Friday, 2 January 2009

Donald E. Westlake and Bernie Hamilton Pass On

Crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake and actor Bernie Hamilton recently passed.

Donald E. Westlake died December 31 of an apparent heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Westlake was born in Brooklyn on July 12, 1933. He grew up in Yonkers and Albany. Although he attended both Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont and Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, he never graduated. At age 19 he joined the Air Force and served in Germany. AHe sold his story to a science fiction magazine in 1953 after 204 rejections. Not yet able to make a living writing, he worked different jobs, among them being a reader at the Scott Meredith literary agency. His first mainstream novel, The Mercenaries was published in 1960. His early work tended to be gritty, dealing with organized crime. It was in 1962 that he published his first novel, The Hunter,featuring Parker, using his pseudonym Richard Stark. Parker was a totally ruthless criminal, more than willing to kill to accomplish his goals. The Hunter would be adapted to film as Point Blank in 1967 and Payback in 1999. Under the pen name of Tucker Coe he wrote novels featuring Mitch Tobin, a disillusioned ex-cop turned private eye. The first was Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, published in 1966.

Westlake's more humorous side would eventually display itself with the novel The Fugitive Pigeon. Eventually Westlake's more humorous books would even be given their own hero. John Dortmunder was a criminal genius cursed by bad luck. No matter how intricately planned Dortmunder's capers were, they always seemed to go wrong. He first appeared in The Hot Rock, in which he had to steal an expensive gem (which he and his team keep losing...). In Bank Shot he and his team try to steal an entire bank.

Several of Westlake's novels would be adapted to film. Besides the aforementioned The Hunter, The Jugger (as Made in U.S.A. in 1966), The Busy Body (in 1967), The Score (as Mise á sac in 1967), The Hot Rock (in 1972), Bank Shot (in 1974), and many others would be made into films. Westlake would also write original screenplays and teleplays. He wrote an episode of the 1962 TV series 87th Precinct (based on Ed McBain's novels), as well as an episode of Journey to the Unknown. He was one of the writers on the 1963 film Commissaire méne l'enquete. He adapted his own novel, Cops and Robbers to a film, released in 1973. Westlake also created the TV series Supertrain with Earl W. Wallace. Among other notable screenplays Westlake wrote were The Stepfather, The Grifters (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), and Ripley Under Ground.

Donald E. Westlake was arguably one of the most prolific authors of our time. He had written over 90 books. Indeed, Westlake was so prolific he used a number of pen names simply because his output was so great. And his writing was not limited to novels, but short stories and screenplays as well. But Westlake was not simply prolific, he was possibly one of the greatest crime writers in history. It is with good reason he won three Edgar Awards. Westlake was also very versatile. He could write the extremely gritty novels as well as the farcical John Dortmunder novels and the more tragic Mitch Tobin novels. It must also be kept in mind that Westlake also wrote science fiction, thrillers, and adventure novels. He was easily one of the most talented writers of the past century.

Actor Bernie Hamilston died December 30 at the age of 80. The cause was a heart attack.

Hamilton was born in East Los Angeles, California on June 12, 1928. He ran away from home while a teenager and attended Oakland Technical High School. It was there that he became interested in acting. He made his film debut in 1950, playing a baseball player in The Jackie Robinson Story. He made his television debut in an episode of Ramar of the Jungle in 1953. For the next several years Hamilton would play bit parts in such movies as Carmen Jones, Kismet, and Up Periscope, as well as guest shots on shows such as General Electric Theatre and Jungle Jim. In 1960 he received his big break, playing a lead role in the low budget movie The Young One. He also started appearing more often on television, making guest appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Cain's Hundred, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Virginian, The Name of the Game, and Hec Ramsey.

Hamilton also had a good film career. He played the lead role in the low budget, but critically acclaimed One Potato, Two Potato in 1964, Synanon, The Swimmer, The Lost Man, Hammer, and Scream, Blacula, Scream. He was perhaps best known for his regular role as the police captain on Starsky and Hutch. He did little acting afterwards, spending many years producing R&B and gospel record. During the Sixties he ran a night club/art gallery called Citadel d'Haiti.

In some ways I think it sad that Bernie Hamilton was best known for his work on Starsky and Hutch. He was an extremely talented actor who played a large variety of roles. He played everything from a jazz musician who was fleeing a lynch mob in The Young One to the mysterious Ragman in Scream, Blacula, Scream. Sadly, Hamilton never really received the recognition he so richly deserved.

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