Funeral Friday

Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.

As a boy, Roy E. Disney had the childhood most kids would have gladly murdered their parents for, turned loose to play in the halls of the happiness factory his uncle Walt and father Roy O. Disney had built, and often acting as a test audience for its animation studio. When he eventually got into the family business, though, it wasn’t the nepotistic continuation of a dynasty it might have been: Roy started small, as an assistant editor on (Oscar-winning) nature documentaries like The Living Desert—and only after he’d already proved his mettle working on Dragnet. And when he did eventually assume his birthright by claiming a position on the Disney board, he was hardly just a figurehead quietly collecting his shares; instead, he functioned as the increasingly unwieldy empire’s heart and soul, frequently beefing with upper-level executives over what they were doing to his family name. One such quarrel was with chief executive Ronald Miller (who was married to Walt’s daughter), and it resulted in Roy going independent in 1977.

But he didn’t stay away for long, returning in 1984 to help force Miller out, and steer the company back toward the classic, hand-drawn animation that had made it famous. Thanks in no small part to Roy’s influence, Disney experienced a renaissance with films like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Beauty And The Beast; on the latter, Roy secured financing for a computerized post-production facility that made the groundbreaking ballroom sequence possible—inadvertently leading to the Pixar films that would eventually overtake Disney at the box office (though, still, a beautiful sequence). And when that happened, Roy helped lead another coup against Michael Eisner, remaking Disney yet again. Among all the good he did for Disney, however, it all pales in comparison to his passion project and greatest achievement: Fantasia 2000—somewhat of a disappointing sequel compared to the original, but one that his uncle had long envisioned before his death in 1966, and which only exists thanks to Roy’s perseverance. Following Eisner’s departure, Roy hung around the company as director emeritus, ensuring that the family name still stood for something. He kept that up until his death this week at the age of 79, the last of the Disneys to work there.

She was born the humble Phylis Isley but found herself remade by the machinations of Hollywood into “Jennifer Jones”—just one of many instances where Jones, such a powerful figure on screen, allowed herself to be molded off screen by the men in her life. In fact, were it not for her marriage to actor Robert Walker (Strangers On A Train), we likely wouldn’t know her name at all, as Phylis Isley or Jennifer Jones: The two were smitten at an early age, married soon after, and moved to Hollywood to make it together. Walker found work in radio, but Jones more or less stayed at home with their children, attending auditions whenever she could find the time. As luck would have it, one of those auditions brought her into contact with mega-producer David O. Selznick, who soon became both Jones’ mentor and lover—and architect of both her greatest artistic triumphs and her most ruinous personal failures. Selznick first played Pygmalion by giving Jones her new name; he then set about casting both her and her husband in many of their earliest, most resonant roles. With nothing but a bit part in a lesser-known John Wayne Western and a Dick Tracy serial to her name, Jones suddenly found herself with a seven-year contract thanks to Selznick, and by 1943, she was given the lead in The Song Of Bernadette, as a humble French peasant girl who’s visited by the Virgin Mary. It netted her an Academy Award, and made her one of the biggest stars of the ’40s and ’50s nearly overnight.

She was undeniably talented, but she also had some considerable help getting other people to see that: Selznick’s interest wasn’t strictly professional, and by the time Jones collected her Oscar for Bernadette, it was common knowledge that she and Selznick were having an affair. Selznick’s wife left him, yet Jones and Walker were forced to remain together—on screen, anyway, as they were still in the middle of starring as doomed lovers in Since You Went Away. Reportedly, Selznick even cruelly forced Jones and Walker to do take after take of their romantic scenes. In the end, Walker never got over losing Jones, and spent the rest of his life struggling with alcoholism and mental instability, including a brief bid in a sanitarium in 1949. In 1951, Walker suffered another nervous breakdown; his psychiatrist attempted to calm him with a dose of sodium amytal to which Walker suffered a severe allergic reaction. He died at the age of 32.

Jones, on the other hand, did nothing but flourish. Guided by Selznick, she starred in dozens of his lavish epics, ranging from 1946’s Duel In The Sun (which put her in the company of heavyweights like Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish) to the box office bomb A Farewell To Arms, as well as passionate romances like Love Letters and Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, both of which garnered her further Oscar nominations. However, though she was beloved by critics and audiences alike, the relationship with Selznick that had made her career would also lead to its downfall, as she severely floundered in the wake of his death in 1965. Reportedly, Jones was always emotionally fragile—and without someone to guide her, she became essentially rudderless, eventually making headlines in 1967 for a suicide attempt that saw her swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills and throwing herself from a cliff into the Malibu surf. (It wouldn’t be the last of Jones’ tabloid tragedies: Her 21-year-old daughter leapt to her death from an L.A. building in 1976.) Jones survived but began quietly fading from public life, marrying a multimillionaire industrialist and turning in one final, memorable performance: Her character danced with Fred Astaire in 1974’s The Towering Inferno before helping two children escape, then fell 110 stories to her death—a mordant yet oddly appropriate exit, considering. Finished with the movie business, Jones lived out a quiet retirement for the last 30-plus years, rarely appearing in public and refusing all interviews (something she did even at the height of her stardom) on the basis that she didn’t want to discuss her personal life. Understandable. Jones died this week at the age of 90.

With his pockmarked face and a demeanor that always suggested he’d just as soon kill you as talk to you, Val Avery was a natural to play hoods, psychopaths, and other assorted brutes—character types that popped up time and again throughout his more than 150 roles, which often found him threatening people on both sides of the law. Among his most memorable tough guys: He was Socks Parelli, the Mafia thug Sean Connery was tasked with killing in Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes; the Mafia don who takes a chance on Fred Williamson (which leads to him getting stabbed in the back) in Black Caesar; the Mafia don who cuts off Eric Roberts’ thumb in The Pope Of Greenwich Village; and even real-life mobster Santo Trafficante in Donnie Brasco. He also turned up as a cop in films like The Amityville Horror and Cobra, played oddball characters like a corset salesman in The Magnificent Seven and a factory boss in Cheech And Chong’s Up In Smoke, and contributed hundreds of appearances to TV shows like Columbo, Gunsmoke, Mannix, and Moonlighting. But it was his friendship with John Cassavetes that most defined Avery’s work: After directing him in the TV series Johnny Staccato, Cassavetes called on Avery again and again, casting him in five movies overall, including his classics Faces, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, and Gloria. Off screen, Cassavetes and Avery were also part of a gang of drinking buddies that included Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk. (The New York Times shares a lovely anecdote about Avery’s predilection for staring at customers who would wander in on them, then grumbling, “I’ll eat your liver.”) He died this week at the age of 85, a tough guy to the end.

In stark contrast to Avery, actor Gene Barry had an aristocratic air that lent itself naturally to playing both the crime-fighting dandy of Bat Masterson, which Barry did for the series’ three-year run, and the wealthy, mansion-dwelling, model-diddling police captain (and eventually, secret agent) of Burke’s Law. He occasionally got out of the crime-fighting biz but never lost his playboy touch, starring as a rich magazine tycoon in The Name Of The Game as well as a movie star who was also, again, a secret agent in The Adventurer. Sci-fi fans will also know him as “Dr. Clayton Forrester” in 1953’s The War Of The Worlds (namesake of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s movie-mad scientist), which led to him contributing a brief cameo in Spielberg’s 2005 remake. A natural musician who grew up singing and playing violin as a child, Barry made a splash on Broadway in 1984’s La Cage Aux Folles, where he brought a “sensitive, tender” touch to his Tony-nominated role as one-half of a gay couple. He later parlayed this lifelong love of song into a successful nightclub career in the late ’90s, launching a popular show at Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel where he would reminisce about his career while doing, among other things, a remarkable Maurice Chevalier impression. He retired to a California assisted-living home following the death of his wife (of 58 years) in 2003; he joined her late last week at the age of 90.

As the surly, tattooed, generally roughed-up Lester The Lab Rat, Mark Pitts was an integral part of cult kids’ show Beakman’s World, reluctantly helping Paul Zaloom’s shock-haired über-geek mad scientist with his various in-your-face experiments, which were intended to trick kids into learning to love science by exploring its ickier quadrants. The show became a surprise success, lasting more than six years and airing in nearly 90 countries before finally being canceled in 1998; for Ritts, it was a role he’d been preparing for all his life, being the son of two puppeteers who eagerly followed them into the business. When Ritts auditioned for Lester, however, producers told him their oddball idea: Lester wouldn’t be a traditional puppet, but rather a guy in a raggedy, obviously fake rat suit—and the idea that he was a disgruntled actor forced into this sort of indignity was all part of the joke. Ritts jumped at the chance, relishing his role as a sarcastic foil to Beakerman’s unflappable enthusiasm. Off screen, Ritts followed his Harvard-educated muse to some wildly varied places, co-authoring a book on parenting, producing travel documentaries on Catalina and Mexico, creating a PBS special on microbiology, and directing episodes of Court TV’s North Mission Road while also building a family with actor/singer Teresa Parente (best known as TV reporter “Miranda Veracruz De La Jolla Cardinal” on Married… With Children). He died this week at the age of 63 from kidney cancer.

Oral Roberts was one of the most “controversial” figures in all of evangelism—which is a nice way of saying he was a lying, opportunistic shitheel who equated monetary donations with proof of faith, and thus bilked untold millions out of his gullible followers. In the course of his career, he became obscenely wealthy by alternately using folksy pandering or straight-up telling people too desperate to doubt him that he had a direct line to God’s mouth. Early on, Roberts used to sit on an elevated throne and ask his followers to come touch him, claiming this would heal them of their ailments. Later, after Satan granted him a television show, Roberts’ ego ran totally amok, to the point where he memorably told his audience in 1987 that God would “call him home” if they didn’t give him $4.5 million, ostensibly to raise money for a hospital; ultimately, his likely poverty-stricken followers sent him $8 million they couldn’t afford just so he wouldn’t die. The hospital, by the way, closed two years later. Roberts also founded the Oral Roberts University, a golden palace of hypocrisy that turns out thousands of hate-filled homophobes every year, and the main entrance to which is a 30-ton bronze sculpture of Roberts’ own fucking hands. Interesting side note: In 2007 it was revealed that his son Richard and his wife, who ran the university, had used school money to remodel their home 11 times and run up crazy shopping bills. Awesome. Oh, and Roberts himself once claimed that a 900-foot-tall Jesus had dropped by to say hello, and that the devil tried to choke him in his own bedroom. In short, he was a total fraud who loudly preached piety while quietly profiting off the weak, and—along with fellow swindlers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart—he helped to paint Christianity as a religion governed by men whose greed and lust for power were their only true faiths, which in turn led to an entire generation growing up asking what was the point. Roberts died this week at the age of 91, leaving the world damaged in his wake but finally, eminently better off without him.

Have a super holiday!

Filed Under: Film

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