December 19, 2015

Unforgettable: Part IV


Fiona Lewis (1946- )

This red-headed English beauty popped up on my television a lot during my childhood. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, growing up in front of the television – specifically with HBO – inadvertently educated me with an early recognition and fondness for unusual performers and background personalities.

One film from this period that has been etched in my mind is the 1983 oddity, Strange Invaders. An homage to 1950s science fiction movies, Fiona Lewis played an alien undercover in human form.

As she put it, “I played an alien who, daintily disguised as an Avon lady, preys upon the residents of a small town, a current of molten green lava bubbling beneath my replicant skin, which before the film’s denouement spectacularly exploded, a geyser of ooze, as I screamed myself to sci-fi death.”*

A pretty memorable scene made all the more interesting by Fiona’s elegance: a gorgeous juxtaposition of large, icy blue eyes and thick auburn hair.

The next role of hers that stuck out to me was in Joe Dante’s Innerspace (1987). Her performance as the evil scientist (alongside the impeccable Kevin McCarthy) was perfect, once again combining sensuality and deadliness but more overtly tongue-in-cheek.

Her most famous role - that of the doomed Dr. Susan Charles in Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) – was a performance I didn’t see until I was a teenager. It’s an interesting, tragic role where her character meets a really gruesome demise that is very mean-spirited and unpleasant to watch. But it is an unforgettable scene that has made her a part of cult film history forever.

Other important contributions she has made to the world of cult movies include bits in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) with Vincent Price, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) and the Jaws rip-off, Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977). My favorite appearance of hers, however, was in Strange Behavior (1981), another offbeat horror film where she sported an extreme, Joan Crawford-style hairdo and brandished an enormous hypodermic needle as the doctor who eagerly experiments on the local teenagers. Again, a perfect spotlight for her unique brand of sinister seductiveness.

Sadly, Fiona Lewis has more or less retired from acting but I was quite surprised to learn that she is actually an exceptional writer, having written several articles for the Los Angeles Times as well as a novel in 1995.

In 1998, she wrote a terrific article for The New Yorker called “Daring All” where she discussed her films, career and adventures in 1970s Los Angeles. An excellent and introspective storyteller.

*Quote courtesy of Lewis, Fiona (1998) “Daring All” The New Yorker – February 23, 1998. Page 72.

Don Calfa (1939- )

Here is another wonderful face that was imprinted on my movie-going memory during those formative HBO years of my youth.

His terrifying bit as “Scarface” in Foul Play (1978) was my first introduction to Don Calfa. Here he had a memorable scene threatening the sweet and lovable librarian, Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn), meeting a rather nasty fate in the process.

His wide, surprised eyes were instantly recognizable so I was excited to see him appear in a much larger part in The Return of the Living Dead (1985), his most famous role. His performance as Ernie the mortician was hilarious with great dialogue and a bizarre look (dressed in a maroon jumpsuit with bleached white hair).

I quickly decided he was one of my new favorite faces so I began poring through my copy of "Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide" for any mention of Don Calfa in the listings.

Let me explain. Before the internet, I used to go through books to find out all of the information I could on certain movies and actors. One of my most invaluable resources was the annual Leonard Maltin guide, dictionary-thick compendiums of movie reviews. Fortunately, the entries were incredibly detailed when listing out the performers – even the most obscure actor was included in the cast.

Combining that with my strange ability to quickly skim text and pinpoint certain words, I was able to find all kinds of movies that my favorite people were appearing in. Oh, look…The Rose (1979)…Don Calfa. The Star Chamber (1983)…Don Calfa. The Presidio (1988)…Don Calfa. It went on and on. As I mentioned in an earlier post, these searches introduced me to movies that I would have never normally watched.

Don Calfa was also incredibly prolific on television, appearing on practically every single series ever made. From "Murder, She Wrote" to "Twin Peaks", "The Bionic Woman" to "Beverly Hills, 2010". He appeared on "Barney Miller" seven times as seven different characters!

One of Don's best roles is in the goofball classic, Weekend at Bernie's (1989), where he played Paulie, a hitman who slowly goes crazy as he learns that his assassination attempts on Bernie (Terry Kiser) keep failing.

Be sure to check out Don’s Facebook page!

Helen Hanft (1934-2013)

My thoughts on Helen can be read here, a previous post I wrote shortly after she passed away in 2013.

December 11, 2015

Unforgettable: Part II

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

Ernest Borgnine is an important example of a character actor who had the opportunity to play not just supporting parts but also leading roles. In Marty (1955), a film that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, you had a film where the character actor was promoted to a starring role. Here was an actor who looked like a typical, everyday guy and he was the lead for a major Hollywood film.

Borgnine had a wildly varied career that ranged to all points of the spectrum, from starring on television series like "McHale’s Navy" and "Airwolf" to voice-over work on animated films like All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996) and Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) (a film in which he voiced an action figure alongside his Dirty Dozen co-stars George Kennedy, Jim Brown and Clint Walker) to classics like Johnny Guitar (1954), Ice Station Zebra (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and, what is probably his most famous role, that of Mike Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

This is when I loved Ernest the most – when he played the loud, blustery bear that screamed and shouted and threw his hat on the ground. You aren’t turned off by his characters (no matter how repugnant), because you can just tell that Ernest was having a great time playing the role. He really got into it.

Just one flash of his gap-toothed smile and you can see in his face an exclamation of "God, I love my job!"

Delphine Seyrig (1932-1990)

I first saw Delphine in the incredibly haunting and hypnotic Daughters of Darkness (1971), where she played the Countess Bathory, a mysterious and exotic vampire who seduces a young couple at a Belgium hotel. I was struck by her beauty, which reminded me of a 1930s glamour along the lines of Marlene Dietrich, and her wonderful voice, which, like Joan Greenwood and Carrie Nye, was slightly husky and topped off with a bored, aloof delivery.

I then watched her in the strange and exhausting film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) – 201 minutes of Delphine playing a housewife going about her daily chores (all of which is filmed in real time). You would think this would make a viewer go insane (depending on their patience), but Delphine in the role made it a completely watchable and fascinating experience. Her subtle touches of showing the gradual unhinging of this woman was beyond beguiling. Watching her go about her day-to-day chores and then suddenly see her skip a beat as she slowly began to unravel was chilling.

She also appeared to have a good sense of humor that was evident in the surreal Donkey Skin (1970), in which she co-starred with Catherine Denueve. Other notable roles of hers include the puzzling Last Year at Marienbad (1961), The Day of the Jackal (1973) and several films with director Marguerite Duras, including India Song (1975), a film John Waters said is "so posed, so formal and so glamorous that it almost isn’t a movie at all - it’s like watching a chic performance piece."

With Delphine as the star, I truly believe she could make anything, no matter how absurd or bizarre, completely and utterly watchable. Now if only she could have starred in something that is completely inaccessible to me, like Gone with the Wind or "Sex and the City".

Godfrey Cambridge (1933-1976)

My first awareness of the force known as Godfrey Cambridge was when I was about 9 and saw Watermelon Man (1970) on television.

I didn't quite understand the film. Godfrey played Jeff Gerber, a white, bigoted salesman who awakens one morning to find his skin turned dark. His life is turned upside down as he finds himself on the receiving end of the same rotten behavior he himself had been guilty of. My naivete didn't pick up on the irony or the overall satire on display - I viewed it largely as a sort-of cartoonish, Twilight Zone-type story. However, there was an anger there that perplexed me, something my young age was unaware of...or perhaps sheltered from?

In the middle of this puzzle was a performance that remained with me for years to come. Cambridge's character ran the gamut from cartoonish to confident as his character ultimately accepted and embraced his new persona. Pretty powerful stuff for a child to digest.

As the years went by, I began to notice Godfrey Cambridge pop up randomly - be it a guest appearance on reruns of "The Dick Van Dyke Show", a weird cameo in Beware! The Blob (1972) or his bit as a gay nightclub owner in Friday Foster (1975). There was something about him that I really liked - a great smile, a mischievous glint in his eye and an infectious giggle.

Besides his rather varied film roles, Godfrey Cambridge is probably most famous for being a fairly groundbreaking stand-up comedian. However, it's his role as Grave Digger Jones (perfectly cast alongside Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson) in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and it's sequel, Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972) that remain my favorite performances. Distinctive and unique.

For further reading, check out this great article about Godfrey from the October 1967 issue of Ebony.

Joan Greenwood (1921-1987)

This is an actress I first noticed on the British sitcom, "Girls on Top" (1985-1986) - a sort of all-female version of "The Young Ones" which was created by and starred Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Joan played Lady Chloe Carlton, the bizarre landlady to the four main female characters. Lady Carlton was a romance novelist who appeared to live in her own world and was kept company by her beloved and stuffed pet dog. The thing that struck me the most about her was her smoky voice and slow articulation.

I did some further research on Joan and discovered that she was in a film that I absolutely adored - Ealing Studios’ 1949 revenge comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets. I re-watched the film specifically to see her and was captivated by her feline beauty and, again, by that voice - sly and throaty with each line spoken through precise and perfect enunciation.

Cult film fans may recognize her voice as The Great Tyrant, Black Queen of Sogo in Barbarella (1968). Greenwood, for whatever reason, was chosen to dub actress Anita Pallenberg. Although there is speculation as to whether or not it actually is Greenwood (since the voice over is uncredited), I can totally hear Ms. Greenwood when The Great Tyrant purrs such lines as, "Do you want to come and play with me? For someone like you I charge nothing. You’re very pretty, Pretty-Pretty."

Other film roles of note include another Ealing Studios’ comedy, The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Mysterious Island (1961) and Tom Jones (1963). A quiet, secret beauty who always appeared to have a slightly devilish gleam in her eye has been a mainstay on my list of favorites for years.

Give yourself a treat and seek out her work. You won’t be disappointed.

December 9, 2015

Unforgettable: Revisited

About five years ago I started profiling different character actors that I was particularly fascinated with. It was a fun project, but I quickly stopped after a few entries.

I decided to pick the idea back up again and write some new thoughts about my favorite performers.

I've posted these articles on my Facebook and Instagram pages, but decided to share them here, as well. The first few entries originally appeared on my blog back in 2010, but have been tweaked and updated slightly.

Glenn Shadix (1952-2010) 

I first noticed Glenn (as I'm sure most people did) in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), where he played Otho, the snotty interior designer. It was a funny and memorable role and he got to deliver some great lines. The famous quote, "Don't mind her. She's still upset because somebody dropped a house on her sister", was his own and he was thrilled that Burton let him use it in the famous "Day-O" dinner scene.

Soon after, I began seeing him in more films, like his bits in Heathers (1989), Meet the Applegates (1991), Sleepwalkers (1992) and his second most well-known role, as Associate Bob in Demolition Man (1993). I loved his role in this film - he was like an outrageous Buddha with his flowing, heavy robes and that sneaky, smarmy gleam in his eye. It reminded me of a 1960s Batman villain. In addition to numerous voice over roles in a wide variety of animated series - and, most notably, in his third most famous role, the voice of The Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) - Glenn was also an amazing photographer and overall champion and supporter of the arts.

Rafaela Ottiano (1888-1942)

The second I saw this actress appear in Tod Browning's impressive The Devil-Doll (1936), I fell hopelessly in love. Playing Malita, the damaged assistant to Lionel Barrymore's revenge-seeking, escaped convict Paul Lavond (who, in his effort to elude the authorities, disguises himself as an old woman), Ottiano's first appearance is a bit startling. Sporting a shock of unruly hair that includes an artistically arranged white streak (perhaps inspired by the Bride of Frankenstein?) and hobbling around on one crutch, I was reminded of two current actresses that I also admired - Grace Zabriskie and Diane Salinger.

Perhaps a bit too stylized in an attempt to let the viewer know that she was the villain of the piece, her performance is fun and her facial reactions and wild eyes are put to great effect in a truly suspenseful scene where Lavond and Malita try to hide some stolen jewelry from a police officer. Plus Ottiano's ultimate intentions and madness come through when she declares, "We'll make the whole WORLD small!" - referring to Lavond's scheme of shrinking down his victims using a serum developed by Malita's deceased scientist husband.

After seeing her in this role, I looked into other films that she had appeared in and was surprised to see that she had quite the interesting career which further endeared me to her. A stage actress who eventually played opposite Mae West in the hit Broadway play, "Diamond Lil" (which led to the two actresses reprising their roles for the 1933 film version, She Done Him Wrong), another notable role for her was as Greta Garbo's maid in Grand Hotel (1932).

A line from Ottiano's Wikipedia entry made me laugh; "Throughout the 1930s, Rafaela Ottiano would often specialize in roles as sinister, malevolent, or spiteful women."

This, of course, means I need to see every single film she has ever been in.

Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) 
I recently watched James Whale's 1932 film, The Old Dark House and was immediately taken by the appearance of actor Ernest Thesiger who played Horace Femm, an incredibly effeminate and grotesque old man who's amazing, emaciated skull-like face was used perfectly in his role as the snotty and nervous host to a group of stranded motorists. His delivery of dialogue was impeccable - try not to smile when he articulates the line, "Have a potato".

Thesiger would reunite with director Whale for his most notorious role - that of Dr. Septimus Pretorius (best name ever?) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

All accounts appear to indicate that Ernest was as much a colorful character in real life as he was on film and stage. Openly gay, Thesiger was originally intent on being an artist before focusing on acting. He continued to paint watercolor throughout his life and also enjoyed needlepoint. So much so that he even wrote a book called Adventures in Embroidery.

Unusual and clearly fabulous, Ernest Thesiger was one of a kind...and definitely ahead of his time.

Check out the incredibly well-researched ernestthesiger.org for lots of great info and photography.

Diana Browne (?-?)

Probably THE most obscure actress I've ever been interested in. Basket Case (1982) features what is most likely the only role she has ever played on screen. Diana plays the evil Dr. Judith Kutter, a ruthless veterinarian who separates an unfortunate set of conjoined twins. They are on a mission of revenge and she is not pleased about it.

The thing that immediately drew me to her was her wacky, Ruth Buzzi-on-steroids appearance and her persistent nastiness. Plus she meets a memorable demise at the hands of the monstrous Belial in a truly unforgettable example of amazing, low-budget special effects makeup.

I asked director Frank Henenlotter about her, asking "Who was that incredible lady?" Turns out she was a friend of a friend and he ultimately lost touch with her. What a shame. I would have loved to have seen her in other films. I could have seen her playing parts like The Evil Judge, The Evil High School Principal or The Evil Department of Motor Vehicles Lady.