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Ghosts in the Machine: In Memoriam 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014

We lost some big names this year (Joan Rivers, Robin Williams) but I want to shine a light on some of the others. Each of these people created some little ripple or beam that somehow enhanced my TV-saturated brain and entertained us all.

Let's start with Sid Caesar (b. 1922), the biggest name on the list. Your Show of Shows was the '50s predecessor to Mad magazine and Saturday Night Live, skewering and satirizing people and pop culture all the way. Even the name itself was a bit over-the-top. Caesar hated one-liners, something unheard-of from an East Coast male comedian at the time. He pulled TV comedy variety shows out of their slapstick schtick and allowed the actors to experiment and improvise. He was good as Coach Calhoun in Grease, too, amirite?

Arthur Rankin Jr. (b.1924) was one-half of Rankin-Bass, the production company that brought us all the best holiday TV specials, like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Mad Monster Party, all done with puppets in stop-motion. Rankin called this style of animation "animagic" and got the idea from the old King Kong film that used the same techniques.

Did you know that the original last name of James Garner (b. 1928) was Bumgarner? Go Giants! The politically active The Rockford Files star was even asked to run for governor of California in 1990, though he turned down the opportunity. He also claimed to be an avid pothead for more than 50 years, which would also make him a great candidate. But he managed to do something that few actors can, and that is show up and just be himself in whatever role he was cast. "Give me a James Garner type! Masculine without being a dick, whip smart, and a little sneaky." Even John Wayne called him the greatest American actor of his time.

Clarissa Dickson Wright (b. 1947) has the longest name of a woman you've probably never heard of: Clarissa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elise Trillby Louise Esmerelda Dickson Wright. She was one of Two Fat Ladies, a fantastic British cooking show that ended in '99. Wright and her co-host would scoot through England on a motorcycle with a sidecar and fix people gnarly British meals: treacle, lard, deviled kidneys, liver in aspic, whatever was traditional and looked bloody awful. She was born into wealth but then lost it all due to drink, only to recover her sobriety and life and become a TV star. I can watch that show over and over and over.

Before there was the thinking nerd's Battlestar Galactica, there was the original '70s version, which was itself a ripoff of Star Wars. Maybe that's why Harlan Ellison called its creator Glen A. Larson (b. 1937) "Glen A. Larceny." The first Battlestar was not only stupid-looking (despite a million-dollar-per-episode budget!), but it was also supposed to be based on the principles of Lason's Mormon faith. But his greatest gift to America was his short-lived '80s creation Manimal, starring a posh English gent who could shapeshift into any animal he wanted as long as it was a panther or a hawk, since that's what they had already made special effects for, and that shit gets expensive. Coincidentally, James Garner claims in his autobiography that he punched Larson in the face for blatantly stealing plot material from The Rockford Files. No wonder The Duke approved.

We can't have an obit roundup without mentioning Bay Area radio legend Jim Lange (b. 1932). I still mourn the loss of cornball station KABL, but national TV viewers know him as the Jim Bakker-looking dude who hosted The Dating Game in the '70s. Wearing a velvet tuxedo and grinning through really bad double-entendres, Lange played up the kitsch like a boss. Apparently he was also supposed to chaperone the winners on their dates. That had to be weird. If you really want to see something freaky, go to YouTube, where you can see serial killer Rodney James Alcala "win" the thing. He's on death row at San Quentin now, but he had already murdered by the time he appeared. (Lange never had to watch him sip red wine with the lady though, because she got the creeps from Alcala and backed out of the date. Phew.)

And let us not forget Casey Kasem, Ann B. Davis, and Don Pardo. RIP friends.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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