Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Death of a Director

"A man will die, a writer, the instrument of creation: but what he has created will never die! And to be able to live for ever you don't need to have extraordinary gifts or be able to do miracles. Who was Sancho Panza? Who was Prospero? But they will live for ever because — living seeds — they had the luck to find a fruitful soil, an imagination which knew how to grow them and feed them, so that they will live for ever."

Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936)
Six Characters in Search of an Author

You may not recognize the name of Lamont Johnson.

That's probably understandable. He was an actor early in his career, which included playing Tarzan on the radio, but he moved on to directing mostly in his later years. Sometimes he directed theatrical releases; sometimes he directed episodes of TV series, other times he directed TV movies.

He worked on all kinds of projects, and much of the time, there seemed to be no real link between them. But, in truth, there was one common link, as Claire Noland observed in the Los Angeles Times — most of his projects dealt with sensitive topics.

Johnson, who died Sunday at the age of 88, "dealt with interracial romance in 'My Sweet Charlie' (1970), homosexuality in 'That Certain Summer' (1972), blacklisting in 'Fear on Trial' (1975) and the civil rights movement in 'Crisis at Central High' (1981)," Noland wrote.

It was also through Johnson that I learned the true story of the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. He had a fondness for history that I could appreciate.

He didn't just direct movies, though. He directed numerous episodes of TV series — including eight episodes from the original Twilight Zone series between 1961 and 1963. One of his earliest directorial efforts for the series was an episode that really lived up to the early reputation of the series.

It was called "Five Characters in Search of an Exit."

The episode's name was inspired by a play that was written by Luigi Pirandello nearly 90 years ago — "Six Characters in Search of an Author." When I was about 14 or 15, that play was performed at the college where my father taught. I remember that because my brother had one of two children's roles in the play — both of which were nonspeaking.

Just to briefly recap the story — and it has been many years since I have seen the play — these six characters interrupt the rehearsal of another play, and it is revealed that they are unfinished characters looking for an author who will complete their story.

The college production in which my brother participated was quite successful. It was entered in many dramatic competitions, and advanced to a regional competition in Fort Worth. I well remember driving to north Texas with my mother and my brother, picking up my grandmother in Dallas and going to Fort Worth, where we watched my brother and his castmates perform, then we saw some other truly special collegiate performances over the course of several days.

Anyway, the name of that play has stayed with me all these years, and it gave me a special appreciation for the Twilight Zone episode that was inspired by it. Five characters — a hobo, a clown, a bagpipe player, a ballerina and an Army major — find themselves in some sort of circular room, and no one knows who he or she is or how he or she got there.

If you've never seen the episode, I'll let you watch it for yourself and see how the story is resolved.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It's Johnny's Birthday

Back in the early 1970s, after the Beatles broke up and George Harrison came out with his three–record opus, "All Things Must Pass," he included a composition titled simply, "It's Johnny's Birthday."

The song itself wasn't terribly profound. It was actually part of what Harrison dubbed "Apple Jams," and Harrison recorded it with Ringo Starr to present to John Lennon on his 30th birthday.
"It's Johnny's birthday
It's Johnny's birthday
And we would like to wish him all the very best
It's Johnny's birthday
It's Johnny's birthday
And it's so nice to have you back to be our guest

"At Johnny's birthday
At Johnny's birthday
We'd like to wish you all what you would wish yourself
On Johnny's birthday
It's Johnny's birthday
And it's so good to have you back from off the shelf
And it's so good to have ...
You back from off the shelf ..."

But, today, it serves the purpose of reminding us that today is Johnny's birthday.

Johnny Carson's birthday, that is — although, incidentally, it was John Lennon's birthday a couple of weeks ago today.

Carson, who died in January 2005, would have been 85 today.

So today is a good time to remember Carson's unique contribution to American entertainment. He left the late–night TV scene nearly 20 years ago, and no one has come close to matching his influence on the culture since.

Late–night hosts are still trying to duplicate Carson's accomplishments.

I don't think they will ever succeed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

And, Now, America's Dad Passes Away

Tom Bosley died today. He was 83.

For just about anyone who was around in the 1970s, he will always be remembered fondly as Happy Days' "Mr. C," one of American TV's most beloved fathers — even though Bosley's career began about 15 years before he took on that role.

After Happy Days ended a decade later, Bosley enjoyed success on Murder, She Wrote and The Father Dowling Mysteries.

And some folks would probably resist the idea that Bosley was "America's Dad." You'll find folks who will promote Mike Brady or Cliff Huxtable or Andy Taylor or Ben Cartwright or someone else. But if you were around in the 1970s, you could probably make a strong case for Howard Cunningham.

I remember when Happy Days made its debut as a midseason replacement on the TV schedule in January 1974.

It was an interesting concept, inspired, no doubt, by the success of the film "American Graffiti" the year before — which actually was set in the early 1960s. I must admit that, at first, I didn't see what all the fuss was about. Most of the storylines struck me as mildly entertaining — but nothing extraordinary.

And, to be honest, I wasn't exactly carried away with the writing at first.

Happy Days was set in Milwaukee in the 1950s and got a lot of mileage from the stereotypes that existed, even at that time, from that decade. Most of the early humor centered around three teenagers — Richie, Potsie and Ralph — and their worldly friend, the "Fonz," Arthur Fonzarelli, as they navigated the choppy waters of youth, love and fake IDs.

Fonzie actually began as a small character, but his presence on the show grew as it became clear that, with his leather jacket, his upraised thumb and his sly "Ayyyyyyy!" he was an increasingly popular member of the cast. By the series' first full season, in 1974–75, he was a hot property, and he was the focus of episodes on a regular basis from that time on.

Richie's father, on the other hand, a hard–working hardware salesman, was always a supporting character, rarely the focus of an episode after that half–season in the spring of 1974.

But he had some great moments, like the finale of the first season, when, in the heat of Cold War hysteria, he decided to invest in a bomb shelter to protect his family instead of using the money for a family trip. Space was limited, and that caused problems when friends asked if they could come over. Howard had to draw the line.

During a Civil Defense drill, all the friends who thought they had spots in the shelter showed up and quickly learned they could not stay in the Cunninghams' back yard — where the shelter was to be built but construction hadn't begun and its dimensions were only represented by stakes and string.

This caused considerable friction, but Howard was adamant about building the shelter, and he stood firm, alienating his family in the process.

So, during the next drill, viewers saw Howard standing by himself while the sirens were blaring. Richie sauntered out and informed his father that "We had a little family meeting of our own. We voted not to survive."

Richie explained to his father that "we'd rather live now than survive later," and Howard was convinced to give up his plan to build the shelter. As they took down the stakes and string, Howard asked Richie, "What do you think of a man who gets so carried away by his own fears that he forgets about other people?"

Richie replied, "I'd say he's human."

Now, that is good writing.

Then there was a truly memorable moment a few years later, when Richie enjoyed short–lived success as a local basketball hero. His star fell to earth almost as rapidly as it ascended into the heavens, and Howard and Richie were walking out of the gym after a heart–breaking loss. In a take–off of a famous commercial of the time, Howard offered his dejected son a Life Saver.

"Here, have a Life Saver," Howard deadpanned. "It'll make you feel better."

There are many ironies surrounding Bosley's death.

For one, it comes only a few days after Barbara Billingsley, the iconic mother from Leave It To Beaver, passed away.

It also comes one day after the 50th birthday of Erin Moran, who played Bosley's daughter on Happy Days.

Bosley himself celebrated his birthday at the beginning of this month.

Bosley, it appears, was the first member of the cast to die. His wife on Happy Days, played by Marion Ross, is still alive, as are the other members of the original cast. Even Al Molinaro, who played the owner of Arnold's, is still alive and kicking at the age of 91.

But time, in its relentless fashion, will start to take them, one by one.

Rest in peace, Mr. C. And thanks.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

America's Mom Passes Away

I was never really a fan of Leave It To Beaver.

It came along before my time, and my family didn't even have a TV until I was in elementary school. By that time, Leave It To Beaver had been off the air for awhile.

But there are those among my contemporaries for whom Leave It To Beaver played a pivotal role in their formative years. And, I would venture to say, the nurturing, stay–at–home mom played by Barbara Billingsley was an integral, if often understated, character in the idealized fantasy of that show.

Anyway, I feel I would be remiss if I did not note Billingsley's passing yesterday at the age of 94.

I guess any list of great TV moms would have to include June Cleaver. Jerry Mathers, who played the Beaver, considered Billingsley a mentor and a friend as well as a colleague and compared her character to another great TV mom, Edith Bunker, who usually played the straight woman.

Like most of the actresses who have played great TV moms, Billingsley was a reflection of her times. Diahann Carroll was the first black TV mom — well, the first one with her own series — and Florence Henderson and Shirley Jones were harbingers of a new era for women, an era that seemed almost to reach its zenith with Bonnie Franklin but then went into new and unexpected directions in the years that followed.

In many ways, it all began with Billingsley, who was a true TV icon. Some may argue — and not without some justification — that Lucille Ball was the first TV mom (or perhaps the first truly popular one) — or that Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed got there first.

But Billingsley really set the standard — perhaps because TV grew in public acceptance through the 1950s and more television sets could be found in private homes in the late 1950s than in the early 1950s — and TV actresses have been reaching for that bar for decades.

That is her legacy.

She took the role of June Cleaver very seriously. A heavy smoker in her youth, she reportedly gave it up because she didn't feel June Cleaver should smoke. She was conscious of her responsibility as a role model and a TV icon.

After Leave It To Beaver, Billingsley was typecast and rarely got other acting opportunities. She said she had far too much reverence for June to accept any projects that made fun of her.

But that didn't keep her from accepting projects like "Airplane!" in which she played an elderly passenger who volunteered to translate the "jive" talk from two black passengers.

Even casual viewers could pick up on the irony of the WASPish June Cleaver — who always dressed impeccably, served nutritious meals and, speaking in a non–political sense, behaved in a conservative manner — translating a distinctive English dialect spoken by members of a racial minority group as if they came from a foreign land.

And the topper was June Cleaver storming off, after her brief argument with the black passengers, muttering, "Jive–ass dude don't got no brains anyhow."

Mathers was right. Billingsley did have a great many talents, most of which never were put on display on Leave It to Beaver. But she seemed content with that.

Some have criticized June Cleaver and the idealized image of American motherhood that she presented for encouraging stereotypes. But, like great art, great music, great literature, television reflects the audience of its day in many ways. Television's archives are filled with programs and news reports that tell us who we were and what we hoped to be at a certain point in time.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many young American women wanted to be June Cleaver.

In 2010, there are still those who would like to be June Cleaver. But the times have changed, and stay–at–home moms are far less common than they once were.

If a young woman wants to be a stay–at–home mom these days, her best bet may be to watch the glorified version — and dream of a time when a young woman could hope to be like June Cleaver, wearing her trademark pearls while doing the gardening or dressed to host a party even while preparing dinner for the family in her spotless kitchen.

Rest in peace, June.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Lennon at 70

John Lennon was so young when he was gunned down in 1980 — several years younger than either John or Robert Kennedy and about the same age as Martin Luther King.

In the public memory, I guess, he is forever in his 20s, the sly, witty, rebellious Beatle. As a Beatle, he seemed to be constantly in the public eye. He was seen less and less frequently after the Beatles broke up, although he may have achieved his greatest and longest–lasting public adulation for a song he wrote and recorded as a solo artist ("Imagine").

And, in the final five years of his life, he was rarely seen at all, devoting himself almost exclusively to the care of his youngest son.

In 1980, he had only recently re–emerged on the music scene, first with a popular single, followed by a popular album that was released shortly before his death.

And, on October 9, just two months before he was murdered, Lennon turned 40.

They say life begins at 40. Not for Lennon. It ended at 40 for Lennon.

Nevertheless, today would have been his 70th birthday. And, if it is difficult to picture what the young John Lennon would have been like in his 50s and 60s, it is even more difficult to imagine him in his 70s.

But, if given the chance, he might encourage us to try.

A lot can happen in 30 years. If he hadn't been murdered in December 1980, he might have been injured or killed in an accident. Or he might have been diagnosed with an incurable disease. But if we presume that Lennon would still be alive today if he hadn't been shot, it's reasonable to make other presumptions, based on what we know.

I don't know if either of Lennon's sons has a child of his own. But it is certainly possible that Lennon could have been a grandfather, perhaps many times over, by this time in his life. His oldest son, Julian, is 47, and his son with Yoko Ono, Sean, was born 35 years ago today, on his father's own 35th birthday.

So I can picture Lennon with gray hair and beard because Lennon didn't seem to have the vanity that prompts others to dye their hair when it starts to turn gray, although I'm not sure how long his hair would be. I often see men in his age group with ponytails now, so perhaps he would have let it grow out. On the other hand, he might have kept it short, similar to the style favored by George Carlin in his later years.

At 70, Lennon might have been wearing jackets or sweaters on a regular basis, especially if circulatory problems came up, as they often do, and composing songs with and for his grandchildren, much as he did with his sons. The last album he released during his lifetime, his "Double Fantasy" collaboration with Yoko, hinted at a more mature John Lennon who was more focused on the relationships in his life than the young, devil–may–care John Lennon who cheekily claimed that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus."

I don't know if John and Yoko would still be living in the Dakota, the apartment building where they lived and where John was shot in December 1980. I think Yoko still lives there, though, so it isn't far–fetched to believe they might still be living there today.

I could see Lennon having an elaborate recording studio, perhaps within his home at the Dakota or perhaps somewhere nearby. And I could see him continuing to record his music, which would constantly be inspired by everything and everyone in his life.

His commercial popularity might ebb and flow, but I doubt that would matter to Lennon. He was consistently about self–expression. If you got what he was saying, that was great. But if you didn't get it, maybe you would the next time.

I get the feeling that John Lennon at 70 would be more comfortable with himself than he ever seemed to be during his life. He would have continued to use his art, his music, to comment on the world condition. I am sure he would have had messages to share about many things that have happened in the last three decades.

Not long after Lennon was killed, I saw his former Beatles bandmate, Ringo Starr, speculating in an interview about the impact Lennon might have had with his music if he had not been murdered.

"I think he would have been quite a force in the '80s," Ringo said, and I agreed with that. But I think his influence would have continued well beyond the 1980s.

He would have written, as he always did, about the things that moved him, whether those things were political or personal — or both.

He would have been moved by the major events of the '80s — the Challenger explosion, Iran–Contra, the fall of the Berlin Wall — and after — the Gulf War (and the other wars that were fought in the '90s), the Oklahoma City bombing, the death of Princess Diana, September 11, the anthrax attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the election of Barack Obama, hate crimes, school shootings.

And he would have written about all of them.

Lennon was, in the words of writer John Donne, "involved in mankind."

He was that way in his 20s and 30s. And I suspect, if he was alive today, he still would be involved in mankind.

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls. Lennon's death was the world's loss. It tolls for us.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Overlooked and Forgotten

This month would have been actor Walter Matthau's 90th birthday.

I suppose, when most people think of Matthau, they think of the work he did with Jack Lemmon in "The Odd Couple" movies and "The Fortune Cookie." I certainly do.

Or perhaps they think of "The Sunshine Boys," the movie in which Matthau's co–star was the legendary George Burns. That's another one that I think of frequently.

But, lately, my thoughts have been drawn to a film that got a warm reception from critics and audiences when it was released nearly 40 years ago but has been largely overlooked and forgotten since — "A New Leaf."

It is rarely seen on TV anymore, and I simply can't understand why. Matthau's performance as playboy Henry Graham (an "aging youth," in his uncle's words, who is unskilled at anything except being one of the idle rich) is nothing short of brilliant.

But he is matched with the deliciously dry, deadpan delivery of Elaine May, a talented writer and director who is seldom recognized for what she has accomplished. Perhaps she stole some of his thunder.

May wore many hats for "A New Leaf." She was writer and director as well as co–star, adapting a short story into a dark comedy that managed to work in some timeless truths at the same time. Matthau's Henry was self–absorbed; May's Henrietta was the opposite, and together they proved that opposites really do attract — sometimes in spite of themselves.

It's hard to discuss the plot in much detail because so much of the humor of the film has to be experienced. The attached clips are funny — and even presented in a kind of chronological context — but you can't appreciate the film until you see it.

And I encourage you to see it whenever you can.

In a nutshell, though, Matthau plays an aging playboy who has spent his inheritance and is not equipped, by training or temperament, to support himself through labor. His options seem limited and, aside from the step that he can't quite bring himself to take — suicide — he decides to ask his uncle, who was his childhood guardian, for some money.

His uncle refuses so Henry makes a deal with him. His uncle will loan him enough money to keep up appearances for six weeks, during which time he will try to find a wealthy bride, court her and marry her. After the wedding, with his newly acquired fortune, he will repay his uncle.

In the event that he fails to find a bride by the end of the six weeks, he will give all his possessions to his uncle.

Henry's situation looks bleak when the days go by, and all his attempts to woo rich single girls fail. It looks like his uncle (delightfully played by James Coco) will win their wager.

But fate intervenes, and Henry happens to meet Henrietta. She is the heir to a huge fortune, shy (painfully so), naive, klutzy, a botanist.

Upon meeting her and learning of all her shortcomings, Henry, feeling the pressure of the deadline looming only days away, mutters, "She's perfect."

So Henry sets about courting Henrietta and wins his wager with his uncle. But there are complications.

For one, Henrietta's lawyer and her domestic staff have been taking advantage of her trusting nature for years and aren't happy about having to share their gravy train with the new husband. Henry, on the other hand, has no intention of sharing anything with anyone and dismisses them all.

The marriage also encounters opposition from Henry's uncle, who doesn't want to lose his bet.

And the couple's greatest obstacle to wedded bliss is Henry's own self–centered nature. At heart, you see, he is a confirmed bachelor. There is no room for a significant other in his world. He needs Henrietta's money to live the lifestyle to which he is accustomed, but he doesn't need her, and he tries to find a way to do away with her so he can have it all.

But, in the end, he realizes that he really does love her, and the movie ends with the two of them walking away together. "I'll always be able to count on you, won't I?" the hopelessly naive Henrietta says to Henry, and he replies, resignedly, "I'm afraid so."

In many ways, I have come to see it as the triumph of Matthau's career. The character of Henry required him to walk a fine line. Contrary to what some would have you believe, comedy is not always comedy.

In this film, Matthau had to alternate between screwball comedy and a comedy that was sometimes understated and cynical. His role sometimes veered into dramatic territory — but anyone who ever saw his performance in "Fail–Safe" knows he was capable of dramatic turns, even if he was known for his comedy.

But movie viewers who are only old enough to remember his latter years may not realize that Matthau got his start in dramatic roles, and he was equally skilled at both drama and comedy.

Walking the tightrope that he did in "A New Leaf" proved it.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

A Double Dip of Inspiration

A friend of mine and I were talking recently, and I told him that, if somebody asked me to name the greatest movie of all time, I would pick "Citizen Kane."

That's the truth.

I know, it's nearly 70 years old (which is irrelevant, really) and it was filmed in black and white (also irrelevant) and it didn't have splashy special effects by modern standards (once again — irrelevant), but it was well written and the acting was extraordinary.

That does not mean, however, that I think it was the most inspirational film I ever saw. In fact, I don't think it even made the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 inspirational films of all time.

It was a great movie, groundbreaking in many ways, but it wasn't an inspiring story. Charles Foster Kane wasn't an inspirational character — and he seemed to know it. Following the famed 1929 Stock Market Crash, Kane observed to his guardian, Mr. Thatcher, "If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."

"Don't you think you are?" Thatcher asked.

Kane looked at him and smiled that Orson Welles smile, the one that suggested he was thinking of an inside joke or an ironic twist, and said, "I think I did pretty well under the circumstances."

Influential, yes. But inspirational? I don't think the story of Charles Foster Kane qualified as inspirational.

But two of the films from the Top 5 on that list can be seen on Turner Classic Movies tonight. And, even if you have seen one or both before, they are worth seeing again.
  • At 7 p.m. (Central), you can see Frank Captra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" from 1939 starring James Stewart, Claude Rains and Jean Arthur.

    Capra, of course, was no stranger to a list of inspirational movies, not with flicks like "It's a Wonderful Life," "You Can't Take It With You," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Meet John Doe" and "Pocketful of Miracles" to his credit.

    In fact, he shares the distinction of directing the most films on AFI's list with Steven Spielberg.

    Certainly, there are times when Capra's stories are hopelessly naive and impossibly optimistic. But he was making his films during the Great Depression and World War Ii. Wasn't it practically a requirement that you had to be at least a little hopelessly naive and impossibly optimistic in those days?

  • Then, at 9:15, you can see "To Kill a Mockingbird" from 1962 starring Gregory Peck.

    A few months ago, I observed the 50th anniversary of the publication of that book. It is appropriate that we should watch the film it inspired.

    It is a nice counter–balance to the Capra movie. It isn't as relentlessly optimistic, but it is inspiring, in its own understated kind of way.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Forget It, Jake

There was a saying when I worked in newsrooms that I presume still has some value even though many years have passed since I worked in a newsroom.

Essentially, the idea was that the deaths of prominent people come in threes. The logical extension of that, I suppose, would be that the deaths of prominent people in the same business come in threes.

If that is true — and, in my newsroom experience, it usually was — the motion picture industry exceeded its quota this week.

It started last Sunday when Gloria Stuart, the actress who played the elderly version of Kate Winslet's character in "Titanic," died at the age of 100.

Stuart had quite a career long before she made "Titanic," but she earned her only Academy Award nomination for playing the 101–year–old "Rose." The film won 11 Oscars, but Stuart lost to Kim Basinger.

I suppose it is inevitable that, when you are Stuart's age and you are nominated for an Oscar for a film you made when you were in your 80s, that is what you would be remembered for. There wouldn't be many people left who would remember the early years of your career.

And that is a shame because she really was an attractive young woman, svelte and sultry. Even decades later, when Stuart was in her 80s and her skin was wrinkled with age, you could still see some of that young beauty in her eyes and her face.

"Wasn't I a dish?" she asked her granddaughter in the film. It wasn't just a line in a movie. She was a dish in her youth.

Then, two days later, Arthur Penn, the man who directed "Bonnie & Clyde," passed away at the age of 88.

It is, primarily, for "Bonnie & Clyde," I suppose, that Penn will be remembered, and I guess that is fitting. It was a movie that really changed the motion picture landscape in its presentation of both sexuality and violence.

But as much as I admire what Penn accomplished with "Bonnie & Clyde," my favorite of his films had to be "Little Big Man."

It would be a mistake to think that everything Penn touched in his life turned to gold. He enjoyed great success with some groundbreaking films, but he had his share of misses as well.

"Penn’s later movies seemed to confuse people," wrote Bruce Eder for the AllMovie Blog, "[a]nd his last movies ... were more noted by critics than the public."

Well, as Chief Dan George's character said in "Little Big Man," "Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't."

If you want to see some of the magic of which Penn was capable, Turner Classic Movies will be showing "Bonnie & Clyde" at 7 (Central) tonight.

Then, the following day, actor Tony Curtis died at the age of 85.

He is being remembered, as he should, for his performances in Billy Wilder's classic comedy "Some Like It Hot" and Stanley Kramer's drama "The Defiant Ones."

But I really think more of Jack Lemmon when I think of "Some Like It Hot," and I tend to think of Sidney Poitier when I think of "The Defiant Ones." That doesn't mean I don't recognize the contributions Curtis made to both films. He just isn't the person I associate with either one.

The film I do associate with him is "The Boston Strangler," which was based on the true story of the murders of several women in the Boston area.

It wasn't the best film he ever made. It probably wasn't his best performance. But it was a departure from the norm for him. And I liked that.

Curtis readily acknowledged that — in his early years, at least — he got by on his looks. "But behind the pretty–boy looks was a dramatically potent combination of naked ambition and deep vulnerability," wrote Dave Kehr of the New York Times.

In "The Boston Strangler," I think he used that vulnerability to tap into the character of Albert DeSalvo. The film acted on the assumption that DeSalvo was guilty, but his confession has been vigorously disputed, and there were times in the movie when I felt Curtis' portrayal reflected the ambiguity that surrounds DeSalvo long after his death just as it surrounded him in life.

Some would argue that was symptomatic of DeSalvo's alleged multiple personality disorder, but he was never diagnosed with that illness to my knowledge.

Well, anyway, that's three.

But there was a fourth this week. The same day that Curtis died, an actor named Joe Mantell died at the age of 94.

Mantell's was not a household name, even though he had a lengthy career as a supporting actor in the movies and on television.

But, as Bruce Weber wrote for the New York Times, he had the distinction of delivering two of the most memorable lines ever uttered by a movie sidekick.

In the mid–1950s classic "Marty," as Ernest Borgnine's best friend Angie, there was a running dialogue between the two, Weber observed.

"Angie began almost every conversation with the same question — 'What do you feel like doin' tonight?' — and always got the same answer: 'I don't know, Ange. What do you feel like doin'?' "

The second line was delivered at the end of "Chinatown," when Jack Nicholson's character is recoiling from the story's unsatisfying conclusion. Mantell, in a small role as a private investigator, encourages Nicholson to go home and try to put the matter behind him.

"Forget it, Jake," Mantell's character said. "It's Chinatown."

I guess that's a fitting eulogy for this week in the motion picture industry.

None of the four people who died in the last seven days was younger than 85 so their deaths can't be said to have been tragic in the way the loss of a young person is believed to be tragic. All four lived longer than most of us probably will.

All four probably earned more money than most of us will, and their names, even Mantell's, will be remembered after most of us are gone. They were not denied the fame and fortune that most of us are denied.

And, yet, something of value seems to have been lost to us — inexplicably, perhaps.

Forget it, Mantell might say. It's life.