Honest to God, this blog is not a permanent obit column. I was actually working on an actor profile that is going to go up shortly – but simply had to pause in order to comment on the passing of three notable people from the world of film and entertainment who will be sorely missed.
Actually it’s difficult to quantify the world of Forrest J. Ackerman as he created a unique firmament that bound up so many others. His death last Thursday at age 92 was not unexpected, but has left a permanent void. Ackerman was an authentic icon of American popular culture.
I bought my first Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine at a corner newsstand in Jackson Heights with my brother that was next to the elevated subway down the block from my Grandparents apartment. I can’t remember the issue number, but it had a large picture of Vincent Price wearing his hoodie from PIT AND THE PENDULUM, so it was probably around 1961. I was hooked. More issues were purchased with greater alacrity. Ackerman’s magazine was the perfect watershed for a kid making the transition from dinosaurs to horror/science fiction movies.
His predilection for puns leavened regular features in the magazine such as “YOU AXED FOR IT”, “FANG MAIL” scribed from Ackerman’s residence in “HORRORWOOD, KARLOFFORNIA. Although I soon outgrew FM’s juvenilia slant, I never lost my fondness for horror and science fiction films or my appreciation for Ackerman’s magazine during those neophyte years.
Fast forward three decades when I settled in Karloffornia for good. I made the pilgrimage to the “Ackermansion” in Los Feliz and was awestruck by the greatest collection of fantasy memorabilia that filled a large, well-worn house that was formally owned by actor Jon Hall. Ackerman began acquiring all manner of magazines, posters, original movie props, et al at breakneck speed during his extreme – as Leo Gorcey would say – “yout” in Hollywood. He continued collecting over seven decades. Ackerman was delighted to share his collection to whomever called his phone number 323-MOON FAN before the weekend and often to those who simply rang his doorbell on a Saturday morning. A more affable man couldn’t be imagined as he guided me through unbelievable treasures such as Bela Lugosi’s cape, Lon Chaney’s makeup case, one of the alien machines from the original WAR OF THE WORLDS, the stegosaurus and pterodactyl from the original KING KONG, etc, etc. Ackerman was wearing Lugosi’s ring from DRACULA when I met him. I saw him several years later while covering a KING KONG revival screening at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. He was still wearing the ring.
Ackerman with the original Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus from KING KONG (1933)
Forry Ackerman is credited for inventing the term “sci-fi” – and it is difficult to imagine the horror fandom universe bereft of its originator, “Uncle Forry”. For more about Ackerman and his legacy, here is a link to a tribute string on the Classic Horror Film Board.
The passing of Beverly Garland on Friday after a long illness is personally painful. I met Beverly at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival seven years ago for a D.O.A screening that included a panel discussion about women in film with a group that included Mickey Spillane among others. I prompted her to tell a story about Curucu, Beast of the Amazon that she had previously related to Tom Weaver in one of his terrific interview books. A skilled raconteur, she bowled everyone over. Only Beverly was ballsy enough to wrestle with a large, live boa constrictor on a horrid location in South America and live to laugh about it! Beverly Garland was beautiful, salty and funny as hell. She did a hilarious impression of Neville Brand that left me in stitches. She even poked fun at her acting debut in D.O.A. by bulging out her eyes in a mock imitation of her embryonic thespian technique while praising Edmund O’Brien as a considerate friend and mentor.
I saw her several times afterwards – she returned to Palm Springs for a screening of THE STEEL JUNGLE – and was always eager to chat. At an autograph show, she described THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE as hysterical because the alligator head make-up looked like the actors were donning inverted toilets and no one could stop laughing! She also added that a sequence in the same film that had her being attacked by Lon Chaney Jr. was genuinely frightening. With typical hyperbole, Beverly related, “I thought he (Chaney) was really going to rape me!”
Another notable encounter was at her one-woman show at a little theatre in Long Beach several years ago. The program was a Garland career retrospective with Beverly reminiscing about all of her leading men from O’Brien to Fred MacMurray and beyond. It was a wow! A lucky break was being able to spend a few minutes afterwards chatting with Beverly and Patricia Neal, who was also in attendance. Beverly knew how to work a crowd with the best of them. Her laughter and joie de vive were infectious.
Beverly was a fine actress who was justifiably proud of her work in both movies and innumerable television programs. After appearing in some of the Roger Corman sci-fi genre films of the 1950’s that became grist for Beverly’s unerringly funny stories about the director’s legendary cheapness, she went on to carve out one of the most enduring careers in television history with over 150 episodic appearances. She was proudest of her work in Noel Black’s dark feature PRETTY POISON as Tuesday Weld’s mother, her pioneer work as television’s first female cop in DECOY and her Emmy nominated role in MEDIC. Beverly could play anything except perhaps a laid back, vulnerable woman. Garland was a take-charge person on screen and in life, but no one ever said a bad word about her.
I knew she was failing but her death is still a shock. R.I.P. Beverly, you were one of the best.
After watching Nina Foch in MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS at UCLA last month, I was going to invite her to the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival in 2009. Alas, it will be an invitation that will forever go unanswered. Miss Foch died Friday after taking sick while teaching her renowned acting class at the University of Southern California.
Foch was a singular presence on screen; an authentic acting craftswoman; beautiful and willowy, not statuesque, not quite exotic, but the antithesis of the prototype studio era starlet. She perceived herself as an permanent interloper in a 1986 L.A. Times article by Charles Champlin:
I’ve always been an outsider,” Foch says. “In America, I’ve been a European. In Europe, I’m an American. On Broadway, I was from Hollywood; in Hollywood, I was from Broadway.”
Her work in JULIA ROSS is stunning and, along with the deft touch of director Joseph Lewis, elevates a nominal B potboiler into a compelling sleeper that holds up excellently.
Her noir resume includes the interesting OUT OF THE FOG, the disappointing THE DARK PAST, an ambiguous THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and the over-the-top JOHNNY ALLEGRO that retains some perverse virtues. Can any film buff resist George Macready stalking George Raft with a bow and arrow?
Nina Foch was born Nina Consuelo Maud Fock on April 20, 1924, in Leyden, Netherlands. Her father was the renowned Dutch composer-conductor Dirk Fock; her mother was actress Consuelo Flowerton. She studied acting under Lee Strasberg in New York and began her film career at Warners in 1943.
Although many of her earlier parts weren’t always the greatest material, Foch was unerringly genuine on screen. She certainly didn’t share an appreciation for her early noir films. She thought that they were hurried, cheap and inconsequential. Foch preferred to discuss her numerous prestige roles including AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, EXECUTIVE SUITE (Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and SPARTACUS. I recall a scene from the latter film with Foch playing the aging Roman nymph who’s giggled aside to Laurence Olivier, “Father almost disinherited him because of slave girls…” filters down to the stone-faced gladiatorial duo of Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode who are waiting to fight to the death for her amusement.
Nina Foch was proudest of her legendary acumen as an acting teacher for forty years at USC and as a private instructor for hire. She labeled her teaching career as the most worthwhile accomplishment of her life. A former Foch assistant described her thusly:
“…blunt, wise, terrifying, generous, vulnerable, and gifted. For all of us, she was unforgettable.”
An impressive legacy.
Apparently bad things come in fours with the reported passing of Robert Prosky, a terrific character actor who passed away at 77 years of age in Washington D.C. Performers of his quality rarely come along nowadays; Prosky will be sorely missed.