The end of the year leads naturally to remembering; and if you love the movies, it’s time to remember some of the actors and actresses who died during 2019.
Here’s an appreciation of those who made an indelible impression on the screen. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive roster, just a group of folks I liked for one reason or another.
Some of them had huge careers, some of them carved out just a little slice of immortality; some quit while they were ahead, some faded away. And some will be known for just one thing, whether it’s being romanced by a prehistoric creature or morphing into a giant blueberry — acting is a funny game.
Doris Day. A major box-office star for more than a decade, Day was also considered kind of a joke for a while because of her squeaky-clean image (“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” quipped one wag). She quit acting in 1973, but her skills as a singer and deft comic performer have been re-appreciated in recent years — most of which were devoted to animal welfare.
Albert Finney. From his earliest appearances in films such as “Tom Jones” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” Finney was a commanding actor, a big, brawny man who spoke in his native Northern-England accent when actors were supposed to speak like BBC broadcasters. In his prime he made relatively few films, and turned down some whoppers (“Lawrence of Arabia,” for instance), but he remained powerful right through his final role in the 007 outing “Skyfall.”
Peter Fonda. Born into a family of actors, Peter did not reach the heights of his father Henry or sister Jane. But he had a quirky career, from biker movies to excellent autumnal roles in “Ulee’s Gold” and “The Limey.” I interviewed him a couple of times, and he was enthusiastic and talkative — quite the opposite of the super-cool wanderer he played in “Easy Rider” (a Hollywood game-changer, which he also produced).
Robert Forster. After years of being in a career wilderness, this actor enjoyed an astounding reversal at age 56, when Quentin Tarantino cast him as a wise, thoughtful bail bondsman in “Jackie Brown.” He had a string of terrific parts after that, most of which drew on his twinkly, down-to-earth charm.
Sue Lyon. Her first movie role, at age 14, was as the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s production of “Lolita,” a controversial way to start. Her next two films were also impressive, John Huston’s “The Night of the Iguana” and John Ford’s “7 Women,” but things went downhill after that, and her once-promising career came to an end with a small gig in 1980’s “Alligator,” starring Robert Forster.
Robert Walker Jr. Not a household name, except that his father was a big star in the 1940s and early ’50s (his mother was Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones). Junior never broke out, although he did a few hippie-biker pictures and gave an unsettling performance in a classic “Star Trek” episode, as a troubled man with godlike powers — an episode penned by hard-working “Trek” writer D.C. Fontana, who also died in 2019.
John Witherspoon. It’s hard to say why you find some people inherently funny, but Witherspoon was a reliably silly presence in movies, TV episodes and voiceover work. He had a great run in the boomlet of African-American films in the late ’80s, including his brief but glorious turn in “Hollywood Shuffle” as the proud manager of the Winky Dinky Dog, a nondescript hot dog stand (“It sends chills down my spine, every time I say it: Winky Dinky Dog!”).
Julie Adams. There was just enough of the old Hollywood studio system around in the early 1950s that this aspiring starlet could have her legs insured by Universal for $125,000. Yes, it was a different time. Adams made a great Western with Jimmy Stewart (“Bend of the River”) and tons of TV work as the decades went on, but her claim to enduring fame is getting under the scaly skin of the Gill-Man in “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
Dick Miller. Not just a durable character actor, but a guy who got associated with a certain kind of wonderful low-budget schlock. He’s especially beloved for his turns in Roger Corman’s films, including the beatnik sculptor (a rare lead role) in “A Bucket of Blood.” He was later cast in films by directors (including Steven Spielberg and James Cameron) who grew up on those movies, guaranteeing him steady employment into his 90s.
Denise Nickerson. A child actress, prominent in the supernatural TV soap opera “Dark Shadows” and in an unjustly forgotten TV-movie, “The Neon Ceiling.” She quit showbiz in 1978, but will live on as long as we watch “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” in which she plays the obnoxious kid who turns into a giant blueberry.
David Hedison. A journeyman actor with a long career, including four years on the frequently nutsy TV series “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Two footnotes: He twice played James Bond’s American pal Felix Leiter in a pair of 007 flicks and, as the scientist in “The Fly,” he terrified a generation of horror-movie fans by screaming “Help me!” after his tiny human head was transposed on the body of a fly.
Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lipton, Georgia Engel, Tim Conway. A shout-out here to mainstays of television in the 1960s and ’70s. Carroll broke a color barrier as the lead of the sitcom “Julia,” and was Oscar-nominated for “Claudine.” Lipton was a TV star in her youth as one of the hippie cops in “The Mod Squad,” and later joined the David Lynch universe in “Twin Peaks.” Engel was the tiny-voiced wife to bombastic Ted Baxter in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a hilarious addition to a great sitcom ensemble. Conway scored laughs in the otherwise bland “McHale’s Navy” and regularly cracked up his fellow players in “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Bruno Ganz. One of Europe’s greatest actors over many years, with strong turns in films such as “The American Friend” and — as the melancholic angel — in “Wings of Desire.” He also gained bizarre internet fame when his scenes in “Downfall” (in which he volcanically played Hitler) became online memes. That must have been annoying.
Rip Torn. A dangerous and unpredictable presence, this product of the Actor’s Studio survived long enough to become a comedic mainstay on “The Larry Sanders Show”— a true salty dog. He might have been a bigger star, had his temper been more under control; a notorious fight with Dennis Hopper led him to lose his role in “Easy Rider,” which then became the breakout part for the little-known Jack Nicholson.
Danny Aiello. What’s you favorite Danny Aiello performance? His most famous turn might have come as the exasperated pizzeria owner in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” but I’m going with “Moonstruck.” As the lovelorn mama’s boy who proposes to Cher, he’s perfectly sincere, and also perfectly out of his league. He was an actor who never let you catch him acting.