disillusionment had subsided a few years later when Bradbury arrived in town for a lecture/book signing  at the University of Illinois. After his talk, I was once again in a position to crash the afterparty.** This time there would be no regrets; at a quiet moment, I sat down near him and struck up a conversation. I don’t recall all of what I said. I suppose that I told him about my previous near encounter. I know I asked him if there were any recent sci-fi films that he felt lived up to those he’d enjoyed in his youth (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Here too I found myself wondering whom this Bradbury-shaped person really was. He had veered off onto an anti-technological track, proclaiming at one point that no one ever made a friend via a computer.*** It was unsettling. I thought, “This Luddite is the person who wrote so passionately about tomorrow?”

Somewhere along the line Bradbury took a hard turn to the right, politically.**** He went so far as to vociferously claim that his best-known novel, Fahrenheit 451–the story of futuristic book-burners that has inspired librarians for decades–was never about censorship at all. It was about the dangers of television. Okay, sure, Ray. Please back away from the typewriter.

Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this week was the coda for those who most shaped my love of literary sci-fi, the A, B, C of Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke. I wish that I was truly sad about it. I feel that the man whose visions I found so inspirational vanished into the Martian desert years ago.

For the final thing that Ray Bradbury taught me was the importance of never getting to know one’s idols.

*Surprisingly, Ray contributed only one story to TZ, “I Sing the Body Electric,” and it was not one of their better outings.

**Associating with news people doth have its privileges.

***Decidedly not true, in my case. The first time I got laid was with someone I met over a computer. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. She lived in the dorm next door; the computer was how she chose to introduce herself. But I digress.

****Comics writer/historian Mark Evanier’s own obituary of Bradbury offers some similar observations on the unpleasant turn he took in his later years.

Categories: Books Tags: ,

Farewell To The Master

March 5th, 2012 No comments

RIP Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who did the earliest concept design work for the original Star Wars.

McQuarrie performed similar duties on both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Battlestar Galactica, completing a hat trick of late ’70s sci-fi pop culture design.

A few years back, Hasbro produced action figures based on McQuarrie’s designs that accompanied the early drafts of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.

Thanks, Ralph, for providing the images of so many of my young adult dreams.

Categories: Star Wars Tags: ,

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

April 19th, 2011 No comments

For the second time in two months, tragedy struck square at the heart of Doctor Who fans old and new with today’s news that longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith, actress Elisabeth Sladen, has died.

It was just February that I found myself remarking how the late actor Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, was the heart and soul of Doctor Who. Sladen was arguably a very close second.

She first appeared as intrepid journalist Sarah Jane Smith in the 1973 serial The Time Warrior, alongside Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. And while she only remained a regular for a little more than three years, it’s obvious that I wasn’t the only one in love with her. She returned to the franchise again and again, first in the aborted spin-off K-9 and Company, then in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors. Her first appearance in nu-Who was in the 2006 David Tennant episode School Reunion, which led to a spin-off series entitled The Sarah Jane Adventures. Unfortunately, it appears that the fifth season of SJA will never be completed.

As was the case for many fans of a certain age, Sarah Jane Smith was my favorite of Doctor Who‘s companions. Pretty and plucky, she persevered through being cold and wet; hypnotized left, right and center; shot at; savaged by bug-eyed monsters; and never knowing if she was coming or going, or being.

I only saw Sladen in person once, at a 20th anniversary convention in Chicago, and never actually had a chance to speak to her. I wish that I had taken the time to stand in the autograph line.

Till we meet again, Sarah.

In Memorium

February 25th, 2011 No comments

Vic holds up Hobbes for his very first photo. Sometime in 1995.

We actually went to the shelter for an entirely different cat. We’d more or less decided on one we wanted to adopt when I noticed the Maine Coon kitten sitting in a nearby cage. Vic had read about how wonderful Maine Coons were supposed to be; the article had referred to them as “the Gentle Giants.” I said, “what about that one?” Vic was instantly smitten, and very soon Macbeth (really? Macbeth?)–renamed Hobbes–came home to stay.

Big kitten.

At five months of age or thereabouts, Hobbes was already as big as our other cats. And he was still growing into his body. He was remarkably clumsy, failing to land his jumps and even tumbling off the edge of the bed for no apparent reason.

Streaky the Supercat.

He got better, though.

The spray bottle was no deterrent.

The boy was always trouble. He took a dim view of (our) sleeping in on weekends. For a time, he had a thing for bread; he once stole an entire loaf off the kitchen counter, dragged it down the hallway and squashed it. Another time, he chewed up a roll of toilet paper and made himself a nest of the remains. And once he was tall enough to grab onto door handles, you had to lock a room to keep him out. We always had to warn visitors to be careful when using our bathroom.

Centerfold.

It was not without just cause that among his many nicknames was “El Vomito.” Long hair = many hairballs = rude awakenings at 2:30 am.

Despite the photo, he was never any good at braiding hair.

We called him a “dog in a cat suit.” That seems to be a thing with Maine Coons: they love people. They come to the door to greet guests. And they will sit on the lap of whomever is the least comfortable with them.

Excuse me, Tonya, but you have a growth on your neck.

Hobbes especially liked the ladies. We could never really be sure why, but he seemed especially fond of the female friend who was his frequent catsitter. He goosed her on at least one occasion.

To date, we’ve had four cats, and of them Hobbes was the one to whom we’ve been closest. Which actually wasn’t surprising, since he wanted to be wherever we were, whether we wanted him there or not. He was fifteen pounds of unconditional snuggle.

Admittedly, I would have preferred it if he hadn’t always insisted on sleeping between Vic and myself. But it was pretty hard to say no. In part, this was because it was so nice to feel that warm, purring lump in the small of your back. It was also because he never would have let us rest otherwise.

Hobbes senses something, a presence he's not felt since--

Being the size of a small dog–or, when he was jumping onto your stomach in the middle of the the night, a large bowling ball–he was easy to dress up.

Another in a long series of indignities.

He didn’t get along quite so well with our other cats, though the animosity was mostly directed at him. For a time we had a triangle of dominance: Hobbes bossed around Tigger, who bullied Cupid, who in turn smacked around Hobbes whenever he tried to get “frisky.”

Laundry Day just got longer.

However, things were different with our most recent cat, Boomer. I don’t know, maybe it was the wide age gap, or maybe it was because Boomer didn’t know any better. But it was not at all an infrequent occurrence to find the two of them huddled up.

Our final photo of Hobbes. February, 2011.

Hobbes had been sick for the past couple of years. He had the kidney problems so often associated with older cats. He lost a lot of weight, dropping from nearly sixteen pounds to a mere nine by the end. We had to do a lot of work encouraging him to eat, but he took it pretty well.

He was part of our life–a very big, very lovable part–for more than fifteen years. As hard as it’s been to let go of him, we wouldn’t have traded our time with him for anything. The other day, Vic commented about the people who had left “Macbeth” at the Humane Society. She said that they missed out on the greatest cat ever.

Goodbye, Hobbes. We love you so much. Good kitty.

Categories: General Tags: ,

Chap With Wings There, Five Rounds Rapid

February 22nd, 2011 No comments

I’d argue that, more than any other single actor to have appeared on Doctor Who, Nicholas Courtney was its heart and soul. He first appeared as an interstellar secret agent in the 1965 First Doctor adventure The Daleks’ Master Plan, but it was his 1968 reintroduction as Colonel (later Brigadier) Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart that made him a fan favorite. He played that role again and again, appearing alongside the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors. Inexplicably, he never showed up on the rejuvenated Doctor Who series, but he did drop in on its spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.

I salute you, sir. You will be missed.

Categories: Doctor Who Tags:

Like A Beacon In The Galaxy

January 3rd, 2011 No comments

Actress Anne Francis died yesterday at the age of 80, five weeks to the day after the death of her Forbidden Planet costar, Leslie Nielsen. I had intended to write something about Nielsen after his passing, but to be honest, I don’t know what more I could add about either him or Anne Francis other than to say that to this day Forbidden Planet remains one of my very favorite films and they were both terrific in it. Francis was perhaps better known for her roles as private detective Honey West or the living mannequin in the Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” and Nielsen of course enjoyed a prolific second career as filmdom’s spoofster-in-residence, but for me they’ll always be the stalwart Commander Adams and the beautiful Altaira, cruising between the stars.