RIP Dom DeLuise

The portly comic has passed. Dom DeLuise’s hyper neurotic persona was a mainstay of 70s and 80s comedy. He began as a comedian with an act as a bumbling magician on the Dean Martin show, and was so popular he became a regular. His film career began with a small role as a nervous airman in the nuclear thriller Fail-Safe and then switched to comic roles, most famously alongside Burt Reynolds in the Cannonball Run movies and The End.

He had small parts in the Mel Brooks farces Blazing Saddles and Silent Movie, and starred in his own overlooked 80’s comedy Fatso about a lonely porker’s attempt to diet. I bumped it to the top of my NetFlix queue; haven’t seen it in ages, and remember it was hilarious. Dom suffered from ill health for many years, and switched to voice roles in animated films such as The Secret of NIMH and An American Tail.

He was one of those personalities who seemed to be everywhere, and that’s not a fat joke. He made cookbooks, children’s books, TV shows. He should have occupied a Hollywood Square. RIP, Dom. You were one of a kind. Maybe not the greatest, but unique and honest to yourself. I hope you get to slap Burt Reynolds around in the afterlife, when he gets there.

Frank Langella admits that Skeletor was his favorite role

Frank Langella is up for the Best Actor Oscar this year for his excellent portrayal of President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but when he was asked what his favorite role was on CBS Sunday Morning, he didn’t mention that one. Or Dracula, the role that made him a ’70s sex symbol, or the evil politician from Dave.

Nope, it’s Skeletor in the enormous late-’80s flop The Masters of the Universe, based on the cartoon. If you haven’t seen it, click here for my review.

Here’s Langella’s interview on CBS Sunday Morning. He’s a brave man, and said he took the role because his son watched the He-Man cartoon. It’s pretty awesome that he starred in a disaster of a B movie for his son’s enjoyment. No wonder he had so much fun with the role. Most actors say that hours of make-up is a pain in the butt, but the very private Langella endured it for his kid, and I respect that. I feel bad for mocking his taking the part now, but he and Billy Barty were really the best parts. To see how he prepared for Nixon, I suggest watching him as Skeletor. You won’t regret it.

R.I.P. Eartha Kitt – Emperor’s New Groove review, too

Jill of all trades Eartha Kitt passed away yesterday at 81; calling her a singer pigeonholes an artist of many talents, and robs a brave performer of her accomplishments. Probably best known as the singer of “Santa Baby” and as the second Catwoman in the Batman TV series, she performed alongside Sidney Poitier in film, under the direction of Orson Welles onstage, and in several Broadway shows, including Shinbone Alley and Timbuktu. She and Welles had a torrid affair, after which he called her “the most exciting woman in the world,” this from a man who knew plenty of exciting women.
In 1968 she was outspoken against the Vietnam war, and it was claimed she made Lady Bird Johnson cry when she spoke her mind at a White House luncheon; this led to a professional exile in the States, but at least she kept her principles. Details are here; being ‘uppity’ in front of a Texan first lady had her blackballed within hours. Sources vary, but one quote is that she said “We’re marching them off to die, no wonder they’re smoking pot,” and Lady Bird considered this “uncivilized.” Eartha would return to Broadway, disco hits, and movies in the ’80s after working in Europe. So Catwoman led 9 lives.

“The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth — in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth — you get your face slapped and you get put out of work,” -Eartha Kitt

My favorite role of hers of recent memory is as the evil witch Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the most underappreciated of Disney efforts. The whole film was nearly torpedoed by boss idiot Michael Eisner, and it remains one of the best of Disney’s final attempts at traditional animation, despite his meddling. She was to have a big music number in the film, but Eisner had it cut. This is detailed in a documentary called The Sweatbox, which Disney has unfortunately kept from wide release.

Like Lilo & Stitch, this was an original story with just enough hipness and wit to make it appeal to adults, some beautifully stylized animation, a kickass soundtrack with Tom Jones and Sting, and celeb voice actors who are recognizable but also craft characters instead of playing themselves. It’s great stuff. The story? Emperor Cuzco (David Spade) is your typical self-absorbed royal type; after he fires his witchy advisor Yzma and her henchman Kronk (Patrick Warburton), she curses him and turns him into a llama. Hilarity ensues, and Cuzco has to beg for help from the lovable peasant lug Pacha (John Goodman) who he’s already humiliated by planning to build a pool on his ancestral village.
The humor varies from deadpan to cute to absurd, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it never felt like a typical Disney movie when I saw it back in 2000. They briefly embraced this kind of humor before diving face first into the pop-culture toilet with dreck like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but The Emperor’s New Groove holds up surprisingly well. Lacking any classic Batman episodes on DVD, I’m watching it now. Eartha’s Yzma is one of the funniest Disney villains, a self-effacing role that plays on her status as an aged diva, and she never misses a beat. Playing against the snarky David Spade at the height of his popularity is no easy task, and she nearly steals the show.
The movie isn’t perfect, and is kind of short at 77 minutes- Eartha’s song (included on the soundtrack CD) would have padded it to only 80 or so. But it’s a fine showcase of Eartha’s range, humor and talent, and shows she was still sharp well into her seventies. As recently as 2006 she was performing off-Broadway in Mimi le Duck, and her final role looks like a role in an indie film, And Then Came Love. She worked until the end, on her own terms, and what more can an artist want?

Paul Newman R.I.P.

His last film role.

We lost one of the greats this weekend. Not just a great actor, but a great human being. Paul Newman, that tall angular leading man of the ice blue eyes and scrappy attitude, passed into the great beyond this weekend, at age 83. He had cancer in his last years but you probably didn’t know; he fought it with quiet dignity, and didn’t become infused with a sudden need to raise money and awareness of a disease he was dying of. Besides, he already donated $250 million to charity through his “Newman’s Own” products- which started as a lark and became a household name. And damn, Paw Newman makes some good cookies.
My cousin Lou Taylor Pucci got to ride in Mr. Newman’s private jet when they were filming one of his last projects, Empire Falls. It was a two-part HBO miniseries based on Richard Russo’s novel about a dying New England town. Lou played a teen kicked around by shitty parents and school bullies; Newman was a shiftless old moocher, and played the part with gusto. The part had shades of an early famous role as Hud, the amoral prodigal son, all growed up; it was original enough that we weren’t sure if we liked it, because he hit the truth about absentee, self-absorbed family men. You want to like them, but it’s like hugging a porcupine.

Holding his own against force of nature Jackie Gleason

Newman may have played heroic rebels as in my favorite film of his, Cool Hand Luke, but he made his bones playing tragically flawed men. Eddie from The Hustler, who never knew when to quit; Sully in Nobody’s Fool, who was anything but; Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, living in Big Daddy’s shadow; the fearsome Judge Roy Bean. Then there were the anti-heroes with that sly grin of his, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or the grifter in The Sting. Or his breakout role as Rocky Graziano in the boxing classic Somebody Up There Likes Me. Somebody sure did, and he turned those steely good looks into a serious acting career after being dismissed as another pretty face at first.

He had a sense of humor about himself too.

One of his great later roles as the washed-up lawyer in The Verdict will be on Cinemax this week. And Turner Classic Movies is certain to do a retrospective, if you need some catching up. As for me, I’m glad the race-car obsessed fellow got his last memorable role as a voice in Cars, a fitting end. Kids’ll recognize Doc’s voice in an old b/w film and perhaps give it a try sometime. And they’ll become acquainted with unforgettable characters like Luke, or Butch Cassidy. Rest in peace, Paul. I’ve got some dressing of yours in the fridge, maybe I’ll have some salad and hard-boiled eggs tonight while I watch you sing “Plastic Jesus” in Cool Hand Luke.

RIP Stan Winston, bringing Terminators and Aliens to the Great Beyond

Sadly, special effects designer Stan Winston has passed into the great beyond. He was responsible for designing most of the most memorable robots, creatures and aliens from the 80’s onward.

Here’s a short list:

The Terminator trilogy
The Thing
Batman Returns
Edward Scissorhands
Interview with the Vampire
Big Fish
Galaxy Quest
Monster Squad

and finally, Iron Man.

His effects were the best- Terminator 2 being a prime example. Did you know when Arnold is getting shot to hell by the cops as he walks out of the elevator, that it’s a model? Crazy, I thought it was squibs or something. And Iron Man was such a perfect mix of CG and models that we’ll be pausing it on our HDTVs for hours trying to tell what’s which.

RIP, Mr. Winston. You scared the shit out of me and thrilled the hell out of me. Your talent will be missed.

Count de Money RIP … goodbye Harvey Korman

de Monet, de Monet…

Comedic actor Harvey Korman died yesterday at the age of 81, from complications of heart surgery. Harvey was a mainstay in the comedies I enjoyed growing up- Mel Brooks, the Carol Burnett Show. He usually played the straight man or the bad guy, and no one played a funnier villain if you ask me.

A video tribute to Harvey Korman.
Probably most famous for playing Hedy Lamarr (Hedley, HEDLEY!) in Blazing Saddles, Harve also appeared in some of Tim Conway’s best sketches on Carol Burnett, like The Dentist, and some of his own. Most memorable was their spoof of Gone With the Wind, where he played Rhett Butler. He could ooze slime and still give off a sympathetic weakness, as in Blazing Saddles when he could say stuff like:

“I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.”

and then scramble in the bath tub for his little froggy toy. The sad fact about the Mel Brooks movies is that unless you can empathize with the characters, many of the jokes are just puns. Comedy is a lot different today, though Judd Apatow is putting good characters back into the genre. He’ll be sorely missed. So, I’ll leave you with the Carol Burnett video, and some of my favorite lines ol’ Harve uttered in his illustrious career.

Hedley Lamarr: My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.

Count de Monet: Don’t get saucy with me, Bearnaise.

Hedley Lamarr: Shut up, you Teutonic twat!

It Went With the Wind

Charlton Heston succumbs to those damn dirty apes

Charlton Heston dies at age 84

Heston was one of my favorite actors. Everyone knows him from Planet of the Apes, and perhaps Ben-Hur or Moses, but he was always memorable. Even playing a Mexican police officer in Touch of Evil! With the Alzheimer’s, we can only hope that he didn’t suffer. I can’t imagine a worse fate, seeing your own mind go.

He had a memorable cameo in True Lies, and was an awesome villain as Cardinal Richelieu in the Musketeer trilogy in the 70’s. Add Soylent Green and the Omega Man, and he was in many of the iconic science fiction films of the 70’s as well.

Being an NRA member myself, I never held his presidency of the organization against him, and felt that Michael Moore was pretty disgusting in his treatment of him, and it was a sad end to a great career.

Major Dundee is being shown on Turner Classic Movies in an extended cut on April 8th, under their “starring Richard Harris” feature this month, but Heston was also in it, and it’s directed by Peckinpah. It’s hard to pass up Harris, Peckinpah, and Heston working together. I’ll be glued to the set. I’ll probably watch Planet of the Apes tonight in his honor. RIP, Charlton. I hope they bury you with that antique shotgun the NRA gave you, lest no gun-grabbing fat weasel like Moore pry it from your cold, dead hands.