Friday, July 24, 2015

RIP E.L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow Dies at 84; Literary Time Traveler Stirred Past Into Fiction

The New York Times
By Bruce Weber
July 21, 2015

E. L. Doctorow, a leading figure in contemporary American letters whose popular, critically admired and award-winning novels — including “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March” — situated fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts, among identifiable historical figures and often within unconventional narrative forms, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 84 and lived in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, N.Y.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, his son, Richard, said.

The author of a dozen novels, three volumes of short fiction and a stage drama, as well as essays and commentary on literature and politics, Mr. Doctorow was widely lauded for the originality, versatility and audacity of his imagination.

Subtly subversive in his fiction — less so in his left-wing political writing — he consistently upended expectations with a cocktail of fiction and fact, remixed in book after book; with clever and substantive manipulations of popular genres like the Western and the detective story; and with his myriad storytelling strategies. Deploying, in different books, the unreliable narrator, the stream-of-consciousness narrator, the omniscient narrator and multiple narrators, Mr. Doctorow was one of contemporary fiction’s most restless experimenters.

In “World’s Fair” (1985), for example, a book that hews closely to Mr. Doctorow’s autobiography and that he once described as “a portrait of the artist as a very young boy” (but also as “the illusion of a memoir”), he depicts the experience of a Depression-era child of the Bronx and his awakening to the ideas of America and of a complicated world. Ending at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the book tilts irresistibly toward the technological future of the country and the artistic future of the man.

The narrator is looking back on his childhood, but the conventionality of the narration is undermined in two ways. For one thing, the man’s relatives get their own first-person chapters and inject their own memories, a strategy that adds depth and luster to the portrait of the time and place. For another, his own narration is offered in the present tense, as if the preadolescent character were telling an unfolding tale, though with the perspective and vocabulary of an adult. His opening recollection — or is it a contemporaneous report? — is of wetting the bed:

“Startled awake by the ammoniated mists, I am roused in one instant from glutinous sleep to grieving awareness; I have done it again. My soaked thighs sting. I cry. I call Mama, knowing I must endure her harsh reaction, get through that, to be rescued. My crib is on the east wall of their room. Their bed is on the south wall. ‘Mama!’ From her bed she hushes me.”

Beginning with his third novel, “The Book of Daniel” (1971), an ostensible memoir by the son of infamous accused traitors — their story mirrors that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as Russian spies in 1953 — Mr. Doctorow turned out a stream of literary inventions. His protagonists lived in the seeming thrall of history but their tales, for the convenience — or, better, the purpose — of fiction, depicted alterations in accepted versions of the past. Not that he undermined the grand scheme of things; his interest was not of the what-if-things-had-gone-differently variety. Rather, a good part of Mr. Doctorow’s achievement was in illustrating how the past informs the present, and how the present has evolved from the past.

Works With a ‘Double Vision’

In the book that made him famous, “Ragtime” (1975), set in and around New York as America hurtled toward involvement in World War I, the war arrives on schedule, but the actions of the many characters, both fictional and nonfictional (including the escape artist Harry Houdini, the anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman and the novelist Theodore Dreiser) were largely invented. Sometimes this was for droll effect — at one point Freud and Jung, visiting New York at the same time, take an amusement park boat ride together through the tunnel of love — and sometimes for the sake of narrative drama and thematic impact. Written in a declarative, confident voice with an often dryly arch tone mocking its presumed omniscience, the novel seemed to both lay claim to authoritative historical perspective and undermine it with winking commentary.

Houdini, Mr. Doctorow writes, “was passionately in love with his ancient mother whom he had installed in his brownstone home on West 113th Street.”

“In fact,” he continues, “Sigmund Freud had just arrived in America to give a series of lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and so Houdini was destined to be, with Al Jolson, the last of the great shameless mother lovers, a 19th-century movement that included such men as Poe, John Brown, Lincoln and James McNeill Whistler. Of course Freud’s immediate reception in America was not auspicious. A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.”

Woven into the rollicking narrative of “Ragtime” are the dawn of the movies and the roots of the American labor movement, tabloid journalism and women’s rights. The central plot involves the violent retribution taken by a black musician against a society that has left him without redress for his heinous victimization. The events described never took place (Mr. Doctorow borrowed the plot from a 19th-century novel by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist, who based his tale on a 16th-century news event), but they contribute to Mr. Doctorow’s foreshadowing of racial conflict as one of the great cultural themes of 20th-century American life.

In “Billy Bathgate,” a Depression-era Bronx teenager is seduced by the pleasures of lawlessness when he is engaged as an errand boy by the gangster Dutch Schultz, who is about to go on trial for tax evasion. The novel is not an allegory but, published in 1989, as the “greed is good” decade of the 1980s came to a close, it makes plain that Schultz’s corrupt entrepreneurism is of a piece with the avaricious manipulations of white-collar financiers, forerunners of a Wall Street run amok.

“The distinguished characteristic of E. L. Doctorow’s work is its double vision,” the critic Peter S. Prescott wrote in Newsweek in 1984. “In each of his books he experiments with the forms of fiction, working for effects that others haven’t already achieved; in each he develops a tone, a structure and a texture that he hasn’t used before. At the same time, he’s a deeply traditional writer, reworking American history, American literary archetypes, even exhausted subliterary genres. It’s an astonishing performance, really.”

Most of Mr. Doctorow’s historical explorations involved New York and its environs, including “Loon Lake” (1980), the tale of a 1930s drifter who comes upon a kind of otherworldly kingdom, a private retreat in the Adirondacks; “Lives of the Poets” (1984), a novella and six stories that collectively depict the mind of a writer who has, during the 1970s, succumbed to midlife ennui; and “The Waterworks” (1994), a dark mystery set in Manhattan in the 1870s, involving a journalist who vanishes and an evil scientist.

More recently, in “City of God” (2000), Mr. Doctorow wrote about three characters — a writer, a rabbi and a priest — and the search for faith in a cacophonous and especially hazardous age, using contemporary Manhattan as a backdrop. And in “Homer and Langley” (2009), he created a tour of 20th-century history from the perspective of a blind man, Homer Collyer, a highly fictionalized rendering of one of two eccentric brothers living on upper Fifth Avenue who became notorious after their deaths for their obsessive hoarding.

Indeed, much of his oeuvre describes a fictional history, more or less, of 20th-century America in general and New York in particular.

“Someone said to me once that my books can be arranged in rough chronological order to indicate one man’s sense of 120 years of American life,” Mr. Doctorow said on the publication of “City of God.” “In this book, it seems I’ve finally caught up to the present.”

“The March” (2005) was Mr. Doctorow’s farthest reach back into history, and it also expanded his geographical reach, populating the destructive and decisive Civil War campaign of General William T. Sherman — the capture of Atlanta and the so-called march to the sea — with a plethora of characters. Black and white, wealthy and wanting, military and civilian, sympathetic and repugnant, they are a veritable representation of the American people.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (also won by “Billy Bathgate”) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (also won by “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate”), a finalist for the National Book Award (won by “World’s Fair”) and the Pulitzer Prize, “The March” was widely recognized as a signature book, treated by critics as the climactic work of a career.

Perhaps the most telling review came from John Updike, who was prominent among a noisy minority of critics who generally found Mr. Doctorow’s tinkering with history misleading if not an outright violation of the tenets of narrative literature. Updike held “Ragtime” in especial disdain.

“It smacked of playing with helpless dead puppets, and turned the historical novel into a gravity-free, faintly sadistic game,” he wrote in The New Yorker, going on to dismiss several other Doctorow books before granting their author a reprieve.

“His splendid new novel, ‘The March,’ pretty well cures my Doctorow problem,” Updike wrote, adding, “The novel shares with ‘Ragtime’ a texture of terse episodes and dialogue shorn, in avant-garde fashion, of quotation marks, but has little of the older book’s distancing jazz, its impudent, mocking shuffle of facts; it celebrates its epic war with the stirring music of a brass marching band heard from afar, then loud and up close, and finally receding over the horizon.

“Reading historical fiction,” Updike went on, “we often itch, our curiosity piqued, to consult a book of straight history, to get to the facts without the fiction. But ‘The March’ stimulates little such itch; it offers an illumination, fitful and flickering, of a historic upheaval that only fiction could provide. Doctorow here appears not so much a reconstructor of history as a visionary who seeks in time past occasions for poetry.”

DOCTOROW, E.L. (Edgar Lawrence Doctorow)
Born: 1/6/1931, New York City, New York, U.S.A.
Died: 7/21/2015, Manhattan, New York, U.S.A.

E.L. Doctorow’s western – screenwriter, actor:
Welcome to Hard Times – 1967 [screenwriter]
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson – 1976 (Adviser to President Grover Cleveland)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

RIP Al Checco

Al Checco, Comic Character Actor, Dies at 93

Hollywood Reporter
By Mike Barnes

He was seen on 'Batman,' 'The Munsters' and in 'The Party' and appeared in many projects with his pal Don Knotts.

 Al Checco, a comedic character actor with a familiar face and dozens of credits who often appeared onscreen with his Army buddy, the late Don Knotts, has died. He was two days shy of his 94th birthday.

 Checco died peacefully Sunday of natural causes at his home in Studio City, Ron Buccieri, a friend of the actor for many years, told The Hollywood Reporter.

 A native of Pittsburgh, Checco is known to Batman fans as one of The Penguin’s (Burgess Meredith) henchmen in a first-season installment in which the cagey bird appears to have gone straight (he hasn’t). And when the Munsters win a membership to the Mockingbird Heights Country Club in a 1965 episode, it’s Checco who’s working the bar, hanging out with Grandpa (Al Lewis).

 In the 1976 CBS telefilm Helter Skelter, Checco had perhaps his most serious role as real-life supermarket executive Leno LaBianca, who was killed with his wife in their home by the Manson Family one day after they had murdered actress Sharon Tate and five others in 1969. A carving fork used to cut the word “war” on LaBianca’s stomach was left protruding from his corpse.

 Checco met Knotts during World War II when the two enlisted men served in an Army unit that was assembled to entertain the troops on front lines throughout the Pacific. After Checco sang, Knotts followed him with a ventriloquist act.

“When the Japanese bombed us, the sirens would go off, and we’d have to stop the show, jump in our foxholes or whatever, and then come out and finish the show,” Checco recalled in an interview after Knotts died in 2006. “This went on for a number of weeks. I kept suggesting to Don that we resume the show with him going first to get it off to a good start because my song was OK, but it was nothing special. Don would say, ‘No, no, Al, what you do is good. You warm up the audience.’ Of course, he was just conning me.”

Checco later guest-starred opposite Knotts in two episodes of The Andy Griffith Show (as a bank robber in 1962’s “The Bank Job” and as a thief scheming to recover his lost loot in 1965’s “If I Had a Million Dollars”). He also worked with the nervous actor in the movies The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and How to Frame a Figg (1971).

 A longtime resident of Studio City, Checco appeared in such films as Hotel (1967) starring Rod Taylor, Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) and the Steve McQueen action classic Bullitt (1968) as well as in Angel in My Pocket (1969) with Griffith, Skin Game (1971), The Terminal Man (1974), Pete's Dragon (1977) and Zero to Sixty (1978).

 On television, he could be found on dozens of series, including The Phil Silvers Show, Mister Ed, Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Flying Nun, The F.B.I., Here’s Lucy, The Rockford Files, Highway to Heaven and Scrubs, his final onscreen credit, in 2004.

 Checco graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh with a degree in drama in 1946 and headed to New York, where he worked as a stage manager on Broadway before turning to acting.

 He married actress Jean Bradley in 1953. She contracted polio in Milan, Italy while starring in a touring production of Oklahoma! and died at age 28 in 1955. Bradley had just replaced lead actress Shirley Jones, who had left to film the movie version. Checco never remarried.

 According to Buccieri, Checco gave away the bulk of his fortune to his college (now known as Carnegie Mellon University) and donated his home, in his wife's name, to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

 A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 29 at Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Sherman Oaks.

Born: 7/21/1921, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Died: 7/19/2015, Studio City, California, U.S.A.

Al Checco’s westerns – actor:
Bronco (TV) – 1962 (Ken Rodney)
The Big Valley (TV) – 1969 (desk clerk)
There Was a Crooked Man – 1970 (Wheatley)
Bonanza (TV) – 1970, 1971 (Hornsby, Rufus)
Skin Game – 1971 (room clerk)
Cade’s County – 1972 (Merle)
Kung Fu (TV) – 1975 (referee)
Tales of the Apple Dumpling Gang (TV) – 1982 (Floyd Wilkins)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

RIP Theodore Bikel

Theodore Bikel, Broadway's 'Fiddler on the Roof' Star, Dies at 91

Hollywood Reporter
by Duane Byrge , Alex Ben Block

He also created Von Trapp for 'The Sound of Music' for the stage, earned an Oscar nom for 'The Defiant Ones' and was an accomplished folk singer.

Theodore Bikel, a prolific performer and political activist who created the role of Captain Georg Von Trapp in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music and defined the role of Tevye the Milkman during more than 2,200 performances of Fiddler on the Roof, has died. He was 91.

Bikel died of natural causes on Tuesday morning at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, publicist Harlan Boll announced.

Internationally renown and respected as one of the most versatile actors of his generation, Bikel received an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor for The Defiant Ones (1958), where he played a Southern sheriff.

Conversant in a number of languages, Bikel’s background and versatility led to a wide, multinational range of roles. Often playing authority figures, the native of Vienna starred as a Dutch doctor in The Little Kidnappers (1953); a Germany submarine officer in The Enemy Below (1957); a French general in The Pride and the Passion (1957); Russian military men in in Fraulein (1958) and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1965); and a Hungarian phonetics expert in My Fair Lady (1964),

Other memorable feature credits include The African Queen (1951), I Want to Live! (1958), See You in the Morning (1989), Crisis in the Kremlin (1992) and Shadow Conspiracy (1996). 

In The Sound of Music, which opened on Broadway in 1959 and ran until 1963, Bikel earned a Tony Award nomination for his work. The musical also starred Mary Martin as Maria. (Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer took their parts in the 1965 version, which won the Oscar for best picture.)

On television, Bikel made hundreds of appearances, co-starring as Henry Kissinger in the 1989 ABC miniseries The Final Days and guesting on shows as diverse as The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, All in the Family, Law & Order, JAG, Colombo and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He had recurring roles on the primetime soaps Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

Bikel did a weekly radio program, At Home With Theodore Bikel, which was nationally syndicated. He is the author of Folksongs and Footnotes, and his autobiography Theo was published in 1994.

Late into his life, Bikel wrote and starred in numerous performances of the play and musical Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, which had its world premiere in Washington in 2008.

More recent film credits include Dark Tower (1989), Second Chances (1998) and Crime and Punishment (2002).

Bikel appeared in opera productions including La Gazza Ladra, Philadelphia Opera Company (1989); The Abduction From the Seraglio, Cleveland Opera Company (1992), Ariadne auf Naxos, Los Angeles Opera Company (1992); and Die Fledermaus, Yale Opera Company (1998).

On Broadway in the 1950s, he starred in productions including Tonight in Samarkand, The Rope Dancers (in which he received a Tony Award nomination) and The Lark.

Bikel was a noteworthy recording artist who enjoyed international popularity as a folk singer. He appeared at Carnegie Hall and sang for Queen Elizabeth, and in 1961, he founded the Newport Folk Festival.

He recorded 37 albums, more than 20 for Electra. Folksong of Israk, A Young Man and a Maid and An Actor’s Holiday featured songs in 12 languages, including Ukrainian and Zulu. He collected exotic folk instruments, sang with Pete Seeger and once owned a bistro in Hollywood.

A civil rights activist who became a naturalized American citizen in 1961, he was appointed by President Carter in 1977 to serve a five-year term on the National Council for the Arts.

“Everything that I’ve done and that I’ve lived through” Bikel said in a 2001 interview, “has really informed a commitment I have. I’m not just somebody who mouths words or sings songs on the stage; I’m also a human being, and that counts for something.”

Bikel was a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, senior vp of the American Jewish Congress, vp of the International Federation of Actors (1981-91), a board member of Amnesty International (USA) and president of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. He also was president emeritus of Actors Equity, which he served as president from 1973-82.

Bikel was born in Vienna on May 2, 1924. He was educated in Austria until the Nazis arrived when he was 13. His father, an insurance salesman and ardent Zionist, soon moved his family to Palestine (later Israel) and became director of the public health service. Bikel spent his teens living on a kibbutz and got his first acting job as a Czarist constable in a Hebrew production of the Tevye stories.

In 1946, he went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatics Arts. He followed with work on the London stage, winning acclaim for his performance in Laurence Olivier’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Bikel also was noteworthy in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels.

Bikel came to the U.S. in 1954 to appear with Louis Jourdan in Tonight in Smarkand on Broadway. Strong critical notices helped him land the main supporting role opposite Julie Harris in The Lark.

He lived for many years in Connecticut and belonged to the Theater Artists Workshop of Westport. Most recently, he lived in Southern California.

Active until the end, Bikel was touring festivals with screenings of his latest film, Theodore Bikel: In the Shoes of Sholom Aleichem.

Survivors include his wife Aimee, sons Rob and Danny, stepsons Zeev and Noam and three grandchildren.

Donations can be made to The Actors Fund or Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

When he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 1997, Bikel said: “In my world, history comes down to language and art. No one cares much about what battles were fought, who won them and who lost them -- unless there is a painting, a play, a song or a poem that speaks of the event."

BIKEL, Theodore (Theodor Meir Bikel)
Born: 5/2/1924, Vienna, Austria
Died: 7/21/2015, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Theodore Bikel’s westerns – actor:
The Defiant Ones – 1958 (Sheriff Max Muller)
Hotel de Paree (TV) – 1959 (Carmoody)
Wagon Train (TV) – 1962 (Dr. Denker)
Rawhide (TV) – 1964 (Pence)
Gunsmoke (TV) – 1965 (Martin Kellums)