Monday, July 15, 2019

Good Riddance: Lee Harvey Oswald

Six Feet Under Hollywood was created to describe some of the hundreds of burial sites I've visited through my travels.  While I mostly find the graves of Hollywood elite, I also encounter the graves of historical figures, news personalities, U.S. presidents, and in the case of this blog, a presidential assassin.  Keep in mind that I am no fan of this guy, but I have found his grave, and what you'll see there is really rather shocking.  But more on that later.

Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans on October 18, 1939.  His father, a U.S. Marine who served in World War I, died of a heart attack two months before he was born.  When Oswald was five, his mother moved him and his half-brother to Dallas.

It was the first of many moves for the family, as Oswald would attend schools in Texas, the Bronx and New Orleans.  While he was a voracious reader, he had a learning disability that diminished his ability to spell correctly.  Still, he often wrote in a journal.

By 15, Oswald considered himself a Marxist.  As he wrote in his journal, "I was looking for a key to my environment, and then I discovered socialist literature.  I had to dig for my books in the back of dusty shelves of libraries."

Oswald never graduated from high school.  Following his 17th birthday, he followed in his father's footsteps and enlisted as a Marine.  He was still under age however, and needed his family's consent to enlist.  His half-brother Robert signed on his behalf.

He was trained as a radar technician, for which he seemed quite proficient.  And like all Marines, he was trained in the use of firearms, for which, unfortunately, he also proved quite adept at, scoring high enough to be ranked as a sharpshooter.

While Oswald seemed capable as a Marine, he seemed unable to get along with those with whom he served.  He was court-martialed no less than three times, one of which was for accidentally shooting himself.   He would often espouse Marxist doctrine to his fellow Marines, who quickly gave him the nickname "Oswaldskovich."  His tour came to an end in 1959, when he received a hardship discharge, claiming his mother needed him to come home.

A month after his discharge, Oswald traveled to the Soviet Union, where he quickly announced his desire to defect.  They didn't want him however, and in a bid to prove just how serious he was, he attempted suicide in his hotel room just as his visa was set to expire.  He survived the attempt and earned himself an extended stay in a Russian looney bin.

Following his release he was allowed to stay in the country.  He took a job in a factory and stayed for a few years.  Then in 1961, he related in his journal that he'd grown tired of Russia, stating that "the work is drab, the money I get has nowhere to be spent.  No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances.  I have had enough."  As he had never officially renounced his U.S. citizenship, he returned to the U.S. with his Russian bride Marina.

The Texas School Book Depository.
Over the next two years, they'd live in Dallas, New Orleans and Mexico, before finally returning to Dallas for the last time.  It was now October of 1963.  He took a job as a shipping clerk at the Texas School Book Depository. 

As everyone reading this knows, it was from this location where, just one month later, Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy as his presidential motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.  Oswald fired three rifle shots from the sixth floor window, killing Kennedy and seriously wounding Texas Governor John Connally.  One bystander was also wounded by shrapnel.  Here's a clip of the infamous Zapruder film capturing the incident. 

Celebrated journalist Walter Cronkite broke into CBS's daytime drama "As the World Turns" with the news that shocked the world.  You can watch that pre-emption here.

But Oswald wasn't finished yet.  Fleeing the book depository, he returned to his rooming house and gathered a few items.  As he was leaving, he was spotted by Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippit, who thought Oswald bore a resemblance to the description of the shooter.  As Tippit began to question him, Oswald shot him four times, killing him instantly.

Oswald fled to a local movie threatre, ducking into a picture called Cry of Battle.   Apparently everyone has forgotten this film, as I can't find any clips of it online.  His odd behavior caught the attention of several local merchants who quickly contacted the authorities.  Officers arrived to arrest him for Tippit's murder, still unaware of his connection to Kennedy.  The house lights were brought up, and Oswald appeared to surrender. Instead, he pulled a pistol from his pants and attempted to shoot at the officers but was unsuccessful as his pistol jammed. He was taken into custody.

Robert H. Jackson of the Dallas Times Herald
won the Pulitzer Prize for capturing this iconic
image of Oswald's assassination.

Police were able to connect the dots and tie Oswald to the assassination of Kennedy.  He vehemently denied having any part in either killing, but would never have his day in court.  One day after the assassination, Oswald was himself assassinated on live TV.  You can watch that footage here.

Police arrested Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, who said he had been distraught by the death of Kennedy and had hoped to spare his widow the drama of a lengthy trial.

Oswald was buried in Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park in Fort Worth two days later.  Reporters who were covering the service were asked to serve as pallbearers.  Ugh.

Oswald's grave attracts a lot of visitors, who oddly like to decorate it.  The grass
leading to the grave has long since worn out.

Oswald and Marina had two children, who now have kids of their own. 
Ironically, I shot these photos on the anniversary of Oswald's death and it
appears that his grandchildren came to pay their respects.

  • Oswald's father was a distant cousin of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, for whom the boy was named.

  • Television producer Donald Bellisario (Magnum, P.I.) was himself a Marine who encountered Oswald during his service.  Watch him discuss that encounter here.  Years later, following the release of Oliver Stone's JFK, a film with which he greatly disagreed, Bellisario addressed the assassination on his NBC series Quantum LeapHere's how the series presented the assassination.

  • On October 4, 1981, Oswald's body was exhumed in order to confirm its identity, as conspiracy theories claimed that a Russian lookalike was buried in his place.  Dental records confirmed the corpse as that of Oswald.  He was reburied in a new coffin however, as the original had so badly degraded.

  • The original coffin was held in a Fort Worth funeral home for nearly 30 years.  Then in 2010, it employed a Los Angeles area auction house in an attempt to sell the coffin.  A private bidder won the coffin for $87,468 (!).  However, upon reading of the auction in the papers, Oswald's brother Robert, still very much alive, sued to get it back, ultimately prevailing in court.  He had the coffin destroyed and died himself shortly thereafter.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

There Goes the Neighborhood: Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield was born Jacob Rodney Cohen on November 22, 1921 in Long Island, New York.  He was the son of Vaudeville performer Phillip Cohen, who abandoned his family shortly after Rodney was born.  Talk about no respect!

Young Rodney helped his mother financially by delivering groceries and by selling newspapers and ice cream.  But by 15, he had already developed a keen sense of humor and began selling jokes instead, this time at a club in upstate New York.

After he turned 19, he legally changed his name to Jack Roy and turned professional.  It was tough going for several years though, and he'd often find himself taking regular jobs to now support his own wife and family.  After nine years in the business, with little to show for it, he retired.  He'd later quip "at the time I quit, I was the only one who knew I quit."

In the early 1960s, he began reviving his career.  He played a number of clubs in the Catskills, many of which were off the beaten trail.  "I played one club, " Rodney related.  "It was so far out, my act was reviewed in Field and Stream."

Jack Benny, the original
Rodney Dangerfield.
Realizing he needed an image to jumpstart his career, he adopted the role of the lovable loser.  Jack Roy just wasn't bringing in the crowds, so he also knew he'd need a new moniker.  Thus was born Rodney Dangerfield, a name that he, ahem, "borrowed" from Jack Benny, who had used the name on his radio program of the 1940s.  Strangely enough, the name had also been used by Ricky Nelson on his series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett.  The more you know.....

March 5, 1967 was a turning point in Dangerfield's career.  Ed Sullivan needed a last-minute replacement for his variety show, and Dangerfield got the part.  You can watch a subsequent Sullivan appearance here.

It revived his career and he soon began performing in Vegas.  He would also make frequent return visits to The Ed Sullivan Show as well as Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show, back when that show was funny.  Here's one such appearanceHere's another.

In 1969, he opened up his Dangerfield's Comedy Club in New York City.  It became a huge success, helping to launch the careers of such notables as Ray Ramono and Jay Leno.  It's still in operation today, and you can visit their web site here.

1st Avenue and 61st Street, New York City.
In 1980, Rodney released his album No Respect, which quickly earned him a Grammy (!).  You can listen to the album in its entirety here.

That same year, he'd appear in the comedy classic Caddyshack.  Here's his introduction in the film.

The film's success led to starring roles for Dangerfield, including the 1983 classic Easy Money.  Watch the trailer here. And here he is promoting it on Carson.

Then in 1986, he'd star in the most successful film of his career, Back to School. You can watch the trailer here.  And here he is learning history from a relatively unknown Sam Kinison.

A few years later, Rodney took a more serious role in 1994's Natural Born Killers.  In typical Dangerfield fashion, he wrote all of his own lines.

The following year, Dangerfield was nominated for acceptance into the Motion Picture Academy, but he was denied membership by then-President Roddy McDowell, the same guy who played a talking monkey in the Planet of the Apes franchise. Fans protested the decision, but Rodney ended all debate declaring he'd never wanted membership in the first place.  So there.

In 2000, Dangerfield returned to film, with a role in Adam Sandler's Little Nicky.  Watch him play Lucifer ruling over hell here.  Word of caution: This film won multiple Razzie Awards, and it's not hard to see why.

In 2001, Dangerfield suffered a heart attack while backstage at Jay Leno's The Tonight Show.  I wonder who they got to replace him that night.  Then in 2003, he underwent brain surgery to improve blood flow in preparation for heart surgery.  Jesus.  At the hospital, he uttered another classic when asked how long he'd be in for.  "If all goes well," he said, "about a week.  If not, about an hour and a half."  He died two months later however, having spent the final weeks of his life in a coma.

He was laid to rest at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village in it's famed Celebrity Row, where this author, and thousands more annually, come to pay their respect.

Rest in peace Rodney!

  • Rodney's role in Caddyshack was originally written to be much smaller than how it actually appears in the final film.  He proved so adept at improvisation however that it was greatly expanded.  Several of his co-stars were less than thrilled by this, including Ted Knight.

  • Throughout the 80s, Rodney appeared in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer. Here's the most famous of them.

  • In 1990, Rodney shot the pilot for a new NBC sit-com entitled Where's Rodney? I never heard of it either.  The series focused on a young boy named Rodney who could conjure up Dangerfield as a sort of guardian angel whenever he needed advice.  Yikes.  You can watch the show's intro here.  Look for a post-Punky Brewster Soleil Moon Frye among the cast as well as perpetual guest star Jay Thomas.

  • In 2004, Rodney released his autobiography It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.  Pick up a copy on Amazon.