May 12, 2011

Norma Zimmer, TV's 'Champagne Lady,' dies at 87

Norma Zimmer, the "Champagne Lady" of TV's "The Lawrence Welk Show" and a studio singer who worked with Frank Sinatra and other pop stars, has died. She was 87.

Zimmer died peacefully Tuesday at her Brea, Calif., home, Welk's son, Larry, said Wednesday. Larry Welk didn't know the cause of death but said Zimmer had been living an active life in recent years.

"She was one of the most gracious, likable people that anyone could ever meet. The other people on the show, to this day, just respect and love her," Larry Welk said.

Zimmer performed on Welk's network and later syndicated show from 1960 to 1982 as the "Champagne Lady," the title Welk traditionally gave to his orchestra's lead female singer. Zimmer sang solos, duets with Jimmy Roberts and waltzed with Welk to the strains of his effervescent dance tunes tagged "champagne music."

She appeared on the orchestra's public TV specials that have aired (along with repeats of the series) since 1987. Zimmer took part in a tribute to Welk and his show held earlier this year at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

Welk, who stopped performing in 1989, died in 1992.

Zimmer, born in July 1923 in Larson, Idaho, grew up in Seattle. The petite blonde sang with The Girlfriends, a quartet that performed with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, including on Crosby's famed recording of "White Christmas."

Zimmer made several film and TV appearances, including one with Crosby in the 1950 film "Mr. Music" and in an episode of "I Love Lucy," and was the voice of the White Rose in the 1951 Disney film, "Alice in Wonderland."

Her survivors include her sons, Ron and Mark. Her husband, businessman Randy Zimmer, died in 2008.

Funeral services for Zimmer were pending.

May 08, 2011

'Body Snatchers' star Dana Wynter dies at 79

Dana Wynter, who ran from the Pod People in the 1956 science-fiction classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," has died in Southern California. She was 79.

Her son, Mark Bautzer, told the Los Angeles Times the actress died Thursday in Ojai of congestive heart failure.

Wynter, who starred in a number of television dramas in the 1960s, was best known for her role as Becky Driscoll in director Don Siegel's paranoid film about townspeople being replaced by emotionless duplicates grown from plant-like pods.

Born in Germany, Wynter grew up in England and studied to be a doctor before turning to acting.

She appeared with Robert Lansing in the ABC series "The Man Who Never Was," and starred in "Wagon Train," "Cannon" and "The Rockford Files."

Sada Thompson, 1970s TV mom, dies in Conn. at 81

Sada Thompson, the durable matriarch of stage and screen who won a Tony Award for her portraits of three sisters and their mother in the 1971 comedy "Twigs" and an Emmy Award for playing the eternally understanding mother in the television series "Family," has died at age 81.

Thompson died Wednesday of a lung disease at Danbury Hospital, agent David Shaul said Sunday from Los Angeles.

Thompson won wide acclaim during an illustrious career that spanned more than 60 years, during which she gravitated toward quality work that allowed her to plumb her characters' complexities.

"When you start off acting, it does seem very romantic, and the make-believe part of it all seems very exciting," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. "It's only later that you begin to realize how fascinating the work is — that it's a bottomless pit, and you never get to the end of it. Human character is just endlessly fascinating."

Even before she graduated in 1949 from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology, she was on a trajectory to take on challenging roles drawn from the classics as well as contemporary plays.

A prolific actress, she made her mark in theater and film generally portraying the matriarchs in family dramas.

In her stage debut in 1945, she played Nick's Ma in William Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life." She was Mrs. Higgins in "Pygmalion" (1949), the resentful matriarch determined not to hurt again in "Real Estate" (1987), the embattled Mrs. Fisher in the 1991 comedy "The Show-Off," the slovenly and bitter mother, Beatrice, in the 1965 production of "The Effect Of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" and Dorine in "Tartuffe" (1965). She collected Obies for the latter two.

By far, her biggest Broadway success was "Twigs," by George Furth, in which she played three sisters — as well as their mother. The play took its title from a line by Alexander Pope: "Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined." She won a Tony and the New York Drama Critics Award that season.

The New York Times' Walter Kerr noted that what held the play together was "the peculiar luminosity that moves with Miss Thompson wherever she goes."

Throughout her career, her choices brought recognition from fellow actors more than they made her famous.

"When you're around great actors (like Thompson), they become an ideal or a goal that keeps reminding you of the quality you want your work to be," William Anton, who played Thompson's son in the 1989 San Diego production of "Driving Miss Daisy" and a preferred son-in-law in "The Show-Off," told the Los Angeles Times in 1991.

In the late '70s, she picked up an Emmy for her portrayal of the levelheaded Kate Lawrence in the ABC drama "Family," which ran for five seasons.

Born Sada Carolyn Thompson on Sept. 27, 1929, in Des Moines, Iowa, she got her unusual name from her maternal grandmother, whose name, Sarah, was turned into Sada. Her parents moved to New Jersey when she was 5, and her fascination with the stage began soon thereafter. Her parents would often take her to a summer theater where plays would stop on their way to Broadway or before they began their national tours.

"I saw stars like Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, Tallulah Bankhead and Cornelia Otis Skinner," she told The Associated Press in 1987. "It was enchanting. I knew that was the world I wanted to be in."

In 1956, she won a Drama Desk Award for Moliere's "The Misanthrope" and for an English girl mourning the death of her half-brother in war in "The River Line" (1957). She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Carla's mother in the NBC comedy "Cheers" (1991).

Thompson said she loved a good character role.

"There's always something more to be accomplished with a character," she told the AP in 1987.
"Theater is a human experience. There's nothing shellacked or finished off about it. I guess that's why it always draws me back."

Thompson met and married a fellow drama student, Donald Stewart, at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949. Their daughter is a costume designer.

May 06, 2011

'Gypsy' playwright Arthur Laurents dies in NYC

Arthur Laurents, the director, playwright and screenwriter who wrote such enduring stage musicals as "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," as well as the movie classics "Rope" and "The Way We Were," died Thursday. He was 93.

Laurents died at his home in Manhattan from complications of pneumonia, said his agent, Jonathan Lomma.

Laurents had an extensive career in radio and in Hollywood, but it was on Broadway where he had his biggest successes — particularly with two musicals many consider to be among the finest ever written. And Laurents provided the book — or story — for both.

"West Side Story," which opened on Broadway in 1957, transformed Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" into musical theater. It had pulsating, jazz-flecked music by Leonard Bernstein and galvanizing direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins.

Robbins also directed and choreographed "Gypsy," based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The 1959 musical, with a score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, told the story of Rose, a domineering stage mother who pushed her daughter into show business. As Rose, Ethel Merman had the greatest triumph of her career.

The show, Laurents once said in an interview with The Associated Press, is "about the need for recognition, which is a need for love."

"Gypsy" has been successfully revived four times on Broadway, first in 1974 with Angela Lansbury as Rose, then with Tyne Daly in 1989 (Laurents directed both of them) and Bernadette Peters in 2003.

Laurents was back as director for the 2008 Broadway version, with Patti LuPone as Rose. The production won Tonys for LuPone and two featured, or supporting, performers. Laurents was nominated for best director but did not win.

"I directed this unlike I've directed any other musical," Laurents said in the 2008 interview. "We spent an awful lot of time sitting around the table and examining literally every line in the book and in the lyrics.

"I did a totally new `Rose's Turn' (the show's big finale) for Patti. ... I didn't feel it was right for her. Whoever plays Rose determines the tone of the production. And it had to be for Patti — what Patti is and what Patti does."

In 2009, Laurents directed a revised version of "West Side Story," giving the show a new dose of realism by having much of the dialogue in Spanish.

His credits as a stage director also include "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," best remembered as the musical that introduced a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand to Broadway in 1962, and "La Cage Aux Folles" (1983), the smash Jerry Herman musical that ran for four years.

Laurents was a short, compact man with a trim fighter's build and a direct manner of speaking. He was known for saying exactly what was on his mind.

He was born in Brooklyn, the son of an attorney. He attended Cornell University and after graduation began writing radio plays including scripts for such popular series as "Dr. Christian" and "The Thin Man." While serving in the Army during World War II, Laurents wrote military training films as well as scripts for such radio programs as "Army Service Forces Present" and "Assignment Home."

His wartime experiences led to his first Broadway play, "Home of the Brave," which opened in December 1945. The military drama about anti-Semitism had a short run but later was made into a well-received movie in which the theme was changed to racial rather than religious prejudice.

In Hollywood after the war, Laurents wrote or co-wrote scripts for such films as "Rope" (1948), Alfred Hitchcock's masterful take on the Leopold-Loeb murder case; an uncredited contribution to "The Snake Pit" (1948), a look at mental illness underlined by Olivia de Havilland's harrowing lead performance; "Caught" (1949), Max Ophuls' love triangle melodrama starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Ryan; and "Anna Lucasta" (1949), an all-white version of the black stage hit about a Brooklyn prostitute.

Laurents returned to the New York theater in 1950 with "The Bird Cage," a drama about a nightclub owner. It quickly flopped despite a cast that included Melvyn Douglas and Maureen Stapleton.

Two years later, he had one of his biggest successes, "The Time of the Cuckoo," a rueful comedy about a lonely woman who finds romance in Venice with an already married Italian shopkeeper. "Cuckoo" provided Shirley Booth with one of her best stage roles and was later made into the movie "Summertime," starring Katharine Hepburn.

In 1966, Laurents reworked "Cuckoo" as a musical, retitled "Do I Hear a Waltz?" It had music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim. The following year, he wrote the book for the musical "Hallelujah, Baby!" The show, starring Leslie Uggams and with a score by Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, won the best-musical Tony Award in 1968.

Laurents' biggest film successes occurred in the 1970s, first as screenwriter for "The Way We Were," the 1973 movie starring Streisand and Robert Redford who played lovers pulled apart by the ideological conflicts of the McCarthy period of the late 1940s and 1950s.

He also wrote the script for "The Turning Point," a 1977 film starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as two former dancers still enmeshed in a personal rivalry. Other movies with screenplays by Laurents include "Anastasia" (1956) and the unsuccessful "Bonjour Tristesse" (1958), based on the novel by Francoise Sagan.

Laurents was not immune to stage failure, either. "Anyone Can Whistle," his 1964 collaboration with Sondheim, lasted only nine performances on Broadway. Yet thanks to its original cast recording featuring Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick, the show developed a cult following among musical-theater buffs.

In 1991, Laurents directed the musical "Nick and Nora," which he called "the biggest and most public flop of my career." Based on Dashiell Hammett's famous "Thin Man" detective couple — Nick and Nora Charles — the show played nearly two months of preview performances before finally opening — and closing — in less than a week.

Tony-winning `Promises, Promises' actress dies

Tony Award-winning "Promises, Promises" actress Marian Mercer, whose five-decade career also included dozens of television appearances, has died in California at age 75.

Her husband, Patrick Hogan, tells the Los Angeles Times that Mercer died April 27 of Alzheimer's disease complications in the Newbury Park area of Thousand Oaks, about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Besides her 1969 Broadway hit "Promises, Promises," Mercer won praise for the 1978 revival of "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off" co-starring Sammy Davis Jr.

On television, she starred in the ABC-TV comedy "It's a Living" from 1980 to 1982. She also had roles on "St. Elsewhere," "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Love, American Style."

Besides her husband of 31 years, Mercer is survived by a daughter, Deirdre Whitaker, of Seattle.

May 04, 2011

Hollywood actor Jackie Cooper dead at 88

Actor Jackie Cooper, the former child star who enjoyed renewed fame years later as Daily Planet editor Perry White in the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movies, has died near Los Angeles, his attorney said on Wednesday. He was 88.

Cooper died on Tuesday at a convalescent home in the coastal city of Santa Monica. "He just kinda died of old age," attorney Roger Licht told Reuters. "He wore out."

He rose to fame as a prominent cast member of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" short comedy films, appearing in such notable releases as "Teacher's Pet" and "Love Business."

Cooper holds the record as the youngest actor to receive an Oscar nomination for his title role, at age 9, in the 1931 film "Skippy," an adaptation of the comic strip about a lively youngster.

Later that year, he co-starred in "The Champ" as the innocent son of a washed-up boxer played by Wallace Beery.

After a stint as a television executive during the 1960s and as a TV director during the 1970s, Cooper won over a new generation of fans playing grizzled newspaperman Perry White in the 1978 film "Superman" and its three sequels.

He co-wrote his memoirs, "Please Don't Shoot My Dog," in 1981. He was married three times, and is survived by two of his four children.