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.