Saturday, February 7, 2009

James Whitmore R.I.P.

Prolific actor James Whitmore passed yesterday at the age of 87. The cause was lung cancer.

James Whitmore was born in October 1, 1921 in White Plains, New York. His family later moved to Buffalo, New York. He attended Amherst Central High School in Snyder, New York and then the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut, on a football scholarship. He attended Yale University as a pre-law student on an athletic scholarship. He had to quit playing football after two injuries to his knees. While at Yale he helped start the college's radio station.

During World War II and during his senior year at Yale, Whitmore joined the Marines. He served in the South Pacific. Following the war Whitmore moved to New York City and started studying at the American Theatre Wing on the G.I. Bill. By 1947 Whitmore had made his debut on Broadway, in the play Command Decision as Tech Sergeant Harold Evans. Whitmore would spend much of his career on stage. He returned to Broadway in the plays Winesburg, Ohio (1958), Inquest (1970), Will Rogers' USA (1974), Bully (1974), and Almost an Eagle (1982). He also appeared in the play Give 'Em Hell, Harry, which debuted in Webster Groves, Missouri in 1970.

Whitmore appeared in his first film with The Undercover Man in 1970. He would go on to appear in such films as The Asphalt Jungle, Across the Wide Missouri, Kiss Me Kate, Them, Oklahoma, Black Like Me, Madigan, Planet of the Apes, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Harrad Experiment, Give 'Em Hell, Harry, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Majestic. He was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in his debut role in Battlefield and for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his role as Harry Truman in Give 'em Hell, Harry.

James Whitmore appeared extensively on television, starting in an episode of Crossroads in 1955. Over the years he appeared on Studio One, Lux Video Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, Climax, Playhouse 90, The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Combat, The Wonderful World of Disney, Burke's Law, The Invaders, Tarzan, The Big Valley, Bonanza, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, Ray Bradbury Theatre, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (his last appearance on screen). He was one of the leads on the 1960-1961 series The Law and Mr. Jones and the 1969 series My Friend Tony. He was twice nominated for Emmy awards and won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for an appearance on The Practice.

If James Whitmore was a legendary actor, it is perhaps he was very much a chameleon. Over his career Whitmore played such diverse roles as Harry S Truman, Will Rogers, and Teddy Roosevelt, and he was extremely convincing in all three roles. Such was his talent that he carried he entire film version of Give 'Em Hell, Harry by himself, and was nominated for an Oscar for it. And while Harry Truman, Will Rogers, and Teddy Roosevelt are arguably heroic figures, Whitmore could play villains. In guest appearances on The Big Valley, in which he played such things as corrupt sheriffs and politicians, he could be downright sinister. Besides his talent, much of what set Whitmore above other actors was simply his authenticity. Whitmore had the ability to pick up the slang and body language of historical eras with ease, making him all the more convincing whether he was playing Harry Truman or a corrupt sheriff. There can be little doubt that James Whitmore was an actor matched only by a very few.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Actor Clint Ritchie Passes On

Clint Ritchie, who appeared on TV shows from The Wild Wild West to Dallas, passed on January 31 at the age of 70.

Ritchie was born in Grafton, North Dakota on August 9, 1938. His family later moved to Washington. In his teens he moved to California and too acting classes.

His first appearance on the small screen was in the pilot for The Wild Wild West, "Night of the Inferno." He went on to appearances on Batman (as one of The Joker's henchmen), Felony Squad, Daniel Boone, The High Chapparal, Ghost Story, Switch, and Roseanne, among other shows. He played a significant role in the mini-series Centennial. He was a regular on the 1977-1978 series Thunder. He appeared on the soap opera One Life to Live from 1979 to 1998.

Ritchie also appeared in movies, making his debut on the big screen in a small part in 1967's Alvarez Kelly. He went onto major roles in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (as gangster Jack McGurn), Bandolero, Patton, Joe Kidd (as Deputy Sheriff Calvin), and Midway. He retired in 1998.

Clint Ritchie was one of those actors who just never seemed to get a fair shake. There can be no doubt he was talented. I have always suspected that he may simply have been born at the wrong time. Quite simply, he was born to do Westerns. The parts in which I remember him best were those from the Westerns in which he appeared. Indeed, while it seems as if nearly every obituary for Ritchie I read mentioned his role on One Life to Live, I will always remember him as Messmore Garrett, the head of the sheep herders on Centennial. I rather suspect that had he been born in an earlier time, he could have made a very good living making Westerns. Regardless, he was a very talented actor.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What It Was, Was Football

Andy Griffith certainly did not come to fame with The Andy Griffith Show. He did not even come to fame with No Time for Sergeants or A Face in the Crowd. Instead his first brush with fame came with a comedy routine released in 1953, entitled "What It Was, Was Football."

Andy Griffith began his career as a monologist, telling humorous stories of the sort he sometimes did on The Andy Grffith Show. In the early Fifties what well may have been his most popular monologue was "What It Was, Was Football." It is simply a description of a college football game by a simple country bumpkin, who has not only never seen football, but has apparently never even heard of the game. Griffith recorded "What It Was, Was Football" in 1953 in Raleigh, North Carolina and credited to "Deacon Andy Griffith." It was released later that year by Capitol Records. The single proved to be a hit, selling 800,000 copies.

"What It Was, Was Football" essentially made Andy Griffith a celebrity. Largely due to its popularity, he appeared on The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Steve Allen Show. Two years after the release of the routine, Andy Griffith was performing on Broadway in No Time for Sergeants.

"What It Was, Was Football" has also proven to be one of the most enduring comedy routines of all time. It was printed in full in Mad Magazine #40, July 1958, with art by George Woodbridge. "What It Was, Was Football" was adapted as a comedy short directed by Duncan Brantley in 1997.

I cannot remember the first time I ever heard "What It Was, Was Football." When I was growing up it was still widely played on radio stations of all formats, particularly during football season. As a kid I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever heard, and certainly Andy Griffith's best monologue of all time. Apparently I wasn't the only one. "What It Was, Was Football" is still played during football season on radio stations, and references to it are still plentiful in the media. In the end, along with Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" and George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words," it has proven to be one of the most enduring comedy routines of all time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Bowl Commercials 2009

When it comes to the Super Bowl, the commercials are nearly as anticipated as the game. And while the general consensus seems to me that it was a good game, it seems to me that many people were disappointed with this year's commercials. In fact, it seems as if many of the commercials aired during the Super Bowl were no different than commercials aired at any other time during the year. Even the GoDaddy commercials, usually very outrageous, were disappointing.

This was one of the few commercials I found funny which aired during the Super Bowl. It is an add for Coke Zero entitled "Brand Managers," which parodies a classic Coca-Cola ad from the Seventies.

Anheuser Busch is well known for its great Super Bowl ads, and this year they produced one more good commmericial. "Clydesdale Returns Home" portrays one of their famous mascots as being in love with a circus horse.

Another good Anheuser Busch spot proved that Clydesdales, not dogs are man's best friend...

Bridgestone has also produced a few good Super Bowl commercials over the past few years. This one, entitled The Potato Head Family, features Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head out for a drive..

What was the best commercial aired during the Super Bowl was not created by Madison Avenue, but by two unemployed brothers from Batesville, Indiana. The brothers had won Doritos' online contest for commercials, open only to amateurs. The commercial, entitled "Crystal Ball," was the most popular advert aired during the Super Bowl. According to USA Today's Ad Meter.

This year's commercials were over all disappointing. Some have blamed the economy, but honestly I think they have been stuck in a rut for some time. That this year's most popular commercial came from two amateurs may confirm something I have suspected for a while. At least for now, Madison Avenue has run out of ideas. Well, there's always next year's Super Bowl.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Albany; London's Most Prestigous Apartments

You may have never heard of the apartment complex in London simply called "Albany," but chances are you have read about it in a book or even seen it mentioned in a movie. Quite simply, Albany was the exclusive set of bachelor flats in London, perhaps in all of England. Today it is no longer restricted to bachelors, although it is still very, very exclusive.

The origins of Albany go back to the 18th century. It was in 1771 when the Viscount Melbourne bought property in Piccadilly for £16,500. It was designed by Scottish architect Sir William Chambers, then perhaps the greatest architect in all of the United Kingdom. He also built Somerset House and the gilded state coach that is still used in British coronations to this day. The Viscount's wife directed most of its design and construction, which took four years to complete. In the end, the building cost Viscount Melbourne £50,000. Naturally, it was first called Melbourne House.

Between the cost of Melbourne House and their high life style, the Viscount and Viscountess Melbourne found they could not afford to remain there. The house was bought by Frederick the Duke of York and Albany (King George III's younger brother) in 1791. Unfortunately, Duke Frederick also tried to live beyond his means and was forced to sell the house as well. Real estate developer Alexander Copland bought it in 1802 for nearly £30,000 less than what the Duke of York and Albany had paid for it. Copland hired architect Henry Holland (best known for his work on Brooks's Club, the Theatre Royal, and Hans Town) to convert what was then called the York House into 69 sets of bachelor apartments. What had originally been known as Melbourne House and was then called York House, then became "Albany" for the Duke of York and Albany.

Then as now, a set of rooms in Albany can be owned outright as an American condominium unit would be. Sets can also be owned in what is known as "fee farm," in which annual rent is paid to an owner who is absent from Albany or living in another part of the apartment house. To live in Albany or even own a set of rooms there, one must sign a Deed of Covenant to obey the rules as set forth by the Board of Trustees before he or she can even own or lease rooms there.

Albany was originally restricted to bachelors. Women could not even visit male friends there unless they did so in disguise or sneaked in through the vaults (the underground portion of Albany). This would remain the case until the 1880s, when Albany was finally opened to women. Even today children, pets, and musical instruments are banned in Albany. While it is no longer open to only bachelors, Albany still insures the privacy of its residents. Two porters in uniforms guarded the doors. Today entrance to Albany can only be gained through plastic security cards.

For nearly its entire history Albany has been home to the rich and famous. Perhaps its first famed tenant, and certainly its most notorious, was Lord Byron. Lady Caroline Lamb, who had a torrid affair with Byron while she was married, once sneaked into Albany disguised as a pageboy to leave Byron a note. Before he was prime minister, William Gladstone lived there. Over the years Albany has been home to actor Sir Squire Bancroft, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, writer Aldous Huxley, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, writer Graham Greene, and actor Terence Stamp.

Not surprisingly, Albany has figured prominently in stories, novels and plays. In the novel Our Mutual Friend Fascination Fledgeby claimed residence in Albany. It was the home of Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Lord Lufton of Framley Parsonage by Sir Anthony Trollope also resided in Albany. As might be expected, characters in the works of P. G. Wodehouse also lived in Albany: Sir Godfrey Tanner, K.C.M.G. in Creatures of Impulse, Patrick Mceachem in The Gem Collector, and Freddie Rooke in The Little Warrior, among others. Early 20th century crime writer Dornford Yates mentioned Albany in his works. Marmion Savage wrote of Albany's fierce porters. The play While the Sun Shines, by Albany resident Terence Rattigan, was set there. Perhaps the most famous fictional resident of Albany was gentleman thief A. J. Raffles, the protagonist of several stories by E. W. Hornung (Arthur Conan Doyle's brother in law).

Today Albany remains a living example of the once powerful class system in England. It is also one of the very few residential places remaining in Mayfair. To this day it remains the most exclusive apartment complex in all of London, perhaps the whole of the United Kingdom. One rather suspects it will remain so for years to come.