© Paramount Classics
American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th. As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.
Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners. Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959. I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).
Where to start in August 2017? Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise. August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes. Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit. The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).
Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th. The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th. And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th. To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).
Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th. I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf. That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.
© ITC Entertainment
Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th. The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy. I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today. Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away. Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th. Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.
Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th. A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine. With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch. But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.
September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair. Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.
The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th. The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father. Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present). Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort. Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play. He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English. The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.
October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away. Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.
November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th. Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79). Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.
November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st. In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine. Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th. Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88). So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.
© Universal Television
Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th. In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane. Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.
On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday. I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train. In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously. Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now. Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86). Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).
Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies. She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978). Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”
Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science. Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th. Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st. It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.