Saturday, December 5, 2009

Godspeed Richard Todd, British Actor & War Hero

Actor and war hero Richard Todd OBE passed on Thursday at the age of 90. He had been suffering from cancer. Mr. Todd starred in such films as The Dam Busters, The Longest Day, and Asylum. During World War II he was one of the first British officers to land in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord.

Richard Todd was born in Dublin to Andrew Todd, a British army physician and international rugby player. He spent a few years of his childhood in India while his father served there. Eventually the family settled in West Devon, where Mr. Todd attended Shrewsbury School. While in school he decided he wanted to be a playwright. Todd underwent training for potential military career at Sandhurst before attending the Italia Conti Academy to learn about the theatre. It was in 1936 that he made his professional acting debut in a production of Twelfth Night at he Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. Mr. Todd would go onto become a founding member of the Dundee repertory company. Mr. Todd also appeared as an extra in a few films.

Upon the beginning of World War II, Richard Todd joined the British Army and received a commission in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1941. In 1943 he requested to become a paratrooper. As such he was posted to 7th Parachute Battalion. Captain Richard Todd was among the first British officers to parachute into Normandy as part of D-Day. He and his men met with Major John Howard and captured Pegasus Bridge, one of the most important actions of the war. All throughout the war Captain Todd let no one know that he was an actor, for fear that he would be assigned to Entertainments' National Service Association (Esna).

Following the war Mr. Todd returned to the Dundee repertory company. It was not long after that he appeared in the West End production of The Hasty Heart. He made his film debut in the movie For Them That Tresspass in 1949. He reprised his role in The Hasty Heart in the motion picture adaptation of the play in 1949, for which he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He made his television debut in a BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 1953, in which he played Heathcliff. He played an important role in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright and the lead role in Flesh and Blood. He also appeared in several British swashbucklers, including The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (in which he played Robin Hood), When Knighthood Was in Flower (called The Sword and the Rose in the States, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. It was in 1955 that he played what may be his most famous role, Wing Commander Guy Gibson in The Dam Busters. He went onto appear in Saint Joan and The Hellions and in 1962 played Major Howard in The Longest Day.

Richard Todd was Ian Fleming's first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. Sadly, a scheduling conflict prevented him from taking the role. He did play another famous literary character, Edgar Wallace's hero Inspector Harry Sanders, in Coast of Skeletons and Death Drums Along the River. During the Sixties he also appeared in Operation Crossbow, the horror movie Blood Bath, and Subterfuge. The Seventies saw Mr. Todd appear in the movies Dorian Grey (in which he played Basil Hallward), the Amicus movie Asylum, No. 1 of the Secret Service, and The Big Sleep. He also appeared on television in the serial Boy Dominic, the British series Thriller, and Theatre 625. From the Eighties into the Naughts, most of Mr. Todd's work was in television. He appeared on such shows as Doctor Who, Murder She Wrote, Virtual Murder, the 2000 revival of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), and Midsomer Murders. He also appeared in the films House of the Long Shadows and Murder One. His last role was a guest appearance on the series Heartbeat in 2007..

The United States had its own war hero turned actor in the form of Audie Murphy, but while Mr. Murphy was a good actor, he had nowhere near the talent of Richard Todd. Like Audie Murphy, most of Mr. Todd's roles tended to heroic ones. He played many British officers (including Wing Commander Gibson in The Dam Busters) and swashbuckling heroes. That having been said, he could quite easily play roles that were decidedly unheroic. Mr. Todd was easily the best part of the 1970 version of Dorian Gray, playing the artist who created Gray's notorious portrait. In The Love-Ins Mr. Todd played Dr. Jonanthan Bennett, a philosophy professor turned champion of the youth counterculture and an advocate of LSD use (as you might guess, the role was loosely based on Dr. Timothy Leary). Richard Todd's talent was such that he could play nearly anything, from heroes to average men to those who were slightly left of centre. Of course, his contribution to society went far beyond his acting. During World War II he could have easily told the British Army he was an actor and simply been assigned to Esna. Instead he chose to serve as an officer in a combat position and, in doing so, took part in one of the greatest actions of the war. Mr. Todd was not simply a great actor, he was a hero.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Bob Keane, Founder of Del-Fi Records, Passes On

Bob Keane, the man who helped start the careers of Sam Cooke and Frank Zappa, and discovered Ritchie Valens, passed at the age of 87 on November 27. He died of kidney failure caused by non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Bob Keane was born Robert Kuhn on January 5, 1922 in Manhattan Beach, California. He was only five years old when he took up the clarinet. By age 17 he was the head of his own big band. He was even signed by the talent agency MCA. It was in 1941 that he enlisted in the United States Army and served in the Air Force training pilots. Following the war he continued to play the clarinet, even playing with Artie Shaw's band. It was in 1950 when he served as the conductor for the radio show The Harry McCune Show that he changed his last name to "Keene." He later changed the spelling to "Keane."

It was in 1955 when Keane was playing clarinet around Los Angeles that he met businessman John Siamas. The two of them founded Keen Records. After hearing a demo by Sam Cooke, Keane signed the young singer to a three year contract with the label. Keen Records had its first hit with "You Send Me" performed by Sam Cooke, which actually the B-side of his first single (the A-Side was his rendition of "Summertime"). Sadly, Bob Keane only had a verbal contract with Siamas. He found himself pushed out of his own company.

At his wife's suggestion, Keane founded Del-Fi Records, a play on the word Delphi, the site of the famous oracle from Greek history. While Del-Fi produced a fair number hits, but hit gold when Keane saw Ritchie Valens performing at a Saturday matinee at a movie theatre in Los Angeles. He signed the young singer to a contract with Del-Fi. He had a minor hit with "Come On, Let's Go," then had the biggest it of his career with the single "Donna" back by the B-Side "La Bamba." "Donna" hit #2 on the Billboard charts, while "La Bamba" hit #22. Sadly, Valens' life would be cut short by the plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

Del-Fi maintained an open door policy, whereby anyone with music could walk in and be heard by Bob Keane. Over the years Del-Fi released records by such artists as Johnny Crawford (Mark McClain on The Rifleman), Brenda Holloway, and Chan Romero (who had a hit with the original version of "Hippy Hippy Shake" in 1959). It was in 1963 that Frank Zappa walked in with a collection of doo-wop songs he had written. They were later released as the album Cucamonga. It was in 1964 that Keane signed The Bobby Fuller Four. The band had a huge hit with the song "I Fought the Law" in 1964. Unfortunately, in 1966 Bobby  Fuller was found dead in his car. It has always been a matter of debate whether his death was a suicide or murder. Following Fuller's death, Keane shut Del-Fi Records down.

Keane went on to teach accordion lessons and to sell home burglar alarms. He also managed the career of his two sons, who performed under the name The Keane Brothers. Del-Fi was briefly revived in the Nineties after the movies La Bamba and Pulp Fiction propelled the label back into the spotlight. In 2003 Keane sold the Del-Fi catalogue to the Warner Music Group.

Bob Keane certainly had an ear for talent. Over the years he discovered Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens, Frank Zappa, and Bob Fuller. Del-Fi was one of the centres of surf music, featuring such acts as The Centurions, The Surfraris, and The Lively Ones. For a minor label it produced a number of hit artists. Not many men could boast discovering as much talent as Bob Keane did.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Godspeed Paul Naschy, El Hombre Lobo

Paul Naschy, often called the "Boris Karloff of Spain,"  passed yesterday at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer. He is perhaps best known for playing the character of Waldemar Daninsky, also known as El Hombre Lobo ("the Wolf Man" or "Werewolf") , in twelve films. He also starred in numerous other films, most notably horror movies, but also science fiction movies, action films, comedies, and so on. He was also the director and producer of several horror movies.

Paul Naschy was born Jacinto Molina Álvarez on 6 September, 1934 in Madrid, Spain. As a child his mother would take him to see such American made serials (including Dr. Satan and The Drums of Fu Manchu) and he saw the classic Universal Horror film Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman at the tender age of eleven. Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman so impressed him that he spent quite a while afterwards drawing the characters from the movie. As might be expected, he developed an interest in making horror movies at a young age, his love of films soon expanding to include such genres as historical adventures and Westerns. Having been born to an industrialist of some means, Mr. Naschy's family wished for him to pursue a profession more suited to their social status. He initially studied agriculture, but shifted his studies to architecture. He received a degree in such from the School of Architecture in Barcelona. Afterwards he designed artwork for such record labels as Columbia and Decca. He also wrote several Western dime novels under the pen name Jack Mills. Mr. Naschy was also a superb athlete, becoming a seven time Spanish champion in weightlifting and placing third in the javelin in a Spanish competition.

It was in 1960 that Jacinto Molina (not yet Paul Naschy) made his first appearance on film as an extra in the movie El príncipe encadenado (known as King of the Vikings in the United States). It was in 1961 that  he appeared as an extra in Nicholas Ray's King of Kings, much of which was shot around Madrid. He appeared as an extra in such films as 55 Days in Peking, L'ultimo gladiatore (known as Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules in English), an episode of the American series I Spy, and other films before receiving his first big break with a role in the film Dove si spara di più (The Fury of Billy the Kid). It was in 1968 that he appeared in the lead role of the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in Las noches del Hombre Lobo (Nights of the Werewolf). Sadly, director René Govar died while the movie was being shot, so that it would never be completed. As history shows, this would not be the end of El Hombre Lobo. That same year Paul Naschy wrote the script for La marca del Hombre Lobo (The Mark of the Wolfman) and reprised his role of Waldemar Daninsky in the film. Naschy would appear in eleven more El Hombre Lobo films, the last being the American made The Tomb of the Werewolf in 2003. Unlike the Universal horror films of the Forties and the Hammer films, for the most part the El Hombre Lobo films lack any sort of continuity, a fact which never cost the series fans.

Paul Naschy made over 100 films, so that the El Hombre Lobo movies were only a small part of his career. He played one other character who appeared more than once in movies, the medieval warlock Alaric de Marnac. Based on the historical Gilles de Rais, de Marnac first appeared in the movie El espanto surge de la tumba (known as Horror From the Tomb in the United States) from 1973 and again in Latidos de pánico (Cries of Terror) in 1983. Mr. Naschy made many horror movies, including Jack el Destripador de Londres (Jack the Ripper of London), El Jorobado de la Morgue (The Hunchback of the Morgue), La Venganza de la Momia (The Mummy's Revenge), El gran amor del conde Drácula (Count Dracula's Great Love in the United States), and many other. Ultimately Paul Naschy would accomplish something that even Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee never did--he is the only actor to play such classic horror characters as Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein's Creature, Fu Manchu, Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper, and a werewolf.

 Mr. Naschy also appeared in other film genres beyond horror, including crimes drams (Disco rojo), adventure films (La batalla del poro), spy dramas (Operación Mantis), and family drama (Octavia). He wrote around forty films and directed fourteen (starting with Inquisición in 1976).

It would be exaggerating to refer to most of the films of Paul Naschy as classics. As an actor he could often be wooden and unbelievable. Yet there can be no doubt that Naschy was an auteur, directing and acting in Gothic horror movies (most often on a shoestring budget)  in the Seventies, well after the cycle had exhausted itself in the English speaking world. And what Mr. Naschy lacked in finesse he often made up for in gusto. While his films might have shot cheaply and even had inconsistencies in their plots, they were always good fun. Quite simply, his movies were often more enjoyable than many well films.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NaNoWriMo: It's a Wrap!

Before anything else, I want to apologise for doing only one real pot last week. Between the holiday and my race to complete my NaNoWriMo novel, I had very little time for full fledged blog entries! Even with overtime at work this week, I should have more time to devote to the blog now!

The good news is that I completed my NaNoWriMo novel today. In the end it turned out to be 50,796 words--796 words over the 50,000 needed to win National Novel Writing Month. I am not sure I have ever said what my novel is about in this blog, so I suppose I should now. It is entitled Witchhunter and is set in Cromwellian England during the rule of the Major-Generals. Just as in the real world, innocent old women and men are sometimes accused and convicted of witchcraft. Unlike the real world, witches are very much real in the novel. They are also very powerful, and they have their own agenda. Since witches are real in the world of my novel, this also means that there are those who fight them. The plot of my novel then finds its hero, a Royalist trained in fighting the occult, trying to save a small village from the onslaught of witches. Of course, to do this he must also avoid the Parliamentarians in power, who would gladly see him in jail.

I must admit that in writing Witchhunter I took quite a journey. On 1 November I started the novel with no intentions of it eve seeing publication. I was simply writing it as a lark, to see if I could indeed write a 50,000 word novel in a month or less. As I continued to write, something unusual happened. I started to fall in love with the characters and became engrossed in the plot. While I knew that writing so many words in so short a time, much of what I wrote was, well, crap, I also realised that it was crap with potential to be something more. Quite simply, it occurred to me that my unpublishable NaNoWriMo novel could be whipped into shape as something that might just be publishable.

I realise that Witchhunter will require a lot of work. Writing at such a high speed, I had little time for research. While my knowledge of England during the Cromwellian tyranny is considerable when compared to the average American, it is not that of an expert. I know some historical inaccuracies crept into the novel. I will have to do research to correct those, as well as to better capture the flavour of the era. As I mentioned earlier, I am not quite happy with the McGuffin of the novel. I intend to change it into something that is more interesting and more original. As to the plot itself, I think that I drew my big guns too fast--flying demons appear as early as Chapter 5. I think I am going to turn the plot into more of a mystery, unfolding gradually, with nothing so obvious as flying demons until later in the book.

I must say that over all I am happy with the characters. I might change my hero's first name. Currently he is named Lieutenant William Reade. I am thinking that Lieutenant Geoffrey Reade might sound more interesting, not to mention hint at his genealogy (he is descended from the Plantagenets). I am also thinking I might rewrite the character of the vicar, Reverend Thomas. As Witchhunter is now, Reverend Thomas starts out as a staunch Puritan and Parliamentarian, who is very hostile to Lieutenant Reade. He later becomes an ally of Reade in his battle against the witches. I think this is a bit unrealistic, given how strong feelings between Cavaliers and Roundheads were at the time. I have then decided that while Reverend Thomas will still be a Puritan, he will not be a Parliamentarian or a Royalist. This would make him a bit more receptive to Lieutenant Reade's agenda and more likely to be won over by him.

At any rate, I do think I will rewrite Witchhunter with the goal of having it published. Whether it will ever be published I cannot say,  but I think even in the very rough, 50796 draught I produced in the past 29 days, there is some worthwhile material. I suppose this just goes to show that sometimes one's own writing can surprise him or her.