Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's a Wonderful Grave


James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908.  He was the son of a local businessman who owned and operated the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store, a family business first opened in 1848. 

As a child, Stewart was very interested in the emerging field of aviation.  His father however, wanted him to continue the family tradition of running the store after college.  Like his father before him, Stewart enrolled in Princeton, majoring in architecture.  Once on campus though, the younger Stewart became enamored of the many extra-curricular activities available to him, including the music and drama clubs.

Still inspired by aviation, Stewart wrote his thesis on airport design.  It earned him a scholarship to continue his studies as a graduate student, but he turned it down cold, preferring to join an intercollegiate summer stock company instead.  He moved to Cape Cod and joined the University Players.  I'm sure his father must have been proud.

Stewart made many friends among the company, including fellow graduate Henry Fonda.  The two became inseparable and would remain best friends throughout their lives and careers.  At the end of the season, Stewart, Fonda and some of the other cast members all moved to New York. 

He soon made his Broadway debut in a show called Carry Nation.  Although he had no lines, it led to bigger roles.  Just a few weeks later, he signed on to a production called Goodbye Again, in which he played a chauffeur.  Of Stewart's performance, the New Yorker wrote "Mr. James Stewart's chauffeur...comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause." 

Fame is fleeting however, and his next two productions were less than successful, so much so that he considered returning to graduate school in 1934.  He landed a leading role however in a show called Yellow Jacket and also made his feature film debut in a comedy called Art Trouble, directed by Shemp Howard.  Greater roles on Broadway would follow.

In 1935, Stewart was discovered by a Hollywood agent and signed to a seven-year contract with MGM.  His early roles were minor parts in films such as The Murder Man with Spencer Tracy.  In 1936, he had his first starring role in the film Next Time We Love, which partnered him with fellow University Player Margaret Sullavan, who helped Stewart cultivate the mannerisms that would later define his career.  The film was a box office success and put Stewart on the map.

Having achieved leading man status, Stewart was cast in a number of feature films in the late 1930s and early 40s, including Vivacious Lady, opposite Ginger Rogers and The Shopworn Angel, which reunited him with Margaret Sullavan.  In 1938, he was also cast in Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You, opposite Jean Arthur.  It was the fifth highest-grossing film of the year and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In 1939. Capra and Stewart reunited for what many consider to be Stewart's finest film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  The film saw Stewart as an idealist thrust into the world of politics.  It was the most critically acclaimed performance of his career and the third highest-grossing film of the year.  He followed it up with 1940's The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, for which he'd finally win his one and only Academy Award.

As America entered World War 2, Stewart put his Hollywood career on hold, becoming the first movie star to enlist in the armed forces.  He trained fighter pilots at Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque before shipping out to England, where he was attached to the 445th Bombardment Group as pilot of a B-24 Liberator.  He was repeatedly decorated for his service and made history for his frequent promotions, rising from private to full colonel in just four years.

After the war, Stewart returned to Hollywood and resumed his acting career, once again reuniting with Frank Capra for the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.  The film was a box office disappointment in 1946, so much so that Capra's production company filed for bankruptcy.  The film has thrived however as a cherished holiday classic.

The film's failure did little to slow down Stewart's career.  Throughout the 1950s and 60, he'd continue to star in a number of hits, including Harvey (1950), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).

In the 1970s, Stewart tried his hand at television, starring in two short-lived series.  The Jimmy Stewart Show premiered in 1971 and saw him as a small-town college professor.  It lasted for one season on NBC.  Then in 1973, he starred in the mystery series Hawkins on CBS.  Click on each title to view the series intro. 

By the 1990's, Stewart's health was in decline.  His wife Gloria died of lung cancer in 1994, and according to one Stewart biographer, it left him "lost at sea."  He became increasingly reclusive, even so with his long-time friends.  Over the next few years, he'd suffer a series of mishaps, including a fall at home and an irregular heartbeat.  He ultimately died of a heart attack on July 2, 1997.  He was 91 years old.

Jimmy Stewart was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.  More than 3,000 mourners attended his service.

Location: Wee Kirk Churchyard, Space #2, Lot #8
Inscription: "For He Shall Give His Angels Charge
Over Thee To Keep Thee In All Thy Ways"
Rest in peace, Mr. Smith.

  • The inscription on Stewart's marker is a passage from the Old Testament.  Psalms 91:11.

  • Indiana, Pennsylvania is home to the Jimmy Stewart Museum, first opened in 1995.  

  • Stewart never wrote an autobiography, but he did publish a book of poetry in 1989.  You can pick up a copy of Jimmy Stewart and His Poems from Amazon.

  • As noted above, Stewart left Hollywood at the outbreak of World War 2 to serve in the Army's Air Corps.  In 1942, he starred in a recruitment film for the service called Winning Your Wings.  You can watch the film in its entirety on Youtube.  Additionally, several books were written on Stewart's service, including Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot.

  • Stewart was offered the lead role in the 1980 film On Golden Pond, but turned it down as he objected to the father-daughter relationship as depicted in the film.  The role went to his good friend Henry Fonda.

  • In 1985, Stewart was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian, "for his contributions in the fields of the arts, entertainment and public service."

  • In his final years, Stewart served as a pitchman for Campbell's Soup.  Though her never appeared on screen, he provided voice-over services for the spots.  Here's one such commercial.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

You Big Dummy!


John Elroy Sanford was born in St. Louis on December 9, 1922.  His father, Fred Sanford, left the family when John was just four years old.  He was raised by his mother Mary Hughes, who was half-Seminole, a contributing factor to Sanford's reddish complexion, a trait that he also shared with his older brother, Fred, Jr.  

Sanford was a born entertainer and was already performing during his teenage years.  He made his first appearance in 1939 on a national radio show called the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

During the 1940s, he had yet to achieve star status and continued working in a variety of day-to-day jobs.  In one such position, he earned the nickname "Chicago Red" and was known as the funniest dishwasher on this Earth.  This moniker was given to him by his friend Malcolm Little, whom the world would remember as Malcolm X.

During this time, Sanford began setting his sights on becoming a professional comedian.  He crafted a nightclub routine that proved highly successful.  His act caught the eye of famed singer Dinah Washington during an East Coast performance.  She invited him to Los Angeles, where he began appearing at the Brass Rail nightclub.  While performing there, he was noticed by Dootsie Williams of Dootone Records, who signed him to his first professional contract.  Under the Dootone label, Sanford released a series of comedy albums that proved wildly successful.

By the 1970s, Sanford was an established comedian who had taken the stage name of Redd Foxx.  He had a few bit parts in movies, but was soon approached by NBC to appear in a new series based on a British sit-com called Steptoe and Son.  The American version, retitled Sanford and Son, saw Foxx as co-owner of a father and son junk business in Watts, California.  It premiered as a mid-season replacement in January 1972 and ran for six seasons on the network.  You can watch the iconic series intro here.

Foxx used the series as a means of providing work to a number of his fiends and colleagues, including Slappy White, Pat Morita, Donald Bexley, and most famously, LaWanda Page as feisty Aunt Esther.  He also employed friend Stymie Beard of Little Rascals fame, as Foxx was a lifelong fan of the Hal Roach series and had even incorporated it into his early act.

Contrary to popular belief, Sanford and Son was not canceled by NBC.  It folded in 1977 when Foxx left to star in his own variety series on rival network ABC.  Ironically that same year, Foxx appeared as a guest on the struggling ABC variety series The Brady Bunch Hour, in which he pimped his upcoming series.  You can watch that segment, as well as some really un-Brady stand-up comedy, here.

His departure from the series caused a rift with co-star Demond Wilson, who felt betrayed by the move.  Wilson stated that he had received no heads up regarding Foxx's new series, and only learned of Sanford and Son's cancellation while walking the halls at NBC.  As a result, Wilson declined to participate in the 1980 Sanford revival series.  Foxx fired back at Wilson while appearing as a guest on The Donny and Marie Show.  In a Star Wars-inspired segment, Foxx claimed to be an extra-terrestrial from Sanford, a planet that has no sun.

Throughout the 1980s, Foxx would continue to make guest appearances on television while starting new business ventures as well.  He opened a company in Hollywood called Redd Foxx's Car Velvetizing.  It specialized in adding a fuzzy velvet layer to vehicles with vinyl tops, helping many of them earn the nickname "pimpmobile."  Despite my best efforts, I could not find an online brochure.

By the 1990s, Foxx was facing severe financial difficulties and was constantly at odds with the IRS, who had a habit of seizing his home and possessions.  His generosity to friends and family over the years only worsened his economic stability, as did his three failed marriages.  Needing to revitalize his savings, Foxx signed on to the CBS sit-com The Royal Family, which partnered him with actress Della Reese.  The series also starred a very young Naya Rivera, who passed away herself in 2020 in a drowning accident.  You can watch the series intro here.  

The series premiered in September 1991.  A few weeks later, on October 11th, Foxx was giving an on-set interview to Entertainment Tonight.  One of his producers became irate that Foxx was not participating in a scene that was being rehearsed, one in which he had no dialogue and was merely seen walking in the background.  Foxx begrudgingly complied with the producer and walked through the scene, but fell to the floor in doing so.  You can watch Della Reese describe the scene here.

At first, no one suspected anything was wrong, as Foxx had made a career out of pratfalls and fake heart attacks.  When Reese went to help him, she realized just how serious it really was, when Foxx asked her to "get my wife."

When paramedics arrived on the set, they initially pronounced him dead, but he was temporarily resuscitated and transported to Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.  He died there a second time, just four hours later.  He was 68 years old.

Redd Foxx was buried at Palm Memorial Park in his hometown of Las Vegas.  His headstone features a red fox.

Location: Devotion Section,
Lawn Space #4091, Space #311G

Rest in peace, you big dummy!

  • The character of Fred Sanford was in fact named after Foxx's brother.

  • In a bid to avoid military service during World War 2, Foxx consumed a bar of soap before his physical.  It caused a series of heart palpitations which the doctors mistook to be a natural condition.  The ploy worked, and he was given a pass from military service.

  • Foxx's Sanford and Son co-star Lawanda Page was the subject of a previous post on this blog.  You can revisit her grave here.

  • As mentioned in Lawanda's blog post, Redd Foxx used to own an office building in downtown L.A.  Although it has since been torn down, the sidewalk out front still contains the signatures of Foxx and his friends written in cement.  If you look closely, you can also see his footprints as well.  Read about it here.

  • Foxx released a joke book in 1977.  You can pick up a copy of The Redd Foxx Encyclopedia of Black Humor from Amazon.  

  • Hollywood car creator George Barris created a customized roadster for Foxx, dubbed "Redd Foxx's Li'l Red Wrecker."  Check out the specs here.

  • At the time of his death, Foxx was in excessive debt to the IRS and had very few assets.  As a result, longtime friend Eddie Murphy paid all of his funeral expenses.

  • As mentioned above, Foxx was good friends with actor Pat Morita.  It's probably not a coincidence then that Morita was cremated at the same Las Vegas cemetery where Foxx was laid to rest.

  • The truck that was used on Sanford and Son is now in the hands of Tim Franko and Jeff Canter, owners of BlueLine Classics in North Royalton, Ohio.  You can visit the truck in their showroom there, or catch it at car shows and celebrity events.

  • The Royal Family was shot on what is now Stage 31 at Paramount.  In the 1960s, it was home to the original Star Trek TV series.  In essence, Redd Foxx died on the bridge of the Enterprise.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Ava Gardner

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina on Christmas Eve, 1922.  She was the youngest of seven children, born to a family of sharecroppers.  The family grew tobacco.

When she was just 15 years old, Gardner's father passed away from bronchitis, and her mother supported the family by running a boarding house for teachers.  Gardner graduated from high school in 1939 and attended secretarial courses at Atlantic Christian College. 

One year later, she went to New York City to visit her sister.  While there, her brother-in-law Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take a portrait of her as a present for her mother.  Tarr liked the finished product so much that he displayed it in his storefront window on Fifth Avenue.

The photo caught the eye of a Loews Theatre employee, who suggested it be submitted to MGM Studios.  Tarr did just that, and Gardner was invited to audition with their talent department in New York, headed by Al Altman.  After giving her a screen test, Altman famously commented "she can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk, she's terrific!"  They gave her a contract and she was off to Hollywood.

For the first few years, Gardner settled for mostly bit parts.  Her first starring role would come in 1946 when she was cast in the Mark Hellinger film The Killers, based on the story by Ernest Hemingway.  Gardner played Kitty Collins, the first in a long line of femme fatales.  

She followed it up with a string of hits for MGM, including Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954), a role she accepted for her own lifelong obsession of walking barefoot.  Her last leading role was in 1964's The Night of the Iguana, for which she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress.  Click on each title for its theatrical trailer.

She continued to act however, and her next role was opposite Burt Lancaster in Seven Days in May, a 1964 thriller about an attempted military takeover of the U.S. government.  That same year, she accepted the role of Sarah, wife of Abraham, in The Bible: In the Beginning (1966).

In 1968, Gardner moved to London.  There she underwent a hysterectomy in a bid to beat uterine cancer, the disease that had taken her mother's life.  She returned to the U.S. throughout the 70s, appearing in a string of disaster films, including 1974's Earthquake.  Her final film, Regina Roma, was released in 1982, but she continued to appear on television, including a recurring role on the primetime soap opera Knots Landing.

In 1986, Gardner suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.  Prior to this, she was already suffering from an autoimmune disease called lupus erythematosus and had been a lifelong smoker.  Combined, these conditions marked the beginning of the end.  She passed four years later on January 25, 1990.  She was 67 years old.

Ava Gardner was returned to her home state of North Carolina and was buried at Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield.  

The town has practically turned her grave site into a tourist attraction.

While you're in town, be sure to visit the Ava Gardner Museum, which opened in 1996.  You can take a virtual tour here.

Rest in peace, Ava.


  • Gardner had three Hollywood husbands, beginning with Mickey Rooney in 1942.  She'd leave him just one year later citing cruelty, blaming it on his gambling and womanizing.  Him.  That little midget.  Her second marriage was to jazz musician Artie Shaw, but it didn't last any longer.  Finally in 1951, she married Frank Sinatra, who left his wife Nancy to be with her.  Although the marriage would only last for six years, Gardner would define him as the love of her life.  Despite that, neither Sinatra, Rooney, nor Shaw attended her funeral.  Jerks.

  • In her final years, Gardner decided to release her autobiography, asking writer Peter Evans to serve as her ghostwriter.  During their collaboration, she discovered that her ex-husband Frank Sinatra had at one point sued Evans.  As a result, they were no longer able to work with one another and Evans left the project.  Gardner subsequently released her memoirs Ava: My Story in 1990.  In 2012, Evans passed away and his estate released his version of the story, entitled Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

  • Gardner actively petitioned for the lead role of Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 Dustin Hoffman film The Graduate, a role that ultimately went to Anne Bancroft.  Producer Mike Nichols felt that at 44, Gardner was too old for the part.  
  • As noted by Al Altman above, Gardiner was not known for her singing abilities.  All of her numbers in Show Boat were dubbed by actress Annette Warren.  However, Gardiner's voice was left intact on the film's soundtrack album. 
  • Gardiner appeared as a guest on the game show What's My Line? in 1953.  You can watch her appearance here.