In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney
By Ed Garea
If there was anyone who could be said to be literally born into show business, it was Mickey Rooney. From his debut in Vaudeville at only 17 months of age, he remained a star until the day he died. It was said of Rooney that he could do it all: act, sing, play piano and drums, and anything else that was needed.
His son, Michael Joseph Rooney, confirmed Mickey’s death on April 6. Mickey was 93.
Rooney was born Ninian Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn on Sept. 23, 1920. His father, Joe Yule Sr., was a headliner on the second-rate Vaudeville circuits, and his mother, Nell Carter, danced in a burlesque chorus line. Known as Sonny Yule, he grew up in boarding houses and practically lived backstage. His parents divorced when he was 4, his mother returning home to Kansas City, Missouri. It looked as though he would get the chance to lead a normal childhood when his mother spotted a notice in Variety that Hal Roach was looking for children for his Our Gang comedies.
Roach’s offer to Sonny’s mother was $5 a day, but she declined, waiting for a better offer. When none was forthcoming, she and Sonny returned to Kansas City for a while, then returned to Hollywood, where Sonny secured a job in a musical revue for $50 a week. A few months later he was in a Fox short titled Not to Be Trusted, under the name of Mickey McBan. His mother then answered an audition call for the role of Mickey McGuire in a series of shorts based on the popular “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip. He won the lead, and as Mickey Yule, appeared in 78 of the shorts from 1927 to 1932. When not acting on the screen, he provided the voice for Walter Lantz’s “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons, released through Universal Studios. His mother wanted to change his professional to Mickey McGuire, but when “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip creator Fontaine Fox objected, she chose the moniker Mickey Rooney instead.
Rooney signed on with MGM in 1934. His first notable role for the studio was playing Clark Gable as a boy in Manhattan Melodrama. He continued moving up the ladder, with roles in Ah, Wilderness (1935), and reprising his stage role as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Warners, where he appeared with James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, and Olivia de Havilland.
However, it was his role in a minor B film that sealed his path to stardom. A Family Affair, based on a 1928 Broadway play by Aurania Rouverol called “Skidding,” told of the trials and tribulations of the Hardy family in Carvel, Idaho. As Andy Hardy, youngest child of Judge James K. Hardy (Lionel Barrymore), Rooney’s part was strictly supporting, but the film took off at the box office and MGM decided to make a series out of it. Lewis Stone would take over the role of Judge Hardy for the rest of the series’ run, and Rooney saw his role as Andy turn from supporting to lead as the public couldn’t get enough of the Hardy family adventures. The series lasted for 15 films and is estimated to have earned over $75 million. He also won plaudits later that year for his role as a young deckhand in Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy.
Although the public saw Rooney as the squeaky clean Andy Hardy, his off-screen persona was said to be more in line with Whitey Marsh, the delinquent he played in 1938’s Boys Town. Jackie Cooper said it was Joan Crawford who initiated him into the world of adult sex. For the 16-year old Rooney, it was none other than Norma Shearer. They had a hot and heavy affair while Shearer was filming Marie Antoniette, making so much noise in her trailer that the crew on the film complained to Louis Mayer himself. The death of her beloved husband, Irving Thalberg, and the continuing mental problems of her sister, Athole (married at the time to Howard Hawks), were said to have driven Shearer off the rails, and Rooney was but one in a long line of lovers (including Jimmy Stewart and George Raft) she took until she wed for the second, and last, time in 1942. For his part in the scandal, MGM severely reprimanded Rooney, and the studio publicity machine kept it quiet. They weren’t going to lose their cash cow if it could at all be helped. In fact, it wasn’t until Rooney spilled the beans in his autobiography, Life is Too Short, that the general public knew of the affair.
Looking around for other vehicles for Rooney, MGM again hit pay dirt when it decided to team him with their number one ingénue, Judy Garland. Having discovered positive buzz in their first film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), with Mickey playing a jockey tricked into throwing a race and Garland as the young woman who tries to help him, the studio next paired them in an Andy Hardy entry, 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy, with Garland playing Betsy Booth, a young lady visiting her relative, who lives next door to the Hardys. Though she has a crush on Andy, he regards her as too young. But she comes through at the end and gets Andy out of a jam with regular girlfriend Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford). The character of Betsy proved so popular with the movie-going public that Garland reprised it in two later films: Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) and Life Begins For Andy Hardy (1941).
Meanwhile, MGM also teamed the pair in a series of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals, beginning with Babes in Arms in 1939, where they put on a show to raise money for their out-of-work parents. It was MGM’s biggest money grosser of 1939 and earned Rooney an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It was followed by Strike Up the Band (1940), where they raised money for a high school band contest; Babes on Broadway (1941), where they put on a show to send orphans on an excursion to the country; and, finally, Girl Crazy (1943), where they staged a rodeo to save their college from financial ruin. But the plots, such as they were, really didn’t matter. What really mattered was Judy’s voice, Mickey’s brashness and pluck, the music by such legends as the Gershwin brothers, and Rogers and Hart, among others, and the direction by veteran Busby Berkeley.
The year 1939 saw Rooney at the top of his game. That year, theater owners voted him the No. 1 box office star, ahead of second-place finisher Tyrone Power. In 1940, Rooney again took the crown, this time over Spencer Tracy. And in 1941, he made it three in a row, beating out Clark Gable. Also, at the 1939 Academy Awards, he and Deanna Durbin were presented with special juvenile Oscars for their contributions to the cinema. Besides the Hardy series and the musicals with Garland, Rooney also kept busy in films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Young Tom Edison (1940), Men of Boys Town (1941), A Yank at Eton(1942), The Human Comedy (1943 and his second Oscar nomination), and National Velvet (1944), with Elizabeth Taylor and his first adult role.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and until 1946 served in the Jeep Theater, a traveling troupe entertaining the troops, and acting as a personality on the American Forces Radio Network.
After his wartime service, however, he had a difficult time fitting back into Hollywood. MGM cast him in a new adult image as the lead in Killer McCoy, a remake of Robert Taylor’s 1938 boxing opus, The Crowd Roars. He also starred with Gloria DeHaven in the musical, Summer Holiday (1948), and as Lorenz Hart in Words and Music, a biopic about the songwriting team of Hart and Rodgers. But all three films failed at the box office; audiences now saw the qualities that made Rooney such a fan favorite during his earlier years as dated and annoying. Rooney settled his MGM contract in 1948 after a dispute about not being cast in their prestige 1948 war drama, Battleground, and began freelancing, appearing in nightclubs and in such forgettable fare as The Big Wheel (1949), Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), The Atomic Kid (1954), and Francis in the Haunted House (1956), where he took over from the departed Donald O’Connor as the talking mule’s sidekick. There were some gems in the mix, such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Bold and the Brave (1956, for which he garnered a Supporting Actor nomination), and Baby Face Nelson (1957), but these were few and far between. He tried to rekindle the magic with 1958’s Andy Hardy Comes Home, only to discover that the magic had left long ago.
Rooney fell victim to a series of demons in the ‘40s, including gambling (playing the ponies and craps), sleeping pills, alcohol, and, of course, marriage. Rooney was a serial monogamist, with eight marriages under his belt. He would divorce six times, with the divorce complaints focusing on the same issues: his fiery temper and his propensity to leave home for days and even weeks at a time.
The first of his marriages was to the 19-year old Ava Gardner in 1942 (he was 21). MGM fought against the marriage, and the subsequent divorce one year later. His next wife was Alabama beauty queen Betty Jane Phillips, who gave him sons Mickey Rooney Jr. and Tim Rooney. They would divorce in 1949. Spouse number three was actress Martha Vickers, who made a big splash as Lauren Bacall’s troubled sister in the 1946 noir, The Big Sleep. That union lasted until September 1952 and produced a son, Teddy Rooney. Mickey wasn’t back in circulation for long when he married spouse number four, Elaine Mahnken, who divorced her first husband while he was on probation for armed robbery. She took over the finances and brought Mickey to the cusp of solvency. He repaid her by going to Las Vegas and losing $50,000. That was that and they were granted a divorce in September 1958.
Again, Mickey wasn’t on the market for long when he married wife number five, Barbara Thomason, an aspiring actress. They had four children together: daughters Kimmy Sue Rooney, Kerry Yule Rooney, Kelly Ann Rooney, and son Joseph Kyle Rooney. It was during this marriage that Rooney declared bankruptcy, listing $500 cash in assets and almost $500,000 in debts, including $100,000 in delinquent taxes. In a settlement with the IRS, Rooney was grated an allowance of $200 a month, which forced him to borrow money to play the horses. But at least Barbara didn’t divorce him. A month after they separated in December 1965 and began a custody battle, Barbara Thomason Rooney was shot to death in Rooney’s Brentwood home by jealous lover Milos Milosevic, who then turned the gun on himself. The hit Rooney took in splashy tabloid publicity made him poison to many producers.
Rooney remained at large for a slightly longer period before wedding wife number six, Margaret Lane, in September 1966. That marriage had even less staying power, as the couple divorced in December 1967. It wasn’t until May 1969 that he wed spouse number seven, Carolyn Hockett. They had daughter Jonelle, and Mickey adopted Carolyn’s son, Jimmy, from a previous marriage. This one lasted almost six years, ending in divorce on January 24, 1975.
The multiple marriages and his other addictions, combined with an impulsive, mercurial nature, left Rooney is a state of perpetual need of funds. It was said that he earned $12 million before he was 40, and spent even more. When he was in desperate need of funds, playing Las Vegas was a safety valve – of sorts. As he said in his autobiography, he would often make $17,500 a week, then lose twice that amount at the crap tables.
At one point, in 1950, he was reduced to hawking Hadacol, a tonic with supposed health benefits (ironically, not unlike Vitajex) while touring the South with the “Hadacol Caravan,” an all-star revue extolling the dietary marvels of the product that also included celebrities like Milton Berle, Carmen Miranda, Chico Marx, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero, and Judy Garland, among others. Admission to the show was two Hadacol boxtops for adults and one for children. (Hadacol usually ran from $1.25 for 8-ounces to $3.50 for the 24-ounce “family size.”) Its inventor, Dudley LeBlanc, made over $10 million from sales until the government clamped down when it tested the mixture and discovered the “health” benefit came from it being 24 proof (12% alcohol).
And when films and Vegas proved to be not enough, there was television. He had a short-lived television series (33 episodes) on NBC in 1954-55. In 1957, he accepted a role on Playhouse 90 that a half-dozen other actors refused – that of a vicious, greedy and egomaniacal comedian named Sammy Hogarth in the teleplay, “The Comedian,” with a teleplay by Rod Serling and direction by John Frankenheimer. It was both a critical and commercial triumph, earning Rooney his first Emmy nomination. He followed this the next year with another critical triumph on Alcoa Theater starring in “Eddie,” a teleplay about a bookie who owes a fortune to loan sharks. He has until 6 pm to pay up, or else. It earned him another Emmy nomination.
However, no matter how any televised triumphs Rooney appeared in, his demons always left him broke and scratching for funds. He even tried his hand at directing, but the results were uneven at best. He did get to co-direct one of the all-time laff riots with Albert Zugsmith, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), in which he also starred, playing the Devil in, of all things, a padded snake suit.
But somehow he managed to revive his acting career by shifting his roles from leading to supporting. In 1961, he made a splash of sorts in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing the Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. His broad, over-the-top, stereotypical performance is condemned today, but in 1961, it was considered hysterical. Rooney followed this with roles in the critically acclaimed Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) as Army, a boxing trainer who doesn’t want to sell his fighter down the river into a career as a pro wrestler. He also had a small, but lucrative, role in Stanley Kramer’s all-star extravaganza, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963), as Ding Bell, who with buddy Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) is one of many chasing after a hidden fortune.
But, driven by his need for cash, he would take any role offered, starring with Hackett in Everything’s Ducky (1961) as two sailors who sneak their talking duck aboard their ship. It was a bad as it sounds. Another low budget wonder was AIP’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), the last of the popular “Beach Party” series with Frankie and Annette. Rooney was “Peachy Keane,” a scheming ad executive looking for “the boy next door” and “the girl next door” for an advertising campaign. Also during this period he attempted another television series, this one called Mickey, where he played a hapless hotel owner. However, despite winning a Golden Globe Award, it only lasted for 13 episodes.
After the death of wife Barbara in January 1966, the resulting scandalous publicity made work hard to come by for Rooney. He would continue to plug away in mediocre movies such as Otto Preminger’s trainwreck, Skidoo (1968), the numbingly dull The Extraordinary Seaman (1969), and the excruciating The Comic(1969), with Dick Van Dyke. He would also pay the bills by guest starring on shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He also made 13 appearances on “Hollywood Squares” between 1969 and 1976, and made 15 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” between 1970 and 1973.
He would personally hit bottom with the death of Judy Garland in 1969. Liza Minnelli has been quoted as saying that she wanted Rooney to give the eulogy at her mother’s funeral, but decided against it because Rooney’s emotional state made her feel that he might not be able to get through it, given his long and close friendship with Garland.
Things began to turn around for Rooney in the 70s. He gave up the booze and drugs and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, he wed his eighth – and final – wife, Jan Chamberlain, a country singer he met through son Mickey Rooney Jr. Their marriage lasted longer than his previous seven combined. (They would permanently separate, though, in 2012.) Jan brought a focus to her husband’s life, making him the star of their show.
In 1979, Rooney gained some of his best notices and his last Oscar nomination for his performance as Henry Dailey, a once successful horse trainer who receives one last shot at immortality in The Black Stallion. In 1981, he finally won an Emmy Award for his turn in the television movie Bill as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must adjust to living in the outside world. A reprise of the role in the 1983 sequel, Bill: On His Own, led to his fifth – and final – Emmy nomination. Also, in 1983, he was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”
In 1979, Rooney, along with fellow MGM hoofer Ann Miler, was approached by the duo of Ralph G. Allen and Al Dubin about starring on Broadway in an old-fashioned burlesque revue called Sugar Babies. He threw himself into the project with renewed energy, relying on his years in vaudeville to whip a motley collection of burlesque skits into shape. He would argue with the producers over every skit and every song, and was vindicated when the show opened on October 8, 1979, to ecstatic reviews from critics and strong sales. Both Rooney and Miller were nominated for Tony Awards. It would run for nearly three years after 1,208 performances. A road company with Carol Channing and Robert Morse headlining was unsuccessful – people wanted to see Mickey Rooney – so Rooney stayed four more years on the road with the show. In 1991, he returned to Broadway to star in The Will Rogers Follies, a review that played from May 1, 1991, to September 5, 1993, and 981 performances. And in 2007, he and wife Jan began touring in what they described as a “one man, one wife” show with the nostalgic title “Let’s Put On a Show.”
The coming of the new millennium failed to slow Rooney, as he appeared in Night at the Museum (2006) and The Muppets (2011) in addition to other movies. At the time of his death he was working on a new version of Jekyll and Hyde. His last live appearance was as a special guest on the TCM Classic Cruise in January 2013.
In 2011, Rooney obtained a restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber and Mr. Aber’s wife, Christina, charging them with withholding food and medicine and forcing him to sign over his assets. He later filed suit against them, which was settled in 2013, with the Abers agreeing that they owed Rooney $2.8 million.
Also in 2011, Rooney repeated his allegations against the Abers in testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens.
He is survived by wife Jan Chamberlin; sons Mickey Rooney Jr., Theodore Michael Rooney, Michael Joseph Rooney, and adopted son Jimmy Rooney; daughters Kelly Ann Rooney, Kerry Rooney, Kimmy Sue Rooney, and Jonelle Rooney. Son Tim Rooney died in 2006.
Besides his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, Rooney also published a murder mystery, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994.
He was a co-owner for many years of the Mickey Rooney Tabas Hotel in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
In Life Is Too Short, Rooney mentions a brothel called "The T&M Studio," where the girls looked like Hollywood starlets. Although there were many rumors of such a brothel, no one would admit to ever having been there, or even verify its existence. Rooney also wrote that Groucho Marx had taken him there once, and Groucho appeared to be on a first-name basis with many of the hookers.
According to one story, Mickey Mouse was supposedly named for Rooney. It seems that Walt Disney saw young Rooney while working on the first drawings of what was to become Mickey Mouse. He asked the child actor what he thought of the drawings and also asked what his name was. This later was proven to be false.
Rooney broke his leg while filming A Midsummer’s Night Dream and was doubled by George Breakston in many scenes. Breakston would later go on to play “Beezy” Anderson, Andy Hardy’s best friend, in the Hardy Family series.
Rooney is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest movie career: 89 years (1925-2014).
Norman Lear considered him for role of Archie Bunker, but Rooney rejected the project just as Jackie Gleason had because of the controversial nature of the role.
THE ESSENTIAL MICKEY ROONEY
Death on the Diamond (MGM, 1934), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WB, 1935), Ah, Wilderness! (MGM, 1935), A Family Affair (MGM, 1937), Captains Courageous (MGM, 1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (MGM, 1938), Boys Town (MGM, 1938), Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (MGM, 1939), Young Tom Edison(MGM, 1940), Strike Up the Band (MGM, 1940), The Human Comedy (MGM, 1943), Girl Crazy (MGM, 1943), National Velvet (MGM, 1944), Quicksand (UA, 1950), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Paramount, 1954), The Bold and the Brave (RKO, 1956), Baby Face Nelson (UA, 1957), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (Universal, 1960), Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia, 1962), The Black Stallion (UA, 1979), Bill (CBS, 1981), Night at the Museum (20th Century Fox, 2006), The Muppets (Walt Disney, 2011), Driving Me Crazy (Keith Black Films, 2012).
In Memoriam: Shirley Temple
The Little Girl Who Saved the Big Studio
By Ed Garea
The death of Shirley Temple Black at the age of 85 on February 10 has opened up a treasure trove of memories for the film fans. Many movie buffs watched her films as children; they were frequently shown on television in the mornings or afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. My mother was a huge fan of Miss Temple’s work and often made me watch with her when I could have otherwise spent the hours with a good horror film on another channel or engrossed in the latest copy of Mad or Famous Monsters of Filmland. But I’m glad she made me watch, as the films deepened my appreciation of musicals.
Over the years her films came to be regarded as family classics and were hawked on VHS and later DVD to the public in frequent advertisements, assuring the purchaser that not only would he or she receive the original black and white versions, completely restored, but as a bonus would receive a colorized version of each films, as kids today are reluctant to watch anything not in color.
If anyone could have been said to born a movie star, it was Shirley Temple. Born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928, to businessman George Temple and his wife, Gertrude, she was prepped for bigger and better things beginning at the age of 3, when her mother enrolled her in dancing school.
In 1932, she was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and was chosen for a role in Baby Burlesks, a series of rather sexually-suggestive shorts in which children played all the roles. The children, all around the ages of 4 and 5, wore adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below they wore diapers outfitted with oversized safety pins. The shorts were rather obvious parodies of popular films, with Shirley imitating such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Dolores Del Rio.
As Educational Pictures was pretty much a shoestring operation, proper behavior was strictly enforced; any child that misbehaved on the set was locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. Shirley served her share of time in the box, claiming later in her autobiography that the experience did no lasting psychological damage and taught her the lesson that wasted time is wasted money.
After Baby Burlesks ran its course, Shirley was schlepped to a series of casting calls and auditions for bit parts that won her a few small roles. But age was threatening to erode her earning potential and as a remedy, her mother cut a year off Shirley’s age. She said in her autobiography that at her 12th birthday party in 1941 she was surprised to learn that she had really turned 13.
It was in 1934 that her career began to gather steam. She was chosen to play James Dunn’s daughter in Fox’s Stand Up and Cheer, one of many Depression musicals that suggested the best way to deal with the everyday misery is to sing and dance your way to happiness. Her initial Fox contract called for a salary of $150 per week, with an additional $25 each week for Gertrude. The contract also contained an option for seven more years and the stipulation that she was to provide her own tap shoes.
The critics gushed over Stand Up and Cheer, and Shirley made an additional eight movies in 1934, the earnings of which saved the studio from certain bankruptcy. However, it was with the release of Little Miss Marker, an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story for which Fox had loaned her to Paramount, that she became a star. Besides being a box office hit for a studio that badly needed one that year, the film also established the template for future Shirley Temple films.
In Little Miss Marker, Temple plays a child left with a bookie as a marker for her father’s gambling debts. As the film progresses she goes on to reform a gang of gamblers, bookies and race fixers. This carried over to her future films: she was cast as a sort of miniature adult who dominated the adults around her, solving problems with uncanny common sense and infusing them with her sense of unbounded optimism. Each of her films onward would simply be a variation of that basic story.
Besides being cute, Shirley was also given a trademark song to sing in each film, the better to sell records. So powerfully was she identified with some of the songs that even today when a film buff hears “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” he or she cannot help but associate Shirley Temple with the music.
She was also supplied with a plethora of dancing partners, including Buddy Ebsen, Jack Haley, and George Murphy. But her best-remembered partner was the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an African-American veteran of the Broadway stage, and one of the people credited with tutoring the great Eleanor Powell in tap dancing while working together on Broadway. His staircase dance with Shirley in The Little Colonel, the first of four films they would make together, is considered one of the greatest in the history of film musicals, and Robinson would always be remembered for his work with her.
She was so ensconced in the public’s mind by 20th Century Fox that any criticism of her could result in retribution against the critic. The studio famously sued novelist Graham Greene for his review of Wee Willie Winkie in the magazine Night and Day (which he edited as well). His crime was to question whether she was really a midget and exposed an uncomfortable truth when he wrote that her “well-shaped and desirable little body” was being displayed for the enjoyment of middle-aged male admirers.
Although the studio could certainly overcome any human obstacle in its way, it was powerless against nature, and as Shirley aged her box office appeal diminished. It’s been said that the best decisions are the ones not made, and in the case of MGM this certainly proved to be the case. MGM, having the rights to The Wizard of Oz, was bound and determined to have Temple play Dorothy Gale, but Fox refused to loan her out; instead they made plans to star her in a fantasy film of their own, The Blue Bird. MGM instead was forced to go to Plan B and cast Judy Garland as Dorothy, a move for which the gods of posterity would thank them.
But while The Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly light up the box office when released, it still fared much better than The Blue Bird, which made its way to the screen in 1940. A lengthy consideration of the pathetic box office returns combined with an appraisal of her advancing age led Fox to drop her contract at the ripe old age of 12.
Now outside the protective cocoon of the studio, Shirley found the real world a lot tougher than the one created for her movies. She enrolled in the seventh grade at the private and exclusive Westlake School for Girls, where she had trouble at first fitting in with her classmates. But after she began to relax she became a popular and sought-after companion, enjoying a happy and productive five years at the school.
Meanwhile, MGM signed her eight-months later and cast her in their 1941 comedy-romance, Kathleen. It was in the mold of her earlier films, only now she had to deal with the additional problems of adolescence. Kathleen did not live up to the studio’s fiscal expectations, so she was loaned to United Artists in 1942 for Miss Annie Rooney, and made two films on loan-out to David O. Selznick: Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You (both 1944). In 1945, she starred in Columbia’s Kiss and Tell, again on loan. But the changes from an adorable little blonde moppet to a rather ordinary brunette teenager resulted in her audience losing interest in her movies.
Her private life also took another turn when, supposedly determined to be the first in her Westlake class to become engaged, she accepted the proposal of 24-year old Army Air Corps Sergeant John Agar Jr. a few days before turning 17. They were married on September 19, 1945.
“Act in haste, repent in leisure.” (I’m full of pithy quotes today.) That would be the motto of her marriage to Agar. While she adjusted to the new realities of married life and films, her husband wasn’t as fortunate. Years of being ignored and being dubbed “Mr. Shirley Temple” took their toll and Agar began drinking as a hobby. Following in the footsteps of his wife, he also went into acting, but lacked his wife’s charisma and acting ability, soon working his way down the ladder to where he was headlining Z-Grade films such as The Brain From Planet Arous and The Puppet People, and, most famously in the annals of bad movies, Zontar: The Thing From Venus, which gained a cult status, being featured on SCTV.
He did appear with his wife in John Ford’s classic Western, Fort Apache (1948), but while she had a featured role as Philadelphia Thursday, the daughter of Henry Fonda’s character, Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, Agar was given the decidedly minor role of Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke, which did nothing for their already troubled marriage.
They divorced in December 1949, a year after the birth of their daughter, Linda Susan Agar. Less than a month later she met and subsequently married Charles Alden Black, a 30-year old assistant to the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and a certified member of San Francisco’s blueblood community. Shortly after their marriage he was dropped from the San Francisco Social Register as punishment for marrying an actress, but the marriage took, lasting 55 years until his death in 2005.
Another casualty of her marriage to Black on December 6, 1950, was her career in films, which she gladly gave up in favor of being a wife and mother. Charles adopted Linda, and she and Charles had two children of their own: Charles Alden Black Jr., born in 1952, and daughter Lori Alden Black, born in 1954. Both daughters were born in Santa Monica, California, at the same hospital, not to mention delivered by the same doctor who delivered Shirley years before.
During the Korean War, Black served as a Navy lieutenant commander and Shirley and the children followed him to Washington. Later, when she entered the diplomatic service, he would travel with her to her diplomatic postings.
As the ‘50s progressed, her films began to show up on television, grabbing huge ratings. This prompted her to accept an offer as host and occasional performer on a television series titled Shirley Temple’s Storybook, an anthology of adaptations of fairy tales. The series ran from 1958 to 1961.
Outside of show business, diplomacy, and politics, she is best known for her work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, of which she later became president. She became interested in serving for the Society after the disease struck down her brother George, who was making a name at the time as a professional wrestler. She also worked to found and develop the San Francisco International Film Festival, but resigned in 1966 as a protest over a decision to screen the Swedish filmNight Games, which she derided as “pornography for profit.”
Living in Washington spurred an interest in politics, and in 1967 she made an unsuccessful run for Congress to fill the seat left vacant by the death of California Republican J. Arthur Younger, losing in the primary to the Pete McCloskey. One newspaper headline read: "McCloskey Torpedoes Good Ship Lollypop."
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed her to the five-member delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1974 she accepted the position of Ambassador to Ghana, where to all accounts she performed in an outstanding manner, despite the reservations of professional diplomats concerning her appointment. After her tenure in Ghana (1974-76), she was later appointed as ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.
She also had a well-publicized bout with breast cancer, during which she underwent a mastectomy. After the operation she held a news conference in her hospital room to discuss her experience and urge women who discovered lumps in their breasts to see a doctor instead of sitting home afraid to talk about it. The American Cancer Society credited her with helping to make it acceptable to talk about the disease.
Survived by her children, she stands today as a shining example that there can, indeed not only be life after the movies, but that the life can be a rich and accomplished one.
According to Groucho Marx, his brother Harpo offered Shirley’s parents $50,000 to let him adopt her. They declined the offer.
During the filming of Little Miss Marker, co-star Adolphe Menjou reputedly referred to her as “an Ethel Barrymore at six,” and complained to director Alexander Hall about her “making a stooge out of me.”
Director Allan Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich, in his book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors, that she was a quick study. All he had to do was tell her something once and she’d remember it. And if one of the actors gut stuck for a line, she’d tell him what the line was. “She knew it better than he did.”
From 1936 to 1939 she was America’s most popular movie star. Clark Gable was a distant second. Her popularity spurred a line of “Shirley Temple” dolls, which were the best-selling dolls of that decade. (Today collectors highly prize them.) She had sat on the laps of over 200 famous people, reportedly preferring the lap of J. Edgar Hoover. Amelia Earhart shared chewing gum with her, and she had several conservations with Eleanor Roosevelt. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood created a special drink and named it for her: the Shirley Temple, a nonalcoholic mixture of lemon-lime soda, grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry. Reportedly, she didn’t care for it.
When MGM picked up her contract, she was entering adolescence. She wrote in her autobiography that producer Arthur Freed summoned her to his office. Once there, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her. As she was ignorant of male anatomy she giggled loudly and he threw her out of the office.
Director John Ford, who got along splendidly with her during the filming of Wee Willie Winkie in 1937, gave her a hard time on the set of Fort Apache, reportedly asking her where she went to school and if she graduated.
When she came to Prague as ambassador she was surprised to discover that there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years ago. Numerous officials brought their old membership cards for her to autograph.
Daughter Lori played bass guitar for the rock band The Melvins and went by the moniker, “Lorax.” On a related note, Shirley appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Her career was the subject of a series of sketches on the Carol Burnett Show, where Carol played “Shirley Dimple.” She was also parodied on Saturday Night Live in a skit where she was played by Laraine Newman as the ambassador to Ghana. There, she cutely talks Ghana’s president, played by Garrett Morris, out of waging any more wars.
In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell
By Ed Garea
Two defining actors of their generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell, died within 24 hours of each other, one through natural causes and the other through a drug overdose. Both added greatly to the film environment of their times.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, was found dead in an apartment in the West Village of New York on Sunday morning of an apparent drug overdose.
A friend, who was concerned at not being able to reach him, discovered his body around 11:30 a.m., according to law enforcement officials.
At the scene, police found a syringe in his left forearm, with at least two plastic envelopes with what appeared to be heroin nearby. Five empty plastic envelopes were also found in a nearby trash bin.
Hoffman won the Academy Award in 2006 for Best Actor for his role in the film Capote, in which he portrayed the author Truman Capote during Capote's research for his book In Cold Blood.
Hoffman was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category three times: for The Master (2012), Doubt (2008), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). He also was featured in a role in the popular The Hunger Games.
According to Variety, Hoffman had completed a detox program for substance abuse, including snorting heroin, last May. His struggle with alcohol and drugs began as a young man, and in a 2006 interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes, Heffman declared that he had been sober since the age of 22.
Hoffman was a prolific actor, having worked in films for the last two decades; films that often called for him to undertake a physical transformation. Besides appearing in films, he was also active on Broadway, earning two Tony nominations: one in 2000 for Best Actor (Play) for a revival of Sam Shephard’s “True West,” and as Best Actor (Featured Role – Play) in 2003 for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
He was also the Co-Artistic Director of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, for which he directed Stephen Adly Guirgis’ "Our Lady of 121st Street" and “Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.” In addition, he directed Rebecca Gilman’s "The Glory of Living" at the Manhattan Class Company.
Hoffman was born in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Fairport on July 23, 1967. His interest and involvement in high school theatrics led him to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he graduated with a B.F.A. degree in Drama in 1989.
His feature film debut came in 1991 in an indie production called Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (as Phil Hoffman), with his first role in a major release coming the next year in My New Gun. His breakthrough role came in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 production of Boogie Nights. Besides his Oscar wins and nominations, his other notable films included Twister (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Magnolia (2000), Almost Famous (2000), State and Main (2000), Red Dragon (2002), and Cold Mountain (2003).
Hoffman leaves behind three young children, a son and two daughters, with his partner, Mimi O’Donnell, a costume designer.
Maximilian Schell, probably the most successful German-speaking actor in English-language films since the silent days of Emil Jannings, died on early Saturday at the age of 83 in a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, of natural causes (pneumonia). Schell's wife, Iva, who he married in August, was at his bedside when he passed.
Like Hoffman, Schell was a multi-faceted talent. Not only was he a celebrated actor with more than 100 film and TV credits, but he also achieved fame as a director of films, documentaries, plays and opera.
Schell was born in Vienna, Austria, on December 8, 1930, but his parents could read the handwriting on the wall concerning Austria’s future and fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where young Maxililian was raised. He attended the University of Basel, and began acting on the stage in 1952 and made his film debut in 1955 in the West German production of Kinder, Mutter und ein General (“Children, Mother and a General”).
His Hollywood debut came in 1958 in the World War II film,The Young Lions. The irony of his hiring is that the producers wanted his sister, Maria Schell, instead, but because of an unfortunate mix-up in communications, hired him instead. The producers were impressed with his work as Capt. Hardenberg, the friend of German soldier Marlon Brando. It was Brando who tutored Schell in English on the set, and so Schell gained fluency in both English and Brando’s native tongue, Mumble.
He next gained notice in the role of the German defense attorney in the 1959 “Playhouse 90” production of Judgment at Nuremberg. This led to his being cast in the same role for Stanley Kramer’s Hollywood remake, for which he won a Golden Globe, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor, and most importantly, the 1961 Academy Award for Best Actor, beating out fellow nominee Spencer Tracy. In addition he earned a 1962 BAFTA nomination as Best Actor for his work in the film.
He would gain two more Oscar nominations for acting: in 1976 as Best Actor for the Man in the Glass Booth (1975, with an accompanying Golden Globe nomination), and in 1978 as Best Supporting Actor for Julia (1977), for which he was also nominated for a Golden Globe and by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor. He was twice been nominated for an Emmy for his TV work: in 1992 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for Miss Rose White, and the following year as Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Lenin in the HBO film, Stalin, and won the 1993 Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a series, mini-series or made-for-TV movie for the film.
Other notable films, in addition to those named above, were Topkapi (1964), The Castle (1968), The Odessa File (1974), director Sam Peckinpah’s war drama,Cross of Iron (1977), The Black Hole (1979), The Freshman (1979), where he was reunited with old friend Marlon Brando, and Deep Impact (1998).
As a director, his 1974 film, The Pedestrian, which he also wrote and starred in, was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film, and won a Golden Globe in the same category. His 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich, Marlene, was nominated in the Best Documentary category. Another notable documentary was My Sister Maria (2002), a mixture of documentary and staged footage about the career of his sister, Maria Schell, and his relationship with her.
And if all this weren’t enough, Schell was an accomplished pianist and conductor. His love for opera led him to produce and direct several, including Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavilier” for the L.A. Opera. He also spent time as a guest professor at the University of Southern California and received an honorary doctorate from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.
In addition to his wife, Iva, Schell's survivors include a daughter, Nastassja, from a previous marriage to actress Natalia Andreichenko that ended in divorce, and a grandchild.
In Memoriam: Joan Fontaine
By Ed Garea
Joan Fontaine, who passed away on December 15 at the age of 96, had a long and notable career in films, on stage, and on television. Yet, the thing she will probably be remembered for most was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
Joan was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, on October 22, 1917, in that part of the city known as the International settlement. Both parents were British. Her father, Walter Augusts de Havilland, was a patent lawyer with a thriving practice in Japan. Her mother, Lilian Augusta (nee Ruse), was a stage actress who retired upon marrying. Joan was the younger of two daughters to the family. Her older sister was Olivia Mary de Havilland, who was born on July 1, 1916. The parents, who married in 1914, split up in 1919 when Lilian left after learning that Walter had availed himself of the services of geisha girls. The divorce was finalized in February 1925.
Joan was a sickly child, having developed anemia following a combined attack of the measles and a strep infection. A physician advised Lilian to move Joan to a warmer climate, and Lilian took Joan and Olivia to California, settling in Saratoga, a city in Santa Clara County directly west of San Jose. Fontaine’s health improved dramatically and she was educated at Los Gatos High School, taking diction lessons with Olivia after school. When she was 16 years old she returned to Japan to live with her father, and while there, graduated from the American School in Japan in 1935.
Returning to the United States later in 1935, Joan’s stage mother pushed her into films, as she did with older sister Olivia. Joan signed a contract with RKO, who immediately loaned her out to MGM. Since Mom, who reportedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the family name, Joan took the moniker “Joan Burfield” (her stepfather’s name) when she made her movie debut in the 1935 Joan Crawford-Robert Montgomery MGM comedy, No More Ladies. Joan was billed ninth, as “Caroline,” an object of the wandering eye of Montgomery’s character.
Back at RKO she was idle for about a year-and-a-half, the only notable event in her career being to change her last name from “Burfield” to “Fontaine.” RKO pushed her slowly, with her first big break being cast opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937). She was supposed to be Fred’s love interest, but two things doomed the film: Joan couldn’t dance (theatergoers expected any partner of Fred Astaire to be able to dance), and she lacked the chemistry with Fred that he had enjoyed with Ginger.
After this she had two decent supporting roles in Gunga Din and MGM’s The Women, but it wasn’t until David O. Selznick chose her for the female lead in Rebecca that Joan hit stardom . . . and never looked back. The next year, she won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion (which everyone acknowledges was a consolation for not having won the year before with Rebecca) and was nominated a year after for her role in The Constant Nymph.
During this time, sister Olivia de Havilland had not won an Oscar. She had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, but lost to fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel. In fact, de Havilland would not cop an Oscar for herself until 1946, when she won the Best Actress award for To Each His Own (1946). To say the sisters had a rivalry was putting it mildly. They couldn’t stand one another. Their feud began as children, according to Fontaine in her autobiography, with big sister Liv annoying young Joan while she was still in the crib. It later escalated to things like hair pulling, tearing her own clothes so Joan couldn’t wear them as hand-me-downs, and outright fistfights, one of which ended when Olivia broke Joan’s collarbone. As they got older and Joan got bigger, the physical was replaced with the psychological. After Olivia became a star in 1935, Joan, still looking for a regular gig, was pressed into service as her sister’s driver. And when Joan did hit it big, the tension increased.
Joan was nominated in 1942 by the Academy in the Best Actress category for her role in Hitchcock’s Suspicion the year before. Sister Olivia was also nominated for the same award for her turn on Hold Back the Dawn. Both sisters were to be seated at the same table, and Joan considered no-showing; she believed that as she didn’t win the award the previous year for a superior film, she had no chance of winning it now. However, when Olivia visited Joan on the set of her latest film with her dress in hand, Fontaine decided to attend. According to her autobiography, when Fontaine’s name was called out as the winner, she froze. She stared across the table, where Olivia was whispering to her in a commanding tone to get up there. Joan said that when she did arise to accept the trophy, she walked around the other side of the table so as to bypass Olivia, whom she was certain would trip her on the way up.
Their feud escalated even further over the years and reached the point of cold war: neither sister was speaking with the other. This war-of-the-sisters made for an indelible moment at the 1947 Oscars, where Olivia won Best Actress for To Each His Own. Joan, who was on hand to present the Best Actor award, hung around afterward backstage. After Olivia departed the stage holding the award, Joan stuck out her hand in congratulations, only to have Olivia snub it. The moment was caught in a photo by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, and remains to this day one of Tinseltown’s iconic photographs. Over time, the sisters somewhat reconciled, but the relationship was never a warm one, often diverging between hot and ice cold. In 1989, the sisters were reunited at the Oscars, but upon discovering they were staying in adjoining hotel rooms, Joan had her room changed and swore never again to attend another Academy ceremony, an oath she kept until her death. For her part, when notified of her sister’s death, Olivia issued a rare public statement: “I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received." Unless Olivia writes something of their relationship, Joan’s autobiography remains the main source of our knowledge of the relationship between these two talented sisters.
If I were to be approached and asked as to which sister was my favorite, I would have to excuse myself. I loved seeing both in whatever film they happened to appear. My first memories of Olivia come as an 8-year old completely enraptured by Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, thinking that, I too would risk death to be with Maid Marian. Joan I didn’t catch until years later when I saw her in ads for the local New York market hawking the delights of Arnold sliced bread. I suppose it was either that or star in a bad horror films such as The Witches (1966). Joan did come out of retirement in the late ‘70s to do a few TV movies and series, among them the soaper Ryan’s Hope. But it wasn’t until I saw Rebecca at the age of 13 that I began to appreciate her ability – and her beauty. To me, she was the better looking of the sisters, but in terms of ability, both are equal in my eyes and remain as actors I love to watch no matter what sort of film they happen to be in.
My Favorite Fontaine:
Damsel in Distress (1937): Granted it’s not one of Astaire’s better films, but Joan is quite fetching as his love interest, Lady Alyce Marshmorton. OK, it’s basically the same old plot, but Joan comes off quite well, considering she doesn’t dance. The thing that always got me was the fact that someone that looked as emaciated as Astaire could score a doll like Fontaine, even in a movie.
Rebecca (1940): Joan is superb as the second Mrs. De Winter. No one can project timidity and beauty like Fontaine and make it totally work. I don’t know how bright Joan was in real life, but she projected the image of the gorgeous inhibited librarian-type to near perfection.
Suspicion (1941): With a character that’s nearly a repeat of her earlier turn as Mrs. De Winter, the role could hardly be called a stretch for Fontaine. She proved the perfect foil to Cary Grant’s easygoing con man and shnook. How Grant’s character could look at her and still call her “Monkey Face” was a mystery, even with that unflattering early ‘40s hairdo?
The Constant Nymph (1943): The picture’s not so hot, but Joan is superb. She and Ginger Rogers were the only adult actresses of that time who could rock the teenage look and make you actually believe they were that young. She manages to dominate the film, not an easy task when we can see that co-star Charles Boyer has left his teeth marks all over the scenery.
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948): This is where one can really appreciate a good actress. Anyone less and we’d be bored out of our skulls, for this film takes a master to pull off properly. Directed by the great Max Ophuls, Joan plays lead character Lisa brilliantly, capturing both her vulnerable facet and later the mature, hardened Lisa, marrying a man for financial security and social respectability rather than love. We see in the film that the notion of romantic love makes the younger Lisa vulnerable and needy, and how Stefan (Louis Jourdan in a fine performance) takes advantage of this neediness. To make Lisa work requires an actress to be strong, yet subtle. Joan delivers on this in spades, aided by Ophuls’ excellent direction and equally strong performances by Jourdan and Marcel Journet.
Born to Be Bad (1950): Another film that’s not so hot. In fact, Joan’s character, Christabel, comes off as a junior grade Eve Harrington. Nicholas Ray’s direction doesn’t help matters, either. But Joan is still able to give her character some badly needed depth and a little oomph. It also helps when one has the sort of chemistry she had with co-star Robert Ryan.
In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole
By Ed Garea
It always seems that, while one dies alone, death itself comes in bunches. In just two days back-to-back in December we lost two of the brightest lights in the Hollywood firmament.
Peter O’Toole passed on first, on December 14 at the age of 81, followed by Joan Fontaine a day later at the age of 96. We will cover her career in a subsequent article; for now we’ll concentrate on the great O’Toole and his films.
The thing that always amazed me about O’Toole was that he managed to last so long; one would have thought he would have drunk himself to death long ago. In his last years he sort of resembled an ill-kept grave. But what a talent: O’Toole was easily one of the most talented men ever to set foot on stage or screen. His T.E. Lawrence will always be remembered as one of the greatest performances ever on film, as will his portrayal of Henry II in both Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).
As far as Oscar was concerned, O’Toole was always a bridesmaid but never a bride. He holds the record – eight – for having been nominated in the Best Actor category without winning.
He cemented his reputation as a brilliant actor in his late 20s, when he became the youngest leading man ever at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. While there he also cemented his reputation as a hellraiser, fueled by goodly amounts of alcoholic beverages.
It was the latter reputation that almost caused producer Sam Spiegel to overlook him when casting the part of T.E. Lawrence, but director David Lean pitched for O’Toole and was rewarded when Spiegel saw O’Toole’s screen test and admitted to Lean that they had found their Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia took nearly two years to film, but upon its release O’Toole was now Filmdom’s latest superstar. Contrary to popular belief, it was not O’Toole’s first movie. He appeared in three previous films, the best known of which was Disney’s 1960 adventure, Kidnapped, in which he had a small role as “Robin McGregor.” He had third billing in the 1960 crime drama, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, about three IRA men in turn-of-the-century England who plan to rob the Bank of England of its gold bullion. O’Toole is the officer in charge of security at the bank.
Below are my favorite O’Toole performances, sorted by year.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Who doesn’t love this movie? Oh sure, we can find some crank on IMDb who hated it. It was overlong, not historically accurate, etc. However, they’re in the distinct minority. Lawrence is a majestic movie, the sort they don’t make anymore (for one thing, CGI may have killed off the epic). It has a great script, wonderful cinematography and pacing, and, most of all, solid performances from its cast. Despite this, however, the film is structured in such a way that if the leading man fails (most of Lean’s other epics rely on the same formula), so does the rest of the film. And O’Toole makes sure the film doesn’t fail, capturing the spirit, if not the history, of Lawrence the man. It’s a film that, despite its length, I can watch anytime.
Becket (1964): So how does one follow up on a triumph like Lawrence of Arabia? Why with Becket, of course. Using Jean Anouilh’s play as a basis, it’s the story of the turbulent relationship between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, childhood friends who later became bitter enemies when Becket got religion and stood up for the Church against the King, and was ultimately killed for it. O’Toole’s Henry is up against another heavyweight in Richard Burton’s Becket, in the days before Liz and booze destroyed his career. John Gielgud also turns in quite an effective performance in a supporting role as King Louis VII of France.
The Night of the Generals (1967): This is a nice little gem in the O’Toole oeuvre, a tale about three Nazi generals suspected in the murder of a Polish prostitute in Warsaw, now in Paris, where one is in on the plot to kill Hitler. O’Toole, as General Tanz, gives a good, suspicious performance. Could he be the murderer? Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray, as the other two suspected generals, also give excellent performances, as does Omar Sharif as the investigating officer on the case. The film does lose its focus with the kill Hitler plot in Paris, but overall it’s quite good, especially O’Toole.
The Lion in Winter (1968): O’Toole is once again Henry II, but this time the focus is not on his intrigue with Thomas Becket, but with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas 1183. Henry, aging but still conniving, calls a meeting where he will name a successor. In attendance are his scheming wife, Eleanor, and his three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Also called are his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he hopes to marry, and King Philip II of France. All want his empire, but only one will be named. O’Toole is having a field day. Having played Henry before, he is comfortable with the character. Katharine Hepburn is wonderful as Eleanor (she got the Oscar for her portrayal), and a young Anthony Hopkins shines as Richard. Watching O’Toole and Hepburn engaging in their game of political chess (Henry wants John as his successor while Eleanor favors Richard) is mesmerizing: two pros at the pinnacle of their craft. And for those looking for offbeat Christmas movies, the setting of this film should fit the bill.
The Ruling Class (1972): O’Toole is the mad 14th Earl of Gurney in Peter Medak’s wonderful satire on the upper classes. The Earl believes himself to be Christ, wearing glasses because it’s cold, resting himself on a crucifix, and suddenly breaking out into song and dance numbers. His peers and family think he’s quite mad. Yet, when he undergoes a metamorphosis, dresses as a Victorian gentleman while speaking of capital punishment and superior breeding, his peers think him not only cured but prepare him for his seat in the House of Lords. The real point is that the Earl is not cured at all; he now believes himself to be Jack the Ripper. For those who love dark comedy or simply want to see a different O’Toole, this is one to see.
My Favorite Year (1982): O’Toole is in his element in this hilarious comedy. It’s 1954 and King Kaiser (read Sid Caesar) is the biggest thing on television. His guest this week is swashbuckling actor Alan Swann. Now all Kaiser and his staff have to do is make sure Swann stays sober for his appearance, a task not as easy as it seems. As the dissolute Swann, O’Toole dominates the film. Although his character is supposedly based on Errol Flynn, there are a few touches based on O’Toole himself, such as the habit of not wearing a watch (“I don’t trust them, one hand is bigger than the other.”) and his preference for Pinch scotch. In fact, O’Toole’s performance is so true to his real life self that it’s hard to discern where Flynn ends and O’Toole begins. The idea of having junior writer Benjy Stone babysit Swann is based on the real-life incident of having then Caesar show’s junior writer, Mel Brooks, chaperone guest star Flynn around before his appearance on Your Show of Shows.
Ratatouille (2007): Having provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated films for Burbank Studios in Australia, O’Toole was no stranger to the genre. In this heartwarming animated movie from Pixar and Disney about a rat who dreams of becoming a great French chef, O’Toole supplies the voice of Anton Ego, food critic for “The Grim Eater,” and someone whose word can make or break a restaurant. Though he initially comes on as the villain of the piece, his character is the heart of the film because of his love of good food and his honesty. A large part of the fun in watching Ratatouille is listening to O’Toole resonant voice as Ego. Besides, if I didn’t mention this film, Steve Herte would never forgive me.