Tag Archives: Remembrance

Stan Lee: The Once and Future Pop Culture King

Stan Lee has died at the age of 95. Tributes, remembrances, and obituaries have come from the New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter, NPR (and a longer piece here), Variety, a nice one from Marvel, and even one from The Onion.

Like countless others, my connection to “The Man” now best known for cameos in the films of a billions-dollar film franchise came early on. He represented my “ur-fandom.” Before Star Trek or Doctor Who, there was Stan Lee.

Me and Stan Lee, 2011

I am given to understand I am but one of many billions who met Stan. It was still wonderful to do so.

Even though films dominated my childhood, trips to the movies were not as frequent as trips to the library. And more often than not I would go straight to a well-remembered section of the Cherrydale branch library and check out Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, and, the perennial favorite: Bring on the Bad Guys.

Within those tomes were just not the stories of heroes and villains, but insight into Stan Lee’s origins as well. In his writing, he created the accessible yet aspirational persona of “Stan Lee” as surely as he conjured any of a seemingly infinite number of characters that appeared in Marvel Comics. “Stan Lee” was the indefatigable image of a creator and a writer: someone who used all the history and mythology and tales they’d grown up with and channeled them into his own stories. What kid couldn’t help but love that?

This persona became bigger for me and a whole Saturday morning cartoon generation with his narration of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. And “Stan’s Soapbox” in comics. And all the other small ways we fans were able to piece together information back when Chrome was a 50s car characteristic and before Netscape navigated a single web page. Okay, I’ve lost the younger folk.

Long story short: the character of Stan Lee was like a slightly dignified, but just goofy enough cousin of Uncle Grandpa. His passion was pure, his heart was consistently in the right place, and his enthusiasm was infectious. One of his superpowers was validation: you were right to be a fan, you were right to enjoy these stories, and for scores and scores of us, you were right to be an aspiring creator. That’s a hero to look up to. All the entertaining alliteration helps too.

Of course, the human Stan Lee had more nuance and shades of grey. As much as I and the all the remembrances of the past day cast the Stanley Lieber himself as a hero, that’s not ’nuff said. This long-form exploration of Stan Lee’s legacy from early 2016 by Abraham Riesman in Vulture nails some of the complexity behind Lee’s legacy. I promised myself when I read it, I’d include it in the remembrance I knew I’d one day write. It’s important to know that the creator of so many iconic heroes had flaws of his own. So do we all. In a sense, that’s the Marvel way, isn’t it?

Stan Lee was and is a legendary creator, but he didn’t create alone. As Mark Evanier points out, “Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw” does not mean that Clayton Kershaw is the only Los Angeles Dodger. But you can still have Kershaw’s poster, if you follow the example. And Stan Lee, in so many ways, is an extraordinary example to follow. May his memory be a blessing.

Magic Chef No More: RIP, Neil Simon

Neil SimonJust as the fictional Felix Unger asserted his inability to do impossible cooking tasks, so too would Neil Simon probably protest any prowess at writing, but let’s be honest. If writing were cooking, Neil Simon was the magic chef of scriptwriting.

(The idea of Neil Simon being a figment of his fictional creation’s imagination seems like the fun neurotic thought to occupy one of Neil Simon’s characters.)

And if you recall my piece on Sam Shepard, Neil Simon certainly casts as large or larger of a shadow.

(Cue another monologue about someone obsessing about relative shadow size.)

I never had the opportunity to be onstage for a Neil Simon production, but I certainly was involved in many productions in an offstage role. And even if I hadn’t been treated to night after night of Simon’s marvelous gift for marrying angst and banter, I see his words come alive just about every time I attend a mass audition. His monologues are impossible for many actors to resist.

From “The Goodbye Girl”

So, it probably comes as no surprise that the entertainment world is full of remembrances. The New York Times has a good synopsis of his life and career. The Los Angeles Times, not surprisingly, focuses a bit more on his film work, but has some great anecdotes. You can also check out the piece in the Hollywood Reporter. And, of course, Mark Evanier has a story or two about meeting Mr. Simon.

So, rest in peace, magic chef. Or at least be a bit less angsty about it.

@#$% yeah I’m going to post about Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison, a writer with a more than active imagination and an activist for writers, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday. he was 84.

You can see write-ups in Variety and the Los Angeles Times.

A brief, but excellent remembrance is from Mark Evanier, who knew him for almost 50 years. I think he put it best when he said:

Harlan was a writer who made other writers proud to be writers.

He goes on to… not go into how Harlan Ellison turned “cranky” into an art form. Indeed, in the past decade or so, I’ve read numerous anecdotes lauding Ellison’s influence, but noting that he could switch from congenial to cantankerous depending on when you approached him.

But time and again in those anecdotes you will see how Harlan Ellison stood up for himself and other writers. He was not about to let writers be disrespected, dismissed, and above all, be unpaid. And he backed up this attitude in word and deed: do not underestimate the writer.

Seriously, in D&D terms, Harlan Ellison is the person you bring up when someone muses whether bards could ever be dangerous.

Dungeon Master (DM): You see a bard standing in your way. He has pulled out his lute.
Player One: A bard?!?
Player Two: I unsheathe my sword
Player Three: Seriously, DM? We’re ready for a Tiamat-level monster and you–
DM: The bard starts playing his lute. He steps into the light. It’s Harlan Ellison.
Player One: @#$%!
Player Two: I lower my sword and back away slowly
Player Three: I toss him a couple gold coins and say, “Semper reddere scriptor.”

If you’ve only known Ellison for his excellent work in television (Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits), I urge you to seek out some of his other works. The short stories ” “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

I also have a certain fondness for his 1987 graphic novel anthology with Ken Steacy, Night and the Enemy.


I’ll leave with the author in his own, not-safe-for-work words, regarding paying the writer:

R.I.P. Harlan Ellison. I mean, I don’t think it’s your style, but R.I.P.

Ursula K. LeGuin, RIP

88 years is no small feat, but when my wife and I talked, we agreed, it would have been nice to see Ursula K. LeGuin, who passed away last week, reach a hundred.

Far and beyond the worlds she created was her perspective: on writing, being a writer, and, well, managing to live this crazy life and perhaps make it a better place while being a writer.

I only discovered her work later in life –which is all the more unforgivable when you realize she taught at my college briefly– but nevertheless, the books were there, waiting.

The first book I read, The Dispossessed, is not one of the most mentioned, though evidently well received when it came out. Here was a great science fiction novel not only full of worldbuilding, but also woven together with an elegant literary device playing with time — all the while not only exploring the concepts of anarchy and capitalism, but also how mathematicians and physicists think. It’s hard to explain how the book affected me so personally. It is neither melodramatic nor maudlin nor close to my own experiences. And yet, the impact is visceral.

From reading the remembrances from across the globe, I’m not the only one who made such a deep connection to her works:

I would be remiss if I didn’t also pass along a link one of my brothers shared: her receiving a lifetime achievement award at the National Book Awards in 2014:

The loss is real. But the books are there, waiting.

TCM’s Verklempt Video, 2017 Edition

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), always releases their end of year remembrance a couple weeks early. Then they update it in case someone passes near the end of the year. I don’t care. I watch both versions.

Even if you don’t recognize everyone, there’s always plenty to make you wistful… and remind you that a certain film or three is worth re-watching.

Verklempt, right? And of course, they nailed the landing.

Many, Many Bewildered (and Sad) Breakfast Faces: RIP, Sam Shepard

There will be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning. And by “toast” I mean theater-related joy. And by “the neighborhood,” I mean “American theater.” And by “this morning,” I mean… well, I don’t know how long, but it’ll be longer than a morning.

Actor, playwright, and director Sam Shepard has died at the age of 73.

I first learned about it in a piece in Broadway World, which is worth checking out. You can also read about his life and work in:

Many of us picked up this book yesterday and leafed through it.

I’m not the only one of my generation of theater folk who feel this loss on a personal level. There are many playwrights like Shakespeare or Pinter or Wilson of whom I’ve either read or performed or seen productions of nearly all their works. But Sam Shepard is somewhat different.

Shepard has a distinct, American voice that resonated with so many of us. It was years since I had read or seen all of Kaufman and Hart. It would be years before I would connect with the work of Eugene O’Neill (that’s another tale). Sam Shepard was alive now and pushing his creations out into the world, where we too were training and working to make our marks.

Decades before Neil Gaiman was to tantalize us with his tales of American Gods, Sam Shepard was constructing a uniquely American mythology with plays that were simultaneously gritty and real, yet surreal and absurd. His characters often lived on the edge of society and frequently violated societal norms. There were no gods so much as forces of nature and Fate that his fabulously flawed characters would contend against when they weren’t fighting with one another.

I had many classmates who never looked at me quite the same way after they had seen me play “Mike” in a college production of “A Lie of the Mind.” It’s a disturbing yet incredibly human fairy tale set in a immediately recognizable yet unknowable America. At first, Mike seems like a more sensible character than his parents or brain-damaged sister. By the time he carries half a deer carcass on stage, you realize just how quietly crazy and savage Mike might truly be (and his exit from the play, presumably to start a whole new dysfunctional family cycle, is uncomfortably real). Sam Shepard wrote characters that rich into which actors can dive and explore, with motivations so plausible, audience members can wonder where the character ends and the actor begins (hence my classmates’ apprehension).

And those plays are still with us, thank goodness. If you haven’t checked any of them out (or any recently), do as Craig Mazin advocates: locate a copy of True West and read it out loud. His many parts in films are likewise, thankfully preserved for the ages — and his appearance always bodes well for whatever film in which he appears. Outside of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, is there a better film icon for American manhood than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager?

(Come on! I can’t be the only guy who watched The Right Stuff repeatedly growing up).

Yeah Harold Pinter had acting turns too, but he subverted the sound barrier with pauses, not breaks. You see, I’ve studied Shakespeare, I’ve enjoyed Pinter, but with Shepard, you had someone to aspire to, with a voice from your tribe. On the one hand it’s silly and illogical and not something to motivate you… but in the best tradition of so many of his characters, by God it did.

He was inspirational as a playwright. He was moving as an actor. As both, he connected story to audience in a way you long to do as an artist.

Is that a man? Damn right it is.

RIP, Robert Osbourne

Growing up in the DC area, my dad made full use of all the free film series places like the National Archives, Library of Congress, and East Gallery would provide. And, of course, he’d take us along. It was at these places that I first saw such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Fort Apache, and Gone with the Wind.

“It was TCM before TCM,” I explained.

Earlier this week, the man who epitomized Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Robert Osbourne, passed away at the age of 84.

Online, I commented that it’s hard to think of him as 80-something. The energy and enthusiasm he brought to his film intros leapt off the TV screen. The joy he exuded while sharing cinema minutiae made you feel you were in for something special — even when he cautioned you that the something special was not the best of films.

Another film historian, Leonard Maltin, has a great remembrance of him. And writer and pop culture historian, Mark Evanier, has a nice anecdote too.

I like what Maltin said that Robert Osbourne was “on a mission.” He will be missed, but I daresay he succeeded in his mission.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Someone I’ve known just shy of 20 years, Tricia McCauley, has died.

Photo by Tammy Rubicat

Photo by Tammy Rubicat

This is hard. You can do remembrances for people who inspired you from afar or mentors who were decades older than you. And although I have lost friends and peers around my age, this is different.

She went missing late in the afternoon of Christmas Day. Most of us found out through social media the following day, Monday, when she hadn’t checked in for a planned flight. In a sign of the times, a Facebook group was created to help coordinate finding Tricia. It swelled to over 3,400 members in just a few hours. Twitter and Reddit spread the word. Uber and Lyft drivers were recruited in the search. It’s a small comfort that these efforts appear to have helped locate Tricia’s car and the suspect driving it.

Early Tuesday morning, December 27th, the DC police held a press conference which confirmed that Tricia’s body had been found in her car. She was, indeed, dead. Later that day, the suspect was formally charged. The details that came out were horrid. She had not simply died. She had been brutally murdered.

It’s sad to know someone who’s vital and full of life has died through accident or illness. It’s another level of sorrow to know someone with that kind of light has been willfully extinguished. I can but barely imagine the grief her family and closest friends felt and will continue to feel for some time.

I think of the person I first met one morning in Adams Morgan –a talented, energetic, elfin figure in combat boots– to the yogi, herbalist, and accomplished actress so many people came to know by the time of her death. Not only did she grow as a person, she wasn’t afraid to grow or to inspire others to do the same. When I entered the 30s a few years after her, she let me know, with an almost conspiratorial glee, that one’s 30s were the best decade yet. And everything I heard from friends and colleagues over the past week or so has confirmed my impression that she had decided to make her 40s even more extraordinary.

In fact, amongst all those personal reminisces were many posts where the person confessed they didn’t know Tricia personally, but knew about her from her work, her reputation, her very presence in the community. Whatever a life means, that she touched so many people she never met has to count for something.

The Washington Post did a nice piece which captured some of the impact Tricia had on the wider community. She was, or could be, a friend to everyone. She loved to create and inspired others to create and generally be present. And so although we hadn’t worked together for many years, I had hoped we would again, because I knew the energy she would bring to both the work and the rest of the cast.

But that possible future is gone now. And I mourn all the other futures all her other friends and family are now denied. The community lost a vital part of itself.

Tricia was not the first subject of an “RIP post” here and she won’t be the last. But isn’t the purpose of any of these remembrances not simply to mark what we have lost, but what we have gained?

If you haven’t gleaned already, Tricia believed in the best kind of magic: the kind that makes people grow. And for many of us, we don’t want this senseless act to be the last word. Her longtime friend and fellow Washington Stage Guild member, Bill Largess, has some excellent words on what can be done now.

Friends have also started a fundraiser to provide theater professionals health insurance — something that freelancers like Tricia often needed to worry about. It has happily blown past its original goal of $25,000.

So everywhere around the region, people are working to find meaning, to create meaning, to create.

But it’s hard to stay in the moment and look to the future. In fact, I think that balance was something Tricia had found — and kept on trying to encourage all of us to find as well. I try and think of something several NTI teachers mentioned to me while I trained there — and perhaps they mentioned it to Tricia in her time there as well. It’s one thing I tell all the actors who attend Stonehenge Auditions right before they go on to perform their monologues.

Don’t forget to breathe.

Edward Albee, RIP

2016 really isn’t getting any new fans as our cultural icons continue to shuffle off this mortal coil in a manner that befits the most macabre dance number imaginable.

I'm going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

I’m going to need a rather long pause. Something more than five seconds, please.

Playwright Edward Albee is dead, as reported by NPR, the New York Times, and others. I suppose he wouldn’t mind, what with his work exploring death, gloom, and despair. He was also 88, which I’m sure actuaries would assure me is “pretty old,” statistically speaking.

I don’t care. As a playwright, Albee had a voice. A beautiful, absurd, deeply disturbing voice to be sure, but a voice you don’t forget.

(You can actually hear his voice in this 8-minute interview on Fresh Air from 1984).

I first encountered this voice in high school with The Zoo Story. It wasn’t simply reading the play as a diversion in English class. My idle teenage hands had been repurposed to be a stage technician, so I was the chap responsible for the blood pack necessary at the end of the play. The blood pack didn’t always work to my liking –sometimes a bit more Sanjuro than desirable– but I went on to do blood effects for other productions. More importantly, my interest in this playwright, Edward Albee, began.

Watching the production, even in our inexpert high school hands, you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Albee violates cultural comfort zones not unlike Pinter and other contemporary playwrights. But more than that, his characters are fascinating: intense, driven, and deeply, deeply flawed. Crafted with such specificity, you can’t help but try and understand the nature of what’s broken — even when you, yourself, might not have much in common with them.

Or so you think at first.

It could be, as Leo Tolstoy pointed out, that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yet among that specific unhappiness, there are some recurring themes. In fact, Albee summed it up thus:

“You know, if anybody wants me to say it, in one sentence, what my plays are about: They’re about the nature of identity — who we are, how we permit ourselves to be viewed, how we permit ourselves to view ourselves, how we practice identity or lack of identity.” -Edward Albee

How else could us countless college students tasked with studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — probably his best known work — relate to the struggles of George and Martha (and I suppose Nick and Honey)?

Amid the games like “getting the guests,” there are those questions of identity. How do you see yourself? How do you want to be seen? How much can you bear to see what you have done or have become? As you approach adulthood, you begin to see how many decisions you need to make involving how much you buy into socially constructed pretense and ritual. Where will you toe the line? Where will you stand out? Must you stand out? What do you lose by doing either?

“All of my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done, as opposed to things done. I find most people spend too much time living as if they’re never going to die.” -Edward Albee

That overarching theme is why I think Albee will resonate for decades to come: it’s timeless and –in the hands of Albee– well executed. His expert exploration of mortality and mistakes is also why he’ll be missed. Because it wasn’t simply The Zoo Story and Woolf. He had been steadily writing impactful plays for the better part of 50 years, Three Tall Women and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? being some of his more recent celebrated works.

But at least we’re left with his works… which does also leave us with a question: at the end, was he visited by a young man doing calisthenics?

Gene Wilder, RIP

I meant to post this earlier, but life keeps on getting in the way. Or maybe it’s bills to pay, and I’m not as clever as Max Bialystock at how to pay them.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I'm going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink.

Now that the a principal dreamer of the dreams is gone, I’m going to need something stronger than fizzy-lifting drink. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As has been reported in the Washington Post, AP, Variety, and elsewhere, Jerome Silberman aka Gene Wilder passed away last month, on Sunday, August 29th. He was 83.

2016 has proven to be lethal to the cultural icons many of my generation have grown up with — and Wilder was definitely someone we grew up with: perhaps first known as Willa Wonka and then, as we got older, as Leo Bloom, the Waco Kid, and naturally Doctor Frankenstein -er- Fronkensteen.

Gene Wilder has an additional resonance for many of us who are performers and storytellers because he was a phenomenally sensitive actor. I mean, he seemed to sense what his characters needed to be to serve the story — as mentioned in this wonderful video. He also was a very generous performer in the same vein as Jack Benny as this Vox article details.

Actors and comics from across the industry have mentioned his influence. Writer and all-around pop culture historian Mark Evanier has a great anecdote about Wilder — and Tom Straw has a great story of working with the man himself late in Wilder’s career.

Finally, I came across this article about he met his wife, who I hope is being supported by friends and family in this difficult time.

Now I’m off to munch a Wonka bar for a bit.