Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jeff Conaway R.I.P.

Jeff Conaway, who starred in the TV shows Taxi and Babylon 5, passed yesterday at the age of 60. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Jeff Conaway was born 5 October 1950 in New York City. He started acting while very young, making his Broadway début at age 10 in the play All the Way Home. Mr. Conaway attended the North Carolina School of Arts before he transferred to New York University. He appeared in the movie Jennifer on My Mind (1971). It was in 1972 that he left school to play Danny Zuko in the Broadway production of Grease.  He remained with the play until 1976. He also guest starred on such shows as Joe Forrester, Happy Days, Mary Tyler Moore, and Kojak. He appeared in such films as The Eagle Has Landed (1976), Delta County, U.S.A. (1977),  I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), Pete's Dragon (1977), and Grease (1978). In 1978 he was cast as Danny Wheeler, the handsome struggling actor driving a cab until he gets his big break, on the TV show Taxi. He remained with the show for four years.

In 1983 Jeff Conaway starred in the short lived series Wizards and Warriors and Berrengers. He guest starred on the shows Who's the Boss, Mike Hammer, Tales from the Darkside, and Stingray. He appeared in the films Covergirl (1984),  The Patriot (1986), The Banker (1989), Tale of Two Sisters (1989), Ghost Writer (1989), and The Sleeping Car (1990).  In 1985 he appeared in the play The News on Broadway. In the Nineties Mr. Conaway played Zack Allan on Babylon 5 from 1994 to 1998. He guest starred on such shows as Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Burke's Law, and Hope & Gloria. He appeared in such movies as Total Exposure (1991), Eye of the Storm (1992), LA Goddess (1993), The Last Embrace (1997), Shadow of Doubt (1998), and Jawbreaker. In the Naughts he appeared in such movies as Dating Service (2001), The Biz (2002), Living the Dream (2006), and Ladron (2010).

Jeff Conaway was probably more talented than anyone had given him credit for. In Grease he played a tough guy with a sensitive side. On Taxi he played a vain but down on his luck actor. On Babylon 5 he played Zack Allan, the honest and reliable security chief who had his share of problems. Mr. Conaway played each part well (even in Grease, whose script gave him little to work with). And he did well in guest appearances on various shows over the years. Sadly, his addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs would hamper his career. While he would work steadily into the Naughts, his career was a shadow of what it once was.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, Vincent Price

It was on 27 May 1911 that Vincent Price was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was born to a life of wealth. His grandfather, Vincent Clarence Price, had invented Dr. Price's Baking Powder, the very first cream of tartar baking powder. His father, Vincent Price Sr., was president of the National Candy Company, which produced everything from jawbreakers to jelly beans. While Vincent Leonard Price Jr. was born to wealth, however, his fortunes would lie beyond baking powder and candy. Instead, he would become one of the most famous actors of all time, and one of the most influential as well.

Most of the impact Vincent Price had would be upon the horror genre. Indeed, it is safe to say that he is one of the five best known horror actors of all time, alongside Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Cushing (whose birthday falls a day before Mr. Price's), and Sir Christopher Lee (who shares his birthday with Mr. Price). When it came to horror movies Vincent Price occupied a position he shared with Peter Cushing. Unlike Messrs. Karloff, Lugosi, and Lee, Messrs. Price and Cushing rarely if ever played monsters. Instead they played mortal men, who were either bent on revenge, created monsters, or fought monsters. Indeed, it was not unusual for either Peter Cushing or Vincent Price to play the hero in their films. What set Vincent Price apart from Peter Cushing is that often Mr. Cushing had to share billing with Sir Christopher Lee, while Vincent Price was almost always the star of his movies.

It is perhaps because of this that Vincent Price would have a lasting impact on horror movies. Indeed, it can be argued that Mr. Price was partly responsible for the shift back to Gothic horror away from science fiction horror in the late Fifties. Even before Hammer Films released their classic Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Vincent Price had starred in such Gothic horror movies as House of Wax (1953) and The Mad Magician (1954). After Hammer Films had released Curse of Frankenstein, Vincent Price would appear in even more Gothic horror pictures, including the original House on Haunted Hill  (1958) and House of Usher (1960).  While there can be no doubt that much of the shift back to Gothic horror movies in the late Fifties was due to Hammer Films, much of the responsibility rests with Vincent Price as well.

If Vincent Price had a lasting impact on horror movies in general, it is perhaps because he made several individual films that would prove highly influential. House of Wax was the first colour movie in 3D to be released by a major studio, preceded only by Bwana Devil (1952--it was an independent production) and Man in the Dark (1953--it was shot in black and white). The success of House of Wax would fuel the fad for 3D movies which lasted for the next 2 1/2 years. The success of Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960) would not only lead American International Pictures to produce more adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. Two of Mr. Price's later films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973),  could possibly have been two sources of inspiration for the similarly themed Saw (2003). Although it might be a dubious honour at best, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood may be partly responsible for the cycle of torture chic movies in the Naughts.

The lasting impact which Vincent Price's films had on pop culture in general can be seen in the many references to them. This is particularly true of The Fly (1958), which has been referenced in everything from The Simpsons too the movie Matinee (1993). Similarly, House of Wax has also been referenced in pop culture often, in everything from the sitcom Get Smart to the movie Monsters vs. Aliens (2009).  These movies are hardly the exception to the rule, as a large number of Mr. Price's films, from The Invisible Man Returns (1940) to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, are referenced in pop culture with an alarming regularity.

In later years Vincent Price's position as one of the foremost actors in the horror genre would lead him to being involved in horror oriented projects. On Alice Cooper's concept album Welcome to My Nightmare, Vincent Price provided narration for the song "The Black Widow." Later he would provide narration for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller" from the album of the same name. He would host the BBC Radio programme The Price of Fear and for a time the American radio Tales of the Unexplained. Vincent Price would also provide the narration for Tim Burton's classic short film and tribute to him, "Vincent." From 1981 to 1989 he was the host of the PBS show Mystery!

Of course, Vincent Price was much more than a horror actor. As film buffs know, he appeared in a good many films that were not horror movies, from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) to The Whales of August (1987). From the Thirties into the Fifties Vincent Price frequently appeared on stage in non-horror parts, even playing Abraham Lincoln in Yours, A. Lincoln in 1944. Even in the Sixties and Seventies, when Vincent Price's career in horror movies was at its peak, he would play roles that were not part of the horror genre. He played a prospector in The Jackals (1967) and eccentric game inventor Milton Parker in the comedy Scavenger Hunt (1979). Unlike many of his compatriots in the horror genre, for most of his career Vincent Price was in demand for parts that did not deal with mad scientists, the walking dead, or ghosts.

Indeed, Vincent Price's contribution to the world not only went beyond the horror genre, but beyond acting in film, period. Vincent Price had majored in art in college and his love of art continued until his death. He was well known as an art collector, and in 1951 he started donating fine art to East Los Angeles College. By 1957 the Vincent and Mary Price Art Gallery would be founded at the college. It would evolve into the Vincent Price Art Museum, which still exists today. He was also a member of the Cortauld Institute in London, England, dedicated to the study of art history.  He was also a gourmet cook who not only authored cookbooks, but hosted a cooking show called Cooking Pricewise.

Nowhere would Vincent Price's influence be more acutely felt than his home state of Missouri. While he spent much of his time elsewhere, Mr. Price never forgot the state in which he was born. He started maintaining close ties with Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville (now Truman State University) late in his life. It was about 1960 that Mr. Price first appeared at NMSU, appearing nearly every year at the university for nearly thirty years. He even taught workshops on both acting and art history at the university. In 1984 Mr. Price founded the Vincent Price Theatrical Performance scholarship at the university, awarded to those who have demonstrated talent in acting.

It is because of Vincent Price's contributions to film, acting, art, cooking, and his home state that today there is a Vincentennial--a celebration of the 100th birthday of Vincent Price--being held in St. Louis. Today's celebration is the culmination of a two week celebration, during which his films are being viewed and his daughter Victoria will give a speech. Many other famous actors have been born in St. Louis and still more in the state of Missouri, but perhaps none are as beloved as Vincent Price.

In the end it must be concluded that Vincent Price is not only remembered as a great actor, but as a great man. He was scholar, a professional, and a true gentleman. Not only did he show concern for his fellow actors on the screen on the stage, but even for his fans. Living here in Missouri I have friends who had the honour of meeting Mr. Price when he would visit NMSU. In every instance he not only gave my friends autographs, but talked with them as well. A cultured intellectual born to wealth, Mr. Price treated everyone he met as a human being. He may have played many villains in his films, but in reality Vincent Price was man of honour and integrity. If he is remembered today, then, it is not simply because he was a great actor, but a great man, period.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Actor Bill Hunter Passes On

Australian actor Bill Hunter, who appeared in films ranging from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) to Gallipoli (1981), passed Saturday, 21 May 2011 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.

Bill Hunter was born in Melbourne and grew up in the countryside of Victoria. As a teenager he was an Olympic level swimmer and would have made the Australian swimming team in 1956 had a bout with meningitis not intervened. He was an extra in the film The Shiralee (1957) and served as a swimming double on the American film On the Beach, which filmed in Australia. By the Sixties he was guest starring in such Australian television shows as The Hunter, Riptide The Long Arm, and Skippy, as well as the British classic Doctor Who. He also appeared in the film Ned Kelly (1970). In the Seventies Mr. Hunter was a regular on the TV series Spyforce and Prisoner. He appeared on such shows as Catwalk, King's Men, Division 4, Homocide, and Matlock Police. He appeared in such films as 27A (1974), Stone (1974), Dragon Flies (1975), Rate of Exchange (1976), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Newsfront (1978), Vox Pop (1979), Dead Man's Float (1980), and Hard Knocks (1980).

In the Eighties he appeared in such films as Gallipoli, Heatwave (1982), Street Hero (1984), Sky Pirates (1986), Mull (1989), and Call Me Mr. Brown (1990). He appeared in several mini-series, including The Last Bastion, The Flying Doctors, and Joe Wilson. The Nineties would be a busy time for Mr. Hunter when he appeared in some of his most notable films. He appeared in such films as Strictly Ballroom (1992), The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queent of the Desert (1994), Muriel's Wedding (1994), Race the Sun (1996), and Road to Nhill (1997).  On television he appeared on the series Phoenix, Police Rescue, Minder, Fallen Angels, SeaChange, and All Saints.

Bill Hunter remained active in the Naughts. He appeared in such films as Crackerjack (2002), Kangaroo Jack (2003), Horseplay (2003), Tom White (2004), The Square (2008), Australia (2008), The Wedding Party (2010), and the soon to be released The Cup. He was the voice of the dentist in Finding Nemo (2003). He appeared on the series Water Rats, White Collar Blue, and The Pacific.

More so than the character of Crocodile Dundee or wildlife expert Steve Irwin, I dare say that for the world, Bill Hunter was Australia. Even if one could not remember his name, his was the face and the voice that came to mind when thought of the land down under. If the world at large identified Bill Hunter with Australia and vice versa, it was perhaps because he was a great actor. He was so very versatile, playing everything from Muriel's psychologically abusive father in Muriel's Wedding to Major Barton in Gallipoli to Bill Fife, president of the Australian Dancing Federation, in Strictly Ballroom. He could play everything from heroes to heavies, everything from authority figures to the everyday Australian, and do so convincingly. While he may not be a household name in North America or Europe, Bill Hunter will probably remain the best actor to emerge from Australia and the face that the world sees when it pictures Australia.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tornado in Joplin

The tornado in The Wizard of Oz (1939) is one of the most iconic images in the history of film. I doubt that there are many in the United Kingdom and United States, let alone the world, who have not seen this classic in which Dorothy Gale is swept up to Oz by a twister. That having been said, I rather suspect that the average person living outside the Midwestern and Southern United States have any real idea of how much damage a tornado can actually cause. That is until days like today, when Joplin,  Missouri (a city of around 50,000 people in the southwestern corner of the state) lies in ruin after a tornado struck yesterday evening.

The images that have aired on television are striking. The city of Joplin looks something like newsreels I have seen of Dresden and other German cities after having been bombed by the Allies--nothing but rubble remains. The death toll has been large for a city of Joplin's size. It currently stands at 116 people. To many living outside the South and Midwest, such a natural disaster caused by cyclonic winds must seem unusual. And the tornado in Joplin was unusual in the path of destruction and death it left in its wake. At the same time, however, for people such as myself, living in Missouri (part of the South where tornadoes are relatively common), in some respects it is not unusual. I have seen the damage caused by tornadoes first hand, although not on the scale of Joplin. And I have known two people who were killed by such a storm that swept through one of the small towns in the southern part of my home county. Even a small tornado is a disaster of some scale. The one in Joplin was a disaster of an enormous scale.

It is because of the tornado in Joplin, a storm which has harmed many of my fellow Missourians, that I am not writing about pop culture tonight. Knowing the damage that even a small tornado can do and having seen what the storm did in Joplin, I find myself much to sad to write about much of anything. I will then simply part by saying my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Joplin this evening. I pray they are spared another storm such as the one they had last night and that the city recovers from this disaster swiftly.