Friday, December 30, 2022

Elsie Ames

One does not have to be a great actor in order to be famous. In the case of Elsie Ames, though, she wasn't even a good actor. Some may go as far as saying, bad. Or at best, an over-actor. And yet, the film work she left behind is as memorable as some of her famous co-stars, that range from Buster Keaton to Gena Rowlands.

A star she was not. A novelty she was. And a memorable one at that. As half of the vaudeville dance team of Ames and Arno, she was more of a knockabout rag doll than an actual dancer. Their rough and tumble dance routine eventually made it to the big screen in the Bing Crosby musical, Double or Nothing. 

In 1940, producer Julies White, of The Three Stooges fame, thought she would be a good partner for Buster Keaton, who had just joined Columbia Pictures growing short subjects department. Keaton, as well as the studio, had high hopes in revitalizing his derailed career, and White felt that teaming him with Elsie Ames would be the perfect match.

However, she would have been a better fit with The Three Stooges, as her style of physical humor was far more knockabout than Buster Keaton's, making the films they made together more interesting than actually good. Like them or not, though, the jaw-dropping pratfalls that Elsie Ames does without a stunt double are a pure joy to witness.

Later in life, she joined up with John Cassavetes and his stock company of actors, appearing briefly in a couple of his films. There's no slapstick in those performances, but she is in a scene in Minnie and Moskowitz where Gena Rowlands falls down some stairs. I have to wonder if Ms. Ames gave Ms. Rowlands some pointers.

Her work with Buster Keaton is definitely worth checking out. And while her acting style is actually quite annoying, her stunts are amazingly memorable, making Elsie Ames my pick today for being Not Very Famous...but should be.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Leonard Frey

It seems like almost every year an actor the movie going public has rarely heard of ends up with an Oscar nomination, only to go back into obscurity after the big event. In 1972 the film was Fiddler on the Roof, and the actor's name was Leonard Frey. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to Ben Johnson's performance in The Last Picture Show.

While he may have been mostly unknown to the public, Leonard Frey was a prolific working actor long before, and after, his 15 minutes of movie fame. Like so many of the good actors, his training was the New York stage where his work in Little Mary Sunshine and The Boys in the Band opened the doors to his career in film and television.

With the exception of Fiddler on the Roof, and the movie version of The Boys in the Band, Leonard Frey never played a character that launched him into public fame. That's partly because he was one of those actors that could disappear into his role. And if one wasn't paying close attention to the end credits, the audience may have never realized they'd seen this actor before playing a completely different character.

In 1988 Leonard Frey passed away from complications of AIDS at the young age of 49. His later years he was mostly seen on television game shows such as Super Password and Hollywood Squares. And while mainstream audiences were able to discover him through those game shows, his true talent as an actor remained unknown to so many, leaving him to join the ranks of the Not Very Famous...but should be.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Gail Fisher

When it comes to pioneer black actors, Gail Fisher is often overlooked. In the early 1960's she became the first black person to appear on a national television commercial (All laundry detergent) with a speaking part. That would not be the only "first" for this talented woman.

Her work on the television series, Mannix, earned her an Emmy, as well as two Golden Globes, making her the first black woman to win each of those awards. With her status as one of televisions only recognizable actress of color, her presence as a guest star helped to boost the ratings of other popular shows during her run on Mannix, like Room 222, My Three Sons, and Love, American Style, just to name a few.

And while Gail Fisher may have been one of the first black stars of the small screen, after Mannix ended its run, she rejoined the ranks of so many other talented black actors living in obscurity. She resurfaced briefly on the soap opera, General Hospital in the recurring role of Judge Heller. But sadly, with the exception of several forgettable made-for-television movies, the career of this wonderful actor was over.

Despite having worked with famed director, Elia Kazan, as well as winning the NAACP Image Award in 1969, this Lee Strasburg trained actor never had the chance to fully overcome the racial limitations of the time. She is no longer with us, but with an Emmy and two Golden Globes, Gail Fisher will forever be in the history books. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Robert Hooks

 Although Robert Hooks starred in the blaxploitation film, Trouble Man, he was not defined by the genre. That period of black cinema brought long overdue recognition to so many talented actors of color, and while many of them were banished to obscurity when the decade ended, Robert Hooks continued working.

Like a lot of actors in film and television, Robert Hooks got his start on the Broadway stage, first replacing Louis Gossett, Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun, and then taking over for Billy Dee Williams in the Broadway production of A Taste of Honey. Soon he was originating roles on Broadway and in 1967 he earned a Tony nomination for his leading role in the musical, Hallelujah, Baby! which brought him to the attention of ABC when they were casting their police drama, N.Y.P.D.

As black detective, Jeff Ward, Robert Hooks was one of the stars of  N.Y.P.D., a rarity for a black actor in the early days of television. Not only did his character become the face of the show, but it also welcomed the casting of many African American actors as guest starts. The stories were realistic, gritty, and completely different from anything else on television in 1967. That's probably why it only lasted two seasons.

Robert Hooks was able to work in both television and movies, which was not something actors did in the '60's and '70's. With film work that ranged from Aaron Loves Angela to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, as well as guest starting on television in everything from Marcus Welby, M.D. to Seinfeld, Robert Hooks career not only endured, but excelled.

And he never forgot his roots in theatre. Robert Hooks, along with Gerald S. Krone, and Douglas Turner Ward, founded the Negro Ensemble Company, which helped start the careers of Denise Nicholas, Esther Rolle, Roscoe Lee Browne, Adolph Ceasar, Godfrey Cambridge, Glynn Turman, Richard Roundtree, and Ron O'Neal, just to name a few.

Having Robert Hooks attached to a film, television, or a theatrical production means a quality, no-nonsense performance that will elevate any project. If you see his name in the credits, stick around. You'll soon find yourself searching for more.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Ronnie Schell

You may not recognize the name, Ronnie Schell, but if you're a baby boomer, you probably remember his face, as he appeared quite often in many of the major television shows during the 1960's and '70's. He is probably most remembered as Gomer Pyle's best friend, Duke, in Gomer Pyle, USMC, where his comic timing made him the perfect side-kick.

For those of us who have fond memories of his performances, though, we remember him more as the funny guy that should have been more famous. In fact, according to IMDB, his nickname was, and still is, America's Slowest-Rising Young Comedian. As a kid, I thought it was just a matter of time before he would be promoted from second banana to major comedy star. And now as I find myself approaching old age, I scratch my head and wonder why this never happened.

Actually, Ronnie Schell did star in a sitcom called Good Morning World, with a then unknown, Goldie Hawn. Sadly, the show was up against the popular NBC Tuesday Night Movie of the Week and it only lasted one season. That's unfortunate because his performance as Larry, the clumsy playboy, is very funny - kind of a cross between Dick Van Dyke and Don Adams.

Ronnie Schell's career has lasted longer than his name recognition, which has turned him from potential star to prolific actor. Even in the smallest of roles, though, his performances have managed to draw your attention to him even when his character is in the background. This blog is full of talented actors whose path to stardom somehow went a different direction. I put Ronnie Schell with his spot on comic instincts at the top of the list, making him today's pick for Not Very Famous...but should be.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Gary Grimes

What do you get when you combine Ron Howard with Timothy Bottoms? The answer. Gary Grimes. Well, not really, but during his brief acting career in the 1970's, Gary Grimes certainly had qualities of both of those popular actors of that time period. From innocence to intellect, his resume is full of roles that any of those three actors could have played, with one exception - Grimes was the right actor to play the parts he was offered.

Just like Timothy Bottoms will always be linked to the Paper Chase and Ron Howard to American Graffiti; it's Gary Grimes that will be forever embedded to that coming of age classic, Summer of '42. And with a film debut like that, it's head-scratching as to why his career didn't soar afterwards.

It's not that he didn't work. In fact, his next film, The Culpepper Cattle Company, not only was a success, but turned out to be a very fresh and original western in a time when they were anything but. This led to work in films with John Wayne, Don Knotts and even Ron Howard before this bright young actor joined the ranks of all of the other talented artist profiled on this blog.

What happened? Well, in his own words from an interview with American Profile magazine, "I got to the point where the work wasn't up to the quality that I wanted." That's a pretty brave but admirable move for an actor. While he was working he certainly mastered the curious teen and young adult role. It would have been nice to see where his career progressed as he aged, but just like anything good, Gary Grimes left with his fans wanting more.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Jo Van Fleet

Jo Van Fleet was one of those actors that not only helped make early television so memorable, but also contributed to the success of several major motion pictures. In fact, she is most likely the first actor you will google after seeing one of her many cherished performances. She was that good.

Like so many of the talented artist featured in this blog, Jo Van Fleet first established herself as a Broadway actor, earning a Tony award for the play, A Trip to Bountiful. Fresh off her stage success she went on to win an Oscar for her hard-edged performance in East of Eden.

More award worthy supporting performances followed like her roles in The Rose Tattoo and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as well as a slew of television guest starring parts that range from several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Naked City and Kraft Suspense Theatre just to name a few.

If you want to see this overlooked actor at her absolute best, though, look no further than her one scene in Cool Hand Luke. In just a matter of minutes she makes you want to change the whole focus of the movie to her character. It's an amazing piece of acting and just icing on the cake to the career of Jo Van Fleet.