The Death Column: January 2012

Lots of badass people die every month. In this new feature, we say a proper goodbye to them.

Welcome to the first monthly installment of BAD’s uplifting and hopefully educational mortality round-up. When Psychotronic Video magazine ceased publishing a few years back, I particularly missed its obituary column, where I found out about all the deaths that might not necessarily have been deemed newsworthy by other outlets. I will not present as comprehensive a listing as that late, lamented magazine but I will highlight a few of the most notable passings of the month, with particular emphasis placed upon those who exemplify those traits we collectively consider uh, badass. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here so feel free to contribute your own remembrances in the comments section.

On January 1st Bob Anderson died at the age of 89. If you close your eyes and think of a fencing scene in a movie, you’re probably thinking of Anderson’s handiwork as a fight choreographer and (occasional) stand-in. His proper job title was Sword Master (pretty cool job title). He lent his expertise to all three good Star Wars movies (and he doubled David Prowse as Vader in the lightsaber fights), the Lord Of The Rings films, Highlander, The Princess Bride, Barry Lyndon etc. etc. etc. It’s a long list that stretches from 1953’s The Master Of Ballantrae to the upcoming The Hobbit. So long, Sword Master. Thanks for the memories.

Gordon Hirabayashi, aged 93, died on January 2. His may not be a household name, but it should be. Hirabayashi was an American of Japanese descent who openly defied the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. He took his fight for his own Constitutional Rights all the way to the Supreme Court, who unanimously ruled against him and ordered him to return to an Arizona internment camp (Hirabayashi vs. United States, 1943). To add insult to injury, they refused to pay his bus fare back to Arizona so the indigent Hirabayashi was compelled to hitchhike his way back. Upon release from the camp, he refused to take an oath renouncing allegiance to the Emperor of Japan because other ethnic groups were not subject to any comparable oath. He was sent to federal prison for a year for that. In 1987, his conviction was overturned. Today, the site of the internment camp where he served his sentence of hard labor has been renamed in his honor.

The photographer Eve Arnold died January 4, age 99. As a member of the Magnum Photos cooperative, she was in the photographic big leagues. While she shot many of the personalities of her age, she is best remembered for her photographs of Marilyn Monroe which convey much of the lost, helpless, fragile beauty that made Monroe one of the people we collectively most enjoy looking at.

On January 5, Frederica Sagor Maas died at the age of 111. While not an especially distinguished or prolific screenwriter, she lived and worked in Hollywood during the silent and early talkie era and was probably the very last link to that era and its giants. I haven’t read her recollection, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, which she wrote at age 99, but I plan to. Apparently the book is seasoned with a fair amount of bitterness, one of my favorite memoir flavors.

Gunnar Dyrberg died January 8 at age 90. As the founder and head of Holger Danske, a Danish resistance movement, he was responsible for acts of sabotage and assassination against Hitler’s agents in Denmark. If it hadn’t been for the heroes of all nations who resisted Hitler and his kind, the world would be a much shittier and darker place than it is today. Think about that.

On January 9 the experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson died at age 81. His best known short film, Oh Dem Watermelons was created as interstitial material for an avant-garde minstrel show performed by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. During the course of its 11 minutes we are made to contemplate the many uses and vulnerabilities of the south’s most popular melon. Nelson also taught filmmaking. He once described his artistic objective as “having a good time.”

Jimmy Castor died on January 16 at 71. He had a pretty successful recording career as an R&B artist, its peak being his mindblowing 1972 classic Troglodyte (Cave Man), which became a surprise smash hit. After the hits stopped coming for Castor, his influence became apparent as hip hop DJs sampled his rhythms and exhortations widely. The ubiquitous line “what we’re gonna do right here is go back...” is Castor’s.

January 17 saw the passing of another R&B giant, Johnny Otis, at age 90. While Otis’ music is compelling on its own, his story is pretty good too. Born Ioannis Alexandros Veliotes to a Greek family, he made a conscious choice to pass as black, as he identified more strongly with African American culture. The love was returned by the black community, who made him one of the most popular and beloved entertainers and impresarios in the rhythm and blues field. He had many hits, with the biggest being 1959’s “Willie & The Hand Jive.” As a bandleader, talent scout and DJ he gave many musicians opportunities to find audiences. Among these was Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, Esther Phillips, Etta James and his own son, Shuggie Otis, who played guitar in his father’s band starting at age 12. I wonder what young Shuggie made of the more adult material in the act, such as “The Signifyin’ Monkey”, the record of which was sold under the counter on an album credited to Snatch & The Poontangs. All of Otis’ music is listenable but the classic years of the Johnny Otis Show are the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. You’ll probably want to pick up that Cold Shot LP if you see it.

Etta James had been in bad health for a few years before her death from leukemia on January 20 at age 73. After early success with hits such as “At Last” and "Something’s Got A Hold On Me” she fought several rounds of drug addiction before emerging clean and sober into the national consciousness in the 1990s as a fully fledged master of American music. The public loved her obvious singing talent and her zaftig, bewigged stage presence as well as the way she made all styles of music she attempted her own. Even when she sang pop ballads, the black church inflections came through loud and clear. Audiences black and white loved it, though black listeners got it first, as usual. At a time when most popular music performers slowed down, she became an ambassador of sorts, a kind of female B.B. King.

On January 22, Pierre Sudreau died at age 92. I note him here not as a member of the French Resistance or as a longtime civil servant in France, but rather as the inspiration for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved character “The Little Prince”. As a boy, Sudreau wrote to the older author thanking him for his exciting adventure novels, in which he found an escape from the miseries of boarding school. Their subsequent correspondence helped provide material for what would become one of the most cherished childrens’ books of the century.

The name Dick Tufeld, (died January 22 at age 85) probably won’t ring any bells, but you may very well know his voice. He provided narration and voice-over for many films and TV shows, but for me he will always be known as the Robot from the deliriously awful ‘60s sci-fi show Lost In Space. “Danger Will Robinson!”

I never met Bingham Ray, who died unexpectedly on January 23 at age 57, but as a film-goer I have felt his influence. He began at ground level as an arthouse projectionist and eventually became one of the most powerful and respected executives who dealt in independent film. His career included stints at New Yorker Films and Avenue Pictures, but he is probably best known for his runs at United Artists and October Films, which he founded and which has now morphed non-organically into Focus Features. He has been well remembered in other quarters as a man of great passion and a true heart.

The actor James Farentino died on January 24 at age 73. He was a very busy actor and many will probably know him best from his work on TV, particularly in the miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth. I will always remember him as the Sheriff in Gary Sherman’s berserk horror film Dead & Buried. The part is a real acting challenge and he pulls it off very nicely.