Category Archives: Obituaries

Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

When I wrote my tribute to Robin Williams, who knew I was being prophetic with my opening line.  One has to wonder if the afterlife was getting low on comedy with the passing of two giants in such a short time…

One’s memory of Joan Rivers depends largely on when you were first exposed to her.  In thinking about it, I see 3 distinct eras for one of the hardest working woman in entertainment:

  • Stand-up comedienne – to be fair she did this her whole life, but it was her early career that launched everything else
  • Talk-Show Host/Plastic Surgery – From her time with The Tonight Show to having her own daytime talk show, the stories had a hard time competing with the amount of stories related to her fascination with plastic surgery
  • Fashion Critic – the acerbic wit turned loose on the red carpet as she said things we wished we could to people

For me, I was exposed to her during the second era.  I remember her being Johnny’s permanent guest host, and then I remember the bitter feud that developed due to her wanting to take a shot at her own show on Fox.  To date, she is still the only female to have hosted a late-night talk show on a non-cable network.  It was also during this time I remember hearing (and sharing) the plastic surgery jokes.  To me, a bright spot is when she appeared in Mel Brooks’s Star-Wars parody, Spaceballs.  If you think about her role, it sort of symbolizes her career over the years:  no matter how much people tried to keep her in the background or “keep her down” in general, she always managed to produce quality, memorable work.

One of the best things to happen to her this year was Jimmy Fallon’s olive branch to her to come back on The Tonight Show.  In both appearances, one could tell she was happy to be back on a show whose history was intertwined with her career.  Now one hopes that she and Johnny have reconciled in the great comedy club in the sky…


Robin Williams, 1951-2014

As one grows up, there are actors and actresses that you expect to pass away during your lifetime.  Many, when they do pass, tend to evoke the response of “wow, they lasted that long…”  Then there are those entertainers whom you expect to be there forever.  For me, Robin Williams is one of those that falls in the latter category.  Since hearing the news, I knew that I would have to write this, and that I would need to do it while the feelings were fresh.  I just wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it.  So I spent some time away from the computer and watched The Birdcage.  After finishing it, I felt ready to write.

The only way to properly do this is to approach it as if I were talking about my latest adventures at the movies.  Instead, as the soundtrack to Hook plays, I am going to tell you about how I grew up with the boy who truly never grew up.

morkandmindyIn the late 70s, I was but a wee lad.  Watching TV with the parents was fun as I got my weekly diet of Happy Days.  In 1978, a strange episode aired that looked to be a weird way for Happy Days to try to capture some of the interest people were having in aliens after the mega-success of Star Wars.  An alien named Mork showed up and my TV watching changed.  Mom was never big into science fiction, so mainly Dad and I would watch Mork & Mindy each week.  Mom would catch snippets every once in a while.  We moved out to Cheyenne, WY, in 1979 – a place that was as alien to us as anything that would pop out of a spaceship.  While living there, we happened to visit Boulder, CO, where the show was set.  We soon moved back east, but I kept watching.

popeyeIn 1980, my first exposure to the idea of making animation live-action happened when I heard they wanted to release a live-action Popeye, with Mork in the title role (I was 9 and only knew of him as Mork).  I wanted to see it, but my parents were not interested due to hearing bad things about it (i.e. it was a bad movie).  So I never got to see it on the big screen, but I have seen it on video since.  While it is not great, it is ambitious, and the casting of Robin Williams and Shelly Duval was spot on.  I think it didn’t do well because it wasn’t Mork being Mork or a frenetic Robin Williams doing his stand-up.  In what would become a theme for him in the 80s, people were not ready to accept Robin Williams the actor.

While Williams started exploring his acting range, the results were mixed in audience reception.  Even though he was the main character in The World According To Garp, all of the news seemed to circulate about how John Lithgow played a transsexual.  Moscow On Best_of_times_posterThe Hudson received good comments from critics for Williams’s acting, but bombed at the box office due to how it was marketed versus what unfolded on the screen.  At this point, Mork & Mindy had been off the air for two years and newer stand-ups like Eddie Murphy had stolen the comedy spotlight.  Williams didn’t let it dissuade him from taking interesting roles, but he did make sure there was room to work his comedic skills.  In 1986, he paired up with Kurt Russell in The Best Of Times.  By this point, I was 16 and would go see a broader range of movies.  Mom has always like Kurt Russell and asked me to go see this with her.  The movie is about two men replaying the final big high school football game in their career, and playing the “what if?” game of what life would have been like if they had won the game.  The movie also delved into some relationship stuff without getting too heavy.  While not a great movie, it wasn’t bad.  That same year, Robin Williams showed his humanitarian side by teaming up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to headline Comic Relief, a charity that focused on the homeless.

Who knew that all of this would be the quiet before the storm…?

Good_Morning,_VietnamIn 1987, audiences were finally mature enough to appreciate the range of Williams’s acting with Good Morning Vietnam.  Based on the life of Adrian Cronauer, Williams played an Armed Forces DJ that was supposed to help keep up morale.  The story evolves as he becomes known to the locals, and is despised as a “rebel” by his superior officers.  Many of the “broadcasts” in the movie are improvised bits from Williams.  While there were comedic moments, Disney was taking a big risk with this film.  Released under the more-adult Touchstone banner, a lot of the movie is focused on the character development of Williams and the complexities surrounding Vietnam.  Having been a baby when Vietnam was happening, it was difficult to put the movie in a proper frame outside of what I knew from history books.  In addition to creating one of the most quotable lines over the past 30 years in movies, Williams picked up what would be his first of 4 Oscar nominations, and kick off a 5 year-run that firmly established him as an actor for all genres.  This was also the start of a long partnership with Disney.  In 1989, Robin Williams provided the onscreen talent for the Disney/MGM Studios Animation tour when the park first opened.  This remained in place for about 12-15 years.

1989 brought us another iconic role from Williams in the form of Dead Poets Society.  Now, as much as it pains me to say this, I have not seen this movie.  It came out while I was recovering from a severe accident that sidelined me from seeing movies over a 4-5 month time span.  It garnered another Best Actor nomination, but the Academy was still reluctant to honor his work.  Upon hearing of his passing today, Erik Childress offered this video clip as to how the Academy should remember him during next year’s telecast:

Dead Poets Society Ending

This was followed by another dramatic movie, Awakenings.  While Robert De Niro got the nomination for Best Actor, many thought that Robin Williams should have been nominated for his work as the doctor.  At this point, it is now 1991, which saw the release of two vastly different, but important entries to Williams’s filmography.  The Fisher King continued the dramatic path that Williams had been on and earned him yet another Oscar nomination.

hook-posterThen Christmas 1991 arrived with Steven Spielberg’s ambitious live-action tale of Peter Pan titled Hook.  While some of my friends get annoyed with my waxing poetic about the soundtrack for this movie, what they haven’t heard a lot about is how much I truly enjoyed this movie.  I liked the idea of seeing what happened if Peter Pan grew up.  The movie also featured a cast that had star-power at every level.  Sadly, too many audiences let the production trouble news affect how they saw the movie.  Regardless, this movie shows us the struggle that Robin Williams was having: people wanted him to be the boy who never grew up, but he had more serious responsibilities.  This movie works because it is his soul.

1992 saw a continuation of the Disney partnership in two ways.  Disney was able to get Williams to become the voice of a robot for the revamp of their 360-Circlevision attraction in the Magic Kingdom.  While the video is long, check out his performance, and notice how the Imagineers even made the robot look like him.  Thanks goes out to WDW News Today for providing this video:

The Timekeeper

Yet this pales in comparison to what was unleashed at Christmas.  Disney raladdineleased Aladdin and continued its streak of blockbuster animation.  Those who had missed out on the 70s and 80s when Robin Williams was at his zaniest, got a full taste with this movie.  Prior to this, Disney had steered clear of anything that would “put a date” on their movie.  In casting Williams as the Genie, Disney had to allow some pop culture to seep in in order to capture the full performance.

The final movie in this improbable 5-6 year run was Mrs. Doubtfire.  Continuing the path of family-oriented movies that started with Hook, Williams plays a father that is divorced from his family.  He assumes the role of a housekeeper in order to stay close, and the typical hijinks ensue.  Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan help tell this tale, and it remains light-hearted enough to still be considered a comedy.

birdcageSadly though, streaks are meant to be broken.  What followed seemed to be the story of his movie career: iconic hits with a lot of mediocre to bad movies in between.  Jumanji, while intriguing as a concept, suffered from poor story development.  Nine Months was more for Hugh Grant than Robin Williams.  1996 brought us another memorable movie, The Birdcage.  What made this interesting is that Robin Williams had to play the straight man to all of the wackiness around him, no pun intended.  Yet it is in the quiet moments that you see the true power of his talent as he wrestles with choices that parents go through.

1997 finally brought the role to Robin Williams that would validate his acting in Good Will Hunting.  For his turn as a psychologist, Williams was honored with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  While he never won when nominated as Best Actor, he won the only time nominated as a Supporting Actor.  The family-oriented pictures continued with his remake of the Absent-Minded Professor titled Flubber.

2002 saw another part of Williams – his dark side.  Insomnia and One Hour Photo both showed how he could be a truly terrifying villain if he wanted to be.  While I did not see One Hour Photo, I did see Insomnia and was blown away by his performance.  Sadly the only other movies I saw him in were the two Night At The Museum movies.  This is because I would hear bad things about the other movies right before going to see them.

Fittingly, my time with Robin Williams ends where it began: on television.  CBS aired The Crazy Ones in the 2013-2014 season.  While it never did well in the ratings, I watched it because I enjoyed seeing him on the small screen again.  He does have 4 movies in post-production that will come out.  Yet I can’t help but think selfishly of all of the unknown comedy we, the fans, will miss because he is gone.  The last time I felt this way was when Phil Hartman tragically passed.

While rumors swirl as to why he passed, I want to remember Robin Williams as he sought to bring joy to others.  The best way to close this out is with the music video for Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.  Not only is the message poignant tonight, it shows a young Robin Williams playing on camera…

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

The art of movie reviewing has suffered yet another loss.

In this age of technology where anyone can throw up a website and start spouting their opinions as if people cared <trying not to look in the mirror right now>, the art of honest critique has been reduced to whatever inflammatory remark can generate web hits.  Yet we forget that not so long ago, we held certain public critics in esteem.

As I have mentioned before on this site, Siskel & Ebert were reviewers that I grew to know from the time I was still single-digit in years.  There were times where I thought they were too harsh on movies I liked and there were other times where I thought they were spot on.  What I didn’t realize until much later is that they helped with the development of thinking critically.  They didn’t simply tell you a movie was bad; they took the time to explain why.  While Siskel was admittedly the more artsy of the two, it was Ebert that I often agreed with more.

Roger, in his relaxed manner, never made the audience feel stupid.  He gave his critiques in common language and used analogies that sat well with most.  Watching the ease at which he seemed to fit with the “common man,” it is easy to forget that this man also won a Pulitzer and wrote a screenplay that became a major movie (one that he refused to review out of conflict of interest).  He was the one that introduced me to the concept of story being important.  He understood that not every movie was made to win the Academy Award; that at the heart of it all, movies were there to tell stories.  It didn’t matter the genre or premise, but if the story was true, and those making the movie believed in it, then the movie would blossom.  Rarely did he blame technique – the issue with most bad movies was the story or the director failing to get the cast to execute the story.

Sadly, his last few years of life were filled with constant battles.  Yet, over the past few years, Roger Ebert left the world a virtual treasure trove of written essays, reviews , and opinions about so many things beyond the world of entertainment.  Did I necessarily agree with all of it? No, but I think he wanted it that way.  He wanted to spark discussion and thinking.  He embraced Twitter and social media when he could no longer speak; he let his keyboard do that for him.  In 2010, he even started an electronic newsletter that gave you a link to more writings and all he asked for was a one-time fee of $5.  While he caught flack for that request, I gladly gave the $5 and now have 162 copies sitting in my email folder.   Sadly the last one was delivered just a couple of days ago on 4/3.

I will never know if he ever visited this site, even though I sent the link to him years ago in response to a question he asked on Twitter.  I would like to think that if he did, he enjoyed what he saw.  I do hope that wherever he is, he is reunited with Siskel in a private screening room, enjoying their favorite movies over and over again.

As the balcony lights dim for the last time, I leave you with a few quotes from Mr. Ebert that showed his character:

  • From a review of a Rob Schneider movie: “If he’s going to persist in making bad movies, he’s going to have to grow accustomed to reading bad reviews.”
  • “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.”
  • “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
  • “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn’t”

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

When the Cross household finally entered the days of home video in the mid-80s, my parents sought out movies they had enjoyed in their younger days.  Interestingly enough, they could not locate some they wanted to see featuring Elizabeth Taylor.  They had lived through the days of media reports regarding her many affairs and remembered the stories of her and Richard Burton.  Sadly, the first experience I remember clearly of Ms. Taylor was when she made appearances in the 80s with Michael Jackson.  I remember how a big deal was made of her becoming Maggie’s voice on an episode of The Simpsons – all over one word, “DaDa.”  The first time I saw her on a movie screen was in the live-action version of The Flintstones.

I know, pretty daggum sad for me to admit these travesties.

While I may not have experienced her work at the high-point of her career, I do know that she was a star that transcended generations.  At least we are privileged enough to be able to view her body of work any time we like…

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010

This is truly an amazing time we live in.  As I was playing in a freeroll tournament online, the Tweetdeck window I had open to the side started lighting up with the news of Leslie Nielsen’s passing.  Being the cynical person I am, I refused to believe it until major news outlets confirmed the news an hour later.

While Nielsen enjoyed a career that started in the 50s, I, like many of my friends, was introduced to him as one of the stars of Airplane! and Police Squad.  With the release of The Naked Gun, he was firmly cemented in my head as the guy who always played the bumbling straight man.  However, that was not fair to his career.

As I learned more about him each time he released a new comedy, I was astonished to learn about his early career as a dramatic actor, particularly one that played the villain.  About 15 years ago, I found one of his last villain roles while flipping channels – his role as a controlling, vengeful husband in Creepshow.  Seeing the pure malice and homicidal emotions that easily played across his face, I instantly understood why everyone was amazed at his ability to do comedy.As a side note, it seems that every time I find Creepshow playing, it is always during his vignette.

While most online blogs and articles are using some form of the “Shirley” line to end their tributes, I think Mr. Nielsen would approve of the use of his closing line from Creepshow to end this tribute (particularly given the circumstances causing death):

<maniacal laughing> “I can hold my breath a long time…gurgle….a long time……gurgle….”