Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Bill Cobbs: That Thing He Did!

We all know who the big stars are, even if we haven’t always seen their movies. Their faces are on movie posters and magazine covers; their names are embedded on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and their footprints decorate the forecourt of the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. Long after they’re dead and buried, we still talk about Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Their bodies may not have survived, but their reputations certainly live on and on. Greta Garbo’s career was before my time, but her image remains in my memory banks. Such is the power of movies.

 Most working actors in Hollywood don’t achieve that kind of celebrity. Even those who land fairly steady paychecks for their film and TV roles can expect to remain unknown to the public at large. I remember once interviewing a wonderful actor named René Auberjonois in his lovely Windsor Square home, complete with a verdant garden and a yoga hut. I’d delighted in seeing him many times in local theatre productions, usually playing lead characters who were charming and flamboyant. My interview with him, for the Los Angeles Music Center’s program magazine, of course emphasized his stage roles. But stage stardom is a sometime thing, and can’t often support a cushy lifestyle. Auberjonois mentioned to me in passing that he was lucky indeed: his looks and skill-set were in great demand in Hollywood, and he was paid handsomely to take colorful character parts. Examples: he was Father Mulcahy in the original Robert Altman film version of M*A*S*H, and had small but significant roles in both Star Trek VI and The Princess Diaries. He was also featured on television, and  did a great deal of voice work for animated films, TV, and video games. A household name? Hardly. But a very comfortable life indeed. When he passed away in 2019 at age 79, there were small tributes in the press.

 Another of those great journeyman actors has just reached the end of the line. Bill Cobbs made it to 90, still active through 2022. His film roles were sometimes modest, ranging from Man on Platform in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) to Man in Lunchroom in Silkwood (1983). Happily, his parts gradually got larger. He had a significant presence as Moses, the clock expert, in the Coen brothers’ screwball The Hudsucker Proxy, and played a sneaky security guard  in the first Night at the Museum (2006).

I cherish his performance in the first film Tom Hanks ever wrote and directed, That Thing You Do! (1996). The light-hearted story, set in the rock ‘n roll Sixties, is about four young amateur musicians who record an original pop song that unexpectedly tops the charts nationwide. Hanks gives himself the role of the A&R record exec who spots the quartet. The Wonders (as in “one-hit wonders”) seem poised for genuine stardom until—inevitably—their very different goals pull them apart. The four nicely-cast musicians are Johnathon Schaech as the ambitious lead singer, Ethan Embry as the naïve bass player who’d rather be a Marine, Steve Zahn as the stoner lead guitarist, and Tom Everett Scott (a young Hanks lookalike) as the drummer who has a deep-seated love of music. It is Scott’s character who, late in the film, happens upon a legendary jazz pianist, someone who reinforces his true passion for great musicianship. The film’s climax is their impromptu jazz duet, one that reminds young Guy of what he truly values in life. This is a small role for Cobbs, but a deeply appealing one. Bill Cobbs will be missed.


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