Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Late Great Les Daniels

Comic book historian and novelist Les Daniels passed on 5 November at the age of 68. The cause was a heart attack.

Les Daniels was born on 27 October 1943 in Danbury, Connecticut. He grew up in Redding, Connecticut. He was only nine years old when the course of his career was determined. It was at that age that his mother threw his comic book collection out. He earned his bachelor's degree at Brown University. He received his master degree as well, writing his master's thesis on pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.

Les Daniels would make his mark as a comic book historian with the book Comix:  A History of the Comic Book in America, published in 1971. It was one of the earliest books on the medium, one which traced comic books from the first appearance of Superman to the moral panic over comic books in the early Fifties to the underground comics of the Sixties. In 1975 Mr. Daniels published Living in Fear: A History of Horror in Mass Media. The book covered nearly 1500 yeas of the genre, from Aeschylus' play Oresteia to horror novels and movies of the Seventies.

In 1978 Les Daniels published his first novel, The Black Castle. It was the first in a series of novels featuring Don Sebastian de Villanueva, a Spanish nobleman turned vampire. Mr. Daniels would write four more novels featuring Don Sebastian: The Silver Skull (1979), Citizen Vampire (1981), Yellow Fog (1986), and No Blood Spilled (1991).

Despite the Don Sebastian novels, it would be for his histories of comic books and comic book characters for which he would become best known. In 1991 he published Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, which covered Marvel Comics from its origins in the late Thirties to the late Eighties. DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes, published in 1995, chronicled the history of DC Comics from its earliest beginnings. Les Daniels would also write histories of DC Comics' major characters: Superman, the Complete History: The Life and Times of the Man of Steel (1998), The Complete History: The Life and Times of the Dark Knight Batman (1999), and The Complete History: Wonder Woman (2000).

Les Daniels was not the first comic book historian, but he was arguably the greatest.  Only two other books ever matched Mr. Daniels Comix: A History of the Comic Book in America: Jim Steranko's two volume History of Comics and Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book (2004). As to Mr. Daniels' other comic book histories, there were never anything quite like them. No one but Les Daniels ever covered Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in such detail, and no one but Mr. Daniels ever wrote such detailed histories of the two major comic book companies in the industry. That he was also a successful novelist only makes Les Daniels even more impressive.

Indeed, I must confess I owe a great deal to Les Daniels. It is not simply that he wrote histories of a medium I love, comic books, but that he made chronicling pop culture respectable. Without Les Daniels and a few others as examples I might never have started writing about television, movies, music, comic books, and pulp magazines. To a large degree, A Shroud of Thoughts, then, owes its existence to Mr. Daniels. It's for that reason his passing saddens me more than that of many more famous individuals.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Actress Dulcie Gray R.I.P.

Actress and singer Dulcie Gray, who appeared in many Gainsborough films, passed on 15 November 2011 at th age of 95. The cause was bronchial pneumonia.

Dulcie Gray was born Dulcie Bailey in Kuala Lumpur, British Malaya (now Maylasia) on 20 November 1915. She attended schools in Wallingford, Oxfordshire; Wokingham, Berkshire; and Swanage, Dorset. After completing her education in England she returned to British Malaya where she worked as a journalist for the Malaya Tribune. Following her father's death she returned to England where she enrolled in Ecoles des Beaux Arts school. Learning she did not excel at art, she enrolled at the Webber Academy of Dramatic Art. It was there she met Michael Denison. The two would eventually marry and would form one of the best known husband and wife acting teams in the United Kingdom. They would be married for 59 years, until Mr. Denison's death.

In 1939 Miss Gray made her professional debut in Hay Fever at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen, Scotland. While Mr. Denison served in World War II, she played with repertories in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Harrogate. Afterwards she went to London to play in Shakespeare at the Open Air Theatre in Regent Park. It was in 1942 that she made her debut on the West End in Little Foxes. It was her role in the play Brighton Rock that attracted the attention of Gainsborough Pictures, who signed her to a contract.

Dulcie Gray made her film debut in a small part in Banana Ridge in 1942. She went onto appear in such films as Two Thousand Women (1944), A Place of One's Own (1945), They Were Sisters (1945), Mine Own Executioner (1947), A Man About the House (1947), and The Glass Mountain.

In the Fifties Miss Gray made her debut on television in an adaptation of the play Milestones in 1951. Throughout the decade she appeared on such shows as Rheingold Theatre, Alfred Marks Time, BBC Sunday Night Theatre, and ITV Play of the Week. She appeared in such films as The Franchise Affair (1951), Angels One Five (1952), and There Was a Young Lady (1953).  In the Sixties Dulcie Gray appeared in the movie A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and the TV series ITV Playhouse. In the Seventies she appeared on the TV series Crown Court and BBC Playhouse of the Month.

In the Eighties Miss Gray was a regular on the series Howard's Way, on which she played Kate Harvey. She appeared on the shows Play for Today, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime, Rumpole of the Bailey, and Three Up Two Down,. In the Nineties she appeared on the shows Tales From the Crypt and Doctors. In 1996 she and Michael Denison appeared on Broadway for the first time in a revival of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.

In addition to being an actress and singer, Dulcie Gray was also a mystery novelist. Her first novel, Murder on the Stairs, was published in 1957. She would go onto write around two dozen mystery novels, most of them featuring the character of Inspector Cardiff. She also wrote eight radio plays and many short stories. One, "The Fur Brooch," was adapted as an episode of Night Gallery. Miss Gray was also one of the foremost experts on butterflies. In 1978 she published the scholarly study Butterflies on My Mind.

As an actress it is difficult to separate Miss Gray's career from that of her husband, Michael Denison. As a team Mr. Denison and Miss Gray acted together many, many times. As an individual actress she was often compared to Googie Withers. That having been said, Dulcie Gray was actually quite talented as an actress. In They Were Sisters she appeared without her husband, playing opposite James Mason as the wife he destroys. It was an impressive and sensitive performance and one of the stand out performances in the film. Of course, Miss Gray was more than an actress. As a mystery novelist she wrote popular books, some of which are in print to this day. She was also quite knowledgeable as a lepidopterist. Butterflies on My Mind won the Times Senior Information Book Award. Although Dulcie Gray was not the best known of the Gainsborough Girls, she was certain a woman of multiple and considerable talents.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Actor Sid Melton Passes On

Sid Melton, best known for playing Charlie Halper on Make Room for Daddy and Alf Monroe on Green Acres, passed on 2 November 2011 at the age of 94.

Sid Melton was born Sidney Meltzer in Brooklyn, New York on 22 May 1917. His father was Isidor Meltzer, a well known performer in Yiddish theatre. His brother Lewis Meltzer was a screenwriter who worked on such movies as The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and High School Confidential (1958). He made his film debut in a small part in New York Town in 1941. He would go on to appear in such film as Shadow of the Tin Man (1941), Blondie Goes to College (1942), Cario (1942), Girls in Chains (1943), George White's Scandals (1945), Suspense (1946), White Heat (1949), and On the Town (1949).

In the Fifties Sid Melton appeared in such films as The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Leave It to the Marines (1951), The Naked Street (1955), Edge of Hell (1956), Public Pigeon No. One (1957), Designing Woman (1957), The Tunnel of Love (1958), and The Buccaneer (1958). Like many actors of the era, Mr. Melton's career increasingly shifted to television in the Fifties. He was a regular as Ichabod "Ikky" Mudd on Captain Midnight and played the night club owner Charlie Halper on Make Room for Daddy starting in 1959. He guest starred on such shows as Our Miss Brooks, Adventures of Superman, Cheyenne, Date with the Angels, The Jack Benny Programme, The Thin Man, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, December Bride, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Peter Gunn, and Bachelor Father.

In the Sixties Sid Melton was a semi-regular on Green Acres as carpenter Alf Monroe. He reprised his role as Charley Halper in the sequel series to Make Room for Daddy, Make Room for Grandaddy. He guest starred on such shows as The Joey Bishop Show, The Munsters, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Run Buddy Run, The Danny Thomas Hour, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, Daktari, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and I Dream of Jeannie.

In the Seventies Sid Melton guest starred on such shows as The Chicago Teddy Bears, Love American Style, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, The Doris Day Show, and Rhoda. He appeared in the films Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Hit! (1973), That Lady from Peking (1975), and Game Show Models (1977).  In the Eighties Mr. Melton played the recurring role of Sophia's late husband on The Golden Girls. He guest starred on such shows as The Fall Guy and Hunter. In the Nineties he guest starred on Major Dad, Nurses, Blossom, Empty Nest, and Dave's World.

Perhaps no actor was as good at comedy relief as Sid Melton. It was the role he played in the majority of films and television shows in which he appeared. Even in the films noir and science fiction features in which he appeared, Mr. Melton was usually the comic relief. The reason for this is quite simply that he was very good at it. Very few supporting actors in movies or TV shows could be as funny as Sid Melton. What is more, he did not play simply one sort of character. He was equally adept at playing stressed out, nervous nightclub owners (Charlie Halper) as he was clumsy, inept carpenters (Alf Monroe) and small time con men (Friendly Freddy, his recurring character on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.).  It is because Mr. Melton was so good that his career boasts a unique honour: he appeared as a regular on semi-regular on three classic sitcoms (Make Room For Daddy, Green Acres, and The Golden Girls). When it came to comedy relief, they didn't maek them any better than Sid Melton.