Friday, January 18, 2008

The Boy Star, The Toy Mogul, and the Chess Champion

In the past two days three individuals who have some impact on pop culture have passed on, each in very different fields. One was a very young actor. Another was the founder of one of the most famous toy companies in the world And the third was probably the most famous chess champion of all time.

Actor Brad Renfro was found dead Tuesday morning. Foul play was not suspected and an autopsy has been performed to determine the cause of death. He was only 25 years old. He is perhaps best known for his roles in the movies The Client, Apt Pupil, and Ghost World.

Brad Renfro was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on July 25, 1982. Joel Schumacher discovered him when he was only 10 years old and cast him in the role of Mark in The Client. Although he had never acted before, Renfro received stellar notices for his natural acting talent. Over the next few years he was cast in several major motion pictures, including The Cure, Apt Pupil, Ghost World, and The Job. He made one guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Unfortunately, Renfro sometimes received more headlines from his experiences with the law than he did for his various performances. In 1998, when only 15, he was charged with possessing marijuana and cocaine. In 2000 he and a friend tried to steal a yacht in Florida and had to pay $4000 for repairs to the vessel. In 2006 he was sentenced to ten days in jail after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated and guilty to possessing heroin.

Although obviously a very troubled youth, Brad Renfro was also an immensely talented one. At ten years of age and without formal acting training, he gave a performance of which few children would have been capable in The Client. He was also impressive as Josh, the poor convenience store clerk who is wholly at the mercy of girls Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson). For me, however, his best performance will always be the one he gave in Apt Pupil. In that film, he played Todd Bowden, the young man who blackmails former Nazi Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen). It was an utterly chilling performance, and one I suspect most young actors Renfro's age would have been incapable of delivering. It is truly sad that Renfro's life and career could not have been longer.

Richard Knerr died from a stroke at the age of 82 on Monday. With Arthur "Spud" Melin he co-founded Wham-O Inc., one of the most famous toy companies in the world.

Richard Knerr was born on June 30, 1925 in San Gabriel, California. He and his co-founder, Arthur Melin, were friends from boyhood. Together they attended the University of Southern California. Not particularly wishing to join their families' respective businesses, they decided to found their own company. That company was founded in the garage of Knerr's parents, where they made slingshots with a power saw they had bought at Sears for all of $7. They sold the slingshots through mail order through various magazines. It was for the sound those slingshots made--Wham-O--that the company was named.

Wham-O followed the slingshot with other unusual sporting goods, such as boomerangs, tomahawks, and crossbows. It was in 1955 that all of this changed. Knerr and Melin met Walter Frederick Morrison in a parking lot selling unusual flying discs he called Pluto Platters. Wham-O bought the rights to Morrison's discs, then Ed Headrick, the company's research and development department, improved them by making them more aerodynamic. Wham-O renamed the disc "Frisbie," a name whose origin is still in debate. Some claim that the name came from Yale college students who used pie tins from the Frisbie Pie Company as flying discs. In interviews Knerr said that the discs were named for a character from a comic strip. Regardless, Wham-O had their first big hit on their hands.

It would not be their last hit by a long shot. Knerr and Melin had learned that in Australia wooden hoops were used in exercise classes. Making similar hoops from plastic, they christened their creation the "Hula Hoop." Introduced in 1958, they sold over 100 million hula hoops in only two years. It was one of the biggest fads of all time. The company would have another fad on their hands in 1965 with the introduction of the SuperBall. Made of an elastomer alloy called Zectron. a SuperBall could under proper conditions be bounced over a three storey building. Introduced in the summer of 1965, seven million SuperBalls had been sold by Christmas. Wham-O would continue their string of successes with the Slip 'N' Slide water slide, Silly String, and Hacky Sack. In 1982 Knerr and Melin sold Wham-O to the Kransco Group Companies for $12 million.

There can be no doubt about the huge impact that Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin had upon American pop culture in the late 20th century. With the Hula Hoop, SuperBall, and Hacky Sack, besides several other successes, they may have been responsible for creating more fads than any other toy company. With the Frisbie, Knerr and Melin had a lasting success. Although its sales would never reach the proportions of the SuperBall or the Hula Hoop at their height, it made up for it with enduring popularity. Certainly, late 20th century America would be a very different place had Knerr never existed.

Whether Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess champion of all time is perhaps debatable. One thing that is not debatable is that Fischer may well have been the most famous, at least in the United States. Fischer died yesterday of kidney failure in Reykjavik. He was 64 years old.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943. It was in May 1949 that Fischer, only six years old, learned to play chess from instructions that came with a chess set. By age seven he was a member of the Brooklyn Chess Club, He would later be mentored by chess master Hermann Helms and Grandmaster Arnold Denker. At age 13 Fischer's mother hired notable chess coach John W. Collins to teach him. By age 12 Fischer was named a National Master in the United States, the youngest National Master ever. He was only 13 when he won the United States Junior Chess Championship in 1956, becoming the youngest junior chess champion of all time. From 1956 to `1957 Fischer won various championships, until he was invited to compete in the U.S. Chess Championship in New York. It was in January 1958 that he became the youngest United States chess champion of all time at age 14. In winning the championship he was also given the title of International Master, the youngest person to ever receive the title.

Fischer would win all eight U. S. Championships in which he played. He also did well in international tournaments. In semi-retirement from 1963 to 1968, Fischer would make his crowning achievement in 1972 when he defeated Soviet chess prodigy Boris Spassky to become the World Champion. Fischer would lose the title of World Champion in 1975 after forfeiting the title to Russian Anatoly Karpov. Afterwards, Fischer dropped out of sight. He reappeared in 1992 to face his old friend Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia, a match which Fischer won. In doing so he violated a United States ban on doing any business in Yugoslavia. Erratic even in his career as a chess champion, in the latter half of his life, when Fischer would emerge, it was often to issue mad rants against the United States government and Jews (even though his mother was Jewish),

Bobby Fischer was indeed a controversial figure. While still a chess champion he could be difficult and demanding. Later in his life there would be very many who believed him stark raving mad (I must admit, I am one of them). That having been said, he was arguably the greatest chess player from the United States in our history. And he was also arguably one of the greatest chess players that the world would ever know. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer invoked his name even though the movie is about chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin. The musical Chess appears to have been loosely based on the famous match between Fishcer and Russian Viktor Korchnoi. Fischer became the archetype of the brilliant but troubled chess master. One thing is for certain, for the brilliance he displayed on the chess board early in his life, and perhaps the madness he displayed later in his life, Bobby Fischer won't soon be forgotten.

1 comment:

d. chedwick bryant said...

I loved the Josh character that Renfro played in Ghost World. I saw The client too--although did not connect the two roles until I read this obit.

I have owned a few frisbees, and superballs were great!

as for Fischer, he's not the first Jewish man to denounce Jews, but he really must have hit some big patch of crazy ... and was never able to find his way out.