Sunday, November 27, 2016

Remembering Fritz Weaver

Fritz Weaver -- the esteemed character actor who passed away Saturday at age 90 -- told me a lovely story about Ingrid Bergman when I had the pleasure to interview several years ago in New York. 

Back in 1970, he and Bergman co-starred in A Walk in the Spring Rain, a romantic melodrama about a would-be author (Weaver) and his wife (Bergman) who move from New York to the backwoods of Tennessee while he works on his long-delayed novel. While he scribbles away, the neglected wife drifts into an affair with an earthy neighbor (Anthony Quinn at his earthiest) -- and, while enjoying her middle-age craziness, refuses to serve as babysitter for her college-bound daughter, despite the daughter's attempts to guilt-trip her mom in accepting the task. (It doesn't help at all that the daughter insists mom really has nothing better to do because, well, she's old.) The affair, not surprisingly, ends badly.

On the first day they were to shoot a scene together, Weaver told me, Bergman knocked at the door of his trailer, and he invited her inside. He assumed she wanted to ask some questions about their scene, which she did. But then she did something totally unexpected: She asked, "Would you kiss me, please?" So Weaver did what any reasonably sentient heterosexual male would do if Ingrid Bergman asked for a smooch -- he gracious granted her request.

"There," she told him as the brief lip-lock concluded. "Now we have a past." 

And with that, she was ready to play his wife.

Some guys have all the luck.

I first became aware of Weaver when I was 14 years old, when I watched him give a standout performance as Rev. John Hale in a star-studded TV production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (George C. Scott was John Proctor, Collen Dewhurst was Elizabeth Proctor, and Tuesday Weld was Abigail Williams.) The telecast, oddly enough, had a major albeit indirect impact on me: When I saw a thoroughly second-rate stage production of the play (with professional actors) two years later, I couldn't help comparing it to the TV production, and realized that, hey, professional stage actors could be just as bad as professional movie actors.

Weaver laughed when I told him about this during our interview -- which was keyed to, of all things, his appearance in the 1982 movie Creepshow. And he accepted with modest gratitude my fanboy praise of his performance in another Arthur Miller drama, the acclaimed 1979 off-Broadway revival of The Price. Even now, I can still hear him delivering what I think is the key line of the play, one that continues to haunt me: "We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know."

During a stage and screen career that spanned seven decades, Weaver accumulated a prodigious number of TV, film and theater credits -- ranging from Fail-Safe (1964) to the original 1970 Broadway production of Child's Play (for which he won a Tony Award), from the 1978 miniseries Holocaust (which netted him an Emmy nomination) to a 2014 co-starring stint opposite Adam Sandler in The Cobbler. Trivia buffs, take note: He was the bad guy in the very first episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Sherlock Holmes (under the direction of Harold Prince) in the 1965 Broadway musical Baker Street. (And before you ask: Yes, I have the original cast album for the latter. On vinyl, no less.)

Fritz Weaver added something special, and substantial, to every production that employed him, even when he gave the production a lot more than it ever gave him. He will be missed. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And then there was the time Robert Vaughn told me...

While preparing a Cowboys & Indians magazine tribute to Robert Vaughn, who passed away Friday at age 83, I was reminded of two remarks he made during interviews I did with him decades ago. And I smiled at the memories because both illustrated his trademark dry wit — and, just as important, his ready willingness to make himself the butt of his own joke.

The first time we chatted was in my hometown of New Orleans, which he visited while on a promotional tour for The Towering Inferno (1974). Naturally, I asked a fair share of fanboy questions about The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) — hey, I was only 22 at the time — which Vaughn graciously answered. But when the conversation turned back to the star-studded disaster movie he was in town to hype… Well, to be honest, the only thing I recall his saying in regard to Towering Inferno is his bemused observation that he and another ‘60s TV star, Richard Chamberlain, played characters who existed primarily to increase the body count.

“I wonder,” he mused aloud with a perfectly straight face, “just how upset audiences will be to see Dr. Kildare and Napoleon Solo falling out of a burning skyscraper?”

Years later, at a movie junket for Superman III (1983), Vaughn amiably agreed that the super-hero sequel wasn’t exactly the crowing artistic achievement of his career. (It’s worth noting that the movie rates only a fleeting mention in his wonderfully entertaining autobiography, A Fortunate Life.) But never mind: The paycheck was substantial. Indeed, Vaughn admitted that he took a very pragmatic approach to acting gigs, given his then-current status as a journeyman actor who relied on the name recognition that was his legacy from a once-trendy television series.

“My wife and I were renovating our home a while ago,” Vaughn said, “and I took one job mainly because we needed a new porch.

“Not a new Porsche, mind you” he added with a grin, “but a new porch.”

Must admit: I think of Vaughn’s self-deprecating disclosure every time I see a talented actor playing a supporting part — or even the lead — in a movie that is in no way worthy of his (or her) talent. Before I make any hasty judgments, I consider: Maybe he (or she) got a way-cool veranda out of the deal. Maybe even a condo. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Does Doctor Strange make house calls?

Have to admit: I laughed out loud more than once while watching this clip. What really makes it work, I think, is Jimmy Kimmel's willingness to serve more or less as the straight man to Benedict Cumberbatch, while Cumberbatch plays the Sorcerer Supreme with pretty much the same subtly sardonic edge he brings to his performance in the actual Doctor Strange movie. The whole thing strikes me as an amusingly retro throwback to the days when celebrities would plug their movies by remaining in character while fooling around with Bob Hope or Johnny Carson.