Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Kirk Douglas Lives . . . but Others Fall by the Wayside

Sounds like People Magazine jumped the gun and published a pre-written obit for Kirk Douglas, still hale and hearty at 97. It’s no secret that magazines and newspapers write obituaries well in advance, so as not to be caught flat-footed when a celebrity shuffles off this mortal coil. But it’s downright embarrassing when a death notice proves premature.

Back in the nineteenth century, when his obituary appeared in the press, Mark Twain took the matter as a joke, quipping that the report of his demise had been much exaggerated. On the Internet, though, false stories circulate at lightning speed. Some are innocent errors; others have ulterior motives. I just heard that an old friend had suddenly died while on a holiday visit to another state. His heartbroken widow poignantly spread the word via Facebook. I’m still not absolutely certain that what I’ve read is true. Her request for help in arranging for a “proper burial” sounds so much like an Internet scam that I’m torn between being sad and being suspicious. Believe me, I’d like to think this is someone’s con game, and not the news of a good life that has ended much too soon.

Kirk Douglas may be alive and well in his nineties, but Hollywood has just lost three actresses whose talent did not insure longevity. All were particularly valuable because they represented communities that have not been generously portrayed on stage and screen. That’s one reason why I mourn their loss.

Misty Upham, age 32, was reported missing on October 6, after she left her sister’s home on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation in Auburn, Washington.  Ten days later, her body was found at the bottom of a steep cliff in a remote area marked by hairpin turns and dense woods. Her grieving family has accused local police of being slow to search for the missing young woman. They feel that old-fashioned racism was at work: in this region, tension between cops and Native Americans runs high, and Upham (who suffered from bipolar disorder) had already had one mysterious run-in with law enforcement types. Upham first attracted attention in the indie hit, Frozen River. As part of the ensemble in last year’s August: Osage County, she shared in a nomination for a SAG award. Her death removes the one young Native American actress who’d seemed destined to deliver honest portrayals of her people.

Elizabeth Peña, age 55, was Cuban-American. She broke through as Richie Valens’ first girlfriend in La Bamba, then had featured roles in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Jacob’s Ladder, and John Sayles’ Lone Star, which earned her an Indie Spirit award for Best Supporting Actress. More recently, she guested as Sofia Vergara’s Colombian mother in season 4 of TV’s Modern Family. Never quite a star, she nonetheless worked steadily, most often in ethnic roles. The cause of her death was reported as cirrhosis of the liver, due to alcoholism.

Sumi Haru was 75 when she died of emphysema in late October. Though she appeared in movies like Krakatoa: East of Java, she was better known as an activist, speaking out against film and stage productions that starred Caucasian actors playing Asian roles. She served for years as a SAG officer, but couldn’t make a living in her chosen profession. Ironically, her Japanese-sounding name was an invention: she was born Mildred Sevilla to Filipino parents. Apparently there was no Filipina niche available to Haru, and juicy Asian roles were few and far between. We needed all these women to help represent American as we know it. But they’re gone now, and that’s no hoax.


  1. The amazing Kirk Douglas has celebrated another birthday and is now 98! What a talent - and he gave us another round of talent with his children - and their children might be working on their own showbiz careers...

    I was not familiar with Misty Upham - but a death at that young age is always a tragedy.

    I was also not familiar with Sumi Haru - but I'm glad she worked to help Asian actors get the Asian roles they should be cast in. I don't want the old movies censored or sent back to the vaults - but I do agree there's no reason to be casting anyone other than an Asian to play an Asian these days.

    Elizabeth Pena is definitely known to me. She was a very talented actress I watched in dozens of movies and TV shows. The role I best remember her for was the one season ABC sitcom I Married Dora, which had the premise of an American businessman entering a marriage to his housekeeper and nanny to keep her from being deported. The guy tries to keep dating while ignoring the adoring woman right under his nose. The show wasn't great but the last episode was wild - because the producers knew the show was going to be cancelled - they decided to go out on the greatest note I've ever seen. Here's the final 24 seconds of the show:


    RIP ladies.

  2. I'm glad Kirk Douglas is alive and kicking, but my many long talks with Karen Kramer, Stanley's widow, have told me that Douglas could be a difficult customer. He loved taking credit for ending the blacklist, but the truth is that others did it first. More about that some other day.