The Death Column, February 2012
On February 1, Don Cornelius died at 75. During the ‘70s and ‘80s the show he created, produced and hosted, Soul Train, was the only national television outlet for the leading black musicians of the day. It was so much more than a darker American Bandstand. In those days before MTV integrated, it was like a lifeline and a national news service carrying the latest dance moves and clothing styles across black America. In his signature signoff at the end of each show he wished us all "Love, Peace and Soul." He certainly did his part. We only wish he’d performed in more movies because he’s seriously great in Tapeheads.
Mike Kelley also died on February 1. He was 57. He was a very well known and respected artist in many fields. He may be best known for his stuffed animal pieces such as the one he created for the cover of Sonic Youth’s great Dirty LP. We will always love him for his work as a teenager with his band/collective Destroy All Monsters. Here’s a clip of Grow Live Monsters, featuring the way ahead of their time DAM.
Actor Ben Gazzara died on February 3 at age 81. He was trained in the Actors’ Studio and was a top stage actor before he began working in films. Tough on the outside, there was a great well of sensitivity and compassion underneath, always visible in his eyes. While he was always good, it was John Cassavetes who first and most fully used Gazzara’s special talent. In Husbands and Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (Gazzara’s signature performance), he was able to convey both the difficulty and crucial importance of loving. Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Theroux’ film Saint Jack also shows Gazzara playing in this register and is also a fine and underrated film. He was also in Road House and The Big Lebowski, but you knew that. A friend of ours, who only knew Gazzara from his roles in the last two films, once called him "the poor man’s Robert Loggia." We yelled at him for saying that.
Also on February 3, Zalman King died at age 69. While he certainly earned his reputation as the king of stylish skin flicks (he produced 9 ½ Weeks and directed Wild Orchid among other adult themed projects), we’ll always feel a deep fondness for his onscreen performances in Blue Sunshine, Some Call It Loving, Trip With The Teacher, Galaxy Of Terror and many TV shows. His somewhat pinched face and protuberant nose made him an excellent villain and an offbeat leading man.
Bill Hinzman died on February 5 at age 75. In Night Of The Living Dead he plays the first zombie we see in the film in the memorable “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” scene. While Hinzman never again had a chance to play such an iconic part, he has certainly revived the role in many of our nightmares over the years - for which he has unfortunately made about the same amount of money.
On February 6, Peter Breck died at 82. Largely a TV actor, in 1963 he played the lead in Samuel Fuller’s demented, amazing masterpiece Shock Corridor and in the hugely psychotronic low budget drive-in movie The Crawling Hand. Then he went back to television where he made a very good living for many years as a tall, handsome, reliable leading man and character player.
Phil Bruns died on February 8 at age 80. He played Mary Hartman’s father on the great and too-little seen ‘70s sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. He also makes some of the greatest non-committal faces in movie history as Peter O’Toole’s assistant director in Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man.
You certainly know that Whitney Houston died on February 11 at age 48. Whatever her faults may have been, her good taste as a singer was head and shoulders above the singers who followed in her wake, all of whom seem to want to empty their bag of vocal tricks with every single performance. She was the most natural, no-miss star of her era. Had she been half as beautiful, she still would have been a star. Can you say that of her imitators?
Artist John Severin died on February 12. He was 90. Over the years he drew a lot of comics for many publishers. His golden years were probably the 1950s where he was a member of the in-house dream team of artists. Severin was especially well regarded for his war and adventure tales.
On February 13, Frank Brana died at 77. He starred in many spaghetti westerns, mostly as a bad guy. In the 1983 horror film Pieces, he achieved screen immortality as detective Christopher George’s slightly stupid, white-haired partner. The Wikipedia account of his death is very odd.
Actress and all-around filmmaker Lina Romay died on February 15 at age 57. I eulogized her earlier in this BAD piece.
Former MC5 bassist Michael Davis died on February 17 at age 68. As part of MC5, Davis helped perpetrate one of the most potent aural assaults in music history, equal parts jet engine and rock band. After the dissolution of the MC5, he joined Destroy All Monster’s Mark II lineup.
On February 19, pinball genius Steve Kordek died at 100. In addition to designing over 100 games, he standardized the flipper layout. The ‘two flippers at the bottom of the playing surface’ configuration was his innovation, as were drop targets and multi-ball mode. He has been called the "father of pinball."
Publisher Barney Rosset died on February 21 at age 89. Rosset was certainly one of the most important and influential American publishers ever. His company Grove Press and their periodical The Evergreen Review introduced American readers to some of the best and most controversial writers in the world. Without Rosset you might never have read or heard of Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Jean Genet or many, many others. While the larger publishers avoided controversy, he met it head on. He fought for and won the right to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer. Rosset and his editors contributed mightily to the postwar social revolution in America and we owe them much.
On February 23, Cinematographer Bruce Surtees died at 74. Surtees was Clint Eastwood’s preferred cinematographer for many years. He shot most of the Eastwood/Don Siegel collaborations and then Eastwood’s subsequent films as a director through 1985’s Pale Rider. His other credits include The Outfit, Night Moves, Big Wednesday, Lenny, Beverly Hills Cop, White Dog and many others.
Jan Berenstain died on February 24 at age 88. She and her husband Stan Berenstain wrote and illustrated the still-popular Berenstein Bears books which have been read and loved for many years by children and parents all over the world.
Davy Jones died on February 29 at age 66. He was an actor, singer and member of the made-for-TV band The Monkees who were ironically much better than most real bands. Many people consider the Monkees a bit of a joke because they didn't (always) play their own instruments. We now know that many, many bands of that era used studio musicians. Davy Jones was extremely charming and funny. He deserved to be famous. And if anyone doubts his talent, observe this clip from the astonishingly brilliant Monkees movie HEAD.