The grim reaper has been busy over the past few days.
A cinematic icon, an Oscar-winning actress and one of Hollywood's legendary rule-breakers all died between Thursday and Sunday.
The loss of Peter O'Toole, an eight-time Academy Award nominee widely known as the star of Lawrence of Arabia, hit me the hardest. O'Toole passed away at the age of 81 Saturday, after announcing his retirement from acting in July, 2012. His death hit me the hardest.
Hollywood also lost two other notables. Joan Fontaine, younger sister of Academy Award-winner Olivia de Havilland, died Sunday.
A casting favorite of Alfred Hitchcock in films like Suspicion and Rebecca, Fontaine was 96.
Finally, Tom Laughlin may not exactly be a household name these days. But as Billy Jack, the tough-as-nails ex-Green Beret of 50-50 Native American and White Man ancestry, Laughlin took it to "the man," and protected students of an arts school in Billy Jack, the early '70s action-drama he starred in, directed, co-wrote (with co-star Delores Taylor) and pretty much self-marketed to widespread appeal.
Laughlin, who succumbed to complications of pneumonia, died Thursday at the age of 82.
O'Toole's death hit me the hardest, though, and not just because the "unrepentant hellraiser" (according to published reports) commanded the most marquee power.
I never met the star of Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1971), The Ruling Class, My Favorite Year or The Stunt Man face-to-face. I was lucky enogh to have a telephone conversation with O'Toole in 1988, however.
I was nervous. O'Toole, most likely spending an excrutiating two or three-hour block of time on the telephone with a seemingly neverending list of film critics to promote a so-so at best fantasy comic-horror titled High Spirits, was obviously bored and distant by the time we spoke.
In fact, the acting legend did very little to mask his boredom as we chatted and he said all the right things about a movie he had probably already filed away as minor at best.
And you know what? I couldn't have cared less. Through the wonder of telephone communication, I was speaking to T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), King Henry II (Becket), Arthur Chipping (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), and, my personal favorite, Alan Swann of the raucous 1982 comedy My Favorite Year.
Directed by Richard Benjamin, My Favorite Year features O'Toole as an Erol Flynn-like movie star with a serious drinking problem who agrees to be the featured guest star on a popular U.S. variety TV show. Swann panics, though, we he learns he'll be appearing in front of a live audience.
As Swann, O'Toole spouts one of my favorite movie lines of all time:
"I'm not an actor. I'm a movie star!"
Rest in peace, Mr. O'Toole.
And just for the record: Yes you are, and I'll always remember you as one of the finest actors ever to grace the silver screen.
Naughty, not nice, but very funny
How many times have you considered something aptly described as "totally disgusting" a very good thing?
I can think of exactly one. That's Billy Bob Thornton's riveting and revolting performance as a boozing, booty chasing, conniving thief of a department store Santa with a good (but very well hidden) heart.
And here's something else. Can you believe it's been 10 years since Thornton, the star and Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the equally disturbing Sling Blade (1996), slipped into the worn Santa suit, lit up a cigarette and greeted the kiddies as a conman St. Nick in Bad Santa?
Nor can I. But if you're in the mood for an edgy alternative to the usual holiday season leading man, like Jimmy Stewart as squeaky clean George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life or the persistent, but kind of annoying kid in A Christmas Story, slide Bad Santa (Rated R) into the DVR, grab hold of something and hit "play."
Just to make sure everyone understands, we're not talking family entertainment here. So wait until the kids and/or the grandkids are safely out of sight.
As Willie, Thornton, in one of his finest screen performances in my humble opinion, grovels brilliantly as a desperately lonely, womanizing alcoholic with nowhere to go but up.
Willie, of course, goes down. Way down.