Archive | Obituaries RSS feed for this section

Donna Summer

I am sad to hear that Donna Summer has died of cancer at 63. Though not a fan of disco, I like her danceable songs, especially “Heaven Knows”. I also like her rock tunes, such as “She Works Hard for the Money”. I liked her 2008 album so much that I choreographed and danced a routine to one of its tracks, an anthem called “Stamp Your Feet”. What I wrote on my blog in August 2008 about what turns out to be her last album:

“The year’s most exciting pop album is Donna Summer’s Crayons, which includes the former disco diva’s varietal takes on reggae, electronic pop and a hypnotically romantic melody, “Sand on My Feet” [written for her husband, Bruce Sudano, who survives her]. The CD is dedicated to Summer’s husband and it features the single, “Stamp Your Feet,” which she performed earlier this year on American Idol. Crayons is an excellent piece of work and you’ll never think of Donna Summer—whose concert I’m attending this weekend—as only a disco diva again. Top tracks: the smooth, sensual “Drivin Down Brazil,” which makes you want to light some candles, the raunchy Tina Turner-esque “Slide Over Backwards,” and the rock-n-roll number “Fame (the Game)” which mocks going Hollywood. Also worth a listen: “Science of Love” and “Be Myself Again”. These songs ought to get a hearing in the nightclubs.”

Rest in peace, Donna Summer.

Comments { 0 }

Dick Clark, 1929 – 2012

I don’t know what it was that I liked about Dick Clark, who died in Santa Monica, California, this morning, but I think it has something central to do with accessibility. Whether he was hosting American Bandstand on ABC and asking the questions you’d want to ask of the latest rock star or recording artist of your new favorite hit song, being happy about New Year’s Eve or reacting to some mistake or crucial error made on one of the inflationary incarnations of his game show The $10,000 Pyramid, Dick Clark, like his name, was always conveying openness. Access – to music, money won for clear thinking and spectacular performances – was his credo.

It all began, according to most of today’s voluminous obituaries, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he started hosting what became American Bandstand in 1957. His tenure there – the music and dance show ran on ABC until 1989, moving to Los Angeles, California in 1964 – parallels America’s post-industrial climax of the late 20th century. His Bandstand reign took us through energetic rock-n-roll, racial integration and an end to “whites and coloreds” and a superficial post-war economic boom until an abrupt end in the 1990s, which ushered in an era of rap, grunge, “people of color” political correctness and cultural nihilism, political disunity and economic hardship. Dick Clark kept doing his thing.

Besides being accessible, he was honest. I am too young to remember the early Bandstand years that my Baby Boomer friends recall with fondness, and frankly his annual New Year’s Rockin’ Eve was always a last resort in my home, but he was an underappreciated asset for both Bandstand and Pyramid. His rapport with teen-agers on Bandstand‘s Rate-a-Record segment was punctuated with sharp comments, wry retorts to sullen teens and his congenial manner shouldn’t obscure what were keen insights and intelligent questions of artists – top actors played on Pyramid and he often engaged them about their past and present performances, expressing sincere admiration for their works – and in this sense he was deeply influential in the culture.

Perhaps Dick Clark was primarily a businessman, adopting the Andrew Carnegie model for vertical business integration across multiple platforms and profiting from his various ventures. As he reportedly told the New York Times in 1961, “I get enormous pleasure and excitement sitting in on conferences with accountants, tax experts and lawyers.” I know firsthand that his Santa Monica screening room is one of the most cordial, friendly places to attend advance movie screenings; it bears the mark of his personal attention to detail. Clark started working in the mailroom of his father’s radio station at 17 and he went on to produce or have a hand in producing everything from scads of meaningless awards shows to Murder in Texas (1981) with Farrah Fawcett and Sam Elliott, director John Carpenter’s excellent television movie Elvis (1979) starring Kurt Russell, a 1973 TV special for singer Roberta Flack, The First Time Ever, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Dick Clark was a pioneer in racial integration. “We didn’t do it because we were do-gooders, or liberals,” he said, according to the Times. “It was just a thing we thought we ought to do.” His early broadcasting hero, he said, was Arthur Godfrey. “I emulated him,” Clark said. “I loved him, I adored him, because he had the ability to communicate to one person who was listening or watching. Most people would say, in a stentorian voice, ‘Good evening, everyone.’ Everyone? Godfrey knew there was only one person listening at a time.”

I think my favorite moment was a few years ago when he returned to the New Year’s Eve broadcast after a seriously debilitating stroke, an act of courage that was ridiculed by TV’s cynics and malcontents who unfortunately have taken his place on television. Though I’d never been a fan of his rockin’ eves, on that particular New Year’s Eve I wanted to stand up and cheer. Dick Clark, who made his living by being an attractive and articulate host, was parodied for being “America’s teen-ager” for being perpetually youthful, and died this morning at 82, said to hell with it and went before millions of viewers exactly as he was. That night, he told the viewer: “Last year I had a stroke. It left me in bad shape. I had to teach myself how to walk and talk again. It’s been a long, hard fight. My speech is not perfect but I’m getting there.” He added: “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

Comments { 0 }

Cathie Wright, 1929 – 2012

Former California State Senator Cathie Wright died this morning at 9 a.m. from complications of dementia at her home in Simi Valley, her daughter, who was at her side, told me earlier today. She was 82. I first met her a few years ago at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum during an event featuring comedian Dennis Miller. We hit it off and had planned to work together. Sadly, Mrs. Wright, who served Simi Valley, Ventura County and California in city council, state Assembly and state Senate, and had run against Gray Davis for lieutenant governor in 1994, became ill before we really got started, though we remained friends. She was a tough and independent legislator who, like me, was born in Pennsylvania and raised as a Roman Catholic, which she remained until the end. I will miss Cathie Wright. She was decent, honest and even-handed. Right now, I am thinking of her only child, Victoria Catherine, and her granddaughter, and those lucky enough to have known the indomitable Cathie Wright. May she rest in peace.

Comments { 0 }

Remembering Andrew Breitbart

Media activist Andrew Breitbart died this morning in Los Angeles at the age of 43, according to one of his Web sites. While I do not agree with his activist approach to communications or his political philosophy, he exposed hypocrisy in the liberal-dominated media. He got people thinking about the press. The media has become an industry of toadying influence peddlers that ignore, distort or evade the facts, support the welfare state and cheer for total government control, so it makes sense that his media activism caught on. Breitbart activated and participated in major news, such as corruption and hypocrisy among those in power, and he brought important news to the public’s attention as he denounced collectivism. Though his career was more reactive than creative, Breitbart was often passionate about what he regarded as liberty.

I heard the charismatic conservative address an enthusiastic crowd last year. He arrived late and proceeded to talk extemporaneously for almost an hour – no small achievement – about a range of issues, taking questions and going well past his scheduled time. He also rambled, used foul language and stalled in several spots, going completely off the topic. I left thinking that Breitbart’s was an essentially libertarian view of freedom, mixed with a conservative’s religious morality. At times, he bordered on incoherent, so I wondered if he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol and concluded that he was not a healthy person. I can’t say that I am shocked by his death. I say this partly because some are sure to speculate about his cause of death. I have since read that he had a history of health problems. Andrew Breitbart shed light on the media and the government. The husband and father was an avenger when he thought there had been a particular injustice. He did not stand by and do nothing when he thought something was wrong. Whatever else, in a nation heading toward dictatorship, that makes him better than most Americans.

Peter Breck, Nick on ‘Big Valley’, Dies at 82

Peter Breck, the actor who played Nick Barkley on ABC’s one-hour Western starring Barbara Stanwyck, The Big Valley (1965-1969), died in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada last Monday. He was 82. His death was announced by his wife, Diane, on the Big Valley fan forum Web site The Big Valley Writing Desk.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Breck, who appeared in movies such as I Want to Live! with Susan Hayward and as the father in Benji, for my online column in 2006. I found him to be nothing like his hot-tempered rancher character. He was kind and generous, talking about a range of issues for the short interview, which I conducted for Fox’s release of Big Valley‘s first season on DVD. He was also a regular on the TV Western Maverick starring James Garner. He ran an acting school in Canada with his wife after the couple moved there.

From my 2006 column and interview with Mr. Breck:

“For cinematic, larger-than-life television, The Big Valley cannot be topped. Starring five first-rate actors as a wealthy ranching family, the sweeping, colorful outdoors series depicts an idealized American West. Respect is earned, ranching is business, and cowboys are heroes. It’s rugged individualism in one rich, powerful family.

“The Barkleys own half the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870s. Widow Victoria is played by the indomitable movie star Barbara Stanwyck, eldest Jarrod, a San Francisco lawyer, by the late Richard Long, angelic Audra by Linda Evans (Dynasty) and half-brother Heath by a young Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man). Despite Heath being fathered by her late husband and another woman, Victoria welcomes him into the family with her head held high, in defiance of the community, which refuses to accept Heath as a Barkley.

“The Big Valley also features Heath’s rough, intemperate brother Nick, played by actor Peter Breck, who recalls the fistfights, the shootouts and the demanding stunts. In one episode, Nick drives a Mexican cattleman, played by Martin Landau, off Barkley land when he won’t remove an anthrax-infected herd. But Breck’s horse was spooked.

“I was dragged,” Breck remembered, speaking from his home in Canada. “Martin Landau was shooting over a rock and as I rode up, an explosion went off. I was over my mark, and Boom! The horse went on the wildest eleven seconds I ever had. At one point, I looked up and got it right in the bottom of my chin.” Another time, Nick and Heath encounter a rabid beast ready to pounce on the livestock. “It was a timber wolf,” Breck said. “They threw him off a rock and on to me and doubled the close-up with a German shepherd. We would rehearse it and the gaffers would get up there with him and throw him at me. The paws were going every which way.”

“That episode was “Night of the Wolf,” which memorably features director Ron Howard, already playing Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, as a boy who looks up to Nick. Other first season guest stars include Katharine Ross (The Graduate) as the beautiful Mexican aristocrat who is Heath’s first love, Charles Bronson as an alcoholic trapped in a collapsed church with Victoria following an earthquake and Beah Richards (Sidney Poitier’s mother in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) as a woman who helped raise bastard Heath.

“Like Gunsmoke, The Big Valley dramatized serious conflicts on principle—involving property rights, justice, racism—and, like the similarly structured Bonanza, the action centered on a family. There the parallels end.

“From its rousing opening score, the show conveys an epic feel, with gorgeous photography in southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County that lingers on wide vistas that give the moral dilemmas a broader canvass. The cast is easy on the eyes, too, whether Audra gallops across the landscape in her form-fitting Western wear to watch the wild Mustangs or the virile Barkley boys are on screen.

“The Barkleys’ idealism, evident in nearly every episode, is anchored in realism threaded with ironic humor. Each member of the family is unique—Jarrod is consistently rational, Nick is passionate, Heath is introspective, Audra is kind—and they are united by common values.

“Holding them together, insisting that each be treated as an individual, is Miss Stanwyck as their mother, an unwavering voice of reason and integrity and always with love. 77-year-old Breck, whose stage work spans Shakespeare, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and his personal favorite, Cyrano de Bergerac, said working with one of the screen’s brightest stars was a constant reward.

“I’d get chills,” Breck explained. “She would look at me with those eyes and our characters had a bond. Barbara was a tiger.” Breck, who lost his only child to leukemia when his son was 28, lives with his wife of 46 years in British Columbia, far from Hollywood in more ways than geography. “I do miss the old Hollywood,” he told this columnist, “I’m not too happy with what’s there now. I did Jiminy Glick in La La Wood—they gave me the role of the head of the studio—and it was just a rush job. Everything’s too fast now and you can’t go bang-bang-bang and get a performance.” As an afterthought, he added: “They don’t make good movies anymore.”

“They do, however, make DVDs of good television shows—and Breck, whose horseback riding in the majestic show still rustles up the Old West, ought to be proud to know that The Big Valley is one of them.”