Name: Amy Aquino.

Background: A graduate of Harvard (where she studied biology) and Yale Drama, she is currently an officer in the Screen Actors Guild and a former owner of the historic Villa Royale inn in Palm Springs.

Best Known For: Her cross-ethnic casting as the mother in a Jewish-American family in Brooklyn Bridge, Gary David Goldberg’s fifties-set Wonder Years knockoff.

Usually plays: Authority figures who are (as she said of herself in a 1992 profile) “lobster-tough on the outside, mushy on the inside.”

Recurring on: Too many series to count, including Freaks & GeeksEverybody Loves Raymond, Crossing Jordan (as a cop), Judging Amy (as a judge), Picket Fences (as a doctor), Felicity (another doctor), Harry’s Law (another judge), and Brothers & Sisters (doctor again).  And she would have been the warden on Prison Break‘s distaff backdoor spinoff, had it gone to series.

A Long Run: Starting with the famous, Emmy-winning first-season episode “Love’s Labor Lost,” she was a recurring cast member throughout ER‘s entire run as brusque obstetrician Dr. Janet Coburn. Like most of the doctors from “upstairs,” Coburn was usually a background figure … so it was a welcome surprise when Aquino enjoyed some meaty (and moving) scenes during the penultimate season, in which Dr. Coburn proved to be the perfect dispenser of tough love as Abby’s (Maura Tierney) AA sponsor during a gruesome fall off the wagon.

Michael Lipton, a prominent Broadway and daytime television actor who dabbled in film and prime-time over the course of a five-decade career, died on February 10 at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey.  He was 86.  Although his death was reported locally, it seems to have been overlooked by the film and soap opera communities.  I learned of Lipton’s passing only by chance, while researching the obituary I wrote for the writer Edward Adler last month.  Adler’s late wife Elaine was Lipton’s sister.

Lipton’s most substantial television work came in soap operas, where he had a long run playing Neil Wade on As the World Turns; according to this blog, from which I have shamelessly cadged the photo below, Lipton (right, with Peter Brandon and Deborah Steinberg Solomon) was on the show from 1962 to 1967.  Lipton went on to star in Somerset for its entire run (1970-1976), and did a stint on One Life to Live in the eighties.

 

Lipton made his Broadway debut in 1949 as, essentially, a spear carrier in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and went on to larger roles in Inquest (1970) and Loose Ends (1979-1980).  But the bulk of his theater work was done Off-Broadway and on the road, in stock and in touring companies of shows like The Moon Is Blue (1954) and Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady (1973).  It was in the 1969 Los Angeles production of The Boys in the Band that Ralph Senensky spotted Lipton and decided to cast him as a warlock in a Then Came Bronson episode (“Sibyl,” pictured at the top) he was about to direct.

He played Harold, the role Leonard Frey had played in the [Off-Broadway] production and in the movie, and Michael was brilliant,” Senensky wrote via e-mail last month.  “The Bronson shoot was not a happy shoot.  But I remember Michael as being very open, talented, and versatile to work with before the camera.”

Actually shot in Phoenix, “Sibyl” was one of Lipton’s last forays to the Coast.  His few films are all noteworthy – Leo Penn’s A Man Called Adam; Hercules in New York, the infamous “two Arnolds” (Stang and Schwarzenegger) indie; Network (as one of the executives); and Windows, the only feature directed by famed cinematographer Gordon Willis – and all made in or around New York City.

Lipton’s first brush with Los Angeles, a feint at becoming, perhaps, a television star, had not gone well.  In 1959 he accepted a male lead in Buckskin, a western whose real focus was on a fatherless child (Tommy Nolan).  Child labor laws required Lipton, cast as a teacher, to play many of his scenes opposite Nolan without the boy present; he would ask the director for guidance, and be told to play the scene off a nearby flower pot.  “To make sense while conversing with a flower pot that doesn’t answer,” Lipton told reporter Lawrence Laurent, “takes a lot of acting.”  Lipton hung around long enough to play one more really good guest role, as a dandyish writer who confounds Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall in Wanted Dead or Alive, and then moved back to New York.

Susu

June 22, 2012

Any cinephile worth his or her salt has been made morose this week by news of the deaths of two great cult character actors of the seventies and eighties: Richard Lynch and Susan Tyrrell.  Tyrrell was not only a fearless, full-out performer, but also a close friend of one of my high school pen pals, the film historian Justin Humphreys.  I hope Justin publishes his astonishing stories about “Susu” someday.

Tyrrell made her film debut in 1971 and the scored the Oscar nomination that put her on the map a year later, in John Huston’s Fat City.  She was also a guest star on Bonanza and Nichols around this time, but members of the Susu cult may be surprised to learn that she turned up on TV fully seven years earlier, while still a teenager, in a pair of fairly obscure prime-time guest shots.  I noticed this before there was an IMDb, and was gobsmacked to discover this young version of Susu, who by the seventies looked and usually played older than her actual age.

Those two television roles consisted of a bit part on The Patty Duke Show – above is the best look you get at her, standing behind Patty’s right shoulder and registering surprise – and a star-making turn on Mr. Novak.  In “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” a McCarthyism allegory written by Martha Wilkerson and directed with his usual forcefulness by Richard Donner, Tyrrell plays a girl suspected in the Menendez-type killing of her parents.  Acquitted in court, she transfers to Jefferson High and finds herself ostracized and whispered about by everyone, even the teachers, except of course for the gallant Mr. Novak.  It doesn’t help that Tyrrell’s character is cold and brilliant – there’s an amazing scene where she rips some twerpy boy’s interpretation of Billy Budd to shreds.

At nineteen, Tyrrell understood that the idea worked better if her character remained unbowed and aloof; she never softens and courts the viewer’s sympathy.  Donner knew what he had in his star and frames her in a series of lengthy, beautifully lit, close-ups, many of them in full or three-quarter profile, one in a darkened hallway with Tyrrell’s heavy-cheekboned face dominating the left and Mr. Novak (James Franciscus) shrunken and out of focus on the left.  The good directors did that all the time in the fifties and sixties, but it’s hard to think of many television shows today (even the best ones) that have the courage to let an important scene play out on an uninterrupted talking head.

I don’t know what Tyrrell was doing between 1964 and 1971 – she has many theater credits in that period, but it’s still weird for an actor to disappear from the screen so thoroughly and then re-emerge so triumphantly.  I also wonder if there are other, unnoticed television appearances from her spurt in 1964.  Commercials, soap operas, Divorce Court?  There are still plenty of uncharted regions on the TV history map.

Name: Bruce Altman.

Known For: Supporting roles in many major films of the nineties (Regarding Henry, Glengarry Glen Ross, Quiz Show) and recurring or regular parts on Nothing Sacred, Help Me Help You, and Damages.

Typecasting: “I play guys with ties,” Altman says.  Meaning: lots of doctors, lawyers, and businessmen.

The Ethnic Factor: Like the more flamboyant Saul Rubinek, Altman’s cadenced speech has led to many explicitly Jewish roles, often of the menschy variety.

His Home Turf: A Yale Drama School grad who still lives in New Haven, Altman skews toward projects shot in New York, including the inevitable recurring role on Law and Order as one of an endless rotation of upper-crust sleazebag lawyers.

Where’d He Go?: Altman was initially listed in the cast of The American, the lean, European-lensed George Clooney hit-man movie that is one of my favorite recent English-language films … but apparently Altman was cut out of, or replaced in, the film.

Last Seen: As the mayor of New York City in Blue Bloods, desperately trying to punch up a stock character in a bland cop show.

Dream Role: In an interview with the New Haven Independent, Altman says he’d like to play Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Consider my ticket bought.

Name: Robert Clendenin.

Career-Defining Line, From Cougar Town (Above): “I’d give you a shoulder to cry on, if I had one.”

Trademarks: Apart from the shoulders (or lack thereof), a bald pate and adenoidal voice that has led to typecasting in the slow-witted or deviant veins.  Cougar Town also makes fun of his chin (or lack thereof).

Known As: A pervy morgue attendant on The Closer, a pervy doctor and a pervy neighbor on Bill Lawrence’s Scrubs and Cougar Town, respectively, and (per his official bio) various characters named “Slow Roger, Mr. Giggles, Plumber Dave, Louis the Stalker, Doofus, and most recently Bob the Demon.”  Plus bit parts in L.A. Confidential, Dude, Where’s My Car? and the most recent Star Trek movie.

His Niche: Not yet a candidate for the meaty parts that typically define a “character actor,” Clendenin is one of the instantly recognizable small-part actors who brighten the corners of our movies and TV shows.  He’s the twenty-first century Norman Leavitt.

On the Web: Clendenin has a website, a Facebook page, and a Tumblr (whatever the hell that is).  Wouldn’t it be cool if all the Norman Leavitts of the last hundred years could’ve had all those?

Norman Leavitt (via Aveleyman.com)

Who Are Those Guys #5

February 24, 2012

Last week I wrote about the first and second seasons of McCloud.  On the whole the McCloud cast credits are close to complete.  But there are a few notable exceptions: Teri Garr turns up without screen credit for a cute scene in “The Stage Is All the World,” and an unbilled John Finnegan – a favorite of John Cassavetes, and a recurring foil for Peter Falk on Columbo – can be glimpsed as a landlord in “Give My Regrets to Broadway.”

The image above comes from my favorite McCloud episode so far, “Top of the World, Ma!”  The idea of the scene is that Bo Svenson’s character is such a rube he doesn’t know about tipping, and when the bellhop asserts himself, things get sort of heated.

Clearly, the actor playing the bellhop was chosen for his size, so there would be a visual contrast between him and the hulking Svenson.  Unfortunately, the poor guy was so small that they didn’t notice him when they typed up the end credits.

Anyone recognize this fellow?  Here’s another angle.  Give the guy a name, at least, if not a tip!

Actor Morgan Jones died on January 13 at the age of 84.  Jones logged more than a hundred appearances on television and in a few films from the early fifties through the mid-eighties.  Like many dozens of actors, he capped his career with a Murder, She Wrote role.  Jones looked older than he was, so you probably thought he’d died long ago.

Some of the obituaries will call him a character actor, but I don’t think that’s quite right; that term should be reserved for actors who had meaty, attention-getting parts in most of the things they did.  Jones, on the other hand, was emblematic of a different tier of actors – the familiar, comforting faces who didn’t get cast as characters with backstories or inner lives, but as narrative avatars who delivered exposition and moved the plot along.  Jones specialized in bland authority figures, military men or police officers, along with the occasional reporter or blue-collar working man.  The hierarchy is important here: if Jones played a cop, odds are he was the number-two detective, the one who stood in the background with a notepad and answered questions from the better-known actor playing the other detective.

Back, and to the left: Jones (with Arthur Franz) on The Invaders (“The Life Seekers,” 1968).

It should come as no surprise that Jones played federal agents in some Quinn Martin shows (The F.B.I. and O’Hara, U.S. Treasury).  He was also a regular on something called The Blue Angels (as a Navy officer), and a semi-regular on Highway Patrol (as a cop); The Rat Patrol (as an Army captain); The Young Rebels (demoted to a sergeant); and, extending his range to the max, as an Intertect researcher-cum-computer technician during the first season of Mannix.

I hope none of the above sounds condescending, because actors like Morgan Jones are favorites of television aficionados.  They perform a specific and rather hard-to-describe role in creating an alternate televisual reality across different shows, different genres, multiple decades.  When Jones’s solid frame and slightly beefy, slightly squinty face appeared on the screen, it announced a certain subliminal meaning: a piece of information was about to be conveyed, or a villain momentarily impeded.  Some of that came through Jones’s physique, or the various uniforms he often wore; but if you watched a lot of television, the idea came across even more clearly just through the frisson of recognition.

Finally, the usual refrain: Jones was on the list.  I would have loved to have interviewed him for this blog, but never got around to making the call.  Faster, I must move faster.

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