AL FREEMAN JR., ACTOR PROMINENT IN CIVIL RIGHTS ERA
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: August 15, 2012
- Al Freeman Jr., a star among a generation of black actors that emerged during the civil rights era, who made his mark in both drama and race relations with his portraits of some of the movement’s most forbidding personalities — angry young men in the 1960s plays of James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones, Malcolm X in a television drama, and the black separatist Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee’s 1992 movie “Malcolm X” — died on Aug. 9 in Washington. He was 78.
20th Century Fox, via Photofest
Al Freeman Jr. in 1968 with Frank Sinatra, left, in “The Detective,” directed by Gordon Douglas.
Warner Brothers, via Photofest
Mr. Freeman in 1992 as the separatist Elijah Muhammad in “Malcolm X,” directed by Spike Lee.
His death was announced by Howard University, where he had been chairman of the theater arts department since 2005. No cause was disclosed.
Mr. Freeman’s lucid fury and psychological insight made him a favorite of literary black playwrights in the 1960s. He made his Broadway debut in 1960 in “The Long Dream,” a stage adaptation of a novel by Richard Wright, playing a black undertaker’s son who discovers his father’s complicity in the racial oppression at the heart of small-town life.
He starred on Broadway again in 1962 with Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Browne and Alvin Ailey in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright,” a pessimistic depiction of a black family’s life in New Orleans at the end of World War II. And he returned to Broadway in 1964 to play the ill-fated pastor’s son Richard Henry in Mr. Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie,” loosely based on the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman.
The same year, at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in the East Village, Mr. Freeman played a poet-revolutionary leading a race war in a production of “The Slave,” by Mr. Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka, which concludes with the sound of gunshots and a simulated bombing, the stage left covered in rubble. “Al Freeman Jr. is brilliant,” the critic Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times, praising his performance for its “taut intelligence.”
Mr. Freeman viewed his role as a black actor during that time as part of a larger, unfolding drama, he told interviewers. “I wasn’t down there on the front lines with Martin Luther King, or preparing myself with the Black Panthers,” he told Ebony magazine in 1993. But bringing life to characters in plays like “Blues for Mister Charlie” and “The Slave,” he added, “That was my activism.”
By the end of the 1960s Mr. Freeman was being cast in television dramas and feature films like “Finian’s Rainbow,” starring Fred Astaire, and “The Detective,” with Frank Sinatra, both released in 1968. He said he liked the mainstream success, but lost some of the sense of purpose he had felt in dramas about race.
“Everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to find a good reason for doing it,” he told The Times in 1970, referring to television projects. “But lately I’ve begun to think that maybe it’s my own kind of cop-out rationale.”
In the 1970s Mr. Freeman began appearing on the ABC soap opera “One Life to Live” in the recurring role of a police captain. In 1979 he received a Daytime Emmy for that role — the first ever given to an African-American in a soap opera — as well as critical acclaim for his portrayal of Malcolm X in the mini-series “Roots: The Next Generations.”
Teaching at Howard University beginning in 1988, Mr. Freeman had withdrawn somewhat from acting when Mr. Lee, preparing to direct “’Malcolm X,” asked him in 1991 to audition for the role of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader who inspired Malcolm X and then disappointed him with his marital infidelities.
Mr. Freeman later told interviewers that he felt he could bring to the part a feel for the times and a sense of the promise people saw in the young Malcolm, a part that went to Denzel Washington. “Certainly Spike didn’t pay me that much,” he told Ebony. “The point was that it had to do with my life.”
Reviews seemed to confirm his initial instincts. The critic Gene Siskel said watching Mr. Freeman’s Elijah Muhammad on screen was like watching documentary footage of the man himself.
Albert Cornelius Freeman Jr. was born on March 21, 1934, in San Antonio. After his parents, Albert and Lottie, divorced, he recalled, he spent much of his childhood shuttling between San Antonio, where his mother stayed, and Columbus, Ohio, where his father, a jazz pianist, resettled. In 1960 he married Sevara Clemon, a dancer; the couple divorced in the mid-1980s. No immediate family members are known to survive.
Mr. Freeman said his life as an artist was inextricable from the spirit of the times in which he lived, and that Malcolm X had articulated that spirit more powerfully than anyone. In the 1993 Ebony interview, he recalled once seeing Malcolm X speak in Harlem. “I remember him saying, ‘If a dog attacks you, whether it’s a four-legged dog or a two-legged dog, you kill that dog,’ ” he said. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear ‘stand up!’ Not ‘go out and kill anybody,’ but ‘stand up and be a man.’ ”
RON PALILLO, HORSHACK ON ‘WELCOME BACK, KOTTER’
ABC, via Photofest
The 1970s TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter” featured, from left, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, John Travolta, Robert Hegyes, Ron Palillo (as Arnold Horshack) and Gabe Kaplan.
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: August 14, 2012
- Ron Palillo, who portrayed the goofy high school underachiever Arnold Horshack in the hit 1970s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter” with such definitive oddballness that he had trouble for years afterward finding work as an actor, died on Tuesday in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 63.
The apparent cause was a heart attack, said his agent, Scott Stander.
“I know him, love what he does, not right for the part,” Mr. Palillo said in a 1997 newspaper interview, repeating what he said was the mantra of every casting director he met after his years on “Kotter,” which was on ABC from 1975 to 1979. “Everybody thought of me as Arnold Horshack. I resented Horshack for so many years.”
“Welcome Back, Kotter” starred Gabe Kaplan as a high school teacher returning to his alma mater in Brooklyn to take over an unruly class of remedial students known collectively as the Sweathogs (because their top-floor classroom was always hot). The Sweathogs were Vinnie Barbarino (played by John Travolta), Freddie Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) and Horshack, to whom Mr. Palillo imparted two trademarks: a braying laugh that sounded like a DisposAll with a utensil caught in it, and a wild waving of his hand to answer Mr. Kotter (usually wrongly) while grunting: “Ooh, ooh, Mista Kahta! Mista Kahta!”
Mr. Travolta was the only one of the four to become a star. Mr. Hegyes died in January at 60.
After the show ended Mr. Palillo had supporting roles on television series like “The Love Boat” and “The A-Team.” But the Horshack typecasting became chronic. “I think producers could smell the desperation in me,” he told The Akron Beacon Journal in 1997.
Things changed in 1991 when he moved to New York. He was in the daytime drama “One Life to Live” for a year and had the lead role in an Off Off Broadway production of “Amadeus.” He taught drama at the University of Connecticut, his alma mater. In 2010, in West Hartford, Conn., he directed the first production of “The Lost Boy,” a musical he wrote based on the life of J. M. Barrie, author of “Peter Pan.”
Mr. Palillo was born on April 2, 1949, in Cheshire, Conn. He became involved in high school theater as a way of managing his stuttering, which abated over the years. Soon after graduating from college he was cast as an understudy in Lanford Wilson’s Off Broadway play “Hot L Baltimore,” the job he held when he landed the Horshack role.
Last year Mr. Palillo, who moved to Florida in 2010 to be near his aging mother, became a drama teacher at the G-Star School of the Arts, a charter high school in West Palm Beach. His survivors include his partner of 41 years, Joseph Gramm, as well as two brothers and a sister. His mother died last year.
Mr. Palillo made his peace with Horshack in recent years. The character was based largely on the person he was in high school, he told The Miami Herald in 2009. “He was the smartest kid in school,” he said.
The dumb act, he said, was a bluff. “He was giving up his aptitude in order to be liked. Then and now, that is a very common thing in teenagers.”
PHYLLIS THAXTER, ACTRESS WHO PLAYED SUPERMAN’S MA KENT
By DENISE GRADY
Published: August 18, 2012
- Phyllis Thaxter, an actress who got her start in Hollywood in a war movie during World War II, overcame polio while pregnant and then carved out a long acting career that led to her final film role, as Superman’s mother, died on Tuesday in Longwood, Fla. She was 92.
Phyllis Thaxter in 1943.
Warner Brothers, via Photofest
Ms. Thaxter and Glenn Ford as Ma and Pa Kent in “Superman.”
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Skye Aubrey, who said that Ms. Thaxter had had Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years.
Frequently praised for bringing a quiet intelligence to her roles, Ms. Thaxter made her movie debut in 1944 in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” Mervyn LeRoy’s film based on the true story of the first American bombing raid of Tokyo, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle (played by Spencer Tracy). Ms. Thaxter played the wife of a pilot, played by Van Johnson, who volunteers for the mission with her support even though she is expecting a baby. He comes home badly wounded.
Ms. Aubrey said her mother had continued to receive fan mail as new generations discovered the film. “I got a letter about it the day she died, from Australia,” she said.
Under contract to MGM and then Warner Brothers, Ms. Thaxter acted in more than a dozen other films in the 1940s and early 1950s, often cast as the loyal, wholesome girl standing by her troubled or imperiled man.
Her movies included “The Sea of Grass,” with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; “Blood on the Moon,” with Robert Mitchum; “She’s Working Her Way Through College,” with Ronald Reagan; “Springfield Rifle,” with Gary Cooper; “Jim Thorpe — All American,” with Burt Lancaster; and “The Breaking Point,” with John Garfield and Patricia Neal.
In August 1952, Ms. Thaxter went for a swim in the icy waters off Cushing’s Island, Me., and suddenly lost all strength in her legs. Her brother rescued her. It was the first symptom of polio.
Ms. Thaxter, who was pregnant, wound up in an iron lung because the disease had weakened the muscles needed for breathing. A few weeks later, however, she walked out of the hospital. She gave birth to a healthy son the following January.
The bout with polio left her with nerve problems that caused pain in her feet, her daughter said, but “she never complained.”
During the 1950s Ms. Thaxter began a prolific television career. Among the dozens of shows on which she appeared were “Wagon Train,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Fugitive” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
In “Superman,” the 1978 blockbuster starring Christopher Reeve, she and Glenn Ford played the childless farming couple Ma and Pa Kent, who chance upon a foundling baby under unique circumstances and adopt him, and soon catch on that to call him gifted and talented would be an understatement.
Phyllis St. Felix Thaxter was born on Nov. 20, 1919, in Portland, Me. Her father, Sidney, was a state supreme court justice; her mother, Phyllis Schuyler, was a Shakespearean actress and a journalist.
Ms. Thaxter studied at the Montreal Repertory Theater in the 1930s and made her way to Broadway, where Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne hired her as an understudy. In New York she met the actor Montgomery Clift.
“They were very much in love,” Ms. Aubrey said of her mother and Mr. Clift. “They talked about getting married. They were planning on it. Then he found out he was gay.”
Ms. Thaxter and Mr. Clift remained close friends, Ms. Aubrey said.
Ms. Thaxter was earning rave reviews on stage in the comedy “Claudia” when she was invited to Hollywood for a screen test and hired for “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”
In a magazine interview soon after, she said she didn’t feel she belonged in Hollywood because she wasn’t beautiful or glamorous. Indeed, the Internet Movie Database says of her, “So natural and unglamorous was she that she tended to blend into the woodwork while the flashier actresses often stole the thunder and the notices.”
In 1944 Ms. Thaxter married James T. Aubrey Jr., who went on to run first CBS and then MGM. They divorced in 1962. Her second marriage, to Gilbert Lea, lasted 46 years, until his death in 2008.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Thaxter is survived by her son, James W. Aubrey; two stepchildren, Ann Fries and Thomas Lea; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and several step-grandchildren.
In her later years, Ms. Thaxter told her daughter that some of her off-screen relationships with leading men had gone beyond flirtation.
“My mother was always the girl next door,” Ms. Aubrey said. “Well, she had a hell of a good time.”
HELEN GURLEY BROWN, COSMOPOLITAN EDITOR WHO GAVE ‘SINGLE GIRL’ A LIFE IN FULL
Santi Visalli/Getty Images
Helen Gurley Brown was Cosmopolitan’s editor from 1965 until 1997. More Photos »
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: August 13, 2012
- Helen Gurley Brown, who as the author of “Sex and the Single Girl” shocked early-1960s America with the news that unmarried women not only had sex but thoroughly enjoyed it — and who as the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine spent the next three decades telling those women precisely how to enjoy it even more — died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.
Sophia Smith Collection/Smith College
Ms. Brown in 1965.
Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press
Ms. Brown in 1997. She helped reinvent magazines.
The Hearst Corporation, Cosmopolitan’s publisher, said in a news release that she died at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital after a brief stay there. She lived in Manhattan.
As Cosmopolitan’s editor from 1965 until 1997, Ms. Brown was widely credited with being the first to introduce frank discussions of sex into magazines for women. The look of women’s magazines today — a sea of voluptuous models and titillating cover lines — is due in no small part to her influence.
Before she arrived at Cosmopolitan, Ms. Brown had already shaken the collective consciousness with her best-selling book “Sex and the Single Girl.” Published in 1962, the year before Betty Friedan ignited the modern women’s movement with “The Feminine Mystique,” it taught unmarried women how to look their best, have delicious affairs and ultimately bag a man for keeps, all in breathless, aphoristic prose. (Ms. Brown was a former advertising copywriter.)
By turns celebrated and castigated, Ms. Brown was for decades a highly visible, though barely visible, public presence. A tiny, fragile-looking woman who favored big jewelry, fishnet stockings and minidresses till she was well into her 80s, she was a regular guest at society soirees and appeared often on television. At 5 feet 4, she remained a wraithlike hundred pounds throughout her adult life. That weight, she often said, was five pounds above her ideal.
Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death. What is safe to say is that she was a Janus-headed figure in women’s history, simultaneously progressive and retrogressive in her approach to women’s social roles.
Few magazines have been identified so closely with a single editor as Cosmopolitan was with Ms. Brown. Before she took over, Cosmopolitan, like its competitors, was every inch a postwar product. Its target reader was a married suburbanite, preoccupied with maintaining the perfect figure, raising the perfect child and making the perfect Jell-O salad.
Ms. Brown tossed the children and the Jell-O, though she kept the diet advice with a vengeance. Yes, readers would need to land Mr. Right someday — the magazine left little doubt that he was still every woman’s grail. But in an era in which an unmarried woman was called an old maid at 23, the new Cosmopolitan gave readers license not to settle for settling down with just anyone, and to enjoy the search with blissful abandon for however long it took. Sex as an end in itself was perfectly fine, the magazine assured them. As a means to an end — the right husband, the right career, the right designer labels — it was better still.
In Ms. Brown’s hands, Cosmopolitan anticipated “Sex and the City” by three decades.
Gone was the housewife, apron in tow. In her place was That Cosmopolitan Girl, the idealized reader on whom Ms. Brown and her advertisers firmly trained their sights. Unencumbered by husband and children, the Cosmo Girl was self-made, sexual and supremely ambitious, a potent amalgam of Ragged Dick, Sammy Glick and Holly Golightly. She looked great, wore fabulous clothes and had an unabashedly good time when those clothes came off.
Forty-three when she took the magazine’s helm, Ms. Brown often described the Cosmo Girl as the young woman she had been — or dreamed of being — 20 years before.
A child of the Ozarks, Helen Marie Gurley was born on Feb. 18, 1922, in Green Forest, Ark., the younger of two daughters of a family of modest means. Her father, Ira, was a schoolteacher, as her mother, the former Cleo Sisco, had been before her marriage.
“I never liked the looks of the life that was programmed for me — ordinary, hillbilly and poor — and I repudiated it from the time I was 7 years old,” Ms. Brown wrote in her book “Having It All” (1982).
When Helen was a baby, Ira Gurley was elected to the state legislature, and the family moved to Little Rock. In 1932, when she was 10, Ira was killed in an elevator accident, leaving her mother depressed and impoverished. In 1937, Mrs. Gurley moved with her daughters to Los Angeles. There, Helen’s older sister, Mary, contracted polio; she spent the rest of her life paralyzed from the waist down and in later years battled alcoholism.
Though Helen was valedictorian of her high school class, she feared she could never transcend her family circumstances. At a time when a young woman’s main chance was to marry well, she felt ill equipped. She did not consider herself pretty, she wrote years afterward, and had rampant, intractable acne. She coined the word “mouseburger” to describe young women like her. [mouseburger, n., pejorative, < mouse + -burger. A physically unprepossessing woman with little money and few prospects. Cf. milquetoast, said of men.]
Helen Gurley persevered. She studied briefly at Texas State College for Women (it is now Texas Woman’s University), but with no money to continue, she returned to Los Angeles and enrolled in secretarial school, from which she graduated in 1941.
Around this time she had a short, inadvertent career as an escort. At 19, as Ms. Brown recounted in her memoir “I’m Wild Again” (2000), she answered a newspaper advertisement seeking young women for “social evenings.” She needed to support her mother and sister: What could be simpler, she reasoned, than earning $5 for going on a date? On her first outing, she and her gentleman caller parked and kissed a bit before the full extent of her responsibilities dawned on her. She fled with her $5 and her virtue.
She went on to hold a string of secretarial jobs — 17 by her own count — and discovered the measure of security that sex could bring. At every office, or so it seemed, there were bosses eager to fondle and dandle. In exchange, there might be a fur or an apartment or the wherewithal to keep her family going.
Helen Gurley eventually became an advertising copywriter in Los Angeles, first with Foote, Cone & Belding and later with Kenyon & Eckhardt. In 1959 she married David Brown, a former managing editor of Cosmopolitan who had become a Hollywood producer. “I look after him like a geisha girl,” she told The New York Times in 1970.
Mr. Brown, who produced “Jaws” and other well-known films, died in 2010; the couple had no children. Ms. Brown’s sister, Mary Gurley Alford, died before her.
This year Ms. Brown gave $30 million to Columbia and Stanford Universities, both of which Mr. Brown had attended, to create the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
In the early 1960s, Ms. Brown found herself at loose ends and cast about for a project. Her husband, who had recently stumbled on a cache of letters she had written in her 20s to a married man who was smitten with her, persuaded her to write “Sex and the Single Girl.”
Though the book seems almost quaint today (“An affair can last from one night to forever”), it caused a sensation when it was published in 1962 by Bernard Geis Associates. It sold millions of copies, turned Ms. Brown into a household name and inspired a movie of the same title starring Natalie Wood, released in 1964.
In 1963, the Browns moved to New York. Two years later, the Hearst Corporation asked Ms. Brown to take over Cosmopolitan, one of its less prepossessing magazines. Becalmed in the doldrums, Cosmopolitan favored articles on home and hearth, along with uplifting discussions of current affairs (“The Lyndon Johnson Only His Family Knows”).
Ms. Brown had never held an editing job, but her influence on Cosmopolitan was swift and certain: she did not so much revamp the magazine as vamp it.
Where just months earlier Cosmo’s covers had featured photos of demure, high-collared girl-next-door types like Mary Tyler Moore, Ms. Brown’s first issue, July 1965, showed a voluptuous blond model whose deep cleavage was barely contained by her plunging neckline.
What Cosmopolitan’s previous cover lines had lacked in pith and punch (“Diabetes: Will Your Children Inherit It?”), Ms. Brown’s more than made up for. “World’s Greatest Lover — What it was like to be wooed by him!” her inaugural cover proclaimed. Ms. Brown was not shy about disclosing the fact that in her 32 years with the magazine, her husband wrote all the cover lines.
Readers and advertisers flocked to the new Cosmo. When Ms. Brown took over, the magazine had a circulation of less than 800,000; at its height, in the 1980s, circulation approached three million.
Ms. Brown’s magazine did not find favor with everyone. In 1970, a group of feminists led by Kate Millett staged a sit-in at Ms. Brown’s office, protesting what they saw as her retrograde vision of womanhood. Even several nude male centerfolds (Burt Reynolds, April 1972; Arnold Schwarzenegger, August 1977) were for many critics insufficient counterweights.
But in retrospect, Ms. Brown’s work seems strikingly apolitical, beholden mostly to the politics of personal advancement. (In “Having It All,” she compares herself, favorably, to Eva Peron.) The advice she offered Cosmopolitan’s readers on winning the right friends and influencing the right people was squarely in the tradition of Dale Carnegie, if less vertically inclined.
Ms. Brown was declared a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private nonprofit organization, in 1995. Like many landmarks, she had much restoration work done, which she spoke of candidly: a nose job, breast augmentation, face-lifts, eye lifts and injections of silicone and fat into her face to keep wrinkles at bay, among other procedures.
But while she could offset the physical tolls of aging, Ms. Brown could not always keep pace with changing times. She drew wide criticism for publishing an article in the January 1988 issue of Cosmopolitan that played down the risk of AIDS for heterosexual women. In the 1990s, when prominent men like Justice Clarence Thomas and Senator Robert Packwood were facing accusations of sexual harassment, Ms. Brown publicly disdained the charges, arguing that sexual attention from men is almost always flattering. Her remarks angered many feminists.
In 1996, with circulation declining and the perception that Ms. Brown had lost touch with her readers growing, Hearst announced that she would step down the next year as editor in chief. Ms. Brown’s last issue was February 1997; she was succeeded by Bonnie Fuller, the founding editor of the American edition of Marie Claire magazine.
Ms. Brown stayed on as the editor of Cosmopolitan’s international editions, continuing to work from an office appointed with pink silk walls, leopard-print carpet and a cushion embroidered with the maxim “Good Girls Go to Heaven/Bad Girls Go Everywhere.”
A biography of Ms. Brown, “Bad Girls Go Everywhere,” by Jennifer Scanlon, was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.
Ms. Brown’s other books include “Sex and the Office” (1964), “Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook” (1969) and “Sex and the New Single Girl” (1970), all published by Bernard Geis. In 1993, William Morrow published “The Late Show,” Ms. Brown’s advice book for women over 50, in which she suggests that as women age and the supply of available men dwindles, they should simply appropriate their friends’ husbands for jaunty recreational sex.
Perhaps none of these things — not the books, not the unabashed look of Cosmopolitan and its legion of imitators, not the giddy pleasure with which American women embraced sex without shame — would have happened quite as soon if Ms. Brown had heeded a single piece of advice. In 1962, just before “Sex and the Single Girl” was due to be published, she received a telegram from her mother. In an interview with CNN in 1998, Ms. Brown recalled its contents.
“dear helen,” it read. “if you move very quickly, i think we can stop publication of the book.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 16, 2012
An obituary on Tuesday about Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, misstated part of the current name of the university in Texas that she attended. She briefly studied at Texas State College for Women, which is now known as Texas Woman’s University — not Texas Women’s University. The obituary also referred incorrectly to “mouseburger,” a word Ms. Brown invented to describe women, like her younger self, who were physically unprepossessing and had few prospects. She had used the word at least as early as 1971; she did not coin it in her book “Having It All,” published in 1982.