Saturday, April 25, 2020

Superfriend to the End

Norman Alden wasn't a household name.  But character actors die too, and sooner or later they end up on this blog.  While his name may not ring a bell, you've surely seen him in films and on TV, or heard his voice in Saturday morning cartoons, most famously as Aquaman on the original Superfriends.  Here's a sample of him in that role.

He was born Norman Adelberg in Fort Worth, Texas on September 13, 1924.  Like many in his generation, he joined the Army after high school and served his country during World War 2.  After the war, he returned to Fort Worth and attended Texas Christian University under the GI Bill of Rights.

Norman's alter ego.
After earning his degree, Alden started receiving bit parts and guest roles on television, on such series as The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Adam-12 and The Andy Griffith Show.  Then in 1973, he was cast as Aquaman during the freshman season of The Superfriends.  Alden would later be replaced in the role by William Callaway.

This wasn't his only venture into Saturday morning television however.  In 1976, he was cast in the live-action Sid and Marty Krofft production Electra Woman and Dyna Girl.  It was a featured series of the hour-long Krofft Super Show, which included other productions, including Wonderbug, Dr. Shrinker and Magic Mongo.  Alden played Frank Heflin, a computer genius and the brains of the outfit, alongside an unknown Deidre Hall in the title role, and a still-unknown Judy Strangis as her female Boy Wonder.

Electra groovy!
Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, Alden continued to make guest appearances on television, on series such as Dallas, Welcome Back, Kotter, and Night Court.  In 1985, he returned to the big screen, in what many consider to be his most famous role, that of Lou in Back to the Future, a 1955 diner owner who has a hard time understanding 1985's Michael J. Fox.  Watch the scene in its entirety here.

Alden's last role of note was in the 1994 film Ed Wood, as Cameraman Bill.

"Tab? I can't give you a Tab unless you order something!"
Norman Alden died of natural causes on July 27, 2012.  He was interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Beth Olam Mausoleum (outside wall)
South Wall
Elevation 3
Crypt G-130
Rest with the fishes, Aquaman.

  • Throughout the 1970s, Alden appeared in a series of commercials for AC Delco as Lou the Mechanic.  Watch one such commercial here.

  • While most famous for voicing Aquaman, Alden had previously appeared on the live-action Adam West Batman series as "Henchman #1," in the dual episode "The Joker Trumps an Ace/Batman Sets the Pace."

  • Alden played the title character in the 1965 film Andy, the story of a mentally handicapped man in his middle ages and the elderly parents who still care for him.   You can watch the film in its entirety here.

  • Alden appeared in two episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard playing Sheriff Lacey of neighboring Springville County.

  • In 1986, Alden appeared in an episode of the sit-com Small Wonder, unaware that it had been written by his cousin, Jack Gross.

  • Aquaman wasn't the only cartoon character voiced by Alden.  He was also in the original Transformers series as a robot named Kranix.  Watch him meet his doom in this clip.  Ironically, his character can't swim.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Rascal to the End

Carl Dean Switzer, aka Alfalfa, was born in Paris, Illinois, on August 7, 1927.  He was the third of four children to Scottish and German immigrants.  Like his older brother Harold, Carl loved to perform and was adept at several musical instruments.  The two often performed together in their local community.

In 1934, the family came to Hollywood on vacation.  While there, they toured Hal Roach Studios, which had been producing the Our Gang series of shorts for nearly a decade.  The series featured "real kids" as Roach described them, and included several who would go on to enjoy lucrative careers in Hollywood, including Jackie Cooper and Robert Blake (the less said about the latter the better).

While dining at the studio cafeteria, the Switzer brothers began an impromptu performance, which immediately caught Roach's eye.  He signed both brothers on the spot.

Carl and Harold Switzer.
Carl of course, was cast as "Alfalfa," and would enjoy great success in the role, eventually surpassing series lead George "Spanky" McFarland in popularity.  Harold wasn't as successful however, being cast first as "Slim" then "Deadpan," before finally being relegated to the background.

Carl played Alfalfa for six years, finally retiring from the role in 1940.  At age 12.  He continued acting in Hollywood, but like many in his profession, he found himself typecast, and good roles were hard to come by.  For the next decade, he took uncredited bit parts.  He looked for other moneymaking ventures, and turned his love of dogs into a profession.  He bred and trained hunting and guide dogs and often led guided hunting expeditions.  His clients were nothing short of Hollywood royalty, and included Roy Rogers, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

One of his other clients was Moses Samuel Stiltz.  Switzer agreed to train a hunting dog for Stiltz, but he lost the dog when it took off after a bear.  Switzer offered $35 of his own money as reward for the dog's return.  A few days later, a man claimed the reward, when he brought the dog to a lounge where Switzer tended bar.  Switzer also thanked him by buying $15 worth of drinks for the good Samaritan.

Moses Samuel "Bud" Stiltz.
After thinking and drinking about it for a few days, Switzer decided that Stiltz owed him the $50.  Accompanied by his friend Jack Piott, Switzer went to the home where Stiltz was staying and skipped past all the pleasantries.

"Let me in, or I'll kick in the door," Switzer declared, without even so much as a hello.  "I want that $50 you owe me and I mean now!"

Once inside the house, Switzer attached Stiltz with a glass-domed clock, causing him to bleed from his eye.  Stiltz retreated to his bedroom and retrieved a .38-caliber revolver.  After a brief struggle for the gun, Switzer pulled a knife and screamed "I'm going to kill you" at Stiltz.  Fearing for his life, Stiltz shot him in the groin, causing massive internal bleeding.  Switzer was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The shooting was ruled self-defense, and Stiltz was never charged.  However, 42 years later, on January 25, 2001, a new version of events was presented by Stiltz's stepson, Tom Corrigan, who as a child had been present on the night of the incident.

According to Corrigan, Stiltz's wife opened the front door for Switzer, after he jokingly said "Western Union for Bud Stiltz."  Corrigan stated that although Switzer was drunk and demanded the $50, it was Stiltz who had been the aggressor, grabbing his gun when there was no immediate threat from either Switzer or Piott.  Corrigan also claimed that it had been Piott who had smashed the clock over Stiltz's head, which in this version, was done only after Stiltz had brandished his weapon.  Finally, Corrigan stated that as he left the house, he heard Stiltz fire the gun and turned to see a stunned Switzer slide to the floor.  Stiltz then allegedly grabbed Piott and shoved him against a kitchen counter, but stopped short of shooting him as police sirens were heard outside.  Although fascinating, Corrigan's claims have never been validated and the case remains closed.

Switzer was interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Garden of Memory
Grave 6
Lot 26

  • Switzer was not well liked by his co-stars, as he often played practical jokes on them, which held up production.  Ironically, his best friend from the series was actor Tommy Bond, who played Alfalfa's antagonist "Butch."

  • Switzer's final acting role of note was in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life.  Watch him annoy Jimmy Stewart in this clip.  He comes in at the 40 second mark.

  • The house where Switzer died is located at 10400 Columbus Street in Hollywood.  Join Big Bill Anderson's tour of the house in this video.

  • In a final indignity, Switzer died on the same day as celebrated Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who's death stole all the headlines.  Ironically, the two are buried in the same cemetery.

  • Author Olivia Watson investigated the case for her book The Murder of Alfalfa.  Pick up a copy here.

  • Switzer's co-star Darla Hood, who died in 1979, is also interred at Hollywood Forever, just a short distance from him.

  • While its natural to assume that the dog on Switzer's marker is a reference to Our Gang's Petey, it isn't.  It's a nod to his later profession.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Top Stooge

I gotta admit. This one surprised me.  Every week I conduct a poll on Facebook to determine who gets profiled here next.  This time it was a Three Stooges poll.  To my shock, Moe was the clear winner.  I never would have guessed that.

Moses Harry Horwitz (Moe Howard) was born in Brooklyn on June 19, 1897.  He was the fourth born of five sons to Lithuanian immigrants.  Two of his older brothers, Benjamin and Irving, were not involved in show business.  But Moe, older brother Shemp and younger brother Curley would all become household names as The Three Stooges.

Moe never had much interest in education, often playing hookey from school.  The truant officer usually found him in the same place - standing outside a local playhouse.  Moe would often ask passersby to give him the ten-cent admission price, so he could spend the day watching live performances.  He formally ended his education by dropping out of high school to pursue acting full time.

Ted Healy and His Three Stooges.
By age 16, Moe was already performing in nightclubs, along with Shemp, until their father put an end to it.  He then joined a traveling minstrel show on a Mississippi riverboat for two seasons.

His big break didn't come until 1921, when he joined his childhood friend Ted Healy in a vaudeville routine.  During one stage performance, Shemp heckled the duo from the audience, and the repartee between the three was so entertaining that Shemp was made a permanent  member of the act.  Violinist Larry Fine would join the act in 1928.  Just one year later, the three would strike out on their own following a disagreement with Healy.

The three traveled the country together over the next four years, until Shemp left the group in 1933.  Moe suggested that they recruit younger brother Curley as the new stooge, and in that moment, history was made.

In 1934, the stooges signed with Columbia Pictures.  There they stayed until 1957, producing a total of 190 short films.  Watch the iconic intros here.  While Moe and Larry would remain constants throughout, Curley left the group midway following a stroke.  They'd see a score of replacement stooges, including former act member Shemp, and comedians Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, none of whom would ever replicate Curley's charm.

The Stooges received no residuals for their work, and sought other avenues of employment when their contracts finally expired.  Moe had some minor, walk-on roles in films and television, but he also sold real estate, a profession he had pursued earlier in his life.  He often appeared as a guest on the talk show The Mike Douglas Show, including this episode from 1973.

By 1975, Moe's lifelong nicotine habit had finally caught up with him.  In April that year, he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he died of lung cancer on May 4th, just three months after fellow Stooge Larry Fine.  He was 78.

Moe was interred at Hillside Memorial Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Garden of Memories
Alcove of Love
Wall C
Crypt #233

Rest in peace, knucklehead.

  • Moe created his distinctive hairstyle when still just a boy, as his mother refused to cut his hair, allowing it to grow down to his shoulders.  He would often retreat to the family woodshed to do the job himself, thus explaining the odd-looking bowl cut that he is always associated with.

  • Moe's wife Helen Schonberger, with whom he had two children, was a cousin of Harry Houdini.

  • Moe was working on his autobiography at the time of his death.  It was posthumously released as Moe Howard and The Three Stooges.  Pick up a copy from Amazon.

  • On August 30, 1983, The Three Stooges were posthumously given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1560 Vine Street.  Look for it in front of the Camden Apartment Building.

  • Philadelphia is home to the world's only museum devoted to The Three Stooges, the aptly named "Stoogeum."  It's well worth a detour on your next trip, but call ahead, as tours are by appointment only.  You can visit their web site here.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Surely You Can't Be Serious!

Leslie William Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan on February 11, 1926.  Dude was Canadian.  I had no idea.  He was the second of three boys to his mother, an immigrant from Wales and his father, who was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Nielsen's uncle was Jean Hersholt, a Danish actor who immigrated to America and had made a respectable name for himself in Hollywood.  It was from his uncle that Nielsen himself would have aspirations of becoming an actor.  In 1994, he told the Boston Globe "I did learn very early that when I would mention my uncle, people would look at me as if I were the biggest liar in the world.  Then I would take them home and show them 8x10 glossies, and things changed quite drastically.  So I began to think that maybe this acting business was not a bad idea."

Jean Hersholt in the 1936 film His Brother's Wife.
Nielsen took up acting after a tour with the Royal Canadian Air Force, enrolling in the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto.  Really.  From there, he received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse, a professional actor's conservatory in New York City.  There he started to land acting jobs.  His first role on television was in a 1950 episode of Studio One, alongside Charlton Heston.

Jobs came easy to Nielsen, who appeared on 46 different television series in 1950 alone.  Much of these roles were undistinguished, but they were building for Nielsen the resume of a handsome leading man.

His big break came in 1955, when he was cast in the starring role of the science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet.  The film was an instant success and led to Nielsen becoming a contract player at MGM Studios. Watch a clip of the film here.

Nielsen spent the next twenty-five years padding his dramatic resume.  He appeared in such films as Hot Summer Night (1957), How to Commit Marriage (1969) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), in which he played the doomed ocean liner's captain, who dies twenty minutes into the film.  Watch that death scene here.

Oddly, a lot of people I know don't realize that he was anything other than a comedic actor, since he was so well known for it.  But his transition to comedy came at the end of his career, after having spent three decades amassing a series of dramatic roles.  This career shift came in 1980, when he was cast as Dr. Rumack in the comedy classic Airplane!.

Dr. Rumack is always there to help.
The film was a comedic redo of the 1950s Canadian disaster movie Zero Hour!.  Many of the scenes and situations in the film are complete redos, right down to the dialogue.  Watch a scene-by-scene comparison here.

It is in this film that Nielsen uttered the phrase for which he would become famous.  Responding to Robert Hays's line "surely you can't be serious," Nielsen's Rumack replies "I am serious.  And don't call me Shirley."  Watch it here.  When asked about the line years later, Nielsen remarked "I thought it was amusing, but it never occurred to me that it was going to be a trademark.  It's such a surprise...the thing comes out, people say, 'What did he say?!'."

Following the film's success, the producers, brothers David and Jerry Zucker, turned their attention to television, creating the cult-classic comedy series Police Squad.  Impressed by Nielsen's earlier performance, the brothers cast him in the lead role of Lieutenant/Sargant/Detective/Whatever Frank Drebin.  While I can remember watching the episodes when they aired in 1982, apparently not many other folks were.  The series was canceled after just six episodes, a decision that ABC regrets to this day.

Six years later, the brothers brought the franchise back to life with a big-screen adaptation called The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.  Watch the trailer here.  It was an instant success and spawned two sequels.  It also brought Nielsen a score of similar roles in other big budget Hollywood blockbusters, with such films as Repossessed (1990), Spy Hard (1997) and the Scary Movie franchise of the early 2000s.

During that time, Nielsen and his fourth wife Barbara were shuttling between their two homes in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Paradise Valley, Arizona.  It was in the former that in November 2010, Nielsen contracted pneumonia, and was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital.  There he passed quite peacefully in his sleep.  I wish I could say the same for George Zip.

Nielsen was interred in Fort Lauderdale's Evergreen Cemetery.  He's the only celebrity there, and his is one of the easiest graves you'll ever find.  Since the entire cemetery is nothing but flat markers, all you have to do is look for his bench.

A jokester to the end, Nielsen's epitaph is a play on the famous "RIP" (Rest in Peace).

Rest in peace, Shirley.

  • Nielsen's older brother Erik served as Deputy Prime Minister of Canada from 1984 to 1986.  Just like Gerald Ford.

  •  Nielsen was legally deaf and wore hearing aids most of his life.

  • Police Squad's intro, wherein a police car would drive through an urban landscape, was based on the 1950s Lee Marvin series M Squad.  Click on the titles to watch those respective intros.  And just as Airplane! was a comedic redo of the more serious Zero Hour!, Police Squad often lampooned the original source material.  Watch a funny side-by-side comparison of the two series here.

  • Nielsen was a golf enthusiast who made a series of instructional, albeit entertaining how-to videos.  Watch one here.

  • In 1993, Nielsen released his memoir The Naked Truth.  Pick up a copy here.