Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Shedding a Tear for Those Who made Us Laugh

Alas, no Fred Willard on this poster

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a traditional time for Americans to remember those who lost their lives on the field of battle for the sake of our democracy. Sometimes I observe the day with posts about films like Glory, Dunkirk, and Apocalypse Now, movies that celebrate great hard-fought victories or explore those conflicts in which American lives were sacrificed in vain. This year, given the challenges we’re all facing, I’m going another route. One day after Memorial Day, I’m paying tribute to men and women who are no longer around to amuse us, to lift our spirits in dark times. Yes, I mean entertainers.

Some will associate Jerry Stiller with Seinfeld, or The King of Queens. And of course it’s well known he was Ben’s dad. But oldster that I am, I associate him with his wife and comedy partner Anne Meara, and their very funny radio spots plugging Blue Nun wine. The wine itself was mediocre, but the popular ads—in which he offers her “a little Blue Nun,” and she assumes he means a Catholic sister (see below for an audio clip), helped the distributors sell more than a million cases.

We’re also saying farewell to Fred Willard, the lovable master of mediocrity. (The New York Times described his specialty as playing men “gloriously out of their depth.”) He earned four Emmy nominations on behalf of his roles on Modern Family and Everybody Loves Raymond. But he’d spent 30 years in the entertainment industry before he leaped into the public consciousness through Christopher Guest’s semi-improvised comedies, including Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. Everyone’s favorite Fred Willard portrayal is doubtless that of the clueless TV commentator in Guest’s 2000 hit, Best in Show. Offering color commentary at a prestigious (read: snooty) dog competition, Willard cheerfully reminded viewers that in some nations dogs get eaten.

And then we lost a blast from the distant past. When I was little, Leave it to Beaver was essential TV viewing.  It was the usual family sitcom. Among the younger generation living in the Cleaver household, there was little Theodore (nicknamed The Beaver), and his teenaged brother Wally. And, of course, there was Wally’s smarmy pal, Eddie Haskell, he who was always kissing up to the adults, while also secretly plotting mischief. Eddie was played by Ken Osmond, who died this past week at age 76. Once Beaver went off the air, Ormond found himself typecast, and he eventually quit show biz. Unlikely as it seems, he ended up as an LAPD motorcycle cop. No, not – despite rumors to the contrary – a porn star.

I also salute two actors not specifically known for comedy. Shirley Knight is most associated with stage work, but accrued two Oscar nominations while still in her twenties for roles in screen adaptations of challenging works by Tennessee Williams and William Inge. I’ll never forget her in Dutchman (1966), a terrifying indie based on a rawly racial play by Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones) A sexy white woman meets a buttoned-down black man (Al Freeman Jr.) on a steamy subway train: fireworks ensue.

On the international front, we’ve also lost the great Indian actor, Irrfan Khan, dead at 53. Most of Khan’s hundreds of credits are in Indian films, but he also appeared in such American movies as Life of Pi, Jurassic World, and—poignantly—opposite Kelly Macdonald in 2018’s Puzzle. But I’ll always love the dignity he brought to The Lunchbox, the tender Mumbai-set story of an unhappy wife whose lovingly packed lunch gets delivered to a lonely widower .instead of to her ungrateful husband.

Hail and farewell.

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