Sunday, January 15, 2017

IN MEMORIAM: 2016 - A Tribute To Those We've Lost

In a time of social media, when any celebrity dies, millions of fans pour over the internet to say their piece, some genuinely, others just by circumstance. Where others condemn this 'tradition' away, I think we have lost something and that is the real emotion for select individuals that happens when icons like David Bowie or Gene Wilder pass away.

It feels strange to talk about and commemorate someone that we never even knew, to feel sad and to want to add something for someone that we never met. Well, here is where I take issue. Art is as old as humanity. Artists have always existed and have always wanted to express themselves and by doing so have always reached people, individuals. They have given out a piece of their own for consumption by all. So while I may not have ever known who Carry Fisher was as a person, or may have never met her, I can say that I knew a part of her, the same part that she willingly decided to share with the world and with me.

And that same part of her is what has given something to me: an emotional gift. We might not have known any of these people personally, we might have no idea of who they really were, yet we were all touched by their art in some way, something in us changed because of them. They gave us emotion, laughter, they touched our hearts and they made us who we are, because that's what art does, it shapes you.

So, in a world where people might do this only for their own visibility, or where they might do the opposite for the same reason, here is the Merc Crew's tribute to some of the great artists that we lost this year, a genuine tribute because we were all touched by these individuals. We all have an emotional debt with them and it is sad to see someone who has given so much to you pass on, so let's pay tribute to these people for their incredible work and thank them for everything they have given us.

Jan. 8, 1947 - Jan. 10, 2016

Bowie was a force of nature, a unique individualist who never conformed to any stereotype. He wore what he wanted to, said what he wanted to, slept with who he wanted to, and he didn't care what anyone thought of him.  He never conformed to one genre, always tried new sounds, and even knew how to make fun out of himself, even appearing in 90's comedy, Zoolander.

He also appeared in such films as Labyrinth, where he played the famous role of The Goblin King. That film was directed by Muppet creator Jim Henson, and Henson is not the only lauded artist Bowie worked with in feature films. He also worked with the great Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation Of Christ, he worked with the brilliant Christopher Nolan on The Prestige, and with Oscar nominated director Julian Schnabel on Basquiat, where he played iconic artist Andy Warhol, a pop culture figure not too different to Bowie, as they both challenged the norm and left a pop culture imprint unlike many others.

David Bowie left us on a high note, releasing his critically lauded, and very successful album Blackstar, which featured my personal favourite song of 2016, "Lazarus".  This was David Bowie's swan song, a song that, in my opinion, encapsulates the freedom of death, but also the fear of it, in such a tender way.  Rest In Peace Ziggy Stardust.

Feb. 21, 1946 - Jan. 14, 2016

Of all of the celebrities that died this year, Alan Rickman is one that hit me hard on a personal level.  I have been following his career for years, enjoying his performances in such films as Galaxy Quest, Love Actually, Dogma, and, of course, the Harry Potter franchise.  His ability to portray almost any type of character was astounding, and what made him such a great actor to watch on screen.

Rickman had quite the successful career, starring in dozens of films and tv shows starting in the late 70's all the way up until last year.  But his two most notable roles are Severus Snape in the aforementioned Harry Potter franchise, and Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  These are the roles he'll be remembered for most and are two of is best.  It's a great loss to lose such an amazing talent, and from stories I've heard, an amazingly nice person. 

Feb. 24, 1921 - Jan. 26, 2016

Abe Vigoda was a very famous figure in both the cinema and on the small screen. Having a career that went from his first television role in 1949 until his final appearance (also in television) in 2014, Vigoda provided uniformly interesting and engaging performances in almost every project he worked on. He had a similarly lengthy career in feature films, making his first appearance in the 1965 film Three Rooms in Manhattan and concluded in the 2008 The Unknown Trilogy.

I have an attachment to Vigoda for what is, without question, his most famous role: Salvatore Tessio in Francis Ford Coppolla’s masterpiece The Godfather (and a scene in the equally masterful The Godfather Part II). Being a confidante of the enigmatic Vito Corleone, this Tessio character was fascinating and when we got to peel back the layers on his character I was just fascinated and Vigoda brought so much to the role that made him a household name. He also had a small, but excellent, voice role in one of the greatest Batman films of all time, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which will always hold a special place in my heart

Feb. 18, 1925 - Feb. 28, 2016

George Kennedy may be remembered for his roles as Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun trilogy, or Dragline in Cool Hand Luke, but I will always remember him as Joe Patroni, the crew chief with nerves of steel in the Airport movies. These, at least, can be found easily. He also appeared in a Japanese disaster film called Day of Resurrection (Fukkatsu no Hi), which was released in America with over forty minutes of runtime cut out under the title Virus. This latter version can be found on Youtube, but it's a bit like watching the so-called "Love Conquers All" version of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Even if you've never seen the original, you can spot some of the cuts that were made quite easily, and it just leaves you wanting to watch the original release, 155-minute runtime or no. Be warned that Kennedy doesn't save the day in this one, though he does his best. 

Nov. 29, 1949 - March 24, 2016

Garry Shandling was a famous actor, stand-up comedian, and writer who had a lengthy career extending from 1975 until his death in 2016. Shandling is best known for creating, writing, and starring in It’s The Garry Shandling Show. and The Larry Sanders Show. He was also featured in a number of films including a cameo appearance in Zoolander, voice roles in Over the Hedge and the 2016 The Jungle Book, as well as a recurring role as Senator Stern in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Shandling’s comedy and television work is truly his legacy. He had a comedic flair using observational comedy as well as satire that made people laugh consistently. There is something special when someone can make you laugh and Shandling did it with ease. For me personally, as a merry Marvellite, my strongest memories of him will be from his role as Senator Stern in both Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He brought something interesting to a role that would otherwise have been extremely forgettable and that is something I will personally remember for a long time.

Dec. 14, 1946 - March 29, 2016

Patty Duke will probably be best remembered for the 1960s sitcom that bears her name. The Patty Duke Show ran from 1963 to 1966, and had Duke playing two separate roles: the fun loving Patty Lane, and her straight laced, socialite cousin, Cathy. Back in the glory days of Nick at Nite, The Patty Duke Show was one series I rarely missed without reason.

But of course, her body of work isn't just limited to one sitcom. A fun bit of trivia from Duke's career is that she appeared in two different productions of The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller. In the first, released theatrically in 1962, she played Helen Keller. In 1979, Duke appeared in a TV movie based on the play, in which she played Helen's teacher, Anne Sullivan. She also appeared in the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls as Neely O'Hara. Her final project is a religious film called Power of the Air, to be released sometime in 2017 or 2018. 

Nov. 4, 1925 - April 17, 2016

In a career that spans six decades, Doris Roberts has given so many great performances in both television and film.  She is probably best known for her prominent role as Marie Barone on the long-running, hit television show Everybody Loves Raymond, which is where I first remember her from, but she was so much more.  

Roberts started her acting career in 1951 with a role on the TV series Studio One.  From there she appeared in dozens of roles in TV, film, and stage.  Some of her more notable film roles were in Grandma's Boy, Madea's Witness Protection, and one of my favorite holiday films, Nation Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  She's also been nominated for an Emmy award 11 times, winning 5 of them, and was nominated twice for a Screen Actors Guild award.  Her amazing work on the big and small screen will forever be remembered.

June 7, 1958 - April 21, 2016

When you grow up in central Minnesota, Prince’s music flows through your life like oxygen. Long before I knew Prince’s discography or filmography, I knew his lyrics. I knew that, as the loved and the lovers, we would gather together in unity to get through life. I didn’t know what purple rain was, but I knew that it was for laughing and for longing. Prince was more than just a superstar. He was as much a fixture of growing up in Minnesota as the snow on Christmas Eve or the faint scent of the fields in the air in the summer.

The day Prince died, I was far away from home in Texas. I was walking the lot at the car dealership where I worked when I heard over the radio loudspeakers that Prince had passed on to that next plane of existence. That night, I bought his Greatest Hits album and spent the next month memorizing every turn and note. After returning to Minnesota, I took a walk through downtown Minneapolis and saw the last few murals and memorials to Minnesota’s patron saint on the walls of office buildings and rundown mom-and-pop shops alike. Prince was more than just a star -- he was a reminder that life was still beautiful, even when it was painful. His loss hit my state, my country, and my world with an intensity and a passion that befits the memory of such a great man. He will be missed.

March 11, 1989 - June 19, 2016

When you’re a twenty-something, you never expect to glance at your phone and find out that a celebrity your age has died. Beyond that, you always dream that death will come with purpose and significance. Anton Yelchin was taken from us in June of 2016 in an automobile accident caused as much by chance as by anything else. When I found out the news, I remember sitting in my apartment and staring a hole into my wall, numb to everything as I thought about his mourning family, the pain of death, and the gulf he left in the world of cinema through his passing.

Yelchin will be remembered by most for his heart-stealing turn as Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, but for me, he will always be Charlie Bartlett. Charlie Bartlett was released in 2007, when Yelchin was only 18. Every time I rewatch this beautifully simple movie, I see more and more of myself reflected in Yelchin’s tender, heartfelt performance. He would go on to do more unforgettable movies, but I will always hear his Charlie screaming at a crowd of fans “Stop listening to the people who are telling you you’re not good enough to do the things that you want to do.” Thank you, Anton, for teaching me the simple truth that I am so much more than the people around me and that my worth is so much more than I’ll ever understand. I don’t know if you ever thought that little indie role you took would change people. But it did. Rest in peace.

Nov. 13, 1934 - July 19, 2016

Garry Marshall was an incredibly prolific director, writer, producer, actor, voice artist, and comedian who created some of the most famous television of all time, as well as a number of incredibly popular films. Marshall’s career spanned from the 1950s until his death in 2016. Best known as the creator of Happy DaysThe Odd Couple (and The New Odd Couple), Mork and MindyLaverne and Shirley, and Joanie Loves Chachi as well as for directing The Princess Diaries (and its sequel), Pretty WomanRunaway Bride, and the recent series of “holiday” movies, including Valentine’s DayNew Year’s Eve, and, his final project, Mother’s Day.

Though I wasn’t personally the biggest fan of much of Garry Marshall’s work, I was keenly aware of it, and thankful for it in ways, as my sisters both really loved his films and television work. They all had a certain something interesting to them which made them entertaining for me and enthralled those who are more captivated by these stories generally. His work affected a broad audience of people and he will be remembered for how prolific and successful his career in that field was.

Aug. 24, 1934 - Aug. 13, 2016

Kenny Baker's iconic role as R2D2 from Star Wars will invariably be his defining role, although he was involved in smaller roles in films like Flash GordonThe Elephant ManAmadeusLabyrinth, and Willow. He was a fairly quiet man in life, and although having a large impact due to his role in Star Wars, was never hounded by the media in the way that other actors can be, which means he was able to live a full life without the problems that come with fame.

Born in the UK and growing up in Cheltenham, Kenny was the son of a draughtsman and engraver, and a dressmaker, who performed in a dance troupe. His parents separated during the second World War and he was put into a charity helping children with disabilities. He undoubtedly had a tough life, especially with the treatment of people with dwarfism at the time, and it's to his credit that he made a living from it and did well with his life. His legacy will live on with R2D2 and he will be remembered fondly by his family and friends as well as the entire Star Wars fan base.

June 11, 1933 - Aug. 29, 2016

A veritable legend of the medium, Gene Wilder was a prolific actor and comedian. He is widely known for his work with director Mel Brooks in movies such as Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Wilder is best known, however, for his iconic performance as Willy Wonka in the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a role that embedded him into the minds of movie-goers young and old. Wilder retired from the industry in 1991, dissatisfied with the kind of movies being made, turning his attention elsewhere. As a writer, a stage performer, a painter, and a supporter of cancer awareness after the death of his third wife, SNL star Gilda Radner, to ovarian cancer, Wilder's semi-retirement since the early 90's had lead to him leaving his mark in other ways.

His amiable spirit, quick wit, and sardonic attitude made him a real presence, whether he was the mad Dr. Frankenstein or the quirky Willy Wonka. As Wonka, he had that spark in his eyes, that feeling that there was more going on than he would ever dare let on, even if only just to not ruin the punchline. Wilder's legacy will live on in the roles he inhabited, in the people whose lives he touched, and in the memories of those with which he worked.

July 28, 1969 - Sept. 11, 2016

The first thing I remember seeing Alexis Arquette in is The Wedding Singer, as George, the sexually ambiguous keyboard player for Adam Sandler's wedding band.  It's a role that has stayed with me over the years, as that film was one of my favorites for a long time, and George was such a fun, albeit small, character.  But her career was much bigger than that.

Alexis Arquette, born Robert Arquette, sibling to actors David and Patricia Arquette, was one of the few widely know trans actors to grace the silver screen.  She appeared in several films throughout her career, including Pulp Fiction, The Wedding Singer, Lords of Dogtown, and Blended.  Her experiences transitioning from male to female were documented in the film Alexis Arquette: She's My Brother, which debuted at the 2007 TriBeCa Film Festival.  Her fight for trans rights and acceptance will forever live on.

Nov. 22, 1932 - Nov. 11, 2016

Robert Vaughn was an acclaimed actor who did a lot of great work on television and in film. He is probably best known for his work as the lead Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. He also had incredibly famous roles in The Magnificent Seven and Bullitt. Vaughn had a lengthy career from his first role in 1955 until his final one in 2016.

Vaughn’s enigmatic screen presence always made him a joy to watch on screen. From his younger years he had this smoothness that was fascinating and really exemplified what we try to capture with modern spy films and westerns (including two recent remakes of some of his best known work). I will, of course, best remember Vaughn for his work in The Magnificent Seven. I am a massive fan of the original Seven Samurai and I think the American adaptation of it is interesting, in no small part due to Vaughn’s great work and chemistry with the rest of the team. He was a deeply talented actor across his entire career.

March 1, 1947 - Dec. 13, 2016

If you grew up in the 80s, then I'm sure you were aware of a little show called Growing Pains. It was one of my favorite shows growing up, running from 1985-1992. The theme song, "As Long As We Got Each Other", has been playing in my head recently.  The show introduced me to a great actor, Alan Thicke, who played the iconic Jason Seaver on the show, the role he is best known for. I loved how he interacted with his wife and kids. He just came across as a genuinely great person.

Thicke was also a talented composer, creating the theme songs for The Wheel of Fortune, Different Strokes and The Facts of Life. Before Growing Pains, he had a successful talk show in his native home of Canada from 1980 to 1983. He tried to transition from daytime to late night, but that didn't quite work out for him. However, he landed the role of Jason Seaver on Growing Pains. This role introduced television audiences to a talented and charming performer.  He also had a great small recurring roles playing himself on the hit series How I Met Your Mother.  He was such a fantastic actor and always lit up the screen when he was on it.  His legacy of sharing the laughter and love will never be forgotten.

Feb. 6, 1917 - Dec. 18, 2016

Hollywood legend, Zsa Zsa Gabor was a Hungarian-born actress who enjoyed a steady career in film and television for over 40 years, from her first role in 1952 until her last in the early 90's.  She was particularly famous for her bubbly, flirtatious persona, and nine marriages.

She made her big-screen debut in the the 1952 film Lovely To Look At, followed up by Mouln Rogue.  She continued her career up til the early 90's starring and making cameos in films like Touch of Evil, Nightmare On Elm Street 3, Happily Ever After, and The Beverly Hillbillies.  She appeared in several television shows including Gilligan's Island, The Love Boat, and Batman, and had countless talk show and celebrity game show appearances.  Zsa Zsa lived to the impressive age of 99 years old, passing away just two months before her 100th birthday.  She will forever be missed and remembered in Hollywood as a legend

Oct. 21, 1956 - Dec. 27, 2016

At the age of nineteen Carrie Fisher, born of Hollywood royalty - mother Debbie Reynolds and father Eddie Fisher - stepped into the role of Princess Leia in George Lucas' spectacular space movie, Star Wars. Fisher, doe-eyed and fresh faced, was clad in a stark white, hooded dress that covered her from neck to toe and sported a double bun hair-do that made her look like she was wearing hairy earmuffs on her head. Yet she carried it off with regal bearing and a sense of feistiness that raised Princess Leia to the level of a memorable and Iconic character that will live on in the hearts of Star Wars fans long past Carrie Fisher's recent and untimely passing at the age of sixty.

Carrie Fisher was more than a rebel space Princess in a white dress - or very revealing slave girl outfit that she briefly wore in The Empire Strikes Back.  Fisher was a no holds barred, funny and self-deprecating woman who was never afraid to talk about or write about her own personal spiral into the seductions of the 'dark side' of Hollywood. She wrote a successful book, Wishful Drinking, that laid bare her issues with substance and alcohol abuse, her failed personal relationships and the joy she found in becoming a mother to her only child, daughter Billie Lourd. Carrie Fisher was not afraid to shine a light on the dark side of being a celebrity. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind. Most of all she used her insights, her experiences and her hard won place in Hollywood to help bring to light the issues of mental health and how urgent it was to understand that it is an illness and people suffering from them need support and help. Like Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher was a rebel fighting for a good cause by having gone to the 'dark side' and come back out of it as stronger person to guide others out into the 'light side'. Her presence and her own bravery will be missed, even as part of Carrie Fisher lives on through celluloid images of the beautiful girl in the white dress with the rebel spirit.

April 1, 1932 - Dec. 28, 2016

The phrase "Hollywood Royalty" gets tossed around a lot, yet I don't think there are many cases that would fit this phrase better than the late, great Debbie Reynolds. In her decades-long career, she managed to cover a variety of fields, from music and film, humanitarian work, theater, and ultimately her contribution to popular culture and the way she changed celebrity culture. These are what made her an icon in the Hollywood landscape, a treasure of an artist, who gave so much to art, moving and inspiring millions around the world, not unlike her daughter, the also very talented, Carrie Fisher, who, sadly, passed just one day earlier.

Debbie Reynolds' career and public achievements are far too wide to cover. Of the greatest ones, we remember the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award she was given by the Academy in 2016, which is probably one of the biggest honors, if not the, in show business. Reynolds was a brilliant and accomplished musician too, releasing pop albums of her own, and in 1957 she was the biggest selling female vocalist, staying on the top spot of the Billboard Pop Charts for five weeks in a row for her performance of "Tammy".

And then we come to her film career which could take pages to cover. But in the end if there is one thing that I think she should be the most proud of, and that is of course Singin' in the Rain. There are no two ways around it, there is no discussion to be had, her performance in this film is a delight unto its own and it contributes to one of the most iconic, respected, and lauded films of all time. I know she had a hard time doing it, but the end result is something that perfectly encapsulates what cinema is about. She was a treasure of an actress and personality and thanks to her work she will never be forgotten.

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