Sunday, 9 June 2013

Death Takes a Shit...

Esther Williams RIP
Swimmer who found movie fame in a string of MGM musicals

Ronald Bergan
Thursday 6 June 2013

Esther Williams, "Hollywood's Mermaid", who has died aged 91, swam her way through more than a dozen splashy MGM musicals in the 1940s and early 50s. While smiling at the camera, she was able to do a combination of crawl, breast and backstroke, and was forever blowing bubbles under water, seemingly having an inexhaustible supply of air.

Like the starlets Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson and Donna Reed before her, she started out for MGM in a Hardy Family picture, Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942) – though one that allowed her to swim with Mickey Rooney. After being billed 19th in A Guy Named Joe (1943), she shot to stardom in her third film, Bathing Beauty (1944).

It started out as an average Red Skelton vehicle, first called Mr Co-Ed, then Sing and Swim, but Esther's superb figure and pretty features were heightened by Technicolor to such an extent that her part was built up and the title changed. A special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot, complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses and special camera cranes for overhead shots.

"No one had ever done a swimming movie before," she explained, "so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements." Williams played a swimming instructor at a women's college and the picture ended with a spectacular water-ballet set to the Blue Danube waltz, with alternate jets of water and flame bursting from the pool. Variety magazine said that William was "pulled to stardom by her swimsuit straps".

The movie was a bigger hit than anyone had anticipated, and MGM spent the following decade hiring writers to invent scripts which allowed Esther to get wet. She would later remark: "My pictures were put together out of scraps they found in the producer's wastebasket. All they ever did for me at MGM was to change my leading men and the water in the pool." Actually her films were bubbly entertainments and the aquaballets (the most spectacular being staged by Busby Berkeley) were often breathtaking in their scope.

On An Island With You (1948) and Pagan Love Song (1950) were both set on South Sea islands, giving Williams ample opportunity to strip down to her stylish swim suits and take the plunge. She was a bathing suit designer in Neptune's Daughter (1949), keen to demonstrate her creations herself, and is the last woman to give into the blandishments of a handsome polo player (Ricardo Montalban) who sings to her, Baby, It's Cold Outside.Jerry, Tom and Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet, as she dreams of swimming the English Channel. Photograph: Cine Text / Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd. / Allstar

Most of the time in Dangerous When Wet (1953), co-starring her future husband Fernando Lamas, was taken up by her preparations to swim the English Channel. The best moment is a dream sequence in which Williams anticipates a crossing with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, while trying to avoid an octopus in a beret who gropes her with six extra hands.

However, she did not give in to groping very easily on screen: "My movies made it clear it's all right to be strong and feminine at the same time," she claimed.

In Fiesta (1947), Williams struck a blow for senoritas' lib by proving herself the equal of any male matador, while in Take Me Out To The Ball Game (in Britain, Everyone's Cheering, 1949), she played the owner-manager of a baseball team, whose initial interest in Gene Kelly lies in his ability to play ball. Inevitably, she thaws (after a swim) and falls for his rather blatant charms.

Williams portrayed Annette Kellerman, the Australian swimming champion who introduced the world to the one-piece bathing suit – as opposed to a combination of dress and pantaloons – in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). The high spot of the film was Berkeley's elaborately staged aquatic production number in which Esther rises like Aphrodite from the water surrounded by nymphs, and dives from a tremendous height into the centre of a kaleidoscopic pattern formed by swimmers. Although Williams did all her own swimming, she often had a stand-in for the more dangerous stunts.

She made an even bigger splash in the water-skiing ballet that ends Easy To Love (1953), one of Berkeley's last and most spectacular sequences. Filmed on location at Cypress Gardens, Florida, it has over 30 waterskiers towed in arrowhead formation with Williams at the tip. They jump and slalom around the beautiful amphibian before she seizes a trapeze dangled from a helicopter, rises to the height of 500 feet, and dives into the pleasure-garden lagoon.

After the expensive belly-flop of Jupiter's Darling (1955), a Roman romp in which Esther as Amytis prevents Hannibal (Howard Keel) from sacking Rome, MGM, for whom she had grossed over $80m, sacked her without even a goodbye or a thank you.

Born in Los Angeles, Esther was the fifth and last child of a pyschologist mother, Bula, and a signwriter father, Lou. She grew up swimming in local pools and surfing. By 16, she was a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swimming team and had won three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle. A year later, she was on the 1940 US Olympic team headed for Tokyo when the second world war intervened, cancelling the Games along with her hopes for international fame.

However, the showman Billy Rose noticed a photo of her, and starred her as Aquabelle opposite the Olympian and screen Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller as Aquadonis in his San Francisco Aquacade review. MGM scouts saw her in the show, and signed her to a contract.

Once her time at MGM had come to a close, the former prima ballerina of the water then tried her hand at dramatic roles at Universal, including The Unguarded Moment (1956) as a schoolteacher sexually attacked by one of her pupils. Her final movie appearance came in Fuente Magica (The Magic Fountain, 1963) directed by Lamas, whom she married in 1969.

Her first marriage, in 1940, had been to Leonard Kovner, and her second, in 1945, to the radio singer Ben Gage. Both ended in divorce. She and Gage had three children, whom she taught to swim soon after birth.

In September 1976, she sued MGM for $1m, claiming they had no legal right to utilise sequences from her films in That's Entertainment (1974) without consulting her about it or offering to share profits. The matter was settled out of court.

Lamas died in 1982, and six years later Williams married a professor of French literature, Edward Bell. Together they made profitable businesses of Esther Williams Swimming Pools and the Esther Williams Collection, one of America's most recognised swimwear brands.

Though denied an Olympic appearance herself, Williams helped to inspire the development of synchronised swimming, an Oympic discipline since 1984. She was at those Games, in Los Angeles, to commentate on the event for television. Her rather fanciful autobiography, inevitably titled The Million Dollar Mermaid, appeared in 1999.

She is survived by Edward, a daughter, Susan, and a son, Benjamin.

• Esther Jane Williams, swimmer and actor, born 8 August 1921; died 6 June 2013

Flaming Star
Steve Forrest RIP
Hollywood actor best known for his starring role as Lieutenant Dan 'Hondo' Harrelson in the 70s cop series S.W.A.T.

Ronald Bergan
Friday 24 May 2013

Steve Forrest, who has died aged 87, was a product of the Hollywood studio system, then at its tail end in the 1950s. Although MGM had the handsome, rugged 6ft 3in actor under contract for five years, from 1952 to 1957, they gave him few chances to shine. It was only when he left the studio that Forrest got bigger and better parts in feature films – one of his best performances was as the white brother of Elvis Presley, who plays the son of a Native American mother and a Texas rancher father, in Don Siegel's excellent western Flaming Star (1960) – and he was able to start a long and busy career on television.

In fact, it was on the small screen that Forrest would build his fame, notably in S.W.A.T. (1975-76), a cop series set in Los Angeles, the acronym referring to the police department's special weapons and tactics team. It ran for 37 episodes, with Forrest as a stern, level-headed Lieutenant Dan "Hondo" Harrelson, who would cry out "Let's roll" as he climbed into a van to go on another mission to catch villains.

Forrest was born in Huntsville, Texas, one of 13 children of a Baptist minister. An older brother, 15 years his senior, was the more famous Dana Andrews, who was to become a leading man in films during the 1940s and 50s. It was through this older brother that Forrest got his first taste of the movie business when, aged 18, he had a bit part as a young sailor in Crash Dive (1943), which starred Andrews and Tyrone Power.

After serving as a sergeant in the army during the second world war, Forrest moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA. He graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's degree in theatre arts and became a stagehand at La Jolla Playhouse, gradually getting roles. He resumed his postwar movie career with a small role in another of Andrews's pictures, Sealed Cargo (1951).

But the following year, Forrest was able to distance himself from Andrews when he landed the MGM contract. At first he only had small parts, such as playing the actor in Lana Turner's screen test in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). He was glimpsed as a soldier in Battle Circus (1953), starring Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson, and played an army recruit under tough training sergeant Richard Widmark in Take the High Ground! (1953).

His first real parts came when he was loaned out to Warner Bros for two pictures. In So Big (1953), based on a sprawling novel by Edna Ferber, Forrest plays long-suffering Jane Wyman's selfish son, for which he won a Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer. He was hardly able to fulfil his promise in the role of a scientist suspected of being a serial killer in Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), a feeble adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe.

Back at MGM, Forrest was given more substantial roles than previously. In Prisoner of War (1954), a simplistic "Red Scare" movie, Forrest was one of a group of brave American PoWs, including Ronald Reagan, being subjected to torture and brainwashing in a North Korean camp. When a brutal Soviet officer asks Forrest where his family lives, he replies: "In Hollywood with my brothers Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and my sisters Esther Williams and Janey Powell."

Much better was Rogue Cop (1954), in which a poker-faced Forrest plays a policeman who is honest, unlike his detective brother played by Robert Taylor in the title role. Forrest was finally given rare top billing as a young man studying for the priesthood in Bedevilled (1955), a quasi-religious thriller, and as the writer hero in Mexico in The Living Idol (1957), a risible synthesis of exotic romance and mysticism. According to the New York Times, "a pretty young man named Steve Forrest plays the reporter chap. He is purely ornamental until he goes into a bare-handed battle with a jaguar."

Freed from his MGM contract, Forrest portrayed a New York reporter falling for a rural Doris Day in It Happened to Jane (1959), and in Heller in Pink Tights (1960) he played a gunfighter who wins blonde dancer Sophia Loren in a poker game, but loses her to Anthony Quinn. The latter role gave the often stolid Forrest an opportunity to show more ebullience.

In the meantime, he had established a parallel career on television, appearing notably in westerns such as Bonanza, Death Valley Days, The Virginian and Rawhide. In 1965, he and his family moved to London, where he starred in 30 episodes of the ATV series The Baron. Forrest was rugged and charming in the title role, the nickname given to John Mannering, a Texas-born, London-based antique dealer who is really a secret agent.

On the big screen, Forrest would have a key role as the lawyer boyfriend of Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) in Mommie Dearest (1981), a rather trashy melodrama in which he looked plainly uncomfortable, nor was he in his element as a heavy in the unfunny spoof Spies Like Us (1985).

He then returned to television, notably with 15 episodes of Dallas in 1986, playing Wes Parmalee, an impostor pretending to be Jock Ewing, and in several episodes of Murder She Wrote.

He is survived by his wife, Christine, and sons, Michael, Forrest and Stephen.

• Steve Forrest (William Forrest Andrews), actor, born 29 September 1925; died 18 May 2013

Hello, I love you … Ray Manzarek of the Doors.
Ray Manzarek RIP
Co-founder of the Doors whose keyboard playing shaped the band's trademark style

Adam Sweeting
Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Doors explored mysterious and sinister pastures on songs such asWhen the Music's Over, People Are Strange and The End. "We were all about peace and love like everybody else," Manzarek commented, "but those were some dark times with Vietnam and the civil rights struggle and political upheaval in the country. There was no way that couldn't soak into what we were doing and inform our music."

He was born Raymond Daniel Manczarek into a family of Polish ancestry on Chicago's South Side. His parents, Helena and Raymond, encouraged his musical leanings and paid for private piano lessons; he also yearned to be a basketball player. He graduated in economics from DePaul University in Chicago and then moved to Los Angeles to study cinematography at UCLA. There, he met Morrison, a fellow film student, and the story goes that during a chance meeting on Venice Beach, Morrison recited his lyrics to what would become the song Moonlight Drive. Manzarek cited this as the lightbulb moment from which the Doors sprang.

The group formed in 1965, the lineup completed with the guitarist Robby Krieger and the drummer John Densmore, whom Manzarek had met at a transcendental meditation lecture. The quartet took their name from Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception; the notion that they were exploring different levels of consciousness often emerged in interviews with the band.

They originally signed to Columbia Records but the label seemed unsure of how to promote them, and after being released from their contract, the Doors signed to Jac Holzman's Elektra. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1967, soared to No 2 and provided what would be their biggest single, Light My Fire, which reached No 1. A stronger second album, Strange Days, followed later that year but its sales were hampered slightly by the absence of another top 10 single.

After the No 1 album Waiting for the Sun (1968), they suffered something of a backlash with The Soft Parade (1969), which featured brass and string arrangements, but scored a hit single with Touch Me nevertheless. The follow-up, Morrison Hotel (1970), had a rootsier, bluesier feel and restored the critics' faith, while LA Woman (1971) took that process further still, featuring two of the most enduring pieces in their catalogue with the title track and Riders on the Storm.

By then Morrison, battling alcoholism and emotional problems, had become something of a pariah following several notorious onstage incidents. He moved to Paris, where he was found dead in a bathtub in 1971, aged 27.

The remaining members of the Doors released the post-Morrison albums Other Voices (1971) and Full Circle (1972), then reunited in 1978 to make An American Prayer, on which they created new backing tracks to accompany recordings of Morrison reading his own poetry.

Manzarek began a solo career and in the late 70s performed with the band Nite City, which included the former Blondie bass player Nigel Harrison. He lent his production skills to the seminal punk album Los Angeles (1980) by the band X; teamed up with the composer Philip Glass in 1983 to record a rock version of Carl Orff's cantata Carmina Burana; and in 1987 collaborated with Echo and the Bunnymen. In 1998 he published a memoir, Light My Fire: My Life With the Doors, though his novel about a Morrison-esque rock star faking his own death, The Poet in Exile, was less favourably greeted. He also played live shows with the Beat poet Michael McClure.

Manzarek released a double CD "oral history", The Doors: Myth and Reality, in 1997 and five years later toured with Krieger as The Doors of the 21st Century, which provoked a lawsuit from Densmore and the Morrison estate to prevent them using the Doors name. Manzarek himself had been outraged by Oliver Stone's 1991 film The Doors. "[We] were about idealism and the 60s quest for freedom and brotherhood," he said. "But the film … is based on madness and chaos. Oliver has made Jim into an agent of destruction."

Manzarek lived in California's Napa Valley, where he grew vegetables fruit trees and raised chickens. In 2011 he released his last album,Translucent Blues, a collaboration with the slide guitarist Roy Rogers. He freely admitted that the Doors legacy had left him comfortably set up for life. "I haven't had to get a day job," he said. "The royalties just keep rolling in." Earlier this month a new iPad app for the Doors went on sale, masterminded by Holzman.

In 1967 Manzarek married Dorothy Fujikawa. She survives him, along with his son, Pablo, three grandchildren and his brothers, Rick and James.

• Ray Manzarek (Raymond Daniel Manczarek), musician, born 12 February 1939; died 20 May 2013

The writer Tom Sharpe in 1997
Tom Sharpe RIP
Comic novelist in the mould of Wodehouse and Waugh, he was best known for Wilt and Porterhouse Blue

Stanley Reynolds
Thursday 6 June 2013

Tom Sharpe, who has died aged 85, was in the great tradition of English comic novelists and his bawdy style and vulgar approach were said to have made bad taste into an art form – like "PG Wodehouse on acid", in the words of one critic. Sharpe did not start writing comic novels until 1971, when he was 43, but once he got going he gained a large readership. He was a huge bestseller whose hardback editions sold like most authors only sell in paperback.

Wilt (1976) introduced perhaps his most popular character: Henry Wilt, a mild-mannered teacher of literature at the fictional Fenland College of Arts and Technology, who gets involved in a murder investigation. Sharpe claimed that the account of teaching day-release apprentice butchers and tradesmen in classes timetabled as "Meat One" and "Plasterers Two" was based on his own experiences as a lecturer at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.

Henry Wilt has a plain common sense that gives a touch of ordinary, everyday reality to the novel and its sequels – The Wilt Alternative (1979), Wilt on High (1984), Wilt in Nowhere (2004) and The Wilt Inheritance (2010) – which is often lacking in Sharpe's wilder farcical flights such as The Throwback (1978) and Ancestral Vices (1980). A film of Wilt, starring Griff Rhys Jones in 1989, brought Sharpe an even wider audience, as did the TV adaptations of his novels Blott on the Landscape (starring David Suchet in 1985) and Porterhouse Blue (starring Ian Richardson and David Jason in 1987).

Surprisingly for a comic writer and such a jovial character, Sharpe came to attention first as a hero in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in 1960. After leaving Cambridge with a degree in history and social anthropology, he had gone, in 1951, to South Africa, where he did social work for the Non-European Affairs Department, witnessing many of the horrors inflicted on the black population. He taught in Natal for a time and then set up a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg in 1957.

He wrote a political play, The South Africans, which criticised the country's racial policy. Although it was not produced in South Africa, and had only a small production in London, it was enough to bring down on him the wrath of the Bureau of State Security. He was hounded by the secret police, spent the Christmas of 1960 in jail, and was deported back to Britain in 1961. The ship he was put on sailed along the South African coast stopping at every port, at each of which the police would come on board to question and attempt to intimidate Sharpe.

He had written many symbolic, and unproduced, plays in South Africa and he was, he said, as surprised as anyone when in just three weeks he wrote the novel Riotous Assembly (1971), a dazzling comic send-up of the South African police. The inspiration for the book came from hearing about the old-fashioned English colonial aunt of a friend of his who lived near the police station and complained that the screams of tortured prisoners disturbed her afternoon naps. The aunt came to life in the book as the eccentric Miss Hazelstone, who amazes a police chief, Kommandant Van Heerden, when she says she wants to be arrested for murder because she has shot and killed her Zulu cook. In a marvellous piece of irony, Sharpe dedicated the book to "the South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of western civilisation in southern Africa".

He was teaching then at the Arts and Technology college, but was able to give up his job because his publisher, Secker and Warburg (now Harvill Secker), agreed to pay him £3,000 a year for three years to be a full-time writer. Tom Rosenthal at Secker had faith that Sharpe would become a bestseller.

Sharpe continued his noble crusade against racism in South Africa with Indecent Exposure (1973), in which Kommandant van Heerden returns under the mistaken impression that he had been given "the heart of an English gentleman" in a transplant operation, a new persona which manifests itself when he starts reading the British novelist Dornford Yates.

Readers thought Sharpe perhaps a one-subject writer, but with Porterhouse Blue (1974), set in a Cambridge college, he proved that he was a true comic novelist in the great English tradition. "If Wodehouse wrote a plot and [Evelyn] Waugh wrote a book around it, the result could hardly be more hilarious," wrote a critic for Time magazine.

Sharpe continued his dissection of English life with Blott on the Landscape (1975), a farce on urban development and the spoiling of the English countryside. After the first Wilt novel he produced The Great Pursuit (1977) which, in spite of the romping nature of the tale, was a serious attempt at satirising FR Leavis and the 20th century's replacement of religion with literature. Sharpe was keen on the idea of both writing and reading as fun. In spite of abusing Yates in Indecent Exposure, his favourable comments on the author were plastered all over Dent's Classic Thrillers reprints of Yates's books. Sharpe's 1982 novel Vintage Stuff was an excellent send-up of Sapper's Bulldog Drummond and John Buchan's Richard Hannay.

Born in Croydon, south London, Sharpe had a most unusual and troubled boyhood. His father, the Unitarian minister Reverend George Coverdale Sharpe, was a fascist, a follower of Oswald Mosley and a great believer in Adolf Hitler. From the start of the second world war, the family was continuously on the move to avoid the father being interned with other British Nazis.

Tom's mother, Grace, was South African and a rich South African aunt paid for him to go to Lancing college, West Sussex. During that time, he wore a German army belt with Gott Mit Uns on the buckle. He said that when he went to the seaside he used to daydream of scrambling over the barbed wire and swimming across the Channel to occupied France to "join the good guys".

Sharpe's father did not live to see the liberation of the Nazi death camps, but Tom, of course, saw the newsreels and came close to having a nervous breakdown. Looking back on his schooldays, he said that the most significant thing that happened was a friendly master giving him Waugh's Decline and Fall to read. It had, he said, a tremendous influence when he came to write his own comedies. His other influence was Wodehouse; he was very pleased later to learn that Wodehouse was a reader of his.

He did his national service from 1946 to 1948 in the Royal Marines, and went to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was married for a short time in South Africa and then in 1969 married Nancy Anne Looper from North Carolina. They had three daughters.

When he started producing bestsellers he moved to a large house in Dorset, a former school building, and became a keen gardener. He said he liked digging. He moved back to Cambridge but in the 1980s he had an experience like something out of one of his own novels when he had a heart attack live on TV in Spain.

Ill health was undoubtedly responsible for the long silence, from Wilt on High in 1984 to Grantchester Grind in 1995, in which Sharpe – who was used to producing a book a year – published nothing at all. He commented that it wasn't that at all, it was being forced to give up smoking. He later said that the sort of ballpoint pens he wrote with were no longer manufactured and asked readers to send him their own pens. He then said that he kept writing every day of those 11 years but did not think the work good enough. Grantchester Grind was a sequel to Porterhouse Blue, and it was followed by The Midden in 1996. In the following decade, two further Wilt novels appeared.

Much in demand for interviews and often besieged by fans, he developed two mask-like personas. One was a blustering ex-colonial type, the other a genial old buffer. One interviewer, arriving on one of the ex-colonial days, said he had never seen anyone fuming before in real life. Sharpe said he admired the old military men, but thought of himself as the buffer.

He is survived by Nancy and his daughters.

• Thomas Ridley Sharpe, writer, born 30 March 1928; died 6 June 2013