David McGillivray remembers those who died during the past year and notes their contributions to the industry
While the great names of show business, who have passed away in recent months, have been properly eulogised, it has not always been possible to pay tribute to many other late, lamented talents. As usual at this time of year, we try to make amends.
Petite musical star Muriel Angelus (Muriel Findlay) began her stage and screen career as a child in the UK. With her first husband John Stuart, she co-starred in the films No Exit (1930), Eve’s Fall (1930 ) and Hindle Wakes (1931). A success in the operetta Balalaika (Adelphi, 1936), she was invited to appear in the Broadway production of The Boys from Syracuse (1938). A Paramount contract resulted in a couple of good roles, notably in The Light That Failed (1939) and The Great McGinty (1940). She returned to Broadway to appear in Sunny River (1941) and Early to Bed (1943). She retired in 1946 after marrying conductor Paul LaValle. She died, aged 95, on June 26.
Often thought of as an American, actor Robert Arden was in fact born in London. In Hollywood, he was contracted to RKO but never appeared on screen. He returned to London, where he worked as a dance band vocalist and played bit parts in films. After Guys and Dolls (London Coliseum, 1953), he played the lead in Orson Welles’ film Mr Arkadin (1955). It was not a success and Arden spent the next few years in B-films and as Bob Page in the TV series Saber of London (1959-60). From 1963 he mainly directed and produced for TV and theatre. He returned to acting in the eighties and was noteworthy in the TV serial Nancy Astor (1982). He died, aged 81, on March 25.
Lowbrow American comic Rodney Dangerfield (Jacob Cohen), whose catch-phrase was “I don’t get no respect”, began in clubs as a teenager, billed as Jack Roy. He then became a paint salesman. He made a comeback on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show and became a regular on variety and chat shows. In 1977 he opened his own club in New York and gained popularity with a younger audience when he appeared in the film Caddyshack (1980), made by the Saturday Night Live team. More films, some of which he co-wrote, followed. His only straight role was in Natural Born Killers (1994). His cameo as Lucifer in Little Nicky (2000) is cherishable. He died, aged 82, on October 5.
A rare example of an extra who attained stardom, Hollywood’s beautiful Frances Dee was in films from 1924. Her first lead was in Playboy of Paris (1930). Often a society girl, she was in several prestige movies including Little Women (1933), Of Human Bondage (1934) and Becky Sharp (1935). But it was as the heroine of I Walked with a Zombie (1943) that she became best known. She retired after Gypsy Colt (1953). She was long married (1933-1990) to Joel McCrea, whom she met on The Silver Cord (1933). By the Seventies, the couple were millionaire landowners. Their three sons all went into films. Dee died on March 6, aged 94.
One of the most familiar faces on British screens, Hilda Fenemore specialised in mothers, neighbours and passers-by. Together with her future husband Rex Edwards, she joined the Unity Theatre, where they met writer Ted Willis. Fenemore played Jenny Wren in Willis’ long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green, many episodes of which were written by Edwards. She appeared in more than 90 films and was in the West End in Expresso Bongo (Saville, 1958) and The Winslow Boy (New, 1970). She was still recording radio voiceovers almost until her death on April 13, aged 89. Her granddaughter is actress Rachel Edwards.
Casting director and agent Barry Ford studied at the Italia Conti school. He toured in Junior Miss and Life with Father and was in the crowd in the films Dead of Night (1945) and Hue & Cry (1947). In the Fifties he joined The Spotlight, then moved to the casting department of Associated-Rediffusion. From 1960 he was at ATV. He left to form an agency with actor Ronald Lacey but in 1977 returned to ATV, later to become Central. Here he became head of casting, a position he retained until he retired in 1989. He died, aged 75, on July 2.
Granddaughter of Peter Fraser, former prime minister of New Zealand, Alice Fraser came to London to study at RADA. After rep at Worthing and tours, often in classical roles, she appeared in Wylie (Royal Court) and The Mousetrap (St Martin’s). Returning to New Zealand, she found fame in the TV series Close to Home and Country GP. Her films included Starlight Hotel (1987) and The End of the Golden Weather (1991). In 1999 she received the New Zealand Order of Merit. She was last seen as Mrs Higgins in a tour of My Fair Lady (2003). She died, aged 70, on October 28.
A choreographer and dancer of tremendous vitality, Antonio Gades (Antonio Rodenas) was a major creative force in Spanish dance during the second half of the 20th century. Born in poverty in Alicante, he worked with Pilar Lopez’s company for nine years and came to London with it in 1957. He achieved international fame as the choreographer and star of film-maker Carlos Saura’s thrilling “flamenco trilogy” – Blood Wedding (1981), Carmen (1983) and El Amor Brujo (1986). He was working on a dance drama adaptation of Don Quixote at the time of his death on July 20, at the age of 67.
An enormously popular principal boy in panto between the wars, Cora Goffin made her debut at the age of ten at the London Palladium. A year later she had her first starring role in Alice in Wonderland (1913). She first played in panto in 1922. One of her most famous roles was as Colin in Mother Goose (1931). In 1933 she married producer Emile Littler and subsequently appeared in his shows. She retired after Aladdin (1940). She became Lady Littler in 1974, when her husband was knighted. He died in 1985. In 1997 Simon Blumenfeld interviewed Lady Littler for The Stage. She died on May 10, at the age of 102.
A “blonde bombshell” of the post-war years, Vanda Hudson (Wanda Zaleska) is revered by fans as the girl stabbed to death by a knife-thrower in the cult film Circus of Horrors (1960). Born in Silesia, part of present-day Poland, she came to the UK in 1948 and made her screen debut in 1955. Her other films included Seven Thunders (1957) and Bottoms Up! (1959). In 1963 she retired to raise her family but made a brief comeback in 1969. Subsequently she ran the restaurant Turpin’s in Hampstead, north London. She died on April 2, aged 70.
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee met during the Second World War. They formed Armed Forces Radio and worked together, as writers for radio, stage and screen, for the next 52 years. Their biggest successes were the plays Inherit the Wind (1955) and Auntie Mame (1956), as well as the musical version of the latter, Mame (1966). But other attempts at musicals, such as Shangri-La, Dear World, did not fare as well. Their later play, First Monday in October, was filmed in 1981. Their final play was Whisper in the Mind (1990). Lee died in 1994. Lawrence died on February 29, aged 88.
Known primarily as a newspaper columnist, voicing the concerns of Middle England, Lynda Lee Potter (Lynda Higginson) originally intended to be an actress and had a brief stage career. Born in Leigh, Lancashire, she came to London to train at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. While appearing in Dry Rot (Whitehall, 1955), she met medical student Jeremy Lee Potter. They married in 1957. She joined the Daily Mail in 1967 and received an OBE in 1998. Lee Potter wrote her autobiography, Class Act, in 2002. She died on October 20, aged 69.
Busy character actor Michael Lees was equally adept at comedy and drama. After RADA and rep, he worked mainly in TV, his hundreds of appearances including episodes of Crown Court, Colditz, A Fine Romance, Rumpole of the Bailey, All Creatures Great and Small, Howard’s Way, Lovejoy and Peak Practice. He was Mr Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice (1980) and had a recurring role as Ralph Dobson in Coronation Street. One of Bryan Forbes’ favourite actors, he appeared in six of the director’s films. He was last seen in Holby City in January, 2004. He died on June 14, aged 77.
Mercedes McCambridge began her career on radio – Orson Welles called her “the greatest living radio actress” – and finished it with voice work, most famously the Devil in the film The Exorcist (1973). In between, she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her screen debut in All the King’s Men (1949). Subsequent films included Johnny Guitar (1954), Giant (1956)and Suddenly Last Summer (1959). After appearing on stage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1964), her work was limited by alcoholism. She wrote about her successful battle with the illness in her book The Quality of Mercy (1981). She received no credit for The Exorcist until the film was re-released in 1998. She died on March 2, aged 87.
Baritone Robert Merrill (Moishe Miller) was the first American to sing 500 performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. After his 1944 stage debut, he was invited to the Met in 1945 and remained there until 1976, returning also returned for the 1983 centennial. His roles included Figaro, Rigoletto and Escamillo. He also sang Germont Pere in La Traviata at Covent Garden in 1967. The following year he was Tevye in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. A baseball fan, he began singing The Star Spangled Banner at the Yankee Stadium in 1969 and was still doing so in his eighties. He died on October 28, aged 87.
Likened to Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, British silent screen star Joan Morgan was the daughter of director Sidney Morgan and often worked for her father. On screen from 1914 to 1931, she was the cinema’s first Little Dorrit (1921). She then became a writer, sometimes as Joan Wentworth Wood. Her first film as a screenwriter was The Call Box Mystery (1932). Her 1945 play, This Was a Woman, was filmed in 1948. She wrote for TV from 1957-1963 and also wrote 17 novels. She was rediscovered in her nineties and gave several interviews, one for the TV documentary The Other Hollywood (1995). She died on July 22, aged 99.
Gravel-voiced American rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Jones) was one of nine founder members of the group Wu-Tang Clan, which first recorded in 1992. As a solo artist, ODB had a British hit with Got Your Money in 1999. Regularly in trouble with the police, he was arrested the same year for possession of crack cocaine. After escaping from rehab, he was rearrested and imprisoned from 2001-3. Earlier this year, the Wu-Tang Clan re-formed briefly for concerts. ODB collapsed and died in a recording studio on November 13, aged 35.
British character actor Geoffrey Russell began as an ASM in rep. He first made his name as Det Sgt Joe York in the TV series Echo Four Two (1961). Subsequently he was often a policeman. From the seventies onwards, his roles became more eccentric. He was Mr Watkins in the series Grandad (1980) with Clive Dunn, and King Caspian in The Chronicles of Narnia (1990). He played a Home Secretary twice, in the film Murder by Decree (1979) and the TV movie Harry’s Game (1982). After an episode of Kinsey in 1991, he retired. He died on June 1, aged 79.
Energetic dancer and comedienne Peggy Ryan became part of her parents’ vaudeville act, The Merry Dancing Ryans, as a child. During the Second World War, Universal teamed her with another former child performer, Donald O’Connor, in a dozen patriotic musicals, few of which are shown today. In 1947 she came to London to appear at the London Casino. Her style was not suited to post-war cinema and she retired after All Ashore (1952), marrying co-star Ray McDonald. After the marraige ended she relocated to Hawaii, playing Jenny Sherman in Hawaii Five-0 from 1969-76.
More recently she ran a dance studio in Las Vegas and was teaching there shortly before her death, aged 80, on October 30.
In 1954, Ralph Samuels formed the Association of Acrobats in Putney, south London. It was a forerunner of such training centres as Circus Space. He was also managing editor of Acrobatics, the association’s monthly journal, and contributed to other magazines, such as Health and Strength. After the last issue of Acrobatics in the UK, he launched a new journal, World Acrobatics, in Australia. This ran intermittently until about 2000. He died in Bellengin, near Sydney, on August 28, aged 91.
Black American actor Paul Winfield got his first break as Diahann Carroll’s boyfriend in Julia (1968-70), the first American sitcom to star a black woman. But after two series, he was replaced by Fred Williamson. Winfield went on to play mainly noble roles, notably in the film Sounder (1972) and in the TV mini-series King (1978) and Roots: The Next Generations (1979). In 1978 his Othello was well received in Atlanta, Georgia. Latterly he was often in character roles in action adventures, among them The Terminator (1984), Cliffhanger (1993) and Mars Attacks! (1996). One of his last appearances was in the TV remake of Sounder (2003). He died on March 7, aged 62.
The UK’s most famous steeplejack, Fred Dibnah, was discovered in 1979, when he appeared in a local news programme, repairing Bolton’s town hall clock. Impressed by the “charming daredevil”, BBC producer Don Haworth made the documentary Fred Dibnah – Steeplejack. This led to more programmes – Fred (1983), A Year with Fred (1987) – in which Dibnah talked not only about his interests in the Industrial Revolution and steam-engines but also his private life, such as his 1985 divorce. More recently he presented programmes about great British engineers and monuments. His last, Made in Britain, was curtailed by illness. It will be screened next year. He was awarded the MBE in 2003. He died on November 6, aged 66.
Geraint Griffith was a member of the team on S4C’s Welsh-language Y Clwb Garddio for four years. He also answered listeners’ gardening questions on BBC Radio Cymru’s morning show, Jonsi. On November 4, he was killed when his motorcycle was hit by a lorry near the Anglesey nursery, where he had worked for twelve years. He was 30.
Jenny Hayes, billed as the ‘Amazing Comedy Girl’ died in April, aged 91. She and her husband Leslie were a popular supporting act in the heydays of variety and Jenny was also one of the first female pantomime Dames.
Alvin Williams, who was known as Popsi, was a big hit with TV viewers when he appeared as Barry White on ITV’s Stars in Your Eyes show. Williams went on to appear in clubs around the UK but died on June 6, aged 54.
Estelle Russell, who worked under the name of Jo Day, was a renowned principal boy in pantomime before forming a musical double act with Tony Hargreaves called Man Maid Music. The pair worked in theatres throughout the UK and eventually renamed the act King and Day. Day died on August 29, just three weeks short of her 80th birthday.
Sheila Keith was best known to cinema audiences for her many appearances in cult horror films such as House of Whipcord (1974) and House of the Long Shadows (1983). She also had a distinguished stage and television career, appearing in the West End in productions such as Present Laughter and Mame with Ginger Rogers. She died at the age of 84 on October 14.
Scottish actress Freda Gordon-Hall had a long career in the theatre joining the Birmingam Repertory Theatre in the thirties under Sir Barry Jackson and then making a name for herself in a string of pre-war musicals. After the war she was much in demand as a producer. She died on November 1, aged 100.
East London-born writer Gibson Kente, who died in Johannesburg aged 72 on November 7, was widely regarded as the man who changed the shape of black theatre in South Africa during the worst days of apartheid. Between 1963 and 1992 he wrote 23 plays, which focused on social and political problems in the country.
A champion of drama and education in youth theatre, Sue Welshman died on November 12.
She worked with Chester Gateway Theatre, Action Transport Theatre and later became the much-respected head of the Cheshire Drama Centre in Winsford.
The tenor singer Tony Tuppen, billed as the ‘Genial Giant of Song’, was the popular star of many touring Ivor Novello musicals. He also appeared in variety in summer shows and pantomimes for managements such as Duggie Chapman. He died on November 18.
Blonde leading man and supporting player of German and international films, Helmut Griem was best known to cinema audiences for his role as the bisexual baron Max in Bob Fosse’s film version of Cabaret (1972). Griem made his name in world cinema when he appeared in Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and he was also a leading actor with German theatre companies. Griem died in Munich on November 19, aged 72.
John Drew Barrymore was the troubled son of the legendary Shakespearean actor John Barrymore and the father of actress Drew Barrymore. A talented actor in his own right his career was marred by drugs, lawsuits and domestic violence. He made only a handful of films the best known being Fritz Lang’s thriller While the City Sleeps (1956). He died on November 29, aged 72.
With contributions from Patrick Newley