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 help 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.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Michael Zaslow

Michael Zaslow was one of the many talented actors that started on Broadway, had a few guest staring roles in television, then carved his niche in the often underappreciated industry of soap operas. Anyone that witnessed his portrayal of the villainous Roger Thorpe on The Guiding Light is well aware of the charisma, strength and sheer artistry he brought to that role.

That artistry is mastered when an actor has complete control over the tools they use - their body and voice. Sadly, Michael Zaslow lost control of both of those when he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, which eventually led to his dismissal from The Guiding Light.

That dismissal gave him the opportunity to perform his bravest, strongest and greatest performance of his career - David Renaldi on One Life to Live. He had played that role before and when the producers heard of his predicament they decided to bring back the character and have him face the same ALS challenges that Michael Zaslow was facing.

The result was a courageous, heartbreaking journey which forced both actor and character to communicate without the normal tools an actor uses. Michael Zaslow is remembered today by the villain he played on The Guiding Light, but those of us that have followed his career remember him as the talented actor he was. And a very brave one at that.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Toni Kalem

In sports when one contributes to the victory without being a superstar they're called team players. In the entertainment world - part of the ensemble. Toni Kalem is a triple threat to that ensemble because she writes and directs as well. She also has an incredible screen presence and instincts, which means the stars have to be on their A game to not be upstaged by this team player.

I first noticed Toni Kalem in 1979 when she co-starred with some other Not Very Famous actors, John Friedrich, Linda Manz and Erland Van Lidth in what would become the cult favorite, The Wanderers. From then on, and even still today I perk up if I see her name in the credits. Although I'm often disappointed by the size of her role, I've never been surprised by the high quality of her performances.

Her highest profile role appears to be her last as the widowed wife and body shop owner, Angie Bonpensiero on the Sopranos, where her talents stood side by side with that phenomenal cast of ensemble actors. She only appeared in eleven episodes of that iconic show, but left a memorable contribution to its success.

Even though she is of Jewish decent, Toni Kalem seems to have been typecast most of her career in the role of the Italian female, which may have something to do with why she's had such limited exposure. Whatever the reason, she has award worthy talent which I hope some day will be recognized.

As I mentioned Toni Kalem also writes and directs. In addition to writing an episode of The Sopranos, she also wrote and directed the movie, A Slipping-Down Life, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. An internet search says she will be directing Penelope Cruz in Kalem's adaptation of the book, Layover, but haven't been able to verify if production has started or will.

In the meantime Ms. Kalem, should you happen to stumble on to this blog, let us know what else you've been up to. Would love to see more of your work whether it's in front of the camera or behind it.