Saturday, 18 April 2009

Actors Maxine Cooper and Jody McCrea Pass On

While the average person might not recognise their names, two actors died recently who left a lasting mark on American pop culture. Maxine Cooper will be forever remembered as Mike Hammer's secretary Velda in the classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly. Jody McCrea, son of Joel McCrea, appeared in many Western movies and TV shows and was a regular in American International Pictures' "Beach Party" movies.

Maxine Cooper passed on April 4 from natural causes at the age of 84.

Maxine Cooper was born in Chicago on May 12, 1924. It was while she was attending Bennington College in Vermont that she developed an interest in the theatre. She completed her acting training at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. In 1946 Cooper went to Europe where she performed for the American troops still stationed there after World War II. She remained in Europe and made her television debut on the BBC in an adaptation of The Front Page in 1948.

Cooper returned to the United States in the early Fifties and made her television debut in an episode of the syndicated series "The New Adventures of China Smith in 1954. In 1955 she appeared in an episode of The Star and the Story. Cooper also acted in theatre. In fact, it was because of a performance in the play Peer Gynt in Los Angeles that she received her most famous role. Director Robert Aldrich saw her in the play and cast her in the role of Velda in Kiss Me Deadly.

Maxine Cooper appeared somewhat frequently on television in the Fifties. She made guest appearances on Studio 57, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Millionaire, Four Star Playhouse, Maverick, Perry Mason, Peter Gunn, The Twilight Zone, and Wanted Dead or Alive. She also had roles in the movies Autumn Leaves, Zero Hour, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.

Cooper married screenwriter Sy Gomberg in 1957 and retired from acting to raise her family in the early Sixties. She also became an activist, organising the Hollywood community to march with Martin Luther King in Montgomery, Alabama in the Sixties. She also organised protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear arms.

Although her acting career was short, there can be no doubt as to Maxine Cooper's talent. While the part of Velda, Mike Hammer's secretary, has been played by at least eight different actresses, for many it is Maxine Cooper who will be Velda. This was the sort of actress Maxine Cooper was--she could take a role which originated on the printed page and had first been played by someone else (Margaret Sheridan in I, the Jury) and make it wholly her own.

Jody McCrea, son of Joel McCrea and star of Westerns and "Beach Party" movies passed on April 4 at the age of 74. The cause was a heart attack.

Jody McCrea was born Joel Dee McCrea on September 6, 1934 in Los Angeles, California. He was the son of actor Joel McCrea and actress Frances Dee. He majored in theatre arts at the University of California, Los Angeles. While there he threw the javelin on the university's field and track team. McCrea also served in the United States Army. While in the Army he hosted Country Style, USA, a recruiting programme produced by the Army in Nashville. He made his film debut in a small part in the movie Lucy Gallant in 1955. In the Fifties he would go on to appear in the movies The First Texan, Naked Gun, The Monster That Challenged the World, and The Restless Years. He also appeared on television in such shows as Studio One, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and Kraft Television Theatre. He was a semi-regular as Deputy Ben Matheson on the 1959-1960 Wichita Town, on which he played opposite his father Joel McCrea.

The Sixties saw Jody McCrea appear in such films as All Hands on Deck, Force of Impulse, The Broken Land, and Young Guns of Texas. He appeared in the first "Beach Party" movie, Beach Party, in 1963, as Deadhead. McCrea played nearly the same character (called either Deadhead or Bonehead) in six of the the seven "Beach Party" movies. He continued to appear in other films as well, including Law of the Lawless, Young Fury, Major Dundee, The Glory Stompers, and Cry Blood, Apache. He also appeared on television in such shows as Death Valley Days and Wagon Train.

In the mid-Seventies Jody McCrea retired from acting to take up ranching.

I have always thought the acting talent of Jody McCrea was somewhat underestimated. This can be proven simply by looking at some of his better known roles. On Wichita Town he played the young, somewhat serious Deputy Marshal Ben Matheson. In the "Beach Party" movies he played the near total idiot variously called "Bonehead" or "Deadhead." In The Glory Stompers he played the tough biker gang leader Darryl intent on revenge on rival biker gang leader Chino (played by Dennis Hopper). These three roles could not be more different, and yet McCrea did well in all of them. Indeed, he actually held his own playing opposite Dennis Hopper! McCrea clearly inherited his talents from his parents, and it showed in every role he played.

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