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Tinseltown Talks column: Actors who took a final bow in 2020

Nick Thomas
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Kirk Douglas, Olivia de Havilland and Sean Connery.

As 2020 winds down its grim medical, social and political march across the country, Hollywood also experienced its annual share of heartbreak with the passing of three movie legends: Kirk Douglas and Olivia de Havilland - both born in 1916 - and the universally loved Sean Connery who died at age 90.

Other actors lost from the world of classic film and television include Wilford Brimley, Robert Conrad, Rhonda Fleming, Max von Sydow, Sue Lyon, Orson Bean, Diana Rigg, Barbara Windsor, John Saxon and many more. A few, such as Stuart Whitman, Carl Reiner, Baby Peggy and Brian Dennehy, I had the opportunity to interview over the years and others listed below held special personal memories.

Anthony James

I knew he preferred to be called Anthony, so I avoided saying “Hi Tony” when we talked in 2014. After all, Anthony James was one of the scariest Hollywood bad guys recognized for portraying assorted psychopathic killers and other disturbed characters throughout the 70s and 80s. I wasn’t planning to make him angry.

His big break came six years after arriving in Hollywood playing the sleazy diner counterman, Ralph Henshaw, in 1968’s “In the Heat of the Night.” Thereafter, the lanky, swarthy South Carolina-native was immediately typecast as a villain.

“I have to remind people that I did play love scenes, it’s just that they were at knifepoint!” Anthony told me.

While his on-screen characters could be the epitome of pure evil as in the two Clint Eastwood westerns “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and “Unforgiven” (1992), off-screen he was a gentle soft-spoken soul who retired from acting after “Unforgiven” to concentrate on painting and poetry at his home just outside of Boston.

“I never considered myself a celebrity, just a sometime recognizable face,” he explained.

After our interview was published, Anthony sent a copy of his 2014 book “Language of the Heart,” a collection of his abstract paintings and poems, with the inscription: “To create a work of art is to wrestle with the angel of death. You can never win, but how beautifully can you love.”

Shirley Knight

Throughout her long career, Shirley Knight worked in film and television alongside many Hollywood legends, including Claude Rains, George C. Scott and Richard Burton.

“I was fortunate to work with these wonderful actors who taught me a great deal,” she told me in 2018. “Richard Burton became one of my dearest friends. During time off, he would teach me how to read Shakespeare. I mean, how lucky for a young actress to learn Shakespeare from Richard Burton!”

During our interview, Shirley mentioned that her daughter - an actress, too, and college teacher - had created a commercial throat lozenge called Fontus (see www.FontusSciences.com). While designed for actors and singers who often strain their voices, she indicated teachers could benefit from the smoothing apple-flavored all-natural product. I purchased some and have been using them ever since in my daily teaching job. Thanks Shirley!

Marge Champion

As a long-time fan of the famed 50s dance duo Gower and Marge Champion, I was delighted to meet Marge when she visited our university campus in 2010. Through a fellowship, she presented a series of fascinating lectures about her life and career which began when a Disney talent scout picked her to audition as the model for the Snow White character in the studio’s 1937 animated movie.

After marrying Gower Champion in 1947, their reputation as a dance team soon spread.

“We were getting fabulous reviews,” she recalled. “Gower brought the conceptions to the team and was able to tell a story through the dance routines. I think I brought an ability to connect with an audience.”

At the end of our interview, I pulled out a copy of my “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” soundtrack LP which she graciously agreed to pose with for a photo. Shortly after the interview was published, Marge left a delightful message of thanks on my answering machine - which I still treasure.

Richard Herd

At my invitation, Richard Herd visited our campus to talk with our theater students in 2017. I met him at the airport and we talked continuously during the 20-minute drive to the hotel - he was a great conversationalist. We kept in regular contact after his visit, and I will miss his phone calls every couple of months discussing his newest projects.

Mostly a prolific supporting actor in films and television since the 1970s, Richard was very proud of his other artistic achievements that included dabbling in painting, poetry, singing, and sculpting. But fans will always remember him as the matter-of-fact Mr. Wilhelm on “Seinfeld.”

“(The show) was one of the best jobs I ever had,” he told me. “It got me a tremendous amount of recognition and still does because it plays all the time. There were no ‘stars’ on that show; they were all genuinely nice people to work with.”

During his 2-day trip to our campus, we stopped at my office for a break on one occasion and he commented on some colorful photographs on my wall - photos I had taken of crystals of chemical compounds under a microscope. I was flattered that an artist would praise them. So during our drive back to the airport next day, I presented him with one of the framed photos. Several weeks later, a print of his patriotic “Live Free or Die” abstract depiction of the American flag arrived in my mailbox.

I look at it every day and salute not only Richard and other beloved entertainers who passed away in 2020, but all who have struggled with the loss of loved ones in this most challenging of years.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 newspapers and magazines. See www.getnickt.org.