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where the classics never go out of style

Frank Sinatra’s 1965 Reprise album entitled September of My Years, with arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, has long been one of my very favorite Sinatra albums. Even when I was in my early teens, I would sing along with great conviction to this collection of songs that were all about growing older and looking back. While it was true that, like George Bailey, “I was born old,” even I wasn’t THAT old. Nevertheless, the album spoke to me. I was, and continue to be, mesmerized by it.

Sinatra adored the album’s arranger, Gordon Jenkins. In Will Friedwald’s 1995 book entitled, Sinatra! The Song Is You, Friedwald cites a quote from a late 1970s interview Gordon Jenkins gave to DJ (and game show host), Wink Martindale, stating, “The first time we worked together, a hundred people showed up because they thought it was going to be a free-for-all. He had a reputation for being tough to work with,” Jenkins recalled, “and I also have a reputation for not holding back. So the studio was just jammed [with people] waiting for the fight to start. And we never did have any fight, not ever. We have never had a cross word.”

To work with Sinatra for more than three decades and be able to say, “We have never had a cross word,” is a monumental achievement in and of itself. To have produced some of the greatest recordings of the twentieth century through that partnership is the stuff that legends are made of and both men, Sinatra and Jenkins, have to be considered legends of The Great American Songbook.

I am not a musician but I consider myself to be a fairly good judge of the great songs of the 1920s – 1970s, those songs from the Big Band Era, Broadway shows, and Hollywood films that have since been grouped together as The Great American Songbook. I remember being somewhat shocked years back when I read certain reviews and realized there were critics who weren’t crazy about Gordon Jenkins’ syrupy strings. I suppose from another source, I might be bored by all of it as well but when matched with Sinatra, it works. And Sinatra knew it worked. He wasn’t a trained musician but he enjoyed an incredible ear and an inherent sense of musicianship that rarely failed him. There’s no doubt he was a sucker for strings and string arrangements but he also knew how to use those strings and arrangements to elevate a syrupy love ballad into high art.

The video on this piece isn’t much to look at but you don’t need to. Just close your eyes and enjoy the magic of Gordon Jenkins and Frank Sinatra.

Gordon Jenkins had been one of the first people in the music business to recognize an audience for American Folk Music. He scored a huge hit with The Weavers and “Goodnight Irene” in 1950 when just about no one else in the music business wanted anything to do with the song. His confidence in the group’s ability to put over the song and his astute judgment in recording it, paid off handsomely for Jenkins.

When it came time to record the September of My Years album it’s only natural that Sinatra would turn to Gordon Jenkins. He had a track record with strings, sentimentality and folk music, all elements used to perfection in the September of My Years album. “It Was A Very Good Year,” the breakout song of the collection, had originally been recorded four years earlier by the Kingston Trio. Jenkins reworked the arrangement and turned it into a Sinatra classic. It was so recognizably masterful that when CBS News did an hour long portrait of Frank Sinatra in the fall of 1965 as he approached his 50th birthday, they taped a whole segment featuring Sinatra’s recording session of the song.

No one was more thrilled with Sinatra’s recording of “It Was A Very Good Year” than composer Ervin Drake. Frank’s recording no doubt made Mr. Drake a lot of money and well as elevating his song to iconic status.

This Sunday on my radio show I will do what I’ve done for a number of years now, I will play every cut from Jenkins’ & Sinatra’s September of My Years album. Please join us for some glorious music and memories, this Sunday, September 25, 2016 at 12:00 noon Eastern time on Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, New York. Remember, you can listen in from anywhere via our live web stream on our home page at www.jazz901.org  or just click HERE.

By the way, apropos of Sunday, September 25, 2016 – that will mark Charles Osgood’s last show as host of CBS News Sunday Morning. I avoid the news and magazine shows like the plague and yet, this has been one of my most favorite shows on television for well over a decade. Mr. Osgood will be sorely missed. He is an intelligent, gracious and witty host. We hope to continue to “see him on the radio.” Tune him in Sunday BEFORE my show – he’s on the CBS TV network from 9:00 – 10:30 am Eastern and I’m on at 12:00 noon – what a Sunday!!!

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There’s nothing better than an old Warner Brothers gangster film particularly if it stars Humphrey Bogart and has a little humor in it. I had DVR-ed King of the Underworld in August and decided to watch it the other night. I’d seen the film years ago but was happy to revisit it. It’s not a particularly memorable film but as long as it’s in black and white and boasts some familiar old faces, I’m always game to spend the time.

The story involves a Public Enemy No. 1 type named Joe Gurney played by Bogart. The gangster, proud of his ruthless record, is a student of Napoleon and is often seen reading a book about the famous French general. Nevertheless, his status as a scholar is quickly dismissed when he expresses great enthusiasm for being told he is “a moronic type,” thinking it’s a compliment and thereby confirming the designation.

Warner Brothers was the studio famous for gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. Most of these films were serious melodrama and/or social commentary. At some point, someone happily decided to have some fun with the genre and made some comedic gangster movie as well. For whatever reason, most of the out and out comedies starred Edward G. Robinson: The Little Giant (1933), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Brother Orchid (1940), and Larceny, Inc. (1942), to name but a few. However, Warners often employed humor to counterbalance the seriousness of their chronicles of the American gangster. How else would you explain the creation of “The Dead End Kids?” This group of hooligans was introduced in the drama Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sydney, and Joel McCrea but my introduction to them came from the film Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) with Cagney, Bogart, Pat O’Brien, and Ann Sheridan. It was the first Warner Brothers gangster film I ever saw.

King of the Underworld is nowhere near the classic that Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is but it’s entertaining nonetheless. As I always do when I see an old movie like this, I immediately head to IMDB to check out all the character actors that appeared in the film. I can easily lose myself searching through all the character actors and which film they did with whom, etc. In King of the Underworld, I noticed the name Joe Devlin. He’s the round-faced mug named Porky. In the video below, he’s the torpedo relaying the medical news to Bogie over the phone.

He was a recognizable face of the period but a player who usually snared only bit parts with little dialogue. In fact, Porky was quite a meaty part for Joe Devlin. As you peruse his IMDB page you’ll notice that he appeared “uncredited” in at least half of the 173 credits listed in his thirty active years from 1938 – 1967. What I noticed was something that was even unusual in the days of the studio system but completely impossible today. In 1939, the year King of the Underworld was released, Joe Devlin appeared in 17 different films. Yes, that’s right, 17 films!!! It would take many actors today the entire 30 years to accumulate parts in 17 films. He was uncredited in 12/17 of those films but it’s still a fascinating statistic when measured against modern day production methods and schedules.

By the way, I certainly didn’t intend to demean Edward G. Robinson’s comedic efforts above. He was terrific as the comic gangster. We’ll end today’s post with a trailer from one of my favorites – a movie that includes Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, and Paul Harvey. A veritable treasure trove of some of the best character faces ever!

 

 

 

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It was 40 years ago today that Frank Sinatra brought “a friend” out onto the Sahara stage in Las Vegas during the wee small hours of Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon. Frank had just finished singing and was laying some checks on Jerry and when they finished with the money transfers Frank said he had a friend that enjoyed what Jerry did each year and wanted to come out and say hello. Frank bellowed to the stage crew to have his friend come out. Amid roars of shock and delight, out walked Frank’s pal Dean Martin, the former partner of Jerry Lewis. It had long been rumored that the two had not spoken since their breakup in 1956. Sinatra decided this telethon, with a TV audience in the millions, was the proper place for a public reconciliation and he was the peacemaker who should design the truce.

I didn’t see it live because it happened around 2:00 am in the East but Lewis played the exchange again late in the telethon after he was a bit more composed. I’m running off to do my radio show right now but I’ll write more later. For now, enjoy this tidbit of show biz history from 40 years ago today!

*** POST SHOW EPILOGUE ***

All I wanted to add is a certain trick my memory has played on me over the years about this event. It may be because I think of this event as having happened so long age (which it did) but for whatever reason, I always remember, or rather think I remember my dad watching this with the rest of our family late in the afternoon as Jerry talked about the reunion and replayed the video. It happened in the last hour or two of the telethon and everyone was at our house because, believe it or not, we really did have Labor Day barbecues back in those days. Imagine that, instead of running out to the store to buy sheets or to the nearest car dealership to buy a new car, people gathered at home with family and friends to enjoy that last weekend of summer fun. I guess, if nothing else, that should remind me just how long ago it was.

Anyway, I’ve always thought of my dad being with us as we watched this little moment of show biz history and yet, it’s not possible. My dad died in March of 1976, nearly six months prior to the Labor Day Telethon. Perhaps it was because it was so soon after his death? Perhaps it was because it was a “where were you when” moment? Perhaps it was because we were all gathered together in a way we had done every year when he was with us?  Or maybe it’s just that as I get older, I want to remember more of my memories with my dad in them. The older I get, the more minuscule those 12 years I had with him look to me.

Whatever the circumstances, much like the clip I posted the other night of Jackie Gleason and Johnny Carson, I’m grateful I was around in time to know who all these guys were and to enjoy some of their talents before that whole era just disappeared. And thank goodness for audio, video and film archives!!

Happy Labor Day.

 

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I have no idea why I’m up at 12:45 am but I’ve had some trouble sleeping lately so I was searching around on YouTube and came up with this gem from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1986. I’ve written on this site about Johnny Carson more than once and how much I loved his reign on The Tonight Show but that’s not what I’m talking about tonight. No, this post is to spotlight the one-of-a-kind life, presence, and accomplishments of Jackie Gleason. I actually wrote about Jackie this past February on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. You can find that post HERE.

However, as I sat watching this next clip just moments ago I couldn’t help but smile and be grateful that I grew up in a time where I knew very well who Jackie Gleason was. I was born in 1964 so by the time I came along, “The Original 39” episodes of The Honeymooners was already nine years old.  Not that it mattered, since the reruns were on TV every night. I did grow up with the color version of The Honeymooners that were part of a variety show Gleason did every Saturday night from 1966 – 1970. Amazingly, I remember quite vividly sitting on the ottoman in our family room watching the camera zoom in over the water and the announcer saying, “From Miami Beach . . . it’s The Jackie Gleason Show!”

But these few moments of Gleason reminiscing with Johnny Carson are really sweet for two reasons. First of all, you rarely saw Johnny really impressed by a guest as he is so obviously in this clip. And second, it’s bittersweet because this appearance seemed as “a summing up” of his life and, in fact, he would be gone less than two years later. Jackie Gleason was the last of the dinosaurs, GIANTS of comedy and show biz that once trod the boards and lit up the screens of theaters and our homes. Guys like Gleason came up the hard way, honing their craft in saloons, strip clubs, burlesque theaters, vaudeville houses and nightclubs. They could pretty much do it all.

In Gleason’s case, as is mentioned here by Carson, his was an extravagant life and style and for better or for worse, he did have a certain authentic style. He was who he was. There are personalities around today who present a certain style but it all seems rehearsed and inauthentic. Audiences give standing ovations to people on talk shows who are reality stars! Admiration is no longer earned, it’s coached. You are prepped by these shows to go crazy for the host and the guests so that no response is actually earned, just programmed.

Jackie Gleason was authentic, he was unique, he was a star!

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Hal Linden a couple of times in the past few weeks. In addition to being a very nice man, he’s incredible talented. Most people will remember him as the Solomon-like Capt. Barney Miller, chief of the detectives at the 12th Precinct in Lower Manhattan, from the ABC TV show Barney Miller, (1975 – 1982). However, he began his long career as a musician, playing clarinet/sax and singing in the Big Bands. He eventually shifted into acting and spent many years on Broadway, even winning a Tony Award for his role in The Rothchilds, (1971), before heading to Hollywood and lasting fame as Barney Miller.

Poking around YouTube this afternoon, I found this marvelous clip from the 1976 Tony Awards in which he, Leslie Uggams, Michelle Lee, and Clifton Davis render an impressive 15 minute medley of Broadway tunes from shows that DID NOT win the Tony Award as Best Musical!

I apologize that the video is not very good but have no fear, the talent and the music is tremendous!!

Happy Weekend!!

 

 

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There have been dozens of written tributes to Gene Wilder since his passing this past Monday. By all accounts, he was a wonderful, kind, sensitive man. I didn’t know the man but his friends and associates seem united in their appreciation. What I do know is his talent was special.

Gene Wilder had an unusual ability to play characters who seemed to be “on the edge.” Nowadays, I think most of us feel that way but when Mr. Wilder was racking up hits from the 1960s – 1980s, people were expected to maintain a certain composure as they went about their daily lives. His characters tried but fortunately failed more often than not to do so.

The 1960s and ’70s was a particularly inspired period for Gene Wilder. In just over a decade, he brought to life a series of unforgettable film characters: Eugene Grizzard, Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, and Dr. Frederick “Fronk”enstein to name but a few. “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein remain favorites of mine to this day, more than forty years since I first viewed them. They are timelessly charming, engaging, and funny. In both films, as it is with every great piece of theater and/or film, the writing is a key ingredient to its success. However, I don’t think either of those films would be as beloved today as they are if it weren’t for the contribution of Gene Wilder. Both characterizations offer a sense of narcissism mixed with vulnerability making outrageous characters seem relatable to us all.

Most tend to forget that “Young Frankenstein” was Wilder’s idea and he teamed up with Mel Brooks to bring it to cinematic life. Instead, we just lump it in as “a Mel Brooks movie” but it really wasn’t. It was a Wilder/Brooks creation. Two brilliant creative minds working together to create one the most unforgettable films in movie history.

Thank you Gene Wilder, your talent will live forever.

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This has been an awful year for character actors. Since February, we’ve lost George Kennedy, Doris Roberts, William Schallert, Ann Morgan Guilbert, David Huddleston, Jack Riley, and now, Marvin Kaplan. And that’s just a partial list!!

It’s no secret that I love the character actors and actresses that have filled the big and small screens over the last 100 years. Amazingly, I now know a number of them well enough to call or e-mail them. I consider that a great privilege and while I don’t like to make generalizations, I’m very comfortable in saying that nearly every single character actor/actress I have ever met, spoken to, or interviewed has been an incredibly kind and accommodating individual. There is a certain humility built in to the people who are supporting players. On the surface, it seems like a natural trait since their names are not what’s going to sell a producer of a financial backer on a project. That said, we’ve all met a multitude of people throughout our lives who like to exaggerate their own importance. In Hollywood, it’s easy to get a swelled head over the most minor turns at celebrity and yet these actors/actresses do not. My guess would be that the professionalism and humility of these great performers is often what keeps them in front of the cameras for years on end.

I first interviewed Sal Viscuso (SOAP, M*A*S*H, Barney Miller) years ago for an article I was writing and as we were discussing various roles and actors, we came to a certain actor who had enjoyed some substantial popularity over the years and I said, “I never warmed to him. I just always got the feelings that behind the scenes he was probably a jerk.” Sal chuckled and said, “You’ve got good instincts.” He went on to explain that even the greatest actors can’t help but have some of their own personality seep into whatever role they’re playing. That would explain why, as I wrote of Jack Riley earlier this week, even though he played a rather miserable character in Elliot Carlin, you couldn’t help but love the guy. There must have been something in Elliot Carlin that signaled Jack Riley’s humanity to the audience. The same can be said for Marvin Kaplan.

Kaplan often played the nebbish, a mild-mannered little guy who couldn’t get out of his own way and yet, he always made you smile and laugh with him as opposed to laughing at him. He exuded a certain warmth that made you just want to hug the guy! And then there was the voice, oh what a voice! It’s not surprising I should have a soft spot for Marvin Kaplan since one of my earliest cartoon favorites was the series Top Cat. Marvin Kaplan provided the voice of Choo Choo for the Hanna-Barbera classic and he, and that entire cast, are indelibly etched into my mental scrapbook of fond childhood memories.

Kaplan’s longest running role was probably as Henry in the TV show Alice (1978-1985). He was also a regular on a TV show called Meet Millie, (1952-1955), but it was such an early show that few people, including this writer, have ever heard of it. Length of time notwithstanding, I think the role, or just the scene, for which Marvin Kaplan will always be remembered comes from the 1963 film classic, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Marvin and his partner Arnold Stang are the proprietors of a service station out in the middle of the California desert. It’s a clean, friendly little place until one day Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters come into their life and turn their dreams, and their station, upside down. If you are familiar with the movie you’re probably smiling or laughing to yourself right now. If you’ve NEVER seen the movie, you’re out of luck here because the scene is not on YouTube. However, now you have the added incentive to go out and find, buy, or rent a copy of the movie and watch it in its entirety. In addition to boasting some of the funniest scenes and performances ever, it is essentially a “Who’s Who” of comedy from the first 50 years of Hollywood up to the time this movie was produced, 1913-1963.

Like Jack Riley, Marvin Kaplan seems to have been one of those guys who was loved and respected by all who knew him. The only frustration for fans of the great character actors like myself, is you can’t easily type in the name of one of these giants and find material highlighting their best work on YouTube or similar sites. Nevertheless, let’s enjoy this brief bit of storytelling from Mr. Kaplan about how he landed the role in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and how he survived it.

 

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We learned last week of the passing of another truly great character actor, Jack Riley. He was most famous to my generation as Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show which ran on CBS from 1972 – 1978. It was one of the quirkier, and most hilarious, characterizations on network TV during the 1970s and that’s really saying something!

Mr. Carlin was neurotic beyond compare. He could have invented the concept of “low self-esteem.” However, the aspect of his personality that was refreshingly different from his own self-loathing was his contempt for almost everyone with whom he came in contact. Who can forget his torture of the other members of Dr. Hartley’s group counseling session. Ultimately though, you had to like, or at least sympathize, with Mr. Carlin because he was the living embodiment of the phrase, “you can’t like others until you like yourself.”

Most of the actors/actresses who were favorites of mine from my childhood are known only to my children through their watching DVDs with me of classic TV shows. Jack Riley, however, was different. He was an integral part of one of my kids favorite shows from their own childhood, Rugrats, (1991 – 2005). For that matter, Rugrats was probably my favorite of their shows to watch with them. Many of the kid’s shows of that time were pretty dumbed down. Rugrats, on the other hand, was unusually clever and funny while still being age appropriate for the little ones. Riley was the voice of Stu Pickles. He was a dreamer. He stayed at home working on his inventions and taking care of the kids. He was a loving but goofy father. In other words, every kid’s dream dad.

Riley was one another one of those people in Hollywood whose life was full of friends and admirers. Those who knew him intimately or casually all described him as a warm, funny, and loyal human being. Sadly, I never got to know Mr. Riley but his work brought me a great deal of happiness. He can go to his rest secure in the knowledge that his brilliance in front of the camera will continue to delight viewers for decades to come.

 

 

 

 

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Today marks the 90th birthday of the quintessential lounge singer Armando “Buddy” Greco.

Greco is one of those guys who I knew very little about when I began my radio show 16 years ago. Originally, my show was “a celebration of the Italian American influence on the Great American Songbook.” Which basically means I was desperate to find Italian American singers and musicians whose music I could play. The husband of one of my mom’s friends asked me early in the run why I didn’t play more Buddy Greco. I had bought a CD of Greco’s music which was terrible. I mean it was the worst of the 1970s. I was to learn that it was the proverbial “bad apple” that I allowed to ruin “the barrel” of my opinion. It was a misguided ’70s experiment. The bulk of Greco’s output genuinely swings.

I gave it another try and bought a CD compilation of some of Greco’s music from the late 1950s and early 1960s and enjoyed it very much. It did have a lounge lizard feel to it but there was little doubt that the guy had something. The “something” he had was real musical ability. After I’d played some of his vocals on the air someone asked me if I had any of his piano music and yet another layer was peeled away. Who knew he was such a fine jazz piano player too?

I was watching some of Greco’s videos on YouTube the other day and my son said, “It sounds like he’s ripping off Bobby Darin.” I told him that his assessment was understandable as their styles were/are quite similar. However, the truth is that Buddy Greco was on the scene at least ten years before Bobby Darin.

In the end, music is totally objective. I love some quirky musical talents that many people do not like and there are many, many popular musical acts that I have just never appreciated. Say what you will about Buddy Greco but he knows how to swing!

Happy 90th Buddy. May you enjoy many, many more!

I’d like to point out just one thing before you watch this next clip – Greco is 82 years old as he tickles the ivories on this Harnick/Bock classic, “She Loves Me.”

I am thrilled to find these clips from 1966. Not only do they feature Buddy and Andy Williams but also one of my dad’s favorite performers – Trini Lopez! Andy and Buddy are clearly out of their element in the Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” number but it hardly matters. This is just wonderful stuff!!

If you want to hear more from Buddy, tune into The Sunday Music Festa this afternoon, Sunday, August 14, 2016 at 12:00 noon until 2:00 p.m. on Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, New York. Not in Rochester, you say? No big deal, you can pick up our live webstream HERE. Come join the fun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just as we learned of the passing of the great character actor, David Huddleston, my friend Dr. Tim also discovered that another great character actor, John McMartin, passed away last month on July 6, 2016. You may not immediately know their names but if you watched any film or television in the last 50 years, you will recognize both men.

John McMartin always played a professional man: a doctor, a corporate lawyer, something along those lines. He worked in every genre from soap opera to comedy which, come to think of it, is basically the same thing. One of my clearest memories of McMartin was in the role of Reverend Daniel Bradford in an episode of The Bob Newhart Show. Reverend Bradford went to psychologist Bob Hartley to talk about his misgivings about his chosen profession. He liked his work but didn’t like the fact that everyone treated him differently once they learned what he did for a living. As with all great comedy, it was treated with seriousness and a dry, deliberate delivery which made it all the funnier.

McMartin also appeared on two more of my favorite programs of the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Rockford Files. Like all of the best character actors, McMartin seemed to be everywhere, all the time. He leaves behind an impressive resume of work.

As for David Huddleston, like McMartin, he was a ubiquitous Hollywood player. He played everything from a cowboy to a CEO and a Senator to Santa Claus. Huddleston appeared multiple times on such TV classics as Bewitched, Ironside, Gunsmoke, and The Waltons. It seems only fitting that he would work in a couple of The Waltons‘ episodes since he was in the TV movie that inspired the series, 1971’s The Homecoming. Coincidentally, he appeared in another huge TV movie event of 1971, the film Brian’s Song based on the friendship between Chicago Bears football players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. Brian’s Song remains famous as one of the first movies in which men felt comfortable crying.

Huddleston also appeared as “The Big Man himself, no not God – the other one, Santa Claus, in the 1985 film of the same name. It received less than stellar reviews on its initial release but like so many other Christmas movies, has found a second life in repeated seasonal showings. I’ve actually never seen it so I may have to order a copy.

Finally, I doubt Huddleston would have considered it his greatest role but it might be his most memorable, he played Olsen Johnson in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles (1973). His character’s name is actually an inside show biz joke in a series of jokes about the “Johnson” name in the film. In this scene, Huddleston stands up for authentic frontier gibberish.

And here’s a memorable turn from John McMartin as a smarmy doctor on Cheers.

I love show business and it’s history and there is truly nothing I love more than the innumerable character players that are the seasoning to all our favorite TV and movie dishes. The great thing about entertainment of the last century is that so much of it is preserved on film so that all of these great actors and actresses that we come to think of as “friends,” never truly leave us. Their spirits live on in countless memorable performances.

In this incredible clip, which I have to assume comes from the set of Rio Lobo (1970), David Huddleston explains the five stages of an actor’s life much to the delight of the Duke, John Wayne.

 

 

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