Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn't. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
Hard to believe now that any schmuck with a Powerbook, a few sarcastic quips in his arsenal, and a handiness with Google Image search can call himself a “gossip columnist,” but once upon a time the showbiz industry was prowled not by bottom-feeding blogs but genial, genuinely awed folks like Army Archerd. An entertainment reporter who got his start with the Associated Press before becoming a staple at Variety, where he penned the “Just For Variety” column, a breezy rundown of industry news, amusing celebrity anecdotes, and exclusive reports from film sets and awards shows that ran for more than 50 years before ending its run in 2005. Unlike most entertainment writers (yours truly included), Archerd prided himself on being a gentleman, avoiding negativity, and rarely weighing in on hot-button issues. And when he did, it was a big deal, such as when he stood up for Rock Hudson while sensitively revealing that he was being treated for AIDS, or when he chastised Charlton Heston (repeatedly) for his NRA grandstanding, or when he—a staunch opponent of McCarthyism at a time when every other Hollywood reporter was running splashy “Red Menace” exposés—stuck to his guns and wrote about his distaste for Elia Kazan receiving an honorary Oscar in 1999. And when Army Archerd was mad at you, even the biggest stars listened—such as when Archerd, a longtime advocate for Jewish causes, called out Michael Jackson for his infamous “Jew me / Sue me” lyric, and the singer called him a few days later to tell him personally that he would change the song.
More than just a writer, Archerd was a star himself, an institution of red carpet premières outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (where his name can be found on the Walk Of Fame), and a friendly face to some of Hollywood’s biggest names from the respective eras of Judy Garland to Elizabeth Taylor to Tom Cruise. But Archerd always remained a humble, egalitarian sort, epitomized by his co-creation of the People’s Choice Awards, his general aw-shucks demeanor, and his diligent reporting—which was always strenuously fact-checked and accurate, despite Archerd relying almost solely on a system of memorization and an ancient, swelling Rolodex. Only a few years into his retirement, Archerd died this week at the age of 87. Obviously, Variety has the best take on Archerd’s life and career, a fascinating read full of way more details than we can possibly convey here.
A gifted comedy writer who deftly balanced acerbic wit with social commentary but never let either get in the way of creating characters worth caring about, Larry Gelbart was best known as the driving force behind M*A*S*H, where he oversaw the development of the bulk of its episodes before departing at the end of its fourth season. Gelbart had come up in the comedy world cranking out jokes for Jack Paar, Bob Hope, and Danny Thomas in radio before graduating to television on Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour, where he shared a writer’s room with Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Carl Reiner. In 1962, Gelbart teamed up with Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove to write the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, a farcical play on the comedic plays of Roman writer Plautus, a community theater or high school version of which is probably playing in your hometown right now.
Gelbart was also a considerable force in movies, penning the screenplays for the critical and commercial smashes Tootsie and Oh God!, in addition to the unloved John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd fiasco Neighbors, the Michael Caine/Demi Moore comedy Blame It On Rio, and the somewhat underrated Bedazzled update with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. He returned to television for 29 episodes of After M*A*S*H, seeing this one through to the end, created the little-seen but cultishly revered sitcom United States, and in an interesting footnote, he also wrote the first pilot for Three’s Company, much to his embarrassment. (Gelbart reportedly felt that the simplistic premise was beneath him, but did it as a favor to ABC’s Fred Silverman; the pilot he created, while never aired, was nevertheless very similar to the show’s first episode.) Gelbart also never strayed far from political satire, skewering the Iran-Contra scandal in the made-for-cable Mastergate, poking fun at the media wars in Weapons Of Mass Distraction, and taking on greed—one of his all-time favorite subjects—in the TV movie Barbarians At The Gate and in his play Sly Fox. In his lifetime, Gelbart racked up multiple Emmy and Tony awards, as well as several Oscar nominations, slowing his output only in the last several years, content to write the occasional blog for The Huffington Post. He died today at the age of 81.
Though probably not well known on this side of the Atlantic, Mike Bongiorno was one of, if not the most recognizable face in Italy, where he had long reigned as an incredibly beloved—and wealthy—television personality. Bongiorno was known as the “Quiz King,” the man who first introduced Italian audiences to game shows with his hosting duties on hits like Lascia o Raddoppia?, a reworked version of The $64,000 Question. Over the course of several decades, Bongiorno became omnipresent—so recognizable and influential that Umberto Eco once wrote an essay about him called the “Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno,” which used him as a symbol for all of popular culture. Even more remarkable was Bongiorno’s origin story: Born in New York, he relocated to his mother’s home of Turin, Italy, as a boy, where he became caught up in the Italian resistance during World War II. He was briefly interred in a German concentration camp before being released as part of a prisoner-of-war exchange, getting into the burgeoning broadcasting field and making his first appearance on RAI state television the very first day it went live. Media magnate—and current Italian prime minister—Silvio Berlusconi snapped him up in 1979 as part of his creation of the private TV empire Mediaset, recognizing that Bongiorno’s involvement would ensure its success. Bongiorno was working on yet another television show—albeit for Sky Italia, who signed him this past March when Mediaset refused to renew his contract—when he suffered a heart attack and died Tuesday at the age of 85.
With his intimidating glare and scarred face—which he used to jokingly attribute to acts of extreme heroism in WWII, even though they were really the remnants of a bout of severe teenage acne—Australian-born actor Ray Barrett was a natural for tough guy roles, especially the no-nonsense, globetrotting field agent he played in the long-running British series The Troubleshooters. But while he portrayed his fair share of live-action heavies in other classic series like Doctor Who, The Saint, and The Avengers, his most famous roles (to international audiences, anyway) didn’t involve his face at all. A generation of kids grew up listening to Barrett provide the voice for “Commander Sam Shore” on the Gerry Anderson-created marionette series Stingray, memorably shouting the show’s opening credits line, “Stand by for action!” He performed so well there that Anderson brought him in to play several characters on the even more popular Thunderbirds, including John Tracy and recurring villain The Hood—roles he later reprised in the 1966 film, Thunderbirds Are Go. In the ’70s, Barrett rose to some acclaim in his home country, playing leads in several Australian TV series and appearing in dozens of movies there, eventually claiming the Australian Film Institute’s Longford Life Achievement Award in 2005. Barrett’s final film appearance was in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia last year; he died this week of a brain hemorrhage suffered after falling at his home. He was 82.
In 1982, the idea that anyone would want to watch 24-hour coverage of the weather seemed as laughable as anyone tuning in for 24 hours of news, but Landmark Communications chairman Frank Batten, Sr. saw things differently. Despite predictions from all sides that it would bomb disastrously, the newspaper man turned media mogul bravely gambled everything he’d built for himself on a network that would provide nothing but coverage of weather from coast-to-coast at all hours of the day and night. Amazingly, The Weather Channel beat out all cynical predictions and became an instant success. In just a year’s time, it extended its reach to over 9.3 million households, growing exponentially from there, until its current standing at 99 million households, all of them tuning in as we speak for ski reports and videos of hurricane damage set to smooth jazz. Last year, Landmark sold the company to NBC Universal: Fred Batten’s former laughingstock netted him a cool $3.5 billion. (Batten himself was ranked No. 430 on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaire earlier this year.) After battling throat cancer in 1977, Batten had his larynx removed and spent the last 30 years breathing through a hole in his neck, slowly training himself to speak again; in recent years he’d been suffering from another unnamed, prolonged illness. He died this week at the age of 82, leaving a soothing, reassuring legacy behind.
Have a super weekend!