I always enjoy TCM’s in memoriam videos. Well, enjoy might not be the right word, but they’re fitting tributes to those lost in the entertainment world. Retrospectives like this are important: they help us to remember both the achievements of those who’ve gone before us and deserve our respect, and they also remind us of our own mortality and the remorseless march of time, forcing us to consider what our legacy shall be. In memoriam are necessarily memento mori.
Watch and pay respects to those professionals in their field who have departed this vale of tears.
This year we lost some great ones. Leonard Nimoy, of course, received much fitting tribute after his passing in February. Maureen O’Hara marked the passing of one of the last stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If I’m not mistaken, her death leaves only Olivia de Havilland left of that generation. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, was the last of the classic horror stars to pass on, following Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine. Wes Craven, past master of horror, likewise departed.
I would like to draw particular attention, however, to two actors whose work I only know from a few projects, but who were especially talented and entertaining performers not well known to modern audiences.
The first is Louis Jourdan, a splendid French actor possessed of a tremendously entertaining style. He excelled at playing smug, upper-class villains. I’m most familiar with him from an episode of Columbo in which he played a corrupt food critic who poisons a chef who threatened to expose him. Jourdan is deliciously disgusting in the role; he’s a repulsively smug bastard, but he’s just so exuberant in being a smug bastard that you can’t help being entertained by him. He rattles off complicated dishes with evident relish at his own knowledge and prances and gestures theatrically across the screen at every opportunity. Yet the hamminess fits the role: you feel like this is the kind of guy who would act at all times as if he were part of a stage melodrama. I also love his final confrontation with Columbo as the two collaborate on a meal while the detective lays out how he solved the case. Jourdan’s more restrained here as the noose tightens around his neck, and his exit line is one of the best of any Columbo episode, and perfectly delivered. “Lieutenant,” he sighs after tasting Columbo’s cooking. “I wish you’d been a chef.”
Jourdan had long and distinguished career, most of which was spent trying to avoid being typecast as a ‘continental lover.’ He commented that he much preferred character parts, and it certainly shows. His best known role is probably in the musical Gigi, which I haven’t seen myself, but he’s also famous for playing a Bond villain in Octopussy. It’s not one of the better entries, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen it to comment on his performance, though he does get at least one particularly great line: “You seem to have a nasty habit of surviving.”
The other actor was also a veteran of Columbo (there are few high-class actors of the time who weren’t): Theodore Bikel, a burly, incredibly energetic performer, one of those actor’s actors who could melt into any role and make it work. He had small roles in a number of classic films (notably My Fair Lady and The African Queen), but was best known for his stage and television work (he apparently played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof over 2,000 times). Like Jourdan, I most remember him from Columbo. In his episode, he played a member of a ‘Mensa’ like group of geniuses who concocts a brilliantly executed murder to cover up his embezzlements.
Columbo episodes generally come in two flavors: there are the classic mystery episodes, where the point is to catch the killer and the character study episodes, which are more about exploring the murderer’s character and personality. Jourdan’s episode was an example of the former, Bikel’s the latter. We get to know his character very well indeed by the end; he’s brilliant, but he’s emotionally stunted for just that reason, always reaching out to the childhood he lost as “an imitation adult.” He claims the man he killed was his best friend, but from what we see the relationship appears to have been rather one-sided. He’s married to an absolutely vapid woman who is only interested in sex and whom he seems to have married for that reason. In fact, he’s a profoundly lonely man. Even his so-called intellectual peers don’t interest him (“I find them eccentric bores”). Somehow or other, he just doesn’t fit in to any of the boxes society tries to put him in, even the one seemingly tailor made for him. You don’t dislike the man; you feel sorry for him.
Personally, I really relate to this character. I know what it’s like to feel alienated and lonely both in the ordinary day-to-day world and in the sheltered, ‘selected’ world set aside for people ‘like you.’ It’s a marvelous performance by Bikel, one that sticks with you long after the episode ends.
The other performance I remember by Bikel (I haven’t seen many, unfortunately) was an episode of The Twilight Zone in which he plays a paranoid fanatic who occupies his time spying on people, cataloguing what he considers their undesirable traits and seeking to make them pay for it (one of his victims was a doctor who failed to save a patient). Overwhelmed by the task before him, he decides to destroy all ‘evil people’ by sheer will at the stroke of four.
The twist to this one is as predictable as it gets, and it’s not one of the great Twilight Zone episodes, but the sheer force of Bikel’s performance makes it enjoyable nonetheless. To this day I can’t hear the words “four o’clock” without recalling the particular inflection he gives them. I also love his response to an FBI Agent (whom he’s trying to give ‘information’ to) tactfully asking whether he’d ever seen a psychiatrist: “Why?” he giggles. “I’m not evil!”
Every year marks the end of thousands of lives. Some of those lives were masters in their particular craft, giants in their field, or simply hard-working professionals who did their jobs well. Lous Jourdan and Theodore Bikel were both great performers and they, together with all those TCM Remembers, will be missed.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.