Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
In his many years of service, James Bond matched wits and witticisms with villains ranging from the truly menacing (Oddjob, Blofeld) to the patently ridiculous (Herve Villechaize, that one movie where James Bond gets exposed to kryptonite created by Richard Pryor and then battles his evil drunk half in a junkyard). But Joseph Wiseman was the first to establish the prototype of the “Bond villain” and all of their myriad, substandard knock-offs—megalomaniacal, arrogant, cold, calculating, fond of island getaways—as the title character of Dr. No. Unfortunately, Wiseman didn’t exactly relish being one of filmdom’s greatest supervillains; in fact, he thought it was quite ridiculous that a character with less than 20 minutes of screen time—in what he believed would be “Just another grade-B Charlie Chan mystery,” the Guardian quotes him as saying—would end up being his most defining role. Well, no offense intended to “Leduc,” the part he originated in Arthur Miller’s Incident At Vichy, but Leduc didn’t have bionic metal hands.
And even if Wiseman hadn’t picked up the script after his pal Noel Coward tossed it and become indelibly associated with the longest-running film franchise ever, we would still be talking about him today thanks to equally laudatory (if somewhat less iconic) performances in films like Viva Zapata!, where he played the tensely coiled apparatchik who betrays Marlon Brando, and Detective Story, where he played an insolent, violent lowlife—a role much unlike Dr. No’s utterly mad yet genteel scientist, but it was the one that caught the attention of Bond producer Harry Saltzman, and convinced him that this Canadian actor would be a worthy choice to play a half-German, half-Chinese terrorist. “Bond fever” may have embarrassed him slightly, but Wiseman somehow escaped typecasting, going on to play diverse parts in movies like John Huston’s The Unforgiven—where he was tasked with making a prophecy-spewing, shit-stirring ghost into a genuinely ominous character, rather than the bizarre joke it could have been—and The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz, one of the most famous of Wiseman’s many Jewish roles, a niche he would inhabit until very recently, when he would perform staged readings of Yiddish writers and act in the 2002 Broadway production of Judgment Of Nuremberg, his final performance.
In all, Wiseman was the consummate definition of “character actor,” flitting easily between Shakespeare and gritty crime stories—and specifically, the 1980s TV drama Crime Story (where he played crime boss Manny Weisbord), which Martin Scorsese has often cited as inspiration for Casino—but disappearing into his parts so effectively that it’s only upon occasion of his death this week at the age of 91 that we stop to reflect on all he had to offer. (And apologies for the stupidity, Dr. No, but it’s worth remarking that you were the last of the original, Connery-era villains to die.)
Much like Wiseman, composer Vic Mizzy had a long and varied career that spanned everything from the ominous score for William Castle’s The Night Walker to WWII-era pop hits like “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time” (made famous by Doris Day) to “The Whole World Is Singing My Song.” But unlike Wiseman, Mizzy didn’t particularly care that you don’t remember him for any of that. He was all too happy to know that you will most likely recall him solely as the guy who took a pair of snapping fingers and Eva Gabor’s dubious singing voice, then buried them so deeply in your brain as the theme songs for The Addams Family and Green Acres that you’ll probably still be able to hum them to yourself on your deathbed, even as you begin to forget your kids’ names.
Mizzy wrote The Addams Family theme at the request of his friend David Levy, who was the head of programming at NBC; not a bad friend to have, really. The simple repetition of the da-da-da-dum rhythm followed by two laconic finger snaps—cited by The New York Times, with typical restraint, as a “parody of beatnik ennui”—paired with Mizzy’s winking, singsong vocals (he dubbed all three harmonies himself) and bold propositioning of “ooky” as a perfectly reasonable adjective made the theme song an instant hit, still recognizable now even to kids who have never seen the show. It also sort of ruined playing the harpsichord for everyone forever, but that wasn’t really Mizzy’s fault.
A mere year later, Mizzy continued his hot streak and managed to turn a goofy show about a pair of New York socialites getting back to nature among various hick stereotypes into a fondly remembered slice of apple-pie nostalgia—particularly comforting when viewed through a NyQuil haze—and even the creators of Green Acres would probably admit that 90 percent of its popularity has to do with that damnably catchy theme song. (Guess that bodes well for The Cleveland Show.)
Mizzy’s way with a sitcom began to pay off in movies as well, and for five films he provided the comic counterpoint to Don Knotts in stuff like The Reluctant Astronaut and The Ghost And Mr. Chicken—and that soundtrack’s main motif is also one you won’t be able to shake even days after you watch it. Mizzy’s mastery at burrowing deep into your cerebrum and finding whatever synapse controls the “repeat” button was unparalleled. In recent years, he was tapped by Sam Raimi to create a theme for Spider-Man 2, which was eventually used in the DVD release, and released a CD of his own in 2003 called Songs For The Jogging Crowd, a collection of jaunty, goofy pop songs that were every bit as infernally catchy as his most famous tunes. Mizzy died this week at the age of 93, leaving behind a legacy no one will forget anytime soon, even if they try really, really hard.
Long-running rock group NRBQ—which stands for New Rhythm And Blues Quartet—has never really achieved any measure of chart success in its 40 years on the circuit, but who needs album charts when your most devoted fanbase includes people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Paul McCartney? To bring it back to our initial discussion of Joseph Wiseman, NRBQ was like a band of extremely versatile character actors, so adept at dropping through widely divergent styles from rockabilly to percussive jazz to ersatz ’60s pop that it was sometimes difficult for non-diehards to put a name to whatever musical face the band was presenting. But those who got it, really got it: NRBQ had one of the most loyal live followings on the circuit, thanks to policies like never working with a set list, pulling out a weird cover if it felt like it, and always indulging whatever obscure request was coughed up from the audience. That made it an early precursor to modern jam bands like Phish and Widespread Panic—and in fact, the latter contributed to 2004’s NRBQ tribute album, Q People, along with avowed fans Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, J Mascis, and Mike Mills of R.E.M. It also made it both endearing and frustrating to follow, as when it indulged its own sense of humor to deleterious ends—like hiring the late Captain Lou Albano as its manager (even writing a tribute song to him) and blowing up Cabbage Patch Dolls. And while its love of hijinks later made it popular with guys like Simpsons scribe Mike Scully (who hired NBRQ to write several songs during the show’s tenth through twelfth seasons) and director George Romero (who dressed the group up as zombies in Day Of The Dead), it definitely didn’t help its sales any among people who found the whole thing sorta corny. Again, though: Who needs sales when you’re hanging out all over The Simpsons and playing zombies in Day Of The frickin’ Dead?
Though they would eventually part ways before the group’s most famous run, NRBQ’s roots always lay in the dynamics between songwriter and keyboardist Terry Adams and his high school friend Steve Ferguson, who founded the earliest version in 1967. A few years later, they would rope in three more musicians (hence the original name, New Rhythm And Blues Quintet) and launch NRBQ for real. After an attention-grabbing performance on a triple bill with Joe Cocker and The Jeff Beck Group at Fillmore East, NRBQ found itself on Columbia Records in 1969. And how did they capitalize on their sudden chance at Summer of Love-era glory? With a bunch of Eddie Cochran and Sun Ra tunes, of course, and even though mass audiences in general didn’t get it, critics loved it. Although all of the group’s members were accomplished, particularly notable was Ferguson’s guitar playing, a storming, fluid sort of twang that Ferguson attributed to “playing with the right hand of a country guitarist and the left hand of a blues guitarist." Some of Ferguson’s best work can be heard on the vehemently traditional Boppin’ The Blues, a collaboration with rockabilly legend Carl Perkins that was the group’s second album. Somewhat not surprisingly, Columbia was less than thrilled at NRBQ’s prospects after that record, and dropped them from the label—just the first of many times they’d be dumped.
But that parting of ways was possibly the most significant, in that it also spurred Ferguson to leave the band. And even though he wasn’t around as the group blossomed into the cultishly adored iconoclast it is today, every NRBQ guitarist since has been doing some variation on Ferguson’s style. Wen he wasn't working on his own very healthy solo career (including the albums Jack Salmon And Derby Sauce and Mama U-Seapa) and playing with the Midwest Creole Ensemble, Ferguson himself would dip in and out of getting together with members of NRBQ over the years, most memorably at a 35th anniversary show in 2004. Following that, he released the album Louisville Sluggers with Adams, who went on tour with him as The Adams-Ferguson Quartet while simultaneously acknowledging NRBQ’s hiatus. In 2008, Ferguson was diagnosed with terminal cancer; several members of NRBQ organized a tribute show to him last June that didn’t include Terry Adams. In a radio interview, Adams said he believed there might be another full NRBQ reunion soon. Sadly, if there is to be one, it won’t include Ferguson. He died this week at the age of 60.
Have a super weekend!