When I was growing up, Sundays were newspaper days. Each week, my father would take my brother and me off to buy a stack of different papers, each in multiple copies, so that when we subsequently arrived at my grandmother’s house, no one would be forced to give up his copy of the Times crossword. Each of us had our favorite section, but like any good Irish Catholic family we always turned to the same page first: the obituaries.
Call it a morbid fascination or simple human nature, it was what we did over our eggs and bacon. To the adults, there was something relaxing—even reassuring—about it all: these were lives well lived, and even when they ended too soon, they had left their mark on others. That was the familiar feeling I felt as I read the many online eulogies for Paul Walker, the film star who lost his life in a car wreck not long ago. This week, we look back on just a few of the other actors, actresses, and people behind the camera that we lost this year—and remind ourselves of some of the lasting work they leave behind.
You may not recognize the names Richard LeParmentier and Stuart Freeborn, but the two men worked together on some of cinema’s most iconic scenes. Freeborn was an English-born makeup artist who worked on dozens of films over the course of six decades, but is best known for his work on the groundbreaking Star Wars trilogy, where he helped design some of those films’ famous creatures, including Yoda. (It also reunited him with Alec Guinness, whom he had transformed into Fagin for David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist.) LeParmentier only appears in the first of the Star Wars films, but he had a plum role: he was the unlucky general force-choked by Darth Vader in the “I find your lack of faith disturbing” scene.
We also lost Dennis Farina and James Gandolfini, two actors who blurred the television/film boundary. Gandolfini, of course, was best known for his work as Tony Soprano on the long-running HBO series; lesser known is his film work. He was a department store owner being blackmailed in the Coen Brothers’ 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the voice of wild thing Carol in Where The Wild Things Are, among other diverse roles. Farina, on the other hand, was immediately recognizable but also something of a chameleon. Veteran of a thousand cookie-cutter cop shows, he was also a director’s favorite who was plucked for roles in films like Saving Private Ryan and Snatch.
And if you caught the recent Sound of Music teleplay, you may have been reminded of just how much you loved the original by contrast. If that’s the case, it’s partly due to the talents of Eleanor Parker, an Oscar-nominated actress who portrayed the Baroness Elsa Schrader in the 1965 classic. Should you get an urge to revisit the von Trapps, I highly recommend you choose the Parker version.
And of course the biggest farewell for many in Hollywood was that of Roger Ebert, the critic who brought film to the American everyday. Erudite but never stuffy, populist but unafraid of panning a film that deserved it, Ebert was a giant. The first film critic to merit a Pulitzer, he also scored his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Battling a debilitating cancer in his later years, he lived his life the same way he wrote: openly, honestly, and full of a warm-hearted strength. If you ever want to learn more about a old movie, look up his review first—it will be worth it, whether you watch the movie or not.
Also this week: Martin Scorsese reunites with regular collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed) for The Wolf of Wall Street, a new film out this week. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), a stock hustler who starts out with penny stocks and builds up an empire based on the quasi-legal flim-flam of the boiler room stock trade. Flying high—sometimes literally, with drug-fueled helicopter and Concorde trips—Belfort was brought back to Earth when the FBI arrested him in the late 1990s. For the rest of us, Scorsese’s film is a rich example of the American dream gone haywire.•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.