by Ray Schillaci
The Movie Guys

Sometimes Paul Preston, who runs TheMovieGuys.net, refers to me as the “Obit Guy.” Not that I want to be known as that. A rather grim title. And, for a time I was keeping up on celebrities who’d passed on. But, with the amount of COVID-19 deaths and the passing of such notable people from János Aczél, famed Hungarian-Canadian mathematician on January 1st to Indian actor Ajit Das, who died at 71 from COVID-19, the list of the deceased for this year is overwhelming: musicians, sports figures, politicians, writers, filmmakers, military, educators. The list goes on far too long, including beloved family members and friends.

So, when I write about the passing of an actor, filmmaker or writer, I do that with a very heavy heart. That person made an impression on me at some point in my life, and their talent and what they accomplished will be forever remembered. In less than a month, three actors I deeply admired left their distinguished careers behind with very impressive legacies, one of them having left us far too early: Ben Cross, Dame Diana Rigg and Chadwick Boseman. All three had something in common. They had an air of dignity about them, that almost appeared as if they were of royal descent. The roles they were best known for were made of characters of inner strength and they were mesmerizing in the parts they played.

Ben Cross

ben cross as sarek in star trek 2009

Ben Cross may be best remembered in Chariots of Fire as one of the two famed athletes of the 1924 Olympics. Cross played Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who ran to overcome prejudice. The actor trained diligently for the role, along with his co-star Ian Charleson, who played Eric Liddell. Both men won praise for their performances. Although, Cross’ character was far more complex and he embodied the role beautifully.

For a man who started off as a window cleaner, waiter, carpenter and eventually worked his way up as a property master at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, England, Cross remained on the road towards his dream as an actor and at 22 years-old he was accepted into London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He would go onto perform in several stage plays including Macbeth, The Importance of Being Ernest, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and played a lead role in Equus. He also had a flair for musical theatre, performing in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Irma la Douce and Chicago, in which he played the slick lawyer Billy Flynn. It was during this time Cross would be contacted to play one of the leads in Chariots of Fire.

He already had parts in TV series, a TV movie and would have a small part in the giant WWII drama, A Bridge Too Far. The subsequent year he would join the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. But, it would be Chariots of Fire that would go on to win Best Picture and his part as Harold Abrahams that would prove to be the role that would launch his film and TV career. He would follow the film with two other notable performances in two prestigious TV mini-series. First as a Scottish physician in the 1920s at odds with the British medical system in The Citadel, and Far Pavilions had Cross as a British cavalry officer struggling between cultures. It seemed that Cross had a knack for tackling roles involving turmoil.

In 1985, Cross revealed in an interview that he preferred playing American roles. “Over here, people hide behind mannerism and technique and don’t come up with any soul. American actors are much freer with the emotions. It’s pretty hard in Europe not to have experience of Americans because we’re exposed to a lot of American product.” He went onto play everything from an Iraqi pilot to a Nazi SS colonel, and even played a vampire (twice) in both USA Networks’ Nightlife and the legendary Barnabas Collins in the remake of the cult classic Dark Shadows. He also brought a great deal of heft as Spock’s father in J.J. Abrams Star Trek.

But, it was his classic turn as the ultimate baddie, Mr. Rabbit, in Cinemax’s (or as some call it “Sin-O-Max”) Banshee that made a huge impression on me. In the show, Cross’ unsettling demeanor actually became a real threat to hero Lukas Hood. His presence upped the ante on Banshee and made it all the more exciting to watch.

Cross continued his acting career all the way up to his passing, succumbing to cancer at age 72. But, he was not only an actor. The man was also a producer, director, writer and musician. His first single as a lyricist was on Polydor records. Previously, he was a session singer for Decca Records. Also, he wrote the lyrics for a Bulgarian singer with whom he eventually sang two Frank Sinatra songs at a music festival. Ben Cross, a man of many talents and a marvelous resume of film and TV that can be enjoyed by all for years to come.

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg

diana rigg in the avengers

 

What can I say about Dame Diana. Far too much, I’m afraid. Before Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) ever donned a skin-tight suit, there was Emma Peel. As an impressionable nine-year-old (and probably into my early teens), my first crush might have been Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel in the 1960s television series The Avengers, even though she was only on through series four-five, a mere three years.

The British espionage show aired on American shores in ’65 and had gone through several iterations before it landed here. But, it did not strike a chord with executives to bring it to American television until Diana Rigg slipped into the black leather outfit, displayed her martial arts skills, sparred witticisms with her gentlemanly co-star Patrick MacNee as John Steed while demonstrating intelligence and her assertive ways. This made Rigg’s character enormously popular to men and women alike.

The show ended up playing in 90 different countries and was never as popular without Ms. Rigg’s talent. Others before her might have paved the way, i.e. Honor Blackman, who would go on to become a Bond girl, but not the players of the past or those that followed ever reached the popularity that Diana Rigg generated. She brought a welcome, lighter and more humorous touch to the role while exuding an enormous amount of sex appeal that the costume department took full advantage of, displaying various sexy versions of her even to the point of dressing Rigg in a dominatrix outfit with laced boots and a spiked color as “Queen of Sin.” That memorable alluring soft husky voice of hers always captured attention.

But, all was not pleasant on the set of the show. By the end of her first season, she was unhappy being paid less than the cameraman and insisted on a pay scale that would be more along the lines of her co-star. The show was so popular that the producers gave in. By the end of the fifth series, Ms. Rigg left the show to pursue other roles, one of them being the one woman who would end up marrying James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Whatever ill feelings Ms. Rigg had with the producers of The Avengers, she and co-star Patrick MacNee remained lifelong friends, which could easily account for the marvelous chemistry they displayed on the small screen.

Now that I got my childhood crush out of the way, I would like to extoll all the remarkable attributes of this amazing woman. She was a professional stage actress who joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 and played both London and Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Actress for Medea. She was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1988 and awarded the title of “Dame” (Dame the Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in ’94 a “British order of chivalry, rewarding contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organizations, and public service outside the civil service,” by Queen Elizabeth II.

Rigg also involved herself in a number of charities throughout her lifetime, including Bliss (for babies born premature or sick), Build Africa, and Children With AIDS. She supported a number of causes for animals, at risk/disadvantaged youths, family parent support, poverty, HIV and AIDS. In 2011, Diana Rigg became the Patron Of British Charity to India, to help the disadvantaged but skilled women in Kerala, Southern India.

Diana Rigg was an extraordinary woman for her time. In the ’60s, even though she had lived with an older director/screenwriter for eight years, she openly displayed no interest in being tied down nor any interest, as she put it, “to be respectable.” Quite daring for an actress in those times. In the mid-’70s, she married an Israeli painter for a brief three years and in the early ’80s married a producer and former officer in the Scots Guard, actually had a child by him five years before their marriage, which ended with an affair on his part with another actress.

Although her work was quite extensive in television, with her most notable role in later years as Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones, Ms. Rigg would also find praise for not only her role as Tracy Bond in the 007 movie, but also her intriguing turn as Sonya Winter, the journalist/vocal feminist in the comic-thriller The Assassination Bureau. She displayed her sharp wit trading barbs with Maggie Smith in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun and showed her funny carefree and charming side in The Great Muppet Caper.

She also held her own to no end between George C. Scott and Barnard Hughes in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital, where she delivered what best can be described as a bizarre monologue that most actors would not be able to pull off regarding Daddy issues, communes, Native Americans, healers, bears, her father as a religious zealot, doctors, murder, masturbation and a very bad acid trip. Rigg nails it, and she and Chayefsky’s dialogue are the main reason to see this crazed condemnation of the hospital system.

Just when you thought Ms. Rigg had done it all, she tops that performance acting alongside Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. Could I ask anything more from a movie about an actor seeking bloody and gruesome revenge on his theatre critics? The two of them deliver bravura performances, and Rigg has been on the record as saying it was her favorite movie.

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg worked all the way up to her death at the age of 82. A smoker from the age of 18, she was known to smoke 20 cigarettes a day all the way into 2009. December 2017 changed that habit after she had a serious illness that led to heart surgery. Yet, she continued acting in several television projects. She was currently in post-production on the TV-mini series Black Narcissus, and had a new film, Last Night in Soho, still in post as well. Dame Diana passed away in her London home succumbing from a bout with cancer that was diagnosed in March. She leaves behind a legacy of wit, smarts, strength and durability that will be appreciated throughout the ages.

Chadwick Boseman

Co-stars and fans were blindsided by Chadwick Boseman’s passing. Mr. Boseman took a cue from his mother upon being diagnosed with colon cancer four years ago. According to his agent, Boseman’s mother always taught him not to have people make a fuss over him. Adding to this that the actor was a very private person.

While preparing for the Marvel movies, his trainer compared the actor to his own father who had battled cancer, saying that they were both fighters, never stopped moving forward. Boseman insisted on keeping up with the training. He did not let his illness slow him down. Even with life-changing surgeries, chemo and other treatments, he continued delivering speeches, making movies and conducting interviews.

He played the bravest role of all – as a healthy person, to the point in 2019 when he had dinner with the president of Howard University, his alma mater, and casually attributed his weight loss to becoming a vegetarian. And, with the drastic weight loss he would find some ridicule from some who had no idea what he was going though, but even this did not deter him from living and fighting for life and his art.

What some may not be aware of is that Boseman originally wanted to be a playwright and began his journey in high school where he wrote and staged his first play, Crossroads, a deeply personal story of a basketball teammate who was shot and killed. Much later, in 2004, his play Deep Azure, centering around police brutality, would be performed by professional theatre companies and win several awards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting side notes on Boseman was that he studied acting only to become a better director. He studied his craft at the famous Oxford University, and it was Denzel Washington who helped fund Boseman’s time there. It always helps to have a good mentor in life, and Boseman had a couple with not only Denzel, but also with Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show and Tony-winning performance in Raisin in the Sun). Rashad became his guiding light into the arts, providing her vast knowledge of the business. Boseman would not take her teachings for granted and actually passed them on when he would later become a teacher, a drama instructor, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Boseman was also heavy into charitable causes. He brought attention to “Operation 42,” which honored the memory of the late Jackie Robinson, whom he played. The charity helped hospitals in African-American communities during the time of the pandemic, providing much necessary PPE. He also visited children battling cancer, all the time keeping quiet about his own struggle. He provided toys, courage and inspiration, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In a SiriusXM interview he broke down in tears relaying his meetings with two terminally ill young boys who were excited for the premiere of the Black Panther movie. Sadly, the children passed away from cancer before the release of the movie.

Boseman struggled as an actor for the longest time. He had small parts on TV from 2003 through 2008. He then received supporting roles in two series from 2008 through 2010. But, then he bounced around again with small parts and almost considered abandoning the profession at age 37 when suddenly he received a life-altering audition to play Jackie Robinson.

He embodied the legend, and the critics took note. Boseman suddenly had star appeal. He went on to play James Brown in Get on Up and famed crusading lawyer Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. Boseman had established himself as a man who was easily believable as a man of strength, dignity and fortitude. He breathed life back into his historical characters. But, when the MCU approached him to play T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, it might have been his greatest challenge, for this was not a person grounded in historical fact.

The team at MCU had no doubts, but Chadwick did not take the role lightly. Not only did he train rigorously for the role, he also looked inward at the very soul of his character. Boseman brought a sense of regality, humility, strength and, most importantly, a man searching for his destiny. It was all very real, and he brought it to the screen like no other. This is what made Black Panther the success that it was and brought about change in an industry that never had anything like it before.

As ill as the man was, he continued to persevere in his other projects 21 Bridges and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods with his last film being Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom from a play by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson. Boseman found his last movie to be his most important because of the material, the talent behind it and the chance to actually work with one of his mentors, Denzel Washington, who was a producer on the film. According to IMDB, the movie takes place in Chicago in 1927 where tensions rise between Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis), one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers, her ambitious horn player (Boseman) and the white management determined to control the uncontrollable “Mother of the Blues.”

Chadwick Boseman passed away at his home at age 42 with his family by his side. His wish to keep his illness silent was honored, leaving many in shock and others in deep contemplation as to their assumptions, not knowing what he was going through and how they acted towards him. His life was cut short, leaving a powerful legacy behind of art, charity and hope.

People leave us every day, known and unknown. Hearts are broken, tears are shed and we cling to the memories, for that’s all some of us have left. Be kind to one another for the time we have, perhaps making the memories all the more better. In honor of all who have left us.

 

Visit Ray’s blog at themonsterinmyhead.com

EDIT: While writing this article, another legend passed on. She who fought one of the greatest fights for equality for all even up until her death. RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lost her fight to cancer after 21 tumultuous years. A woman who has been described as both shy and ferocious, of uncommon strength, and pursued justice for all with intelligence. She was a star like few others and the power she exuded and gave to so many can be seen in the documentary, RBG. May her family and friends be in our prayers. RIP. As I mentioned in the beginning, far too many have left us.

ruth bader ginsburg

 

 

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