In Memoriam

Shiva Concluded

As I understand it — which I admit is probably not very well — the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” requires the family of a deceased person to formally grieve for a period of seven days following the burial, during which time friends visit to express condolences, offer support, and share stories and memories of the deceased. If you didn’t know, the late Leonard Nimoy was a Jew, and thinking back over last week’s outpouring of reminiscences and good feelings for him, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it was as if the entire Internet was observing shiva. I’ve been very impressed and moved by the volume of good will directed toward this man, and frankly, I’m proud to have played a small part in a pretty huge and amazing thing, this online display of shiva. I only hope that Leonard’s actual family was aware of what was going on, and that the stories and love of Leonard’s “fan family” helped ease their pain at his loss.

I’d like to share a few links to things that caught my attention last week, things I found especially interesting, moving, funny, or just plain cool:

  • Nimoy was a strong supporter of feminism, which he expressed through actions rather than mere words. The online magazine Bustle summarized four of his best moments in the fight for gender equality here.
  • As a photographer, Nimoy made waves in 2007 with his “Full Body Project,” a  collection of photos celebrating the beauty and dignity of, to be blunt, fat women. Here’s a personal account of what the collection meant to one woman in particular. There’s an accompanying gallery of selections from the collection; be warned, it’s NSFW, as they say. Nudity ahead.
  • I’m not a gamer — I haven’t had any interest to speak of in video games since Mortal Kombat changed the arcade-gaming paradigm in the early ’90s, and I’ve never set a virtual foot inside an MMPORG — but I thought the tributes for Leonard (as well as other deceased cast members, and of course Gene Roddenberry) built into the Star Trek Online environment last week sounded pretty neat.
  • Leonard’s passing got novelist Dayton Ward thinking about what it was like to watch Star Trek in the olden days, when technology wasn’t as, shall we say, reliable as it is today. His blog post reminded me of my own childhood experiences with an old hand-me-down black-and-white portable TV, the one with the rabbit ears and the busted vertical hold. Kids today really have no idea what it was like back in the Dark Ages.
  • Speaking of ancient video technology, Dangerous Minds dredged up a mind-boggling artifact from 1981, a 11-minute clip of Leonard conversing with, um, well, a glowing rock about the then-cutting-edge “laser video disc” system from Magnavox. This one really must be seen to be believed:

(Incidentally, I have to say that, while I am hugely annoyed by the current-day disdain for mustaches and the overused and frankly offensive suggestion that they denote their wearers as porn stars and child molesters, I’m really glad Nimoy didn’t sport this look for long. It didn’t suit him at all.)

  • The nostalgia site Plaid Stallions had a fun post celebrating the ads and products that featured Mr. Spock’s visage in the early ’70s. I had a lot of these items myself when I was a wee Trekkie. Ah, who am I kidding? I still have them all, tucked away in a box in the fabulous Bennion Archives, a.k.a., my basement.
  • All this fun stuff aside, we need to remember that Leonard Nimoy was a real human being, a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I was moved by the tribute People hosted by the folks who are going to miss him most.
  • And lastly, the oddly controversial sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which either laughs with or at the fans who revered Nimoy, depending on your point of view (guess which camp I fall into), concluded last week’s show with a classy and heartfelt vanity card that I thought summed up so much of what I was feeling:

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And with that, our observances are now concluded. Shalom. And, of course, LLAP.

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This Just In: Nimoy Loved Sweets!

Oh, man… just when I figure I’ve done my mourning for Leonard Nimoy and I’m ready to put the Kleenex away, I run across a personal remembrance by his friend Nadine Schiff-Rosen and get another reminder of what a swell human being he must’ve been, and how I wish I’d actually known him:

His eclectic love of confections knew no bounds: Vanilla macaroons, cream-filled éclairs, peanut butter brittle, custards, meringues, puddings, soufflés—I was lucky to watch him devour desserts around the world. Just as a botanist would feel at one with a rare orchid, so too would Leonard commune with a red velvet cupcake, exploring the icing, excavating the creamy center. Then, sliding the plate over to me, he would cry out, “OH, YEAH,” in a way that made me wonder if he and his sugary delight shouldn’t get a room. And if he was met with resistance from me—a self-deprecating remark about watching my weight, for example—he would nudge the plate over to me further, his long, tapered fingers wordlessly ordering me to, “Take a bite.”

I can just imagine the expression on his face at that moment too, that devilish glimmer in his eye and the arched eyebrow that said, “Go on… you know you want to…”

Read the whole thing. It’s not long, and it’s worth it.

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Gerrold on Nimoy

There’s no shortage of commentary across the InterWebs at the moment about the late Leonard Nimoy, but I thought the words of science-fiction writer David Gerrold were worth passing along. Gerrold has a long association with Star Trek — his first professional sale was the screenplay for “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which is often cited as the most popular episode of the original series and is, in my anecdotal experience, the one non-Trekkies are most likely to have seen. He knew Leonard personally; here’s part of what he had to say:

The remarkable thing about Spock isn’t Spock and it isn’t just Nimoy’s singular invention of Spock — it is that Spock is very much a reflection of Leonard Nimoy’s own character as a man.

 

Nimoy was gracious, friendly, loving, supportive, brilliant, and ultimately a person who continually challenged himself to expand his own horizons. He was generous in nature, humble in spirit.

So Spock was never just a performance as much as it was an evocation of the soul within.

I think, to a great degree, it was that inner nature that most of us were responding to.

 

I did not get to spend a lot of time with Leonard, there were always too many others shoving in to spend time with him — and I’d already had my moment. I’d given him lines to speak, and he’d brought them to life. I couldn’t ask for better. No writer could. But in the moments we did spend together, he always made me feel important.

 

If there is one lesson I would want to learn from Leonard Nimoy, that would be the one — how to love life to the fullest and cherish everyone in it.

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In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy

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“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP”

— Leonard Nimoy’s final Twitter post, February 23, 2015

It isn’t often that I find myself at a loss for words, but yesterday’s news that Leonard Nimoy had died left me floundering. What do you say about the loss of a man you never met in person but who nevertheless felt like a member of your own family?

I do not remember a time when I had never seen Star Trek. That’s the plain truth. My mother has told me she and I started watching the show together when it went into syndication in the early ’70s. She wasn’t a science-fiction fan, particularly, it was just part of the afternoon block of old sitcoms, westerns, and spy shows that provided background noise while she did the housework, and I was a captive toddler audience playing on the living room rug in front of our old console TV, the one that I once fell against and split my scalp open. Why Star Trek sank its hooks so deeply into me instead of Gunsmoke or Mission Impossible is anybody’s guess, but it did. One of my earliest memories is talking to a little girl in my kindergarten class about a dream I’d had involving her and Mr. Spock, Nimoy’s signature character from that show. (You could tell a girl something like that in kindergarten without fear that she’d crush your soul with derisive laughter and then make you persona non grata with the rest of the class; such repercussions didn’t become a risk until somewhat later… fifth grade, in my experience.)

Many of my fellow travelers shared their memories on social media yesterday and they were all telling the same basic story, about how they felt like outsiders growing up, and in the half-human, half-alien Spock, they found a character to identify with, a role model who could guide them through the tricky business of finding yourself when you just don’t quite fit in. I understand why they were drawn to him, but I never identified with Spock in that way myself. Oh, I had plenty of moments when I felt like an alien among my peers. I think every kid does, even the ones who don’t prefer comic books and sci-fi paperbacks to football and dirt bikes. But I always gravitated toward Captain Kirk as my inspiration and role model. Spock was… well, if Kirk was the man I wanted to be, Spock was the friend I wanted to have. When I think of the character, that’s the first thing that comes to my mind: not his struggles to suppress, then to understand and finally to accept his human half… not his logical thinking or his trademark pointy ears or his Vulcan neck pinch, but all the times he and Kirk expressed their friendship, their fierce loyalty — their love — for one another.

In the classic episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk and Spock are displaced in time, and a 20th century woman named Edith Keeler — played by the luscious Joan Collins — tries to figure out where these two strange men ought to be. She can’t imagine at all where Kirk belongs, but Spock, she says, she sees always at Kirk’s side. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, after a disastrous attempt to telepathically mindmeld with the super-intelligence called V’Ger, Spock takes Kirk’s hand and tells him that “this simple feeling” — i.e., friendship — “is beyond V’Ger’s understanding.” And of course the most famous line Spock ever uttered, from his death scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “I have been and always shall be your friend.” (Man, I remember writing that in a lot of high school yearbooks and feeling like I was so deep and clever.) Watching that scene on YouTube yesterday morning just about ripped my heart out of my chest, and I’m not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears sitting in my cubicle on the 13th floor of a skyscraper in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, a long way away from that living room rug in front of the TV in a little farmtown in the early 1970s. Because yesterday it felt like he was saying those words to me. Spock… Leonard… my friend… from the time I was a very small boy… saying goodbye.

There was much more to Leonard Nimoy than just Spock, of course. He appeared in many other classic television shows, from Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone to Mission: Impossible. He hosted In Search Of…, which more or less established the template still followed by countless overly credulous “documentary” shows about the unexplained. On stage, he played Sherlock Holmes and Vincent Van Gogh, and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. He was downright creepy in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the rare example of a remake that’s just as effective — arguably better, in fact — than the original. And only last week, I watched him in an fun little curiosity called Baffled!, a failed TV pilot that had a lot of interesting ideas behind it but just didn’t quite come together. As a director, he scored a tremendous non-Star Trek hit with the 1987 ensemble-comedy film Three Men and a Baby. He wrote poetry. He was an accomplished photographer. And he recorded music, even though he himself admitted he wasn’t much of a singer. (Talented singer or not, his 1967 novelty tune “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” is bizarrely charming, unlike much of William Shatner’s musical output, which is just bizarre.) But of course it’s Spock that he will forever be associated with, a character that has so thoroughly penetrated popular culture that he’s known even to people who’ve never seen a single frame of the television series or movies he comes from.

Like his other Star Trek costars, most notably Shatner, Nimoy has at times expressed ambivalence about that silly old television show being his legacy. In the ’70s, he wrote a memoir with the somewhat-petulant title I Am Not Spock. And if you delve into the production history of the Star Trek movies, there was always a question of whether he would consent to appear, at least in the earlier ones. At one point, Spock was not included in the script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the original plan around the character’s death in The Wrath of Khan was for him to stay dead. (Honestly, I’ve often thought that would’ve been a more courageous and creatively interesting path for the series to take, and possibly a healthier path for the franchise as a whole… but of course that argument is academic at this point, after three decades, four more original-cast movies, and appearances by Nimoy-as-Spock in both The Next Generation and the JJ Abrams reboot films.)  But eventually Nimoy came to embrace his Vulcan alter ego, to the point that he penned a second memoir in the 1990s and called it I Am Spock, a nod to his earlier book as well as a direct refutation of its title. And he adopted a charming, sly, and self-deprecating sense of humor about the whole thing, which was nicely displayed in an Audi commercial he filmed a year or so back with Zachary Quinto, the young actor who plays Spock in the reboot films.

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past few decades, and especially since the Salt Lake Comic Cons began in 2013, to meet quite a few of the actors I grew up watching. I’ve found it genuinely fulfilling to shake their hands and tell them how much their work has meant to me, whether I’m talking to Adrian Paul from Highlander: The Series or Erin Gray from Buck Rogers or Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame or Danny Glover from… well, all kinds of things. But my experience of meeting people associated with the original Star Trek has been on a whole different plane from the others, and almost shockingly moving for me. Of the seven main cast members, I’ve met four: Shatner, Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), the late James Doohan (Scotty), and the irrepressible George Takei (Sulu). Sadly, I never got the chance to meet DeForest Kelley, a.k.a. Dr. “Bones” McCoy, who died in 1999. And I didn’t get to meet Leonard either, although I kinda-sorta came close. He was invited to the last Salt Lake Comic Con, in September of last year. He couldn’t come in person due to his declining health, but he did arrange to appear via Skype in a panel discussion… which Anne and I did not attend because the timing conflicted with something else at the con that we’d spent considerable money on and so were committed to doing. I did, however, buy one of the limited number of autographed photos that Leonard had sent on ahead to the convention organizers. While a cynical part of me notes that there’s no way to be sure he actually signed the photo or touched it in any way, I choose to believe in its legitimacy… and I am glad to have at least that much of him. Because I knew six months ago that it was the closest I was ever going to get to him.

Nimoy maintained an active online presence through Twitter, interacting with fans and signing every post “LLAP,” an acronym for his Spockian catchphrase, “Live long and prosper.” In recent years, he took to calling himself “Grandpa” and offering to be an honorary grandfather for anyone who cared to take him up on it. For the record, I never did… at least not formally. (I wish I had.) But when I read of his death, I felt as if I really had lost a grandfather. To be honest, I think I felt more grief yesterday than I did when I lost my real grandfathers, neither of whom I was close with. But Leonard… ah, Leonard I felt like I gotten to know, and I liked him. It’s not the loss of “Spock” I’ve been mourning. It’s the kind, good-humored old Jewish man with the quick smile and the big laugh and the unmistakable voice, the lively wit and strong sense of social justice, the celebrity who seemed genuinely concerned for his fans when he urged them to learn from his example and stay away from cigarettes…

At Spock’s funeral in Star Trek II, his friend Admiral Kirk says, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.” And although my fellow fanboys have already turned it into a cliche to use this line in reference to Leonard Nimoy, I can’t think of anything better to sum up this actor, this icon, this man whom I really wish I’d been lucky enough to meet.

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In Memoriam: Glen A. Larson

BSG_glen-larson-titlecardI’ve was saddened last weekend to learn of the passing of Glen A. Larson, the writer and producer behind many of the television series that occupied real estate in my imagination as I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, M.E. (the original forensic police procedural!), The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and of course Magnum, P.I. I even have a soft spot for several of his lesser efforts: B.J. and the Bear, Manimal, Automan, and Cover Up, which I remember as a pretty terrific series that was derailed by the heartbreaking and utterly pointless death of its costar, a hunky young actor with a bright future named Jon-Erik Hexum. (Incidentally, why isn’t that show on DVD? Surely I’m not the only one who remembers it with some fondness? Or for that matter, how about the TV movie-of-the-week Hexum made with Joan Collins, The Making of a Male Model? Surely that’s got a big enough cult following to warrant a manufacture-on-demand disc?)

Without question, though, the Glen Larson production that made the biggest impression on me was his epic space-opera  Battlestar Galactica. Premiering in September 1978, a little over a year after Star Wars took the world by storm, Galactica was widely dismissed by critics as a rip-off of a hit movie. In fact, 20th Century Fox actually sued Larson and Universal Studios for plagiarism, because they apparently believed George Lucas had a monopoly on space-based stories featuring robots, dogfighting fighter craft launched from gigantic warships, ray-gun shootouts with armor-clad villains, and planetary-scale holocausts. Never mind that these were all common genre tropes stretching back to the pulp magazines of the 1920s, or that Lucas himself had borrowed heavily from Frank Herbert’s Dune. And never mind as well that Larson had been shopping around the core concept that became Galactica — originally titled Adam’s Ark — since the late 1960s. The suit was eventually settled, but Larson never overcame his reputation as a hack (the notoriously testy science-fiction author Harlan Ellison once called him “Glen Larceny”). Several of his later shows didn’t help matters: Automan was very obviously inspired by Tron, and Manimal tried to cash in on the “bubbling face” transformation effects seen in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. But I’ve always thought the term “rip-off” was overly harsh, and especially unfair in the case of Galactica. Even to a nine-year-old boy, it was pretty obvious that Galactica was inspired less by Star Wars than by various far-out ideas that were swirling around in the cultural consciousness of the ’70s — pseudoscientific woo-woo stuff like Atlantis and the “ancient astronauts” described in von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and the craze for all things Egyptian in the wake of the touring King Tut exhibitions — as well as by Larson’s own Mormon beliefs.

Yes, what you’ve heard all these years is true: Glen A. Larson was a Mormon, and many of the underpinnings of Battlestar Galactica can be traced to LDS folklore, if not actual scripture. The Tribes of Man, the Lost 13th Tribe, the planet Kobol as the birthplace of humanity (actually Kolob, in Mormon cosmology), referring to a wedding ceremony as a “sealing” and the civilian leadership as the Quorum (or, in some episodes, the Council) of the Twelve… that’s all straight out of Mormonism. And if those elements aren’t big enough clues to Larson’s inspiration, consider the mysterious Beings of Light seen in some of the show’s later episodes. These ethereal creatures take a benevolent interest in the Galactica and her fleet of refugees, and memorably tell our heroes “As you are now, we once were; as we are now, you may become,” suggesting they evolved from flesh-and-blood humanlike bodies into some kind of higher form. That’s the Mormon conception of angels in a nutshell.

I remember talking with my friends in elementary school about this stuff while Battlestar was originally airing. At the time, and for many years after, I really didn’t want to accept the connection between the church and one of my favorite TV shows. I don’t know if it still goes on much, but there was a time when Mormons were constantly claiming (often incorrectly) that one celebrity or another was a member of the church, as a way of demonstrating that Mormons were cool, too, I suppose, and pointing out elements of Battlestar borrowed from Mormonism always struck me as an extension of that. But of course I was wrong, and in later years as I became a more educated and sophisticated viewer, I could no longer deny the obvious. And honestly, I’ve now decided as an adult that the show’s Mormon roots might actually be part of its appeal for me. I never officially became a member of the LDS faith myself, but I grew up immersed in it — believe it or not, I did occasionally attend services as a child, and I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends who are members — so all of those elements are familiar to me, and even comforting, in a way. Battlestar Galactica, on some fundamental level, simply feels like home to me. That’s why I can overlook its many flaws, and I suspect that’s also is a big part of why I just couldn’t get on board with Ron Moore’s remake a few years ago. Well, that plus the fact that I tend to dislike remakes on general principle. But the Battlestar “reimagining” or whatever Moore called it really rubbed me wrong right from the get-go, and the best explanation I can offer for that is that the old series felt like home, and the new one… just didn’t.

The other big reason I didn’t care for the remake was because I feel that Moore missed (or deliberately abandoned) the core concept that really lay at the heart of the original. Beneath all the special effects and the space-opera explosions and pyramid-power nonsense, Battlestar Galactica was about family. The three main characters — Commander Adama, played by Lorne Greene, his son Captain Apollo, and Apollo’s best friend, the maverick Lt. Starbuck — comprised a solid and loving family unit. (Adama also had a daughter, Athena, played by the lovely Maren Jensen, but she faded from prominence during the show’s run and had entirely disappeared by time it ended; I’ve never heard an explanation for why.) You always knew that no matter how bad things got for the fleet, no matter what disasters befell our heroes, they had that relationship — a metaphorical pyramid, to continue the Egyptian motif — to rely upon. In Ron Moore’s Galactica, by contrast, every single relationship was completely dysfunctional. Not only could the reimagined Adama, Apollo, and Starbuck not rely on each other, they didn’t even like each other, at least in the early episodes of the show I saw. And that really bothered me. I got the point Moore was making — his thematic preoccupation was less about ancient astronauts than the paranoia engendered by 9/11, the notion that you literally can’t trust anybody — but I didn’t like it. That’s not how I view the world, or at least not how I want to to view it.

But getting back to Larson’s original, there’s a funny thing about that comforting sense of family the show generated: I’ve found it extends into the real world as well. When I attended the first Salt Lake Comic Con a year ago, the celebrity guests I was most pleased to meet turned out not to be the star attractions — William Shatner and the legendary comic-book creator Stan Lee — but rather three cast members from Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica: Richard Hatch (Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Starbuck), and Noah Hathaway (Boxey). I’ve found that I’m relatively composed in meeting celebs, but these three, in particular, were easy for me to talk to. I won’t say it was like I’ve known them my whole life, because that sounds a little too creepy-stalkerish, but that’s not an entirely inaccurate way of describing it. Meeting these guys was like… being introduced to far-flung cousins. You don’t actually know them, but you nevertheless feel a sense of connection with them. They were like family, in other words. And I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I cherished the few moments I spent chatting with them. I owe Glen Larson for that experience, and for the hours and hours of enjoyment, escape, inspiration, and yes, comfort that his work has brought me over the last 35 years.

And so, Glen, wherever you may be tonight, I raise a goblet of thousand-yahren-old ambrosia to you. I hope those Beings of Light were waiting for you in the end…

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In Memoriam: Robin Williams

robin-williams_dead-poets-societyAnd I’d been having a relatively good afternoon, too.

I was nearing the bottom of my inbox at work for the first time in several days, and I’d finally forced myself to break away and go for my afternoon walk, during which the incongruous sight of a fully armored Imperial stormtrooper strolling up South Temple Street brought a smile to my face. (I’m guessing he was a cosplayer on his way home from some event, but really I have no idea what the deal was… there was simply a stormtrooper walking around in broad daylight in Salt Lake City on a summer day in the early 21st century, and how can you not smile at that?) When I got back to the office, I went up a floor to see my friend Waylon. He had some DVDs I wanted to borrow, and I also figured he, of all people, would appreciate my “Imperial entanglement.” He sits just off the emergency staircase and, as I came through the fire door and approached his cubicle, I saw the headline splashed across the top of his computer screen: “Robin Williams dead at 63.”

“Dude,” I said, “Tell me that’s another one of those stupid damn Internet hoaxes.”

Waylon turned to me and from the solemn expression on his face, I knew this wasn’t a hoax. And I felt like I’d just taken a crossbow bolt in the chest.

I was on the verge of tears all Monday evening thinking about it. The last celebrity death that hit me this deeply, as best I can remember, was Jim Henson way back in 1991. And I imagine Robin’s death is affecting me so deeply for similar reasons that Jim’s did: Both men’s work were constant fixtures in my life from a very early age, both had a tremendous influence on my sense of humor and my view of the world, and both left this world very suddenly and unexpectedly.

Like everybody else, I suppose, I first encountered Robin Williams when he played Mork from Ork, a naive extra-terrestrial trying to understand the mysterious ways of humans, first in an episode of Happy Days, then in the spin-off series Mork & Mindy. I don’t know if people today realize how insanely popular that show was, at least at first, but I remember it well. There were Mork dolls and lunchboxes and board games and tie-in books (even a Fotonovel, one of those curious late-70s publications that used stills from the show and comic-book-style word balloons to tell the story). I myself proudly wore a t-shirt emblazoned with Mork’s face and catch-phrases — the greeting “nanu, nanu,” and the expletive “Shazbot!”  And I had a pair of rainbow suspenders like Mork’s, and a wall calendar. Hell, I even named a pair of kittens we acquired around that time “Mork” and “Mindy.”

In the world of three-camera sitcoms that were comfortable but utterly predictable viewing, Robin Williams seemed as if he really was a space alien. Nobody had ever seen anything quite like his style: the weird, squeaky child voices and celebrity impressions he could launch into without a moment’s hesitation, the warped-lens view of the mundane world, the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness delivery, the barely contained physical energy. In fact, his tendency to be in constant, restless motion led to the innovation of a fourth camera on the Mork & Mindy set, because he couldn’t stay in his marks.

Robin’s improvisational nuttiness bore some resemblance to Jonathan Winters’ (who would become a cast member in M&M’s final season, playing Mork and Mindy’s child), but only some. Beyond a certain point of comparison, Robin was just Robin, a uniquely odd performer. And yet, unlike other oddball comedians who were more or less contemporary — Andy Kaufman, say, or Stephen Wright, or even the great Steve Martin — Robin was lovable in addition to weird. He had a cuddly quality that only seemed to grow as he aged.

I was just a kid when Robin played Mork. By the time I was a teenager, I was thinking of him primarily as a stand-up comedian. As I mentioned recently, I went through a phase when I was obsessed with stand-up, and Robin’s HBO specials (which I saw on VHS tapes rented from my local mom-and-pop video store, as we didn’t have cable), and especially his record album Reality… What a Concept!, were favorites of my rebellious young self. His routines have the zaniness of Mork, but with the added transgressive appeal of being dirtier than hell, all delivered at a pace that leaves the viewer gasping for breath while he’s already three jokes ahead. My God, that man’s mind was fast. I’ve always been awestruck by the way he could pivot from one subject to another, jump in and out of fully realized characters, and improv off audience feedback faster than the average human being could even process what had just happened. I realize, of course, that some of that incredible tempo was surely a side-effect of the cocaine that Robin snorted by the bucketful back in the day… but not all of it. Even when he got older and clean, he was still faster than you or me. (I’ll be honest, Robin’s live performances could be exhausting, and I’ve always had to be in the right mood for one. But that doesn’t lessen my appreciation of them!)

But of course, it is as a movie actor that Robin Williams is going to be most remembered, and I’ve been very interested over the past couple days to see which of his movies people are mentioning with the most fondness. My lovely Anne immediately brought up Popeye and Hook. (For a film that’s so critically reviled, Popeye seems to be surprisingly popular, especially among folks who performed in high school musicals… or so it seems from my perspective.) My literary and cineaste friends are sentimental about The Fisher King, while parents are all about the films they can share with their kids: Jumanji, the Night at the Museum series, and, of course, Aladdin. Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage both seem to be pretty large touchpoints. And even Patch Adams, a flick I don’t really remember anything about except the treacly bad taste it left in my mouth, has gotten some love.

My own favorites are from the mid-point of his filmography, a pair of deeply humanistic and compassionate dramas that came out during my theater-usher days. Awakenings, released in 1990 and based on real events in the life of Dr. Oliver Sacks, bears some resemblance to the old story “Flowers for Algernon,” as we watch a comatose medical patient (played by Robert De Niro) re-emerge into full consciousness, struggle to deal with the ways the world has changed while he’s been “sleeping,” and then regress back into his unaware state. The final scene, in which Robin, playing the doctor who revived and then befriended De Niro, tries to find some solace is devastating… a quietly powerful bit of acting that’s so far removed from Mork from Ork that it’s hard to reconcile the two characters emerging from the same artist.

And then there is Dead Poets Society, which came out the year before Awakenings, in 1989.

Honestly, I’ve become somewhat ambivalent about this one as I’ve gotten older. The “carpe diem” thing quickly turned into a tiresome bumpersticker slogan, and really what the hell does it mean, anyhow? How is it really possible to “seize the day” — every day? — when so much of adult life is by necessity composed of repetitive, mundane activities you’d really rather not be doing, but have to do in order to hold it all together? Believing too strongly in “carpe diem” strikes me as just one more set-up for disappointment and failure in a world that’s already filled with those.

I’m also pretty dubious these days of the film’s idealistic messages about the power of literature and fighting the system and the possibility of each and every special snowflake living an extraordinary life. But then I’m speaking from the perspective of a chronically sleep-deprived, stressed-out, frustrated, disillusioned fortysomething. Back when the movie first came out, though… back then I was nineteen years old, planning to declare an English major in the fall, and dreaming of writing novels for a living. I don’t know that there could have been a target audience more precisely suited for Dead Poets Society than I was. All that jazz about sucking the marrow out of life and letting the words drip from our tongues like honey… God, that was seductive. I wanted that. For a brief time, because of this movie, I even considered becoming an English teacher, imagining of course that I would be the cool, unorthodox, inspirational variety of teacher like Mr. Keating, the character Robin Williams plays in the film.

Dead Poets no longer speaks to me the way it once did… but it remains important to me because I remember the sound of its voice, and the tingle it sent down my spine, and the ghost of the young man I was then. And it’s important to me because the movie itself, the artifact called Dead Poets Society (as opposed to the story, the art), was such a big motif in the backdrop of a very dear and all-too-short-lived period of my life, that glorious Summer of ’89, when I was young and in love with my girl, my car, and the endless possibilities you only seem able to see at that age.

On the days I worked while Dead Poets was playing, I used to duck into the back of the auditorium to watch the final scene. I must’ve seen that one scene a hundred times that summer. I prided myself on opening the theater doors at just the right moment, as the screen is fading to black and the bagpipes are kicking in on the soundtrack, fulfilling my duty as an usher to bring the audience back into the real world with a little bit of class. I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been hearing that music in my head ever since I read that terrible headline on Waylon’s monitor.

I like to think that before Robin Williams passed from this world altogether, bound for whatever lies ahead for all of  us in that undiscovered country, he was granted a brief moment to pause and look back and see how many of us have been standing on our desks this week in solidarity and affection for our fallen captain. I hope the sight made him smile.

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In Memoriam: Carmine Infantino

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August, 1978. I’m eight years old, only a month away from my ninth birthday and the start of another school year. But that’s still weeks in the future, an eternity in kid time. For now, it’s summer vacation, it’s hot, and my days are my own in a way they never will be again. I pedal my candy-apple-red Schwinn bicycle — the one with the upswept handle bars and the banana seat — to the old Riverton Drug Store. Inside the cool, air-conditioned hush of the store, near the big front windows that look out on the town’s main drag (such as it is), I jangle the change in my pocket as I peruse the latest arrivals. I turn the wire spin-rack slowly, giving myself time to search, and to savor the quest. My eyes slide past the run-of-the-mill stuff: Superman, Batman, Richie Rich, Bugs Bunny, Casper the Lame-O Ghost. Those books are all fine, in their own ways, and I’ll buy plenty of them on other days, but today I’m after something in particular. I’ve been hanging on the edge of a cliff for a month now, and I’ve got to know what happens next. There’s a civil war about to explode on the water-planet Drexel, and Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are right smack in the middle of it… on opposite sides, naturally… And there it is! Issue number 14, “The Sound of Armageddon!” I have no idea what “armageddon” means — I’ll look it up in the family dictionary later — but the cover takes my breath away. All my star-warrior heroes and friends reunited again after a long period of separate, parallel storylines… blasterfire, tension, action, whatever those funky reddish-pink ray things in the background are supposed to be! I can tell already that I’m looking at a 32-page, four-color epic! I make my purchase from the kindly man at the counter, roll up the comic, and stuff it in my back pocket. (This is long before we worried about whether or not something was “collectible,” and there was no easier way to carry a comic or a paperback around.) Then I race for home, pumping my legs madly, closing the distance in a some kind of record time — my own personal little Kessel Run. Dropping my bike on the back lawn, I dash for my treehouse, my sanctum, the one place on the whole Bennion Compound where I can be certain I’ll be uninterrupted for a while, and, with the drowsy sounds of a stifling summer day in Utah pressing against my ear drums, I settle in to read my way back to that galaxy far, far away…

The death of legendary comic-book artist Carmine Infantino two weeks ago today — the same day as Roger Ebert — wasn’t quite the gut-punch that Ebert’s passing was, but it definitely gave me pause. Another of the creative minds who contributed so much richness to the flavor of my childhood… gone.

The official obituaries (typical example here) all seemed to focus on Infantino’s role in kicking off the so-called Silver Age of comics with his reinvention of The Flash — a character created in 1940 who’d fallen into obscurity by the late ’50s — as well as his updating of the venerable Batman, which some credit with leading to the classic Batman television series of the 1960s. The Silver Age was, of course, an immensely significant time in comic-book history. As I understand it (which admittedly might not be fully, because I’ve always been a comics dilettante, as opposed to a true fan), comic books had been very popular throughout the Depression and World War II, but sales plummeted in the years after the war. The simplistic storytelling and often crude artwork of the Golden Age lost its appeal as Modernism took hold, and the form seemed to be on the verge of dying out. (It probably didn’t help that this was also the time period when the comics industry came under attack by anti-communist witch-hunters and prudes like Frederic Wertham.) But the work of Infantino and others brought a new level of relative sophistication to the medium, and changes in the business side of the industry reinvigorated sales, especially of superhero titles, setting the stage for the decades of success and evolution comics have enjoyed since. So, yeah, that’s a big deal, and it’s entirely proper that the obits lead with all that stuff.

But for me personally — and I’m sure this won’t be the slightest surprise to anyone reading this blog — what really matters was Carmine Infantino’s work on the Star Wars comics of the late 1970s.

It’s probably hard to remember (or imagine, depending on your age) what it was like back then, during that strange interregnum between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), when the world was not yet completely awash in Star Wars-branded merchandise and tie-in media. (You  know, that time when dinosaurs ruled the earth and we had to walk through the snow, uphill both ways, to get to school.) Back then, there was no Expanded Universe, no Internet forums or conventions, no animated spin-offs on TV. Darth Vader was not yet Luke Skywalker’s father (my own suspicion is that he wasn’t even Luke’s father in George Lucas’ mind, but that’s another blog entry). We knew next to nothing about the characters of Star Wars, or the Old Republic or the Jedi. Everything was open for speculation, because all we had to go on was a single, two-hour movie, which, let’s be honest, was pretty light on details. And we first-generation fanboys — girls too, although fannish tendencies in the ’70s were more pronounced in the male of the species than the female — were hungry for more. Hungry in a way I don’t think I’ve ever experienced since. We ached to know more about the backstory of our favorite movie, and to revisit the places and characters that had seized our young imaginations in a ferocious kung-fu grip. We wanted more Star Wars, more, more I say! More in any form we could get it… toys, games, posters… and most especially more stories. It was during this period that the Marvel Comics Group began publishing its officially licensed Star Wars monthly. For a long time, this was the only source of new SW adventures. Which means they loom very large in the memory and imagination of fans my age. Or at least in my memory and imagination.

The first six issues of the Marvel series were a straightforward adaptation of the movie, but starting with issue #7, the comics started offering up all-new storylines that saw our heroes swashbuckling their way through fantastic space-opera scenarios and settings. I’ve heard the Marvel writers were given no real guidelines on what they could or couldn’t do, other than a prohibition against Luke and Vader confronting each other directly (Lucas already knew that would have to happen in Empire). They were therefore free to invent pretty much anything they wanted… and they did, fleshing out a vast and diverse galactic civilization that, in retrospect, bears little resemblance to what we now understand as the Star Wars universe. But at the time, we star-kids accepted it all as gospel, from seven-foot-tall green humanoid rabbits to energy-sucking furrballs with human-sized intelligence and telepathic voices. I’ll be honest: even though the Marvel series has long been considered apocryphal by Lucasfilm and is generally dismissed as silly by modern fans, many of its details and events are every bit as “real” to me as anything we saw in the recent prequel movies.

The series endured until 1986, three years beyond the release of Return of the Jedi, and it eventually comprised 107 issues, plus three double-sized “annuals.” However, my own interest in it waned following the release of The Empire Strikes Back. The Marvel writers struggled to figure out how to handle Han Solo’s absence — remember, he was frozen in carbonite between the two movies, with an uncertain fate ahead of him — and the comics just weren’t the same without my favorite character in the mix. I never have gotten around to reading the later issues. But the issues published between the first two movies, in particular the story arcs involving the waterworld Drexel and a giant casino in space known as The Wheel, remain among my very favorite of all Star Wars stories. As it happens, this span coincides with the bulk of Carmine Infantino’s work on the series.

Infantino served as a penciler on the interior art, meaning he was responsible for the overall look of the comics he worked on. He also did quite a few of the covers, including the one pictured above, the one I remember being so excited about when I was eight. His style was somewhat peculiar — I remember one snarky letter-to-the-editor that asked if the artist used a T-square to draw everybody’s jawlines — but it was effective. His renditions of Our Heroes looked nothing like the actors who played them on screen,  but they did look like the characters, if that makes sense. At least they did to me. During that interminably long gap between the movies, his Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia were more vividly those characters in my mind than Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were. I owe him a tremendous debt for helping to make that delay tolerable… and for giving me so many great images that I still carry with me today.

I had a really great childhood, when I think about it.

For more information on Carmine Infantino’s career and an analysis of his art, see this excellent piece from the LA Times. And until next time… Make Mine Marvel!

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In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

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When I heard Wednesday that Roger Ebert’s cancer had returned and he was being forced to curtail his activities, I figured he probably wasn’t going to beat it this time. But I didn’t expect to hear of his passing the very next day. Especially considering that he was still talking about writing and various other ventures in what turned out to be his final blog entry:

My intent is to continue to write selected reviews [for his website, rogerebert.com] but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review. … And I continue to cooperate with the talented filmmaker Steve James on the bio-documentary he, Steve Zaillian and Martin Scorsese are making about my life. I am humbled that anyone would even think to do it, but I am also grateful. …

 

At this point in my life, in addition to writing about movies, I may write about what it’s like to cope with health challenges and the limitations they can force upon you. It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.

 

I’ll also be able to review classics for my “Great Movies” collection, which has produced three books and could justify a fourth.

 

For now, I am throwing myself into Ebert Digital and the redesigned, highly interactive and searchable Rogerebert.com.

Those don’t sound to me like the words of a man who expects to die within the week. Perhaps he was in denial. Or perhaps, like so many of the rest of us, he just figured there was still time, at least a little more time, enough to do at least some of what he wanted. And then quite suddenly, there wasn’t. Dream’s little sister came calling sooner than anyone expected.

I often have emotional reactions upon hearing of the death of some celebrity that I admire… a sense of loss, a momentary twinge of sadness. But right now I’m feeling like I’ve just been punched in the gut. I don’t think I realized until about 20 minutes ago what a hero this pudgy, pugnacious, erudite, eloquent man was to me. I can’t recall feeling this degree of shock and, yes, actual pain over the loss of a public figure since DeForest Kelley became the first member of the original Star Trek cast to die way back in 1999.

***TEXT MISSING***

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In Memoriam: Neil Armstrong

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The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot these days, but it’s oftentimes not really deserved, in my opinion. That’s not to disparage anyone, or diminish whatever it is that they do. Rather, it’s the word that has been diminished in recent years, through overuse and misuse. One can do admirable things without being a hero. And there’s a lot more to being a hero than simply taking a particular job or wearing a particular uniform. In my mind, “hero” is a description that ought to be reserved for the truly exceptional, people who not only do great things but have a certain quality of character as well.

Just about every article and note of remembrance I’ve read about Neil Armstrong, who died Saturday at the age of 82, has described him as a hero. In his case, I’d say the word is entirely appropriate. Not just because he was arguably the most famous astronaut in the history of manned spaceflight… although I believe he most likely is. And also not just because he was an incredible pilot who saved two spacecraft during his astronaut career: first, the Gemini VIII capsule which tumbled out of control after a thruster malfunctioned, and then the lunar module that carried him and Buzz Aldrin to the Sea of Tranquility. (I don’t know if this is well known outside the space-nerd community, but the LM’s computer was overwhelmed with incoming data and kept shutting down, and was also trying to steer the craft toward a boulder field, so Armstrong took manual control and flew around until he spotted a safe landing site, finally bringing the LM down with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining.) His crewmates on those occasions both described him performing with an almost preternatural calm and grace under pressure. But those characteristics don’t make him a hero either; they just indicate he was very good at his job.

I don’t even think he was heroic for being the first human being in the history of our species to set foot on a planetary body other than the earth. Although that’s certainly a great deed, there wasn’t anything about Armstrong himself that led to him being that man. It could just as easily have been Aldrin who was selected to exit the LM first… or it could have been any of the other Apollo astronauts if the crew rotations and mission plans had gone differently. It very likely would have been Gus Grissom if the Apollo 1 fire hadn’t occurred.

What made Armstrong a true hero, in my book, was the way he responded to becoming that historic figure. His famous words about small steps and giants leaps — reportedly composed by Armstrong himself on the way to the moon, and not ahead of time by a professional speech writer or NASA PR flack — were not political or nationalistic or self-aggrandizing, as they easily could have been. Rather, he spoke on behalf of the entire human race, and beautifully so. And when he returned home, he displayed great humility and self-deprecation in his decision to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible. He could have used his position in the history books for personal advantage, parlaying his fame into political appointments or movie roles or high-paying endorsement deals. Or he could’ve simply become an insufferable braggart. To my knowledge, though, he never even tried to get so much as a free beer in a small-town tavern. Many people were puzzled and frustrated by his efforts to live under the radar, as he routinely turned down requests for interviews and personal appearances, and eventually even autographs. Personally, I admire him for it. I don’t read his reticence as reluctance to own the “first man on the moon” title, or as an urge to hide from the public. Rather, I think he was wise enough to understand that he was merely a human being, and that the historical Neil Armstrong, the one who will live on in legends and fuzzy black-and-white video recordings centuries after the actual man is forgotten, would be impossible to actually live up to. He receded from the public eye both for his own good and for ours, to save us from the disappointment of learning he wasn’t a superman or a demigod, but merely a guy from Ohio. A guy who couldn’t have become that legendary moonwalker without the assistance of thousands of others. I see his years of obscurity as another kind of selfless act, akin to the same selflessness he displayed at the moment he dropped off the LM’s ladder into the unknown powdery soil of our nearest cosmic neighbor. He was a hero precisely because he never tried to be a hero.

He was certainly a hero to me. I wish I’d had an opportunity to meet him. To shake his hand and maybe ask him how his crops were faring. (He spent his later years raising cattle and corn on a 300-acre ranch outside Cincinnati. Talk about coming back down to Earth.) And even though he wouldn’t have asked me to buy him a beer, I most certainly would have. The man did walk on the frackin’ moon, after all…

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Image: a 1969 sketch by Paul Calle, courtesy of The Pictorial Arts.

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35 Years Tonight

A lifetime ago. I was seven then. He was the age I am now, 42. And my mother was younger than I am now, as hard as that is to wrap my head around. The untimely, undignified, sadly unnecessary death of Elvis Presley, and Mom’s heartfelt, deeply wounded reaction to the news, remains one of the landmark moments in my developing awareness of the world around me, even after all this time.

And yet I’m not sure this anniversary has much relevance any more. Not the way it used to, even as recently as just a decade ago. Elvis still has legions of fans, and they still gather every year at his home in Memphis to hold vigil and pay tribute… but unlike, say, Marilyn Monroe, whose image remains as omnipresent as it ever was, if not moreso, it doesn’t seem to me like we see or hear much about the King of Rock and Roll anymore. I accepted some time ago that pop-cultural icons don’t endure the way we fans expect or desire them to — talking about the once universally beloved Star Wars these days seems to inevitably lead to an argument, and even the mighty Star Trek franchise has receded from the public consciousness, something I wouldn’t have thought possible during its heyday in the ’90s — but I am truly surprised that Elvis has lost his pre-eminence in the zeitgeist. It could be a failure of marketing — maybe the owners of Marilyn’s likeness push a lot harder? — but I suspect it’s something more organic. Possibly all those years of bad-taste fat-Elvis jokes and ridiculous impersonators have blotted out the cultural memories of who he really was, and why he once excited us. Maybe it’s something more ineffable. Whatever the reason, though, Marilyn’s image (if not her actual work or personality) resonates with younger folks whereas Elvis’ does not.

Or at least that’s how it seems to me. I could be completely wrong on this. I admit I’m not nearly as plugged into this stuff as I used to be, and the mass culture we all used to share has atomized to the point where it’s easy to miss out on things if you’re not following the right newsfeeds. Nevertheless, I have this nagging sense that Graceland may ultimately meet the same fate as the Roy Rogers Museum, which closed a few years ago because attendance had dwindled as Roy’s core fans aged out and passed on. I don’t entirely understand how something like that can happen, given how popular that man once was. Why does an artist like Frank Sinatra transcend the generations and continue more or less in perpetuity, but not someone else who was (arguably) more popular — or at least as popular — in his day? (Nothing against Sinatra, he’s just a good example of an artist who’s endured long after his contemporaries have been forgotten.)

Am I wrong about this? Either way, I’m thinking more and more that I should make the effort to take my mom on a pilgrimage to Memphis before too many more years pass…

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