Friday, April 13, 2007

Two Actors Pass On

It seems this April has not been a good month for celebrities, as it seems as if several have passed on. Recently two actors died. And while they may not be the most famous names, I think they are names readers might recognise.

The first actor to pass on was Barry Nelson, an MGM contract player in the Golden Age of Hollywood and the first man to play James Bond (albeit a very Americanised one). He died on April 7 at the age of 89.

Nelson was born Robert Haakon Nielsen April 16, 1920 in San Francisco. He participated in theatre at the University of California in Berkley and upon graduation was almost immediately signed to a contract at MGM. His first screen role was in Shadow of the Thin Man in 1941. He went on to star in A Yank on the Burma Road, Undercover Maisie, A Time to Kill, and Tenth Avenue Angel. Nelson served in the Army during World War II and appeared with other actors turned soldiers in the wartime play Winged Victory.

With the Fifties Nelson's career shifted towards television. His first appearance on the small screen was on The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1948. He would appear on such series as Robert Montgomery Presents, Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone, and Murder, She Wrote. He starred in the TV series The Hunter, My Favorite Husband, and Hudson's Bay. His most significant television appearance may well have been on the anthology series Climax in an adaptation of Casino Royale, in which he became the first actor to portray James Bond.

Nelson also had a significant career on stage. He made his Broadway debut in Winged Victory in 1943. He went onto to appear in such plays as The Moon is Blue, Cactus Flower, The Only Game in Town, and The Act. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in The Act in 1978.

In Nelson's later years he would appear in such films as Pete 'n' Tillie and The Shining.

The second actor to die recently was Roscoe Lee Browne. He died at he age of 81 after about with cancer.

Browne was born May 2, 1925 in Woodbury, New Jersey. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and took post-graduate courses at Middlebury College in Vermont, Columbia University in New York, and the University of Florence in Italy.

Browne's first experiences as a professional actor were with New York City's Shakespeare Festival Theatre. He made his screen debut in 1961 in The Connection. He would go onto appear in the films Black Like Me, The Comedians, Topaz, and The Cowboys. Gifted with a rich baritone, he narrated the movie Babe.

Browne did considerable work on the stage. He appeared on Broadway in the plays The Cool World, Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, The Ballad of the the Sad Cafe, and Two Trains Running. He nominated for a Tony Award for his role in Two Trains Running, and won an Obie in 1965 for the off Broadway play Benito Cereno. He wrote and directed A Hand is On the Gate: An Evening of Negro Poetry and Folk Music in 1966.

Browne appeared extensively on television, making his debut in an episode of East Side/West Side in 1963. He also appeared in the series The Invaders, The Name of the Game, Bonanza, Sanford and Son, Barney Miller, and Law and Order. He was a regular on the American version of That Was the Week That Was, Soap, and Miss Winslow and Son.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut R.I.P.

When it comes to authors, there were probably very few as popular, as critically acclaimed, or as influential as Kurt Vonnegut. He was perhaps best known for the novels Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Player Piano. Some of his books, such as Slaughterhouse Five and Slapstick (of Another Kind), were adapted into motion pictures. Vonnegut also wrote for television, including teleplays for General Electric Theater and Bus Stop. He was also a gifted essayist. Arguably, very few writers had the influence that Vonnegut did.

Sadly, Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at the age of 84, having suffered injuries to his brain from a fall several weeks before.

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11, 1922. He had been a writer nearly since childhood. In high school he worked on the school newspaper, the Daily Echo at Shortridge High. He attended Butler University in Indianapolis, but left after a disagreement with a professor over the quality of his writing. He then attended Cornell University where he both assistant managing editor and associate editor for the college newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Vonnegut dropped out of Cornell, then enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He was only there briefly before enlisting in U. S. Army. Sadly, his mother took her own life before he left for the service.

In the Army Kurt Vonnegut was an advance scout with the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge Vonnegut was cut off from from his unit and was eventually captured by the Germans. He was held as a prisoner of war in Dresden and witnessed the Allied bombing of that city. He was only one of eight prisoners to survive the bombing, in an underground meatpacking cellar called Slaughterhouse-Five.

Following World War II Kurt Vonnegut enrolled at the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he also worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau there. He would later work in the public relations department for General Electric. He sold his first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," to Colliers in 1950. His first novel was Player Piano, published in 1952. He wrote many short stories before the publication of his second book, The Sirens of Titan. After the publication of Mother Night in 1961, Vonnegut finally hit the best seller list with Cat's Cradle. His most popular work, Slaughterhouse-Five was published in 1969. The novel became a bestseller and would later be adapted into the 1972 movie of the same name.

Many of Kurt Vonnegut's works were adapted to motion pictures, including the play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and the novels Slaughterhouse-Five, Slapstick (of Another Kind), Mother Night, and Breakfast of Champions. He also wrote for television, including episodes of General Electric Theater, Bus Stop and the TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu.

It was not unusual for characters from one of Kurt Vonnegut's books to appear in his other works. This is particularly true of Kilgore Trout, a fictional science fiction writer based on fantasist Theodore Sturgeon. He first appeared in the novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and appeared in the books Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Jailbird, Timequake, and Hocus Pocus. Trout appears to have been prolific and several of his works are mentioned in Vonnegut's novels. Indeed, one novel was published under the name,"Kilgore Trout"--Philip Jose Farmer wrote the novel Venus on the Half Shell under that name. Other characters to have appeared multiple times in Vonnegut's works, including Howard W. Campbell and Eliot Rosewater.

Kurt Vonnegut was a satirist, cynic, and iconoclast whose work largely focused on the dehumanisation of various institutions. It was not unusual for his works to create considerable controversy. His realistic recreation of how soldiers speak and explicit sexual content resulted in Slaughterhouse-Five being banned in various places. Cat's Cradle has also faced its share of attempts at censorship.

Following the publication of his novel Timequake Kurt Vonnegut announced his retirement from writing. He continued writing nonfiction and was also senior editor at the magazine In These Times. Several collections of his essays have been published.

Arguably, Kurt Vonnegut was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His works showed insight into human nature, as well as a keen distrust of institutions. He was perhaps the foremost satirist of the 20th century, possessing a sharp sense of humour and considerable wit. Regardless of whether one loves his works or hates them, Vonnegut will be remembered for a long time to come.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Good News for David Goyer Fans

Last months fans of David Goyer received the bad news that he was no longer attached to The Flash feature film project. Yesterday the Warner Brothers web site gave them some good news. Goyer will be working on another project based around DC Universe, entitled Super Max. The plot revolves around the Green Arrow, who wrongly convicted of a crime and placed in maximum security prison for supervillains, some of whom he put there. Once in prison Green Arrow will be stripped of his costume and his bow and arrows. He will have to escape (I would assume to clear his name), with the very help of some of his worst enemies.

It sounds like it could be a very cool movie. My only question is how much we will get to see Green Arrow actually wielding his bow and arrows. It seems to me that a movie in which the Green Arrow never wields his bow and arrows would be something akin to a Superman movie in which the Man of Steel never takes flight. You can read the story at "'Blade' filmmaker locks up 'Super Max' project."

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Johnny Hart R.I.P.

Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strip B.C. and co-creator of The Wizard of Id, died yesterday at the age of 76 from a stroke. He died at his storyboard.

Johnny Hart was born February 18, 1931 in Endicott, New York, where he spent most of his life. He attended Union-Endicott High School there. It was shortly after his graduation that he met fellow cartoonist Brant Parker, with whom he would later create the comic strip The Wizard of Id. It was while he was in the Air Force that his first work was published, in the pages of Stars and Stripes. After leaving the Air Force he sold work to such magazines as Colliers Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. In the meantime, he worked at General Electric.

It was in 1957 that he created the comic strip B.C.. It first appeared on February 17, 1958. The inspiration for the comic strip came about when one of his co-workers at G.E. suggested that he draw cavemen. It was his wife who came up with the name, B.C.. B.C. focused on a group of cavemen, among them the title character who was often the fall guy for the others. Among the other characters were Thor, the inventor (who invented the wheel, among other things), the sarcastic Curls, the poet Peter, and the subhuman Grog. Various animal characters were also featured, among them a snake, birds, a turtle, various dinosaurs, an apteryx (the ancestor of the bird), and clams. The strip often made use of anachronisms intentionally, such as references to the United States, Santa Claus, and references to current day events. It was also marked by dry humour, word play, and sometimes shameless puns. B.C. would prove very successful. It would be published in 1300 newspapers, with collections of reprinted strips being published regularly. The characters would appear in TV commercials, print ads, and two TV specials B.C.: The First Thanksgiving in 1973 and B.C.: A Special Christmas in 1981. There were also video games, BC's Quest for Tires and B.C. 2: Grog's Revenge.

In 1964 Hart collaborated with his old friend Brant Parker in creating the comic strip The Wizard of Id. It debuted on November 9, 1964. Hart had come up with the idea of the strip from considering that if one based in the Stone Age might be success, then so might one set in the Middle Ages. The strip is set in the kingdom of Id, a place sometimes described as "the land of milk and honey." Its central characters are The King, who is despicable, greedy, and generally self centred; The Wizard, his good natured and fun loving, but henpecked advisor; Sir Rodney, The King's chief knight who was roundly incompetent; Blanch, the Wizard's shrew of a wife; and several other characters. Like B.C., The Wizard of Id makes use of intentional anachronisms. Though the characters remain constant in the strip, their surroundings can change to suit the circumstances. The Wizard of Id proved very successful, with many collections of reprints being published.

When Creators Syndicate, a distributor which allows creators to keep creative control of their material, was founded in 1987, Johnny Hart was the first cartoonist to sign with them. Hart was among the first cartoonists, following Walt Kelly's Pogo and Charles Schulz's Peanuts, to explore intellectual questions in the confines of a comic strip. While the characters in B.C. may have been cavemen, their sensibilities were very modern (well, maybe except for Grog...).

While Hart was a success with both B.C. and The Wizard of Id, he could be controversial. In 1977 he converted to evangelical Presbyterianism. Afterwards both B.C. and The Wizard of Id often featured Christian themes. At times B.C. was pulled from comics pages because editors thought the religious message in it was too strong. An example of this was the Los Angeles Times, which would place the more overtly Christian themed strips in their religious pages. A 2001 strip, in which a menorah transformed into a cross, caused outrage among Jewish groups.

Regardless of the controversy Johnny Hart sometimes generated, I have always loved both B.C. and The Wizard of Id. Hart was a master at dry humour, word play, and puns. And his intentional use of anachronisms could be absolutely hilarious. When it came to cartoonists of the Sixties and Seventies, Hart was among the best. It is sad that his already long career was cut short.