Tag Archives: r.i.p.

The People’s Princess

416_carrie_fisher_princess_leia_20thcenturyfox_1Back in 1978, when playing with our Star Wars action figures, even boys never seemed to complain if they had to ‘be’ Princess Leia when we played out our homemade Star Wars adventures. And that’s because Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was such a spunky, smart-mouthed, tough-talking badass — much like Carrie Fisher was in real life.

leiacardconcept_0We were fans almost immediately, and we followed her wherever she went, whether she was corralling Munchkins alongside Chevy Chase in Under the Rainbow, harassing John Belushi’s Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers, or, later, offering sage advice to Meg Ryan’s Sally in When Harry Met Sally.

Still, we knew her first as Princess Leia, and it was a mantle Fisher herself wore with both pride and some trepidation–after all, being an icon is no easy task.  As Fisher wrote in her 2016 memoir The Princess Diarist:

I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.

And yet, did anyone ever look like they were having as much fun on a movie set as she did?



carrie_fisher_2013But Fisher was more than an actress. She was a talented script doctor (she did uncredited work on movies like Hook and Sister Act) and a really terrific — and terrifically funny — writer. She also struggled for years with addiction and depression, and very publicly discussed those battles in hopes of de-stigmatizing them for others. Her novel Postcards From the Edge was both funny and personal, a thinly-fictionalized account of her own struggles with addiction, mental illness, and her lovingly complicated relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.

Yesterday, George Lucas issued a statement in which he noted that Fisher had a “colorful personality that everyone loved.” Steven Spielberg has referred to her as “a force of nature.” Both descriptions are apt, but for the rest of us– and with all due respect to Diana — there really was only ever but one “People’s Princess.”

Thanks for being here, Carrie Fisher. We’ll miss you.

Just One Person: An Excerpt from JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY

I usually prefer to celebrate a subject’s date of birth rather than observe the day he died. But it’s worth noting that twenty-five years ago today — May 16, 1990 — Jim Henson passed away at 1:21 a.m. in New York.

Readers of Jim Henson: The Biography often tell me that they find the chapter on Jim’s death to be both sad and fascinating, especially as the circumstances of Jim’s death have, for the last two-and-a-half decades, been misinterpreted, misreported, or just plain misunderstood. I appreciate hearing that readers find this portion of the book as gratifying as they do heartbreaking. You can thank the Henson family for their openness in discussing Jim’s death, and for providing me with the honor — and responsibility — of reading Jim’s medical records from that day in May 1990.

As we remember Jim on the occasion of his passing, then, I thought I’d do something a bit different. I’m posting below — perhaps for only a limited time — an excerpt from the chapter “Just One Person,” from Jim Henson: The Biography, on the days leading up to and including Jim’s death. We’ll begin on Saturday, May 12, 1990, with Jim and his daughter Cheryl flying to North Carolina to visit his father Paul and stepmother Bobby. Continue reading

You Would Be Great If You Could Make a Figure Eight

Buried on the back page of today’s Washington Post is an obituary for one of jazz’s truly unique voices:  singer, songwriter and sophisticate Blossom Dearie, who passed away over the weekend.  She was 82.

Here’s the basics, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Born April 29, 1926, in East Durham, N.Y., Marguerite Blossom Dearie dropped her first name to bolster a musical career that began with early training in piano and moved to jazz vocals. By the mid-1940s, she was a member of the Blue Flames, associated with Woody Herman’s orchestra and with the Alvino Rey band.

What the Associated Press article doesn’t mention, however, is that there’s an entry on her resume that makes Blossom Dearie a major figure in the Pop Culture Pantheon of GenXers:  she was the voice behind several Schoolhouse Rock!  tunes.

It’s true.  Blossom lent her unique little girl voice to two of SHR’s most memorable songs, “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives.”  The song “Figure Eight” is probably remembered best for its creepy melody, which Dearie sings in a spooky “I see dead people!” sing-song sorta tone.  Once you heard it, it was a song you couldn’t forget, even if you changed the channel with a shudder the moment you heard its  faux vibraphone opening notes on Saturday morning.

Put a bowl of Freakies cereal in your lap and listen as Blossom does her thing for the number eight:

Thanks for the memories, Blossom Dearie.

A Moment of (Stunned) Silence at Arcade

Last night, I was alerted by Casey, my editor at Arcade, that Richard Seaver — founder and president of Arcade Publishing — passed away unexpectedly on January 5. He was 82.

The obituary from today’s New York Times is here.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Richard personally, but I knew of his reputation and commitment to making Arcade a top-notch publisher that played with the big boys, despite its smaller size. Richard was highly-selective about the kinds of books Arcade published — “elegant” was the one word my agent could come up with to describe their output — and I’ll be forever grateful to him for taking a chance on me and my first book.

Stephen Weissman — whose book Chaplin: A Life was one of the last books Seaver edited — calls Seaver “a great editor I was lucky to know.” My own editor — who has worked with Richard and his partner (and wife) Jeannette for years now — was understandably emotional. “I can’t believe he’s really gone,” she told me, “and that I’ll never see him again, in his purple shirt and hand-painted necktie, or hear him crack his sometimes truly corny jokes. A light has gone out, and the world is poorer for having lost the brilliant Dick Seaver.

“In the meantime,” she added, “we carry on in his memory.”

A memorial service will be announced shortly, Meanwhile, his family has requested that, in lieu of flowers, a contribution may be made in his name  to PEN American Center, 588 Broadway, Suite 303, New York, New York 10012.

As just one of countless members of the extended Arcade family, my thoughts and deepest sympathy go out to Richard’s wife, Jeannette, and their family and friends.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)

I was saddened this morning to learn that mystery novelist — and fellow New Mexican and University of New Mexico Lobo — Tony Hillerman died of pulmonary failure this past Sunday at age 83.

I was only slightly acquainted with Tony Hillerman — I began attending the University of New Mexico, and working at UNM’s newspaper, the Daily Lobo, the year after he all but officially stepped away from the journalism department to dedicate himself full-time to writing. But I had the pleasure of talking with him several times and, briefly, I attended a writing class he taught at the UNM Honors Department. When I first became acquainted with him, he had just published Skinwalkers and was already hard at work on A Thief of Time.

At that time, Hillerman had been writing for more than 15 years — his first book was 1970’s The Blessing Way, and he had won the Edgar for his 1973 book Dance Hall of the Dead — but he was still more of an underground hit, respected by writers as a hard working but unduly unappreciated master of the craft. That all changed with Skinwalkers, his first true commercial success. From that point forward, Hillerman was playing with the big boys.

Not that you would have known it. Hillerman was an incredibly humble guy. When students like me — or even faculty members — fawned all over him or gushed about his books, the rumpled Hillerman was genuinely embarassed by the fuss. He would flush and sort of roll his eyes in this you must be joking way.

He’s considered one of the innovators of what we now call the “tribal mystery genre,” and his detectives, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, have given readers such an even-handed, fascinating, and sympathetic look at Navajo culture that Hillerman was given the “Special Friend of the Dineh” Award in 1987 for his portrayal of the “dignity of traditional Navajo culture.” He also made the State of New Mexico itself a character in his books — and if you visit the state to seek out any of the landscapes against which Hillerman sets his stories, you’ll find they look and feel exactly as he described them.

A genuine loss to New Mexico and to literature. My thoughts go out to his family and friends. Thanks for sharing him.

Bill Melendez (1916-2008)

If you love Charlie Brown, you loved Bill Melendez. But you probably didn’t know it.

Back in the 1960s, when it came time to turn Charles Schulz’s hyper-successful Peanuts comic strip into the animated cartoon that would eventually be called A Charlie Brown Christmas, animator José Cuauhtemoc “Bill” Melendez was the man hand-picked by Schulz for the job. Taking Schulz’s almost impossibly simple lines and turning them into moving images was tough, but Melendez — who had cut his teeth at an upstart animation studio called Disney in the late 1930s — figured out the mechanics of making the images work.

“Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet,” Melendez told the LA Times in 2000. “Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames — about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky’s [Schulz’s] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames — one-fourth of a second. . . . It was the only way that worked.”

Melendez’s fingerprints were all over the first Peanuts television specials — as well as the first full-length film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown — giving initially-skeptical studio heads confidence in the characters as a viable animation franchise. More importantly, Melendez gave life to characters that had previously existed only on the comics page, and created some of the most influential, and iconic, bits of animation in popular culture. (Listen to the jazz riff “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and see if you can do it without immediately thinking of various characters dancing goofily, shoulders out, heads lolling from side to side. You can’t, can you? I’ll bet you even did those dances yourself.)

Technical prowess aside, Melendez also gave voice to Snoopy, providing him with the now-familiar groans, yips, and laughter.

Bill Melendez died on September 2, 2008, at age 91.

Good grief, indeed.

Jack Kamen (1920-2008)

EC Comics artist Jack Kamen — best known for his horror stories featuring saucy, plotting women and wide-eyed “widdle kids” — died this week of cancer. He was 88 years old.

Like all EC artists, Kamen’s style was one-of-a-kind. But where artists like Jack Davis or Graham Ingels made everything look heavy and inky and creepy, Kamen — due to his pre-EC background in romance comics — had a pin-up style that gave everything an air of veracity that made it seem just realistic enough — provided, of course, that you lived in a world where everyone was handsome, beautiful, and smoked cigarettes with a cool charm. No one could make wives casually planning their husbands’ gruesome deaths look so beautiful (see above), or make nebbishes plotting revenge quite so nerdily angry. As EC editor Al Feldstein once put it, “We gave Kamen those stories where the All-American girl and guy are married, and then chop each other to pieces.”

Due to his non-shocking style, EC readers usually ranked his stories near the bottom of each issue (he was regularly shoved aside in favor of the more graphically gory Ingels story, or Davis’ comic relief), but no one could ever argue that his work wasn’t first rate. And after EC, Kamen had a long career in commercial art.

What you may not know about Kamen, however, is that his legacy extends beyond the comics page. His son, Dean, is the entrepreneur and inventor who brought us the Segway and iBot mobility system. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean about ten years ago at the FIRST robotics competition down at EPCOT*, and after I congratulated him on the iBot (which he had only recently unveiled), I mentioned to him that I was a fan of his father’s work. There was a slight flicker of delighted surprise, then he smiled, shook my hand warmly, and told me how proud he was to have Jack as his dad.

Condolences to Jack Kamen’s family and friends. We’ll miss him too, folks.

* No, I didn’t have a robot in the competition — I was there as a representative of the Arizona State Department of Education to root on four crafty teams from Arizona high schools.

Will Elder (1921-2008)

Will Elder, whose “chicken fat” style of art defined the look and attitude of MAD magazine, died yesterday at age 86.

Elder’s style was gloriously and vibrantly cartoony, and always crammed with wacky details and winking side jokes that made every panel worth a second, third, or tenth look. Plus, he could ape almost any other style — his parodies of cartoons like Archie or Mickey Mouse were dead-on — without losing his unique sense of self. Whether he was doing Disney or Bushmiller, or lampooning Dragnet (“How’s your Mom, Ed?”) or Sherlock Holmes, there was never any doubt whose pencil it was.

Part of what made Elder so much fun was that nothing was sacred. Everything was fair game. That got Elder – and MAD – in trouble every once in a while, though often for baffling reasons. (His parody of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” for example, earned the wrath of conservative critics for daring to lampoon an American institution.) David Hajdu does a nice job with Elder in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, and I’ll quote a bit of it here:

The sound of his name to those who knew him well, such as his former schoolmates and fellow cartoonists, Al Jaffee (who met Elder in eighth grade, when they were both being tested for admission to the High School of Music and Art), John Severin, and David Gantz, was a cue for grin and a round of ‘Crazy Willy’ stories: the time, when he was a kid in the Bronx, when Elder took discarded pieces of beef carcasses from a meat-processing plant, arranged them in old clothes on the railroad tracks, and started screaming that his friend Moishe had been killed; or the time, when he was in high school, that he smeared chalk dust on his face and pretended to be hanging in the coat closet; or, when he went to lunch with some friends from EC [Comics] and tried to pay the cashier with leaves of lettuce that he had in his wallet. His humor was almost aggressively madcap, startling, often dark, and silly.

Thanks for everything, Will. The world is a little less silly today, darn it.