Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Passing of Two Legends

Two legends in their respective fields have passed on. The first to die was Joe Grant, designer and story developer for Disney during its Golden Age of the Thirties and Forties, as well as more recent years. He died of a heart attack at age 96 while working at his drawing board.

Grant first worked for Disney in 1933 when he was asked by Walt Disney himself to create celebrity caricatures for "Mickey's Gala Premiere." It was the beginning of an association with the studio that would literally last decades. He worked on many of the studio's shorts, including those made during World War II, such as the Oscar winning "Der Fuhrer's Face," and other shorts such as "Reason and Emotion" and "Education for Death."

With regards to Disney's feature films, Grant designed the Wicked Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and provided character design on Pinnochio as well. For The Reluctant Dragon Grant wrote the segment "Baby Weems." Alongside Dick Huemer, Grant helped develop the story for Fantasia. Huemer and Grant also wrote the classic Dumbo. He was among the writers who worked on Alice in Wonderland. With his wife he provided the story which would later be the basis for Lady and the Tramp.

Grant left Disney in 1949, only to rejoin the studio forty years later as a consultant. Grant contributed to several recent Disney films, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Mulan.

As one of the men who made Disney one of the best animation studios in the Golden Age of animation (not to mention the masters of the feature length animated film), animation fans certainly owe a large debt to Joe Grant. Indeed, Dumbo and Fantasia both number among the greatest animated films of all time.

The other legend to recently pass on was impressionist and character Frank Gorshin. Gorshin died Tuesday at age 72 after a long battle with lung cancer. He is perhaps best known for his role as The Riddler on Sixties Batman series, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Gorshin's show business career goes back to his years in high school when, as an usher at the Square Theatre, he began doing impressions of stars of the silver screen. By age 17 he was so good at impressions that he won a local talent contest, the prize for which was a one week stint at the Carousel night club.

Draughted into the United States Army in 1953, Gorshin soon found himself performing for the USO. This would eventually result in Gorshin meeting Maurice Bergman, then casting director for Universal-International. With Bergman's connections, Gorshin's movie and television career began. He appeared briefly in the film The Proud and the Profane in 1956. On television he made his first appearance in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Decoy."

Gorshin soon landed his first major role, as Flattop in the B movie Hot Rod Girl in 1956. Gorshin appeared in a few more B movies, such as Invasion of the Saucer Men and Night of the Quarter Moon before appearing in his first major motion picture, Bells Are Ringing. Among Gorshin's film credits were Where the Boys Are, Batman (the 1966 feature film based on the TV series), Meteor Man, and Twelve Monkeys.

Gorshin also appeared quite frequently on television. Aside from The Ed Sullivan Show and Batman, he also made guest appearances on Combat!, Star Trek, The Dean Martin Show, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In. His last guest appearance and final performance was on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (in fact, the episode airs tonight, May 19, 2005).

Gorshin also performed on stage. In 1970 he starred in Jimmy, receving good notices. He toured with such shows as Guys and Dolls, Peter Pan, and Promises, Promises. He played George Burns in the one man show Say "Good Night, Gracie", for which he won both an Outer Critics Circle Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award and received a Tony nomination. He also headlined in Las Vegas many, many times.

Frank Gorshin was easily one of my favourite performers growing up. Like many I first encountered Gorshin in his role as The Riddler on the old Batman TV Show and the 1966 feature film based on the series. Later I would see him in various guest appearances (including his Emmy nominated appearance in the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield") and his various movies (I think the first one I saw may have been That Darn Cat). On the various variety shows of the Seventies, I got to see his various impressions and comedy routines. Gorshin was fantastic.

For one thing, he was one of the greatest impressionists I have ever seen. He could give impressions of everyone from Kirk Douglas to Bobby Darrin. In fact, his impression of Dean Martin may have been the best that any impressionist ever did.

For another thing, he was a fantastic actor. Gorshin brought an energy to his roles that few other characters did. As a testament to his acting, it must be pointed out that The Riddler was only a very minor villain prior to the debut of the Sixties Batman TV series. He had only appeared maybe two or three times since his first appearance in Detective Comics #140 (October 1948). Largely based on the strength of Gorshin's maniacal performance as The Riddler, the villain entered the big leagues alongside such names as The Joker, Catwoman, and The Penguin.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that The Riddler was the sum total of Gorshin's career. Gorshin was a truly gifted performer who worked well on stage, on television, and on film. I must say that he is one performer I will truly miss.

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