Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rita Gam, Ken Howard, and Jan Nemec: In Memoriam

Silent but Sexy, a Shadow and a Czech Visionary

By Ed Garea

Although the big news was the untimely death of Garry Shandling, three other notable people in the world of film also passed away.

Rita Gam

Rita Gam, a breakout star of the 1950s who went on to a lengthy career in film and television, died on March 22. Nancy Willen, Gam’s publicist, said the actress passed away in Los Angeles of respiratory failure. She was 88. 

Gam was born Rita Eleanore Mackay in Pittsburgh on April 2, 1927, to Milton A. Mackay, an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine who died when she was four, and Belle (Fately) Mackay, who was born in Romania.

She took her stage name from her stepfather, Benjamin J. Gam, a dress manufacturer who was born in Russia who her mother married in 1932. She was raised in Manhattan and attended the private Fieldston School in the Bronx. At the age of 17 she “ran away” from home – actually about 25 blocks – to a Midtown hotel, and found work modeling hats and selling stuffed pandas while pursuing an acting career in her spare time.

A founding member of The Actor’s Studio, she made her Broadway debut in Ben Hecht’s 1946 play A Flag Is Born alongside future husband Sidney Lumet. She appeared in three more productions before turning to television, where she guest starred in several series.

In 1952, she was signed by Clarence Greene, a producer for Harry Popkin, for the lead opposite Ray Milland in The Thief. The film was a slow-moving noir about a nuclear physicist in Washington who is also working as a spy for an unnamed foreign country. It was unique in that it was filmed without dialogue.

Gam’s performance caught the eye of Life magazine, which featured her on its September 1952 cover, describing Gam as a “silent and sexy” actress who “can express herself eloquently without words.” In just a few moments on the screen, the magazine noted, Gam “makes a striking movie debut without uttering a word.”

The publicity also caught the eye of MGM, which signed her to a long-term contract in October 1952. After serving a brief suspension in October 1953 for refusing a loan-out to Paramount to star in the Martin-Lewis comedy Living It Up (a remake of Nothing Sacred), she starred with Cornel Wilde in the exotic Saadia

While working for MGM, she shared an apartment with fellow newcomer Grace Kelly. They developed a close friendship that later led to Gam’s serving as a bridesmaid at the wedding of Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956.

Other notable movie roles were Night People (1954) with Gregory Peck; Sign of the Pagan (1954) with Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler; Hannibal (1959) with Victor Mature; King of Kings (1961), as Queen Hernias; and Klute (1971) with Jane Fonda. Interestingly, she was offered a leading role in The Ten Commandments (1956), but during her interview with director Cecil B. DeMille, she confided that she was not religious, so he died not hire her.

At the 1962 Berlin Film Festival, she shared a Silver Bear award as Best Actress with Viveca Lindfors for her performance as Estelle in Tad Danielewski’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (aka Sinners Go To Hell ). Lindfors was also in the film as Inez.

Besides her work in film and television, she also played a leading role, along with Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Zoe Caldwell and others, with the Minnesota Theater Company in 1963 during the opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

She also became a producer (with two documentary series, World of Film and World of Beauty, to her credit) and an author. She write two books: Actress to Actress (1986), and Actors: A Celebration (1988). 

Gam was married and divorced twice, to director Sidney Lumet (1949-1955), and book publisher and co-founder of The Paris Review, Thomas Guinzburg (1956-63). She is survived by daughter, Kate Guinzburg, a film producer, who worked in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Vin Rosa Productions; son, Michael Guinzburg, a novelist; and three granddaughters. 

Ken Howard

Ken Howard, who earned acclaim for his role in the television series The White Shadow, and as Thomas Jefferson in both the Broadway and film versions of 1776, died on March 23 at his home near Los Angeles. No cause of death was given. He was 71. 

Howard was also was the sitting president of SAG-Aftra, Hollywood’s largest union, which he helped form in 2012.

During the course of a 47-year career, Mr. Howard appeared in more than 100 movies and television series, including the previously mentioned The White Shadow, a critically lauded drama that ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981 when it was cut for low ratings. One of its problems with ratings was it aired at least two years opposite Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, typically the top two rated shows on the air at the time. Howard starred as a retired professional basketball player who becomes a coach at an urban high school. 

A stockbroker’s son, he was born Kenneth Joseph Howard in El Centro, Calif., on March 28, 1944. His family moved to Manhasset, on Long Island, where he starred on the high school basketball team. At Amherst College, he captained the basketball team and was a member of an a cappella group, the Zumbyes. He later studied at the Yale School of Drama, but left before graduation for the lights of Broadway, making his debut in 1968 in the original production of Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises with Jerry Orbach. 

In 1969, he originated the role of Thomas Jefferson in the Tony-winning musical 1776, a role that he repeated in the film version made the same year. In 1970, he won a Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic) for his role as a young gym coach at a Catholic boys’ school in Child’s Play. His other Broadway appearances include Seesaw (1973), The Norman Conquests (1975), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976), and Rumors (1988). He also starred as Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in According to Tip (2008).

Howard made his film debut in Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), co-starring with Liza Minelli. Other noted films were Such Good Friends (1971), The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie (1972), Second Thoughts (1983), Oscar (1991, with Sylvester Stallone), Ulterior Motives (1991), Clear and Present Danger (1994, with Harrison Ford), The Net (1995, with Sandra Bullock), Tactical Assault (2005), In Her Shoes (2005), Michael Clayton (2007), Rambo (also known as Rambo IV) (2008), A Numbers Game (2010), and J. Edgar (2010).

He received an Emmy Award for his performance Phelan Beale in the HBO production of Grey Gardens (2009). His last films were Better Living Through Chemistry (2013), The Judge (2014), The Wedding Ringer (2015), and Joy (2015).

But it was television where he was best known, primarily for his work as coach Ken Reeves on The White Shadow, which took its name from a nickname given to him by the Long Island Press, as he was the only Caucasian starter on the Manhasset High School varsity basketball team.

He co-starred on the series Adam’s Rib (1973), The Manhunter (1974-75), It’s Not Easy (1983), The Colbys (1985) and Dynasty (1981), Melrose Place (1994-98 as George Andrews), Crossing Jordan (2001 where he played Jill Hennessy’s father), Cane (2007), and as Hank Hooper on 30 Rock (2011-13). He also guest starred six times on Murder, She Wrote (1985-94).

Notable miniseries include The Thorn Birds (1983), Rage of Angels (1983), The Country Girl (1982), Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Rojas Smart Story (1991), Memories of Midnight (1991), Mastergate (1992), OP Center (1995), and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenet and the City of Boulder (2000). He also won a Daytime Emmy Award for the 1980 TV documentary,The Body Human: Facts for Boys.

A working member of SAG for over 40 years, he was first elected National President beginning September 24, 2009. He inherited a union suffering the effects of a strike by the Writers Guild of America and anxiety over shrinking pay as studios and television networks were tightening their belts.

His notable achievement was in negotiating the merger of SAG with the competing American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, significantly bolstering actors’ bargaining power and creating a union 160,000 members strong. He then won re-election campaigns in August 2013 and August 2015.

In addition to his acting and union work, Howard also served as National Spokesperson and Executive Board Member of the Onyx and Breezy Foundation (which grants financial aid to individuals and qualified rescues that benefit the welfare of animals), The National Kidney Foundation (Chancellor), and was a member, along with his wife Linda, on the Board of the Los Angeles Alzheimer's Committee.

He also authored a book, Act Natural: How to Speak to Any Audience (2003), and has lent his voice to more than 30 best-selling books on tape. 

Howard was married three times, to actress Louise Sorel (1973-75), Margo Howard, the daughter of advice columnist Ann Landers (1977-91), and retired stuntwoman Linda Fetters (1992-2016). He is survived by Linda and three stepchildren. 

Jan Nemec

A Czech director whose surreal, parable-like films made him one of the leaders, along with Miloš Forman, Jirí Menzel, and Vera Chytilová, of the Czech New Wave movement in the 1960s, died on March 18 in Prague. His death was announced by wife Iva Ruszelakova in the newspaper Dnes (Today). She did not give the cause of death. He was 79.

He was born in Prague on July 12, 1936. Proficient on the piano and clarinet, he thought about becoming a jazz musician until dissuades by his father, who thought that filmmaking was a more practical profession. He enrolled in 1956 at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (also known as FAMU), where he was mentored by revered filmmaker Vaclav Krska.

For graduation in 1960, Nemec adapted an autobiographical short story by Arnost Lustig into the film A Piece of Bread about three prisoners who plot their escape while being transported by train from one concentration camp to another. While trying to steal a loaf of bread, they find themselves at one another’s throats.

Nemec’s first film was Diamonds of the Night (1964), an adaptation of Lustig’s wartime novel. Using a hand-held camera, Nemec spins a story of two young men who escape from a Nazi prison train and wander across a bleak landscape. Using such devices as flashbacks and simulated hallucinations, their thoughts and fantasies play out on the screen as they encounter strange scenes and even stranger people, resulting in an ending that leaves the viewer in doubt as to their fate.

It was all part of a style he invented and called “dream realism.” He relied on haunting imagery, flashbacks, using hallucinations and other dislocating devices to bend the narratives in directions viewers were not expecting.

His next film Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is considered by many to be his masterpiece. A Buñuelesque allegory about a party that degenerates into a sinister game, the film drew the ire of the Communist authorities, in part because the sadistic host of the party resembled Lenin. The result was that the film ended up on the censor’s shelf for the next 20 years though it was available to be shown at the 1968 New York Film Festival.

He also contributed a segment to Pearls of the Deep, an anthology showcasing up-and-coming Czech directors, with all stories being based on the writings of author Bohumil Hrabal. Nemec's segment, The Poseurs, concerns two elderly residents at a clinic who spend their days bragging about their glamorous pasts, but later turn out to be nonentities.

He next completed Martyrs of Love (1967), a feature consisting of three love stories, each with a surreal overtone. The resulting furor from the censors forced Nemec to work outside the government-approved system. His next production, the short Mother and Son (Mutter und Sohn) in 1967, was shot while attending a student film festival in Amsterdam. The fact that it was made with financing from West German television and a Dutch film company further strained his relations with the Czech government. 

But it was the documentary, Oratorio for Prague (1968), that ultimately forced him to leave Czechoslovakia. The film, intended as praise for the new artistic freedoms under the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, ended with scenes of Russian tanks rolling through the streets of Prague.

The film was smuggled out of the country and served as proof that the Soviet invasion was not by invitation of the Czech people, as was claimed. In addition, news programs worldwide broadcast the footage, and in 1988, Philip Kaufman even included it in his adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nemec served as an adviser and appeared in a cameo as a documentarian interrogated for filming the invasion. 

Nemec attempted to leave the country soon after it was completed, but he was held until 1974, when he was able to leave for Germany, where he made several films for television, including an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1975). From 1974 to 1989, he traveled to Germany, Paris, Holland, Sweden and the United States, staying in the latter for 12 years. Unable to work in traditional cinema, he pioneered the use of video cameras to record weddings, including documenting the nuptials of the Swedish royal family.

He returned to the Czech Republic in 1989 after democracy was restored by the “Velvet Revolution.” He accepted a job teaching film at his alma mater. He also made the features In the Light of the King’s Love (1991);  Jmeno kodu: Rubin (Code Name: Ruby, 1997), a combination of documentary, fiction, and the supernatural that creates a collage of his country’s past, present, and future; the documentaries, Late Night Talks With My Mother (2001) and Landscape of My Heart (2004); Toyen (2005), a biopic of the Czech surrealistic painter; and The Ferrari Dino Girl (2010). Right before his death, he completed filming The Wolf of Royal Vineyard Street, a comedy based on his life. It will premiere in the Czech Republic on July 1. 

Nemec married four times: to costume designer and screenwriter Ester Krumbachova (1963-68), singer Marta Kubisova (1970-73), Czech language teacher Veronica Baumann (1984-2003), and film editor Iva Ruszelakova in 2003. In addition to his wife, Nemec is survived by a daughter, Arleta Nemcova.

Nemec was an uncompromising visionary. His vision was not only limited to cinema. In 2014, he protested against the president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, by returning the medals given to him by the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel (who happened to be Nemec’s cousin).

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