In Memoriam

The Meaning of Glenn Frey

I haven’t had time this week to write anything substantive about the latest celebrity death that’s hit me in the gut like a baseball bat, namely the passing on January 18th of Glenn Frey, who cofounded the seminal classic-rock band the Eagles.

I know, I know… The Dude hates the Eagles. And so do a lot of critics and music snobs and vinyl-loving hipsters. Whatever. A hell of a lot more people like them, based on their record sales and continuing presence on the airwaves after 40-odd years, and their music was a big part of my life’s soundtrack when I was growing up. Hell, it still is. So yeah, Frey’s death hurts. But it hurts in a different way than David Bowie’s did, at least for me. Whereas I mourned Bowie as the passing of a cultural institution, as well as a charming, multi-talented human being that I confess I didn’t respect nearly enough, the situation with Frey is more… metaphorical. Everything I’ve heard about Glenn Frey the man suggests I probably wouldn’t have liked him very much had I spent any time with him (unlike Bowie, who strikes me now in interview footage as very likable indeed). But Frey as a symbol is quite a different thing.

I think what I’m feeling about his death is very much what Marc Eliot is getting at in an article he contributed to CNN. (For the record, Eliot is the author of a book called To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, which I read a few years ago and which is largely to blame for my jaundiced view of Frey and his bandmate Don Henley. Neither of them came off very well in that telling of the band’s tumultuous history.) Eliot is addressing an older audience than myself, more the late-stage Baby Boomers than we Gen-Xers, but given the ubiquity of Eagles music throughout my own formative years in the ’80s, not to mention my own somewhat anachronistic worldview, I can certainly relate:

…despite the belief that rock ‘n’ roll will keep us forever young, the truth is it doesn’t age well on us. That’s the beauty and power of rock ‘n’ roll: It celebrates transient youth in the present tense. It’s what makes it both shimmery and precious. And it’s what makes the death of Glenn Frey so mournful.

What happened to him? That’s our first instinct, that’s what we want, we need to know. … But maybe what we really want to know is: What happened to us?

The passing of Glenn Frey reminds us all too well of the kids we were in the ’70s — our blue jeans and black boots, our long hair and ‘stashes and crushes on impossibly beautiful, unattainable girls, our nights spent cross-legged in front of turntables listening with great intent to the latest album of one of our heroes. We believed that somehow we could change the world by the force of our belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, but instead the world changed us.

When we mourn for Frey, are we mourning our lost selves and a time when we all thought we could live hard and stay free and surf and bike and run and jump and love and never lose because we were forever young?

To which I would reply, hell yes that’s what I’m mourning. In one way or another, to one degree or another, damn near every single day.

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In Memoriam: Alan Rickman

alan-rickman_collageOnly days after claiming the Goblin King, that bastard cancer strikes again: Alan Rickman, the well-known and prolific English actor with the magnificently urbane diction, has died at the age of 69. (Bowie was also 69… curious. Somehow, they didn’t strike me as being the same age, although I couldn’t have said which of them seemed older.)

There’s an entire generation of young people in mourning today because Rickman played Severus Snape, the greasy-haired, mean-spirited antagonist who turns out to be more than he initially seems, in the Harry Potter films. (Life lesson: people can be jerks without necessarily being evil, and people often do the right thing for reasons that are entirely their own.) We older film lovers, on the other hand, are more prone to think of him as Hans Gruber, the elegant but brutal leader of the bad guys in the first, best (and only, in my book) Die Hard film. Or as the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, who so memorably threatens to remove someone’s spleen with a spoon — “because it will hurt more!” — in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or perhaps as Elliott Marston, the inhumane Australian rancher who hires Tom Selleck to exterminate aborigines in Quigley Down Under.

Rickman was a highly versatile actor who played all sorts of roles, of course. My friend Amber is very fond of his work in the 1995 film version of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Many other people have mentioned Galaxy Quest, the sci-fi comedy spoof of Star Trek fandom in which Rickman was a classically trained actor who’s been forever typecast as the alien “Dr. Lazarus,” the character he played in an old TV show, and has grown quite bitter about the whole thing. And I’ve also seen a lot of references to the ensemble romance Love Actually, a movie I’ve never found particularly memorable — nothing against it, it just failed to make much impression on me — but which has its partisans. However, he truly shone when he played the heavy; his erudite manners and magnificent phrasings elevated his villains far beyond mere thugs. A Rickman villain scares you with his intelligence, not his physical prowess or psychotic behavior. And he had a very special talent for sneering; nobody can do an expression of such pure, undiluted contempt as he could. Another friend of mine once described his sneer as “looking like he was balancing a small rat turd on his upper lip.” Disgusting, yes, but such a perfect description that it’s stayed with me for years. His villains were hissably bad, often surprisingly complex, and always insanely fun to watch. What a shame we’ll have no more of them.

Alan Rickman’s demise came as a shock because, like Bowie, he’d managed to keep news of his illness quiet, and also because — again like Bowie — he wasn’t all that old. He still had a lot of great, possibly even iconic parts ahead of him. And what a shame as well that the world has been deprived of a human being who was, reportedly, one of the truly great ones, a man of compassion who stood up for others and was a champion of fairness. He was one of those I hoped to meet someday on the comic-con circuit, and I regret never having that opportunity.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to cure all the seemingly infinite varieties of cancer, or if — as some cynics have suggested — President Obama’s pledge in the State of the Union address the other night to create a “moonshot project” to find a cure was simply intended to be an easy applause line. Maybe so; this is a cynical age we live in. But damn it, I think we ought to make the effort. To paraphrase Sean Connery’s line from the old movie Medicine Man, cancer is the plague of the 21st century, and it’s taken too damn many people. It’s long past time to put a stop to it…

Once again, credit for the excellent photo montage goes to my cousin K’lyn.

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In Memoriam: David Bowie

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I was still lazing in bed this morning, petting the cat and absent-mindedly delighting in the blue flickers of St. Elmo’s fire that danced between his fur and my fingers in the pre-dawn darkness, when Anne shouted to me from the bathroom.

“Holy shit! Bowie’s dead!”

What? I thought. That doesn’t make sense. I must not have heard her correctly.

“What did you say?!” I shouted back.

“I just read that Bowie died. Cancer!”

I sat straight up, sending my poor kitty scrambling off the bed. It couldn’t be! Surely this was one of those Internet hoaxes that go around from time to time? Alas, no. David Bowie has in fact died at the age of 69 after fighting cancer (and somehow keeping it out of the press) for the last year and a half. I wouldn’t say this news devastated me, but I have had a very somber day because of it.

The funny thing is, I wasn’t even much of a fan. I’ve more often respected his music than really enjoyed it. From the time I first became aware of him during the “Let’s Dance” era of the early ’80s, I was put off by the very things that his true fans seem to have responded to most, namely the otherworldly weirdness of both his vocal style and his chameleonic persona. He wasn’t my kind of rock-and-roll hero. And yet… I never actually disliked him. He was weird, yes, but even I couldn’t deny the man’s charisma and intelligence.

Over the years, as I’ve become more catholic in my tastes and come to understand the historical connections underlying the music I love, I’ve become fonder of David Bowie. I recently worked my way through a DVD compilation of the 1985 Live Aid concert, and I was frankly startled by his performance there, by how self-assured and just plain joyful he appeared to be on that stage. There is a special and yet very simple pleasure in watching a seasoned journeyman musician at the top of his or her game, no matter what genre he or she works in. How could I not have seen that back in ’85? (Answer: I was young and stupid.)

Bowie’s career spanned my entire lifetime. His seminal album Space Oddity — technically his second one, but the first to really attract any attention — was released in 1969, the year I was born. His final album hit the streets only days ago. He went through fallow periods during those 46 years, but always came roaring back at some point or another with a new album or film, a new sound, a new character. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Bowie the New Waver, Bowie the glam-rocker, Bowie the musical elder statesman. It felt as if he’d always been here — and always would be here — in one form or another, under one guise or another, and his passing seems to have jerked a tentpole out from everybody in my general age cohort, who just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that he’s not there any more. Seriously, I haven’t seen so many of my fellow Gen Xers sharing the same glum expression since Jim Henson died way back in 1990. And isn’t that interesting, considering they were connected through Henson’s film Labyrinth, a movie in which Bowie starred that failed on its first release but has since become something of a generational touchstone? I imagine there have been as many tears shed today for Jareth the Goblin King as for Ziggy, at least among we fortysomethings.

You have to admire an artist with that kind of reach, as well as one who found a way to keep doing the work he loved until literally just before his death. As his longtime producer Tony Visconti put it, even Bowie’s death was a work of art, delivered in the form of his final album, which Bowie evidently held onto until he knew his time was growing short. The album is, of course, a farewell to his fans and to the world that he never quite seemed to belong to. No, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan… but damn, I do have a lot of respect for the man.

One final thought: She didn’t want to take any credit for it, but I have to extend my thanks to my cousin K’lyn for creating the nifty photo collage at the top of this post. Nice work!

 

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In Memoriam: James Horner

james-hornerThe news started rippling out across social media last night before authorities had even confirmed the identity of the body: the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner was dead, killed in a plane crash.

I write about celebrity deaths all the time; it’s kind of become the schtick I’m known for, weirdly enough. I write about the ones that produce an emotional response in me, the ones I feel some degree of sorrow about. Some of them affect me more than others, especially if they’re sudden and/or unexpected. I’m positively numb over this one.

I’ve always had a few movie soundtracks in my music collection, going all the way back to the double-LP Empire Strikes Back album, but my interest in the genre really took off when I was working that notorious theater job in my early 20s, when I was immersed in the movie industry and exposed to film music constantly. Horner quickly became a favorite of mine, second only to the master, John Williams. He wasn’t always the most inventive of composers — he had a habit of reusing certain melodies and effects over and over, something I’m sure Kelly will address with more expertise than I can when gets around to writing about this — but he was a solid and prolific craftsman who turned out a lot of work that I love.

There’s not much else I can say right now. I don’t have any anecdotes about James Horner or his work, no personal recollections to speak of, beyond “I like his stuff.” And really, Horner’s music kind of says it all anyhow. So I’m going to take the easy way out and just share some of my favorite pieces with you, my Loyal Readers. I hope you’ll take the time to play the clips below, and that you’ll like what you hear. This music has, in a sense, been the soundtrack to my own life. Or at least a part of that soundtrack.

First up is a pulse-pounding track from Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which accompanies the scene in which the Colonial Marines have made contact with the xenomorphs and are getting their asses handed to them; back aboard the armored personnel carrier, their inexperienced lieutenant is paralyzed with indecision, until Ripley finally takes matters into her own hands and seizes control of the APC and drives to the rescue. It’s some of the most adrenaline-triggering film music ever recorded, in my humble opinion:

If that sounds really familiar to you, it’s probably because it was became the standard “action-movie cue” used in countless trailers for several years during the ’90s. For an interesting exercise, compare it to “Surprise Attack” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). This is the moment when the Enterprise encounters another Federation starship, not realizing it’s under the command of the villainous Khan, who closes to point-blank range before opening fire on our unsuspecting heroes. You’ll hear a lot of similarities to the Aliens piece, including something I’ve never been able to identify but which sounds (to me) like someone rapping on a pipe with a drumstick, a sort of “ting ting” effect. But while Horner is guilty of relying on some of his favorite tricks on this one — the general sound goes back to Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as far as I’ve been able to determine — he also introduces a nautical feel, suggesting the starships are two giant galleons exchanging broadsides under full sail. And he subtly incorporates a little flourish from the original Star Trek television series and a couple of callbacks to the cosmic weirdness that Jerry Goldsmith created for the previous installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, making this score, in many respects, the most “Star Trek-y” of them all:

For Glory, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film about the first African-American infantry unit to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, Horner incorporates a vocal chorus and a generally softer tone. I’ve always found this track, from near the movie’s climax, especially moving. Its elegiac tone as the men of the 54th Massachusetts prepare for what they know is likely a suicide mission, followed by the rising pace of the martial drums as they begin their final charge, breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it:

And finally, here’s the main title from what is probably my favorite James Horner score, The Rocketeer (1990). It’s beautiful, upbeat, optimistic, and it perfectly captures the feeling of leaving the ground. A couple weekends ago, Anne and I took her father for a ride on a historic B-17 Flying Fortress, and this was what I heard in my mind as the runaway started to roll past the gunport I was looking through, and then fell away as the big old bird slipped into the crystal-clear sky with more grace than you’d expect…

Although the selections I chose here are all 25 years old (or more, in the case of Khan), Horner was no has-been. He worked steadily from 1978 right up to the present moment, and no doubt had a lot left to do. Three films featuring scores by him are due out this year: Wolf Totem, The 33, and Southpaw. He was only 61.

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In Memoriam: Michael Blake

I just read over at SamuraiFrog’s place that Michael Blake, who wrote both the novel Dances with Wolves and the screenplay for its hugely successful film adaptation, passed away last week. I hadn’t heard, which, as long-time readers know, is kind of odd for me. I hear about all of them, usually.

I have to confess that the movie version is the one that made an impression on me, not Blake’s original novel. I remember reading the novel not long after the movie came out, but that’s about all I remember about it. The truth is, I don’t have very good retention for books anymore, and if I’m being honest, it’s always been movies and television that have had the greatest impact on me. That’s a pretty unsettling thing to admit after believing myself to be a literary person for much of my life… perhaps that’s something to explore in another entry someday.

Dances with Wolves the movie, though… it’s one of my all-time favorites. I know a backlash against it has developed in recent years, with serious movie buffs saying it unfairly took the Best Picture Oscar that’s should’ve gone to Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and anti-PC political types criticizing it for simplistically depicting all the white people except star Kevin Costner as loathsome and all the Indians as noble. (This is untrue if you’re paying actually paying attention to the film, by the way, but it’s not something I’m inclined to argue right now.) Whatever. The movie worked for me. It came out shortly after my 21st birthday, at a time when I was floundering a bit with the whole life thing. A bit more than I usually am, I mean. I was lonely and hurting from breaking up with a girl some time before, and I was longing to explore the world while trying to decide what college major to choose. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, battered by affairs of the heart, outwardly mysterious, closely guarding all these feelings that no one else had ever felt and no one could understand… especially no one of the opposite sex. (It’s not coincidental that my other favorite movie of 1990 was Darkman, about a horribly scarred man who hides in the shadows and ultimately tells his former love he can’t be with anybody ever again, that he’s just a monster now.) And then along comes this sprawling epic that simply looks beautiful, with a lush, melancholy John Barry score, a bittersweet ending, and a theme about the end of an era… it pushed a lot of buttons in my Romantic (in the classical sense) young heart. It still does now, 25 years later, in particular the reason Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar gives for wanting to be posted to the distant fort (“I want to see the frontier…before it’s gone”) and the final scene, in which the stoic Wind In His Hair shouts out in despair to the departing Dunbar that he will always be his friend… I actually got a little teary-eyed just thinking about that scene as I typed that. Guess I still have a Romantic heart.

The bottom line is that Dances with Wolves (the movie) appeared in my life at the right moment and it resonated for me and touched me in ways that are hard to articulate. Ways that make the film immune to criticism in my book. I recently spent a small fortune to obtain a BluRay from the UK of the original (superior) theatrical cut, because the experience I had in 1990 was that important to me. I owe Michael Blake my thanks for his part in creating that.

Blake was 69 years old. For more information about how he came to write the novel and the movie (hint: Kevin Costner played a big role in both) check out his New York Times obit.

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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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