Writer’s Block: Stars don’t fade even if they die in threes

The recent passing of three television and silver screen stars left me wondering if it’s really necessary to revisit the so-called Celebrity Death Rule. The old adage that death calls on entertainers in triplicate manifested itself again with the deaths of Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine and Celeste Holm. Griffith and Borgnine were among my favorite actors.

Tim Hennagir
Tim Hennagir

Holm, who died at her home in New York on Sunday at the age of 95, wasn’t on my original list of favorites nor any sort of Dead Pool list I might have kept. Nevertheless, Holm is highly worthy of mention, primarily because she won the best supporting actress Academy Award for “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1947. She was nominated for the same honor in 1949 for “Come to the Stable” and 1950 for “All About Eve.” Praised by critics at the time of its release, “All About Eve” was nominated for 14 Academy Awards (a feat unmatched until the 1997 film “Titanic”) and won six, including Best Picture.

That aforementioned fact is one reason why I’m going to elevate Holm to my list of film favorites. The other reason? Holm starred in the comedy “The Tender Trap” (1955) and the musical “High Society” (1956), both of which co-starred Frank Sinatra.

Here’s an interesting screen star segway: Borgnine starred with Sinatra in the 1953 classic “From Here To Eternity.” Two years later, Borgnine starred as a warmhearted butcher in “Marty,” which earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor over Frank Sinatra, James Dean (who had died by the time of the ceremony) and former Best Actor winners Spencer Tracy and James Cagney.

Borgnine’s career flourished through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Here’s my list of favorites from those three decades: “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965); “The Dirty Dozen” (1967); “Ice Station Zebra” (1968); “The Wild Bunch” (1969); “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “Emperor of the North Pole” (1973).

Borgnine’s performance in “Emperor” is a classic that’s tough to find on broadcast or cable television. I’ve only been able to find it in one local video rental store.

The film is about railroad hobos during the 1930s set in the state of Oregon.Borgnine lends his special brand of menace to the role of Shack, a sadistic bully of a railroad conductor who takes it upon himself to forcibly remove any hobo who tries to ride on his train.

On the small screen, Borgnine joined the ranks of other sitcom stars when he landed the lead role as the gruff but lovable skipper Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale. The insubordinate crew of PT-73 eventually helped “McHale’s Navy” become an overnight success during its first season, landing in the Top 30 in 1963. Borgnine most recently provided his voice talent to the animated sitcom “SpongeBob SquarePants” as the elderly superhero Mermaid Man.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was a major hit, never placing lower than seventh in the Nielsen ratings and ending its final season in 1968 with the No. 1 spot. The show has been ranked by TV Guide as the ninth best program in TV history.

However, according to CNN contributor and author Bob Greene, Griffith’s crowning achievement came early. “A Face in the Crowd” was Griffith’s first motion picture appearance. The 1957 film centers on a drifter named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes who ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television. “The job he did was so stunning – and so directly opposite in tone from the Sheriff Andy character that would later define him – that watching the movie today is a revelation,” Green wrote.

No kidding, especially in a presidential election year, since Griffith’s character eventually becomes media coach to a senator whose campaign is faltering.

While the recent passing of this trio of on-screen stars is sad, it doesn’t mean the laughter or tears they produced by entertaining us has to end anytime soon.

Our celluloid heroes never really die. They gain new life and remain timeless on late-night television or a favorite network dedicated to such classics, inside our heads as pleasant movie memories.

  • John Gessner

    Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi
    Cuz he’s liable to turn and bite
    But stand close by Bette Davis
    Cuz hers was such a lonely life.

    (You can’t put that reference out there without SOMEONE picking up on it.)