Tuesday, 30 March 2021

YAPHET KOTTO: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of one of my favourite actors, Yaphet Kotto, was online at the Guardian last Friday, 26 March; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. 

It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there was of course A lot more to say. The most curious thing was how difficult it was to be sure of the information about his biographical details; various sources had his name two different ways; the stories about his father's name and origins changed when he told them; was his mother's maiden name Marie or was that her middle name; more details about his maternal grandparents, who raised him, and how they (Roman Catholics) managed to raise him Jewish were all, in the end, left for supposition. I couldn't find much about the Mobile Theatre Project in the Bronx, which is where he first trained, or where he played Othello aged 19; I assumed it was for them and not professional, but I couldn't find details.

Besides Judy Holliday, he claimed a couple of other actresses as mentors, including Mary Astor--how he got into that position is an interview question I didn't see posed in the ones I found.

There were, of course, other black actors of note besides Sidney Poitier, though he was only real 'star': Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, Abby Lincoln, Ruby Dee and the like; Bill Cosby in the first starring role on TV.  But Kotto was a different story, and I believe he helped open the door for great actors like Forest Whittaker or Lawrence Fishburne --the preference for matinee idols continues to this day, particularly on TV: think of any number of very attractive black actors whose careers have stalled in TV, or of the ones who have made successes, from Denzel to Hall Berry.

And of course nowadays, black British actors might be taking those roles, which may be because many of them come up the traditional way, and get judged by their acting, rather than their faces, though no one's going to compare Idris Elba's looks with Kotto's.

Bone is a film that should be seen again. First because it really is Larry Cohen's take on Boudu Saved From Drowning (though he would have probably denied it) and second because it would probably offend most of its audience. It was Cohen's first feature and if you know his work you will understand why, but Kotto's character is not the problem in the film, it really is, like Jean Renoir's film, a satire of the bourgeoise; something its big budget Hollywood remake, Down And Out In Beverley Hills.

Similarly, I can't emphasize strongly enough how important a movie Blue Collar is, not least for the way race divides working people against their own interests, but at the same time because race is not understood as the same kind of problem on both sides of the colour line. And Schrader's casting of Kotto, Keitel and Pryor, none of them pretty boy Hollywood types, escaped the swamp of what the Firesign Theatre once called portrayals of  "tales of ordinary working people as played by rich Hollywood stars".

And it would have been nice to discuss Homicide, where Kotto in a way was the star, and also the comic centre. There is a famous episode of the show, "Subway", in which Vincent D'Onfrio plays a commuter pushed in front of a train, and trapped between the carriage and the platform. Andre Braugher plays Frank Pembleton, the detective on the scene, who is aware that D'Onfrio's sprine has been severed and he will die as soon as the train is removed. Thinking of Kotto's career brought it to my mind; two tremendous actors, neither a matinee idol, who act the hell out of the two-man show which is at the episode's core. Yes, there is space for them, but how much? How well will Jamie Hector do? As Al Giardello tells Pembleton: "Come on Frank, it's a new age. The world's becoming a perfect place." RIP Yaphet Kotto

Thursday, 18 March 2021

LOU OTTENS: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

 My obit of Lou Ottens, who invented the audio cassette, and the portable tape recorder, and had a hand in the creation of the CD, is online at the Guardian; it should appear in the paper paper soon. You can link to it here.

This happens to be a piece which appears exactly as I wrote it (after one brief rewrite when a sort of re-organsation was required. It was one of those rare times when I was asked for 800 words and filed exactly 800 words; I didn't bother to recount after I did the touch-up!

It occurred to me that Ottens reminded me of a number of engineers I have worked with in my years of broadcasting: very bright men who are practical problem solvers, very calm and reasonable, and who enjoy nothing more than a problem to solve. It's always the producers, or the talent, who often couldn't plug the machine into the wall, who get all excited. It's much more fun to work with them!

Monday, 15 March 2021

NORTON JUSTER: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the writer (and architect) Norton Juster was published in The Guardian online on 11 March, I am hoping it will appear in the paper paper soon, but you can link to it online here

The odd thing about it was I couldn't actually remember when I read The Phantom Tollbooth; I may have been too old or advanced in my reading to have latched on to it the first time. In fact I may have been introduced to it by my college roommate Winsor Watson; that idea popped into my head long after I had filed my copy. And I don't recall ever reading The Dot And The Line; but it's on You Tube and when I showed it to my son, who's 17 and very good at maths, he loved it. I realised I had never read The Phantom Tollbooth to him; my copy was probably left in storage in London.

And as I wrote it the day before my birthday, the quote from the Terrible Trivium seemed especially apt: “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones that are so difficult.”

The piece as printed is virtually as I wrote it; the only omissions were part of the first quote from Jules Feiffer, which talked about their lifelong friendship, and then the second quote from Feiffer which closes the piece; it was cut short. The rest of it, which would have ended my story, was "He was my oldest friend...and we managed to concoct a classic together. I miss him badly. Who knew?".Somehow I felt that "who knew?" was the perfect way to summarize Juster's life, and indeed, his work.


Friday, 5 March 2021

VARIAN FRY: LOST AMERICAN HERO

I wrote this review for the Financial Times in 1999, and it was published in January of 2000. It popped up, unbidden, in my computer as I was attempting to store material, and it seems as if I had at some point restored some elements which may have been edited from the original. But Fry's story has been retold since, and deserves to stay in the forefront of our attentions today as a warning about the way no good deeds go unpunished, especially as we see Breckinridge Long reflected in both the Trump and Johnson regimes, and also in the way so-called geniuses ignore those who sacrifice and risk to help them, indeed, save their lives.

In August 1940, Varian Fry, an unassuming American editor, arrived in Vichy France on a brief fact-finding mission, representing the Emergency Rescue Committee. He carried a list of 200 worthy artists, writers and intellectuals endangered by the Nazis, whom the ERC had been founded to aid. When he was finally expelled 13 months later, Fry had created an underground operation which saved thousands, not just the Max Ernsts and Marc Chagalls, but “ordinary” refugees, as well as hundreds of British servicemen. Yet Fry, a true heroic figure of the Second World War, died in obscurity, teaching high school in suburban Connecticut.
 
“Pimpernel” is a particularly apt title, because Fry seemed an unlikely candidate for such heroism. A pampered child who feigned illness to escape school bullying, he became a precocious aesthete at Harvard. His modest career on liberal magazines was transformed in Berlin when he witnessed Kristallnacht, and received a blunt assessment of the Nazis’ plans from their international spin-doctor, a fellow Harvard man. His Associated Press reports were the first to warn that Germany intended to “exterminate” the Jews.
 
Fry’s low tolerance for political in-fighting had seen him sacked from Spanish Civil War relief, and there was no hint of his practical abilities when he landed in France. Yet within weeks he created an organisation which hid refugees, forged papers, smuggled people into Spain, and kept one step ahead of the Vichy authorities. The players were worthy of a movie cast, and Andy Marino retells their stories with piquant details not included in Fry’s contemporary memoir SURRENDER ON DEMAND.
He can also be more honest than Fry about those he saved. Many showed little gratitude and worse, endangered those who saved them. Lion Feuchtwangler revealed his escape route to the New York press. Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler meant to sneak across the Spanish border with 17 pieces of luggage, supposedly filled with her first husband’s manuscripts.
 
Marino deals best with Fry’s twin enemies: Vichy’s officials, keen to out-shine their German masters, and the US State Department, to whom Fry was persona non grata. The consular section headed by Breckinridge Long was overtly anti-Semetic, with no desire to fill unused immigrant quotas with Jews, reds, and other undesirables. The US also wished to maintain Vichy’s paper neutrality, keeping its fleet out of Nazi hands. Fry’s conflicts with the government (who denied him the Swiss visa offered all Americans for safety in case of a German invasion) soon had his own committee trying to force his replacement. When he returned to America they fired him. 
 
Returning to journalism, he detailed, in 1942, the extermination of some 2 million Jews in Nazi death camps, facts which the Allies finally acknowledged officially only the following year. By now Fry’s marriage had also collapsed, and it's not until this point Marino begins to examine the book’s most intriguing question: what made Varian Fry such a successful secret agent? It’s understandable when Fry’s personality fades into the shadows of wartime derring-do and a gallery of memorable characters. But Marino also glosses over Fry’s early years. His subtle hints about sexual orientation underlie an equally subtle theme which Marino himself only faces in his conclusion. By then, with Fry’s second marriage and attempts to play corporate family man broken up, it is too late to hear suggestions of his inner torment; his participation in the Kinsey report, and some of the demons which drove this man. It’s as if he’s inherited Fry’s own reserve. Marino concludes, perceptively, that the pretending and repressing which tormented Fry also prepared him for his clandestine life as spy. But with better writing and organisation, we should have apprehended this crucial fact from Fry himself. 
 
Through the efforts of Andre Malraux, France finally granted Fry the Legion d’Honneur in 1967, though for services to the Resistance, not for saving refugees from Vichy. Five months later Fry died, alone. In 1996, Israel named him “Righteous Among the Nations”, the only American so honoured. The US government continues to ignore his accomplishments. 
 
 AMERICAN PIMPERNEL
by Andy Marino
Hutchinson, 1999, £16.99, 403pp