Saturday, February 19, 2011

Exploitation Producer David F. Friedman R.I.P.

David F. Friedman, the pioneer of splatter films who produced movies such as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), passed on February 14, 2011 at the age of 87. The cause was heart failure.

David F. Friedman was born on December 24, 1923 in Birmingham, Alabama. It was after his parents divorced and his mother moved to Anniston that young Mr. Friedman became interested in carnivals and con men. He attended Cornell , sitting next to Kurt Vonnegut, then worked as a film booker and projectionist. Afterwards he enlisted in the United States Army. It was while in the Army that he met movie producer Kroger Babb, whose films were exploitation masquerading as education. He worked as a regional marketing man for Paramount before he began making his own films.

His earliest films were of the "nudie-cutie" variety, films which were either filmed at nudist camps or in which women performed ordinary household tasks naked or nearly so. Although scandalous in the Fifties and early Sixties, these films would be considered mild today, as they contained no sexual content unless one counts nudity itself. It would be with 1963 that producer David F. Friedman and director Herschel Gordon Lewis would make a totally different sort of film. Blood Feast, in which a deranged caterer goes on a murderous rampage. It is considered by many to be the first "splatter film." Messrs. Friedman and Lewis' next film would go even further than Blood Feast. In Two Thousand Maniacs  a small Southern town took revenge at a War Between the States centennial on visiting Yankees, often in the most gruesome means possible. If Blood Feast was the first splatter film, 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs was the first example of torture chic. Colour Me Blood Red, from 1965, centred on an artist who painted in blood.

David F. Friedman would later delve into soft core porn, although he would continue to produce horror movies, such as She Freak (1967) and The Acid Eaters (1968). He produced what may be his best known film besides Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs, and perhaps his most notorious as well. Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S. (1975). It was one of the first of the Nazi exploitation films, and one on which Mr. Friedman used the pseudonym Herman Traeger instead of his given name.

David F. Friedman would make fewer films after the Seventies, his exploitation and softcore films out of step with hardcore porn which showed the actual sex act on the screen. In 2002 he would produce a sequel to Blood Feast, Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, and in 2005 a remake of Two Thousand Maniacs, 2001 Maniacs. It was followed by a sequel, 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams, in 2010.

While I personally find David F. Friedman's oeuvre of questionable quality, there can be no doubt that his films had an impact. Before the slasher films of the Eighties, Mr. Friedman had a murderer cutting up women in Blood Feast. And before Wes Craven, Mr. Friedman was delving into torture as a source of horror in Two Thousand Maniacs. For better or worse, David F.Friedman was a pioneer paving the way for the more graphic horror movies of the Seventies and Eighties.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Actor Len Lesser Passes On

Len Lesser, who appeared in the movie Kelly's Heroes and as Uncle Leo on the TV show Seinfeld, passed on February 16, 2011 at the age of 88. The cause was complications from pneumonia, after having fought a long battle with cancer.

Len Lesser  was born on December 3, 1922 in New York City. He graduated from City College in New York City with a degree in economics and government in 1942. During World War II he served in the United States Army. After the war he went back to New York to study acting.

Mr. Lesser made his television debut in 1949 on an episode of Studio One. In 1954 he moved to Los Angeles where he made his career in television and film. During the Fifties he appeared on the shows Man Against Crime, G.E. Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Panic, Gunsmoke, Have Gun--Will Travel, The Jack Benny Programme, M Squad, Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Bat Masterson, and The Untouchables. He appeared in such films as Shack Out on 101 (1955), Lust for Life (1956), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), The Brothers Karamazov (1958),Some Came Running (1958), Crime and Punishment U.S.A. (1959), and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960).

In the Sixties Len Lesser appeared in such as films as Birdman of Alcatraz (1962),  Smog (1962), McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (1965), How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), Fireball 500 (1966), The Last Challenge (1967), and Kelly's Heroes (1970). He appeared on such shows as The Red Skelton Hour, The Outer Limits, The Wild Wild West, The Monkees, Ben Casey, The Munsters, Honey West, My Favourite Martian, Laredo, That Girl, Get Smart, and Green Acres.

In the Seventies Mr. Lesser appeared in such films as Blood and Lace (1971), Dirty Little Billy (1972), Slither (1973), Papillon (1973), Truck Stop Women (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), House Calls (1978), and The Main Event (1979). He appeared on such shows as All in the Family, Ironside, Bonanza, The Mod Squad, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Kojak, The Rockford Files, Switch, and Quincy M.E.

In the Eighties Len Lesser appeared in such movies as Death Hunt (1981), Grandma's House (1989), Ain't Now Way Back (1990), Sorority Girls and the Creature from Hell (1990), and Faith (1990). He appeared on such shows as Airwolf, Spies, and Tour of Duty. In 1992 Len Lesser appeared for the first time as Uncle Leo on Seinfeld. He would remain a semi-regular for the length of the show's run. In 1996 he would appear as a similar character Garvin on Everybody Loves Raymond, also remaining a semi-regular for most of that show's run. He also appeared on the shows thirtysomething, The John Laroquette Show, and Smart Guy, . He appeared in the movies Rave Reveiw (1994), The List (1998) True Friends (1998), and The Werewolf Reborn (1998). In the Naughts he guest starred on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Just Shoot Me, ER, Cold Case, and Castle. He appeared in the movies Baadassss (2003) and  Frankenstien and The Werewolf Reborn (2005).

Len Lesser was the sort of actor I always called "a professional guest star." I mean no disrespect by this, but rather I mean it as a compliment. He is one of those actors, like such legendary character actors as Richard Deacon and Jesse White, who frequently appeared in guest shots on TV shows and in small parts in movies. And Mr. Lesser was ideal as a professional guest star. He could play a large array of roles, from friendly relatives such as Uncle Joe on Seinfeld to heavies. Mr. Lesser was a very versatile actor, which more than anything else explained his long career, which stretched from 1949 to 2009.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Actor Kennth Mars Passes On

Actor Kenneth Mars, who played the deranged German playwright in The Producers (1968) and Police Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein (1974), passed on 12 February, 2011 at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Kenneth Mars was born on 4 April, 1935 in Chicago. By 1962 he had made his debut on Broadway in The Affair. He would appear on Broadway two more times, in Any Wednesday and The Best Laid Plans. He made his television debut providing additional voices for The Jetsons. He guest starred on Car 54 Where Are You?, Gunsmoke, and Get Smart before being a regular on the short lived series He & She. He would finish out the Sixties with a guest appearance on Mannix, The Debbie Reynolds Show, Room 222, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and That Girl. He made his movie debut as playwright and Nazi buff Franz Liebkind in The Producers. He finished out the Sixties appearing in the film Viva Max (1969).

In the Seventies Mr. Mars appeared in such films as Desperate Characters (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972), The Parallax View (1974), Young Frankenstein (1970), Night Moves (1975), and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). He was a regular on the series Fernwood Tonight. I watched such shows as McMillan and Wife, Ironside, Love American Style, The Bob Crane Show, Harry-O, Wonder Woman, Good Heavens, Barney Miller, Black Sheep Squadron, Supertrain, and Barnaby Jones. He provided voices on the animated series M-U-S-H.

In the Eighties Kenneth Mars appeared in the films Full Moon High (1981), Yellowbeard (1983), Protocol (1984), Fletch (1985), Beer (1985), Prince Jack (1985), Radio Days (1987), For Keeps (1988), Illegally Yours (1988), and Rented Lips (1988). He appeared on such shows as Alice, Cagney and Lacey, Trapper John M. D., Mangum P.I., Remington Steele, The Twilight Zone, and Hardcastle and McCormick. He provided voices for several animated series and the voice of Triton in the Disney feature film The Little Mermaid.

From the Nineties into the Naughts, Mr. Mars appeared on such shows as A Different World, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, L. A. Law, Diagnosis Murder, Party of Five, The Drew Carey Show, The Pretender, Will and Grace, and Oliver Beene. He was  regular on the series Malcolm in the Middle. He provided voices for animated series including Darkwing Duck, The Pirates of Dark Water, Little Mermaid, and Fievel's American Tales. He appeared in the films Shadows and Fog (1991) and Citizen Ruth (1996). He provided voices for the animated feature We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story (1993) and several films in the Land Before Time franchise.

Kenneth Mars was an incredible comedic actor. He had a gift for playing characters who were a good deal left of centre. He also had a gift for voices, making him very much in demand as a voice artist for animated shows, and movies. Perhaps only Kenneth Mars could have played Nazi buff and playwright Franz Liebkind and made him quite so funny.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Betty Garrett R.I.P.

Comedic actress Betty Garrett passed on 12 February 2011 at the age of 91. The cause was an aortic aneurysm.

Betty Garrett was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on 23 May 1919. She displayed talent while still young, enough that in 1936 a friend of her family arranged for her to meet dancer Martha Graham. It was Miss Graham who recommended Miss Garrett for a scholarship at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City.

Betty Garrett performed n the Borscht Belt and was later an under study with the Mercury Theatre. In 1942 Miss Garrett made her debut on Broadway in the revue Of V I Sing. She appeared on Broadway several more times in her career, in such plays as Something for the Boys (1943), Bells Are Ringing (1959), Beg, Borrow, or Steal (1960), Meet Me in St. Louis (1980), and a revival of Follies (2001).

Betty Garrett made her film debut in Big City in 1948. She would go onto appear in the films Words and Music (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and On the Town (1949). Her Hollywood career would be interrupted when her husband Larry Parks became a victim of the black list. The couple toured Britain and performed on stage. She returned to film in 1955 with My Sister Eileen. She would go on to appear in the movies The Shadow on the Window (1957), Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007) and Dark and Stormy Night (2009).

Aside from her roles in such classic films as Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town, Miss Garrett may have been best known to audiences for her work on television. She made her television debut in an episode of The Ford Television Theatre in 1955. From 1973 to 1975 she would be a semi-regular on All in the Family, playing the Bunkers' neighbour Irene Lorenzo. From 1976 to 1981 she was a regular on Laverne and Shirley as Edna. Over the years she guest starred on such shows as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Lloyd Bridges Show, The Fugitive, Mr. Merlin, Murder She Wrote, Harts of the West, Boston Public, and Becker.

Betty Garrett was a truly wonderful and talented actress. She was fairly good dancer and a very good singer, but her special gift was comedy. Few actresses could deliver a line as well as her or possessed her talent for timing. Indeed, if all Miss Garrett had ever done was play cabbie Brunhilde Esterhazy in On the Town she would be worthy remembering. Fortunately, she did much more.