Saturday, May 28, 2005

Two More Deaths

The past two weeks have seen more celebrities die than I can remember dying in a long time. Late this week two more celebrities passed on. One was a critically acclaimed producer, while the other was the beloved star of a classic sitcom.

Ismail Merchant was co-founder of Merchant Ivory Productions and producer of some of the best films of the past thirty years. He died Wednesday in a London hospital at age 69. Merchant was born in Bombay, India in 1927. He was educated in Bombay and New York. Merchant Ivory Productions was founded when he met James Ivory in 1961 in India, where Ivory was making a documentary about Delhi. The two founded Merchant Ivory with the goal of producing English language films in India, with an eye on having them distributed world wide.

For the first 10 years or so Merchant Ivory Productions made English language films with an Indian theme. They departed from this with both Savages (a Stone Age fantasy made in 1972) and with The Wild Party (a story about 1920s Hollywood, made in 1975). In 1979 the two entered the territory for which they would become best known: literary adaptations. That year they produced an adaptation of The Europeans, based on the work by Henry James of the same name. From then on out, Merchant Ivory has produced several literary adaptations, among them A Room With a View (based on the E. M. Forster novel, released in 1985), Howards End (based on another Forster novel, released in 1992), The Remains of the Day (1993), and Jefferson in Paris (1995).

Indeed, a crticism of Merchant Ivory Productions has always been that they simply produce non-controversial, Masterpiece Theatre type films. I have always thought this was a bit unfair myself, for two reasons. First, it seems to me that there has always been demand for Masterpiece Theatre type literary adaptations (just how long has that show been on?) and Merchant Ivory filled that demand. Second, while their films may not always deal with controversial themes, they are always entertaining and well performed. Indeed, they often possess an intellectual depth that many, more controversial films may lack. I am then saddened by Ismail Merchant's death, although pleased that his partner, James Ivory, and his company can continue making literate movies.

The second celebrity death this week was Eddie Albert, best known to audiences as Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres. Albert died at age 99 in his home of pneumonia.

Although Albert was best known for his role on Green Acres, his career spanned nearly six decades and included film, television, and the stage. He was born in Rock Island, Illinois. When only a year old, his family moved to Minneanpolis, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota, studying acting there. Joining a singing trio when he was a junior in college, he performed with them on local radio and later made a tour of St. Louis, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Eventually he teamed up with singer Grace Bradt. The two even achieved thier own morning radio show on NBC, The Honeymooners (not to be confused with the classic Jackie Gleason TV show of the same name). From there he worked summer stock before being cast in the Broadway play O Evening Star. The show lasted a whole week in 1935, but Albert would return to Broadway. He played in Brother Rat on Broadway in 1936. He would perform on Broadway in Room Service in 1937 and The Boys from Syracuse (a Rodgers and Hart musical) in 1938.

It was Brother Rat that saw the beginning of Albert's film career, which included over 100 movies. In 1938 Albert once more played the role of Bing Edwards in the film version of the play. Albert's film career consisted of a number of movies now considered classics. He played Irving Radovich, Gregory Peck's wisecracking photographer friend, in Roman Holiday (for which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor). He also had roles in the film adaptation of Oklahoma and The Longest Day. Although many remember him as playing "nice guys," Albert played the role of the ruthless warden in the original version of The Longest Yard.

Albert also had a long career in television. He made his first appearance on television in The Ford Theatre Hour in 1948. Albert appeared in many of the anthology series of the Forties and Fifties, including Suspense, Studio One, and Philco Television Playhouse. He also made several guest appearances on series television, including Wagon Train, Laramie, Dr. Kildare, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. He also had three television series of his own in the Fifties. The first was a short lived sitcom called Leave It to Larry in 1952. In 1953 he was the host of both the game show Nothing but the Best and the variety show The Saturday Night Revue.

With a successful film career in the late Fifties into the Sixties, Eddie Albert gave no thought to returning to television beyond the odd guest appearance. He rejected both My Three Sons and Mister Ed because of this. In the mid-Sixties, however, a TV series came along that piqued his interest. According to his agent it was about a city slicker who moves to the country. Albert found the idea appealing and was certain it would be a success. That show was Green Acres, on which Albert played lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas, who drops his city life and moves to the country to fulfill his dream of being a farmer. Complicating things were his wife, Lisa (played by Eva Gabor) who wanted to move back to New York, and the very eccentric natives of the local town, Hooterville. The spin off of Petticoat Junction proved very successful. It ran for six years, cancelled only because CBS had decided to rid itself of all rural oriented shows. Although looked upon as low brow entertainment when it first aired, Green Acres is now seen by man as one of the wittiest satires on modern life in the history of television.

In the Seventies Albert continued his television career with the mini-series Benjamin Franklin, playing old Ben himself. He then appeared in another successful series, playing grifter Frank McBride in the TV show Switch.

In addition to the plays named above, Albert's stage career also included The Music Man, in which he replaced Robert Preston in 1960.

Beyond his career as an actor, Eddie Albert was also an activist. Beginning in the late Sixties, he became involved in the ecology movement. He not only appeared on TV talk shows to discuss the environment, but also made speeches at various universities and high schools, as well as in front of religious and industrial groups. He founded the Eddie Albert World Trees Foundation and served as national conservation chairman for the Boy Scouts of America. He was also the spokesman for Meals for Millions, a project meant to bring food to the starving in the world, in 1963. He was also a special consultant for he World Hunger Conference in Rome in 1974. He was director of the U.S. Commission on Refugees for a time, a trustee of the National Recreation and Parks Association, and a consumer advisory board member of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Eddie Albert is one of those actors whose talent I think both the critics and the public sometimes underestimated. I have little doubt that much of this was because Green Acres was often seen as low brow entertainment, rather than the sly look at modern life it really is. Regardless, Albert gave many great performances over his career. In Roman Holiday he outshines even Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. And as the warden in the original The Longest Yard he was very impressive. I also have to admire Albert for not simply resting on his laurels. He was one of those actors who actually tried to do some good in the world, whether it was addressing ecological concerns or world hunger. I am sad that he is gone, but at 99 years of age, it cannot be argued that he did not live a good long, life.

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