SHIRLEY TEMPLE BLACK, HOLLYWOOD’S BIGGEST LITTLE STAR
Shirley Temple Black dead at 85: ‘Bright Eyes’ actress, beloved child star turned U.S. diplomat passed away of natural causes
The Great Depression-era star made nearly 40 movies before 1940. She eventually retired from acting in her early 20s and tried her hand at politics before becoming a spokesperson for various causes and an ambassador. The ‘Bright Eyes’ star passed away in her home in California, according to a statement from her family.
Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 5:53 AM
Updated: Wednesday, February 12, 2014, 12:50 AM
Harry Warnecke/New York Daily News
Shirley Temple became an Hollywood star before she was 10 years old.
Shirley Temple was a dimpled darling with blond ringlets who set the bar for child superstars in Hollywood before gracefully pivoting to a successful diplomatic career.
She was the fearless mom who made it OK to talk about breast cancer — at a time when the disease was shrouded by shame — by publicly announcing that she underwent a mastectomy and urging other women not to “sit home and be afraid.”
But she was never, ever, Lindsay Lohan.
Instead, the beloved actress, who died Monday, remained for much of her life the same sunny presence that lifted the nation’s spirits during the darkest days of the Depression — and entranced the generations of moviegoers who followed.
Unlike Lohan and many of the other child stars-turned-train wrecks who followed in Temple’s footsteps, there were no off-screen meltdowns, no mug shots, no public drunkenness — and not even a whiff of scandal.
“You can wake her up in the middle of the night and she has the same personality everybody knows,” her late husband, Charles Alden Black, told a reporter in 1988. “What everybody has seen for 60 years is the bedrock.”
Officially, she was 85, but to many Americans she was forever that precocious little girl with the adorable pout who sang about dreaming away “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in the movie classic “Bright Eyes.”
Playing an orphan, she melted criminal hearts in “Little Miss Marker.” She brokered a peace between the settlers and Indians in another Hollywood hit, “Susannah of the Mounties.” And she danced on a piano in “Little Miss Broadway.”
“I want to do that, too,” she told Bill (Bojangles) Robinson in another iconic film, “The Little Colonel,” where she gently toppled a taboo in 1930s America by taking the black performer’s hand and tap-dancing with him on the stairs.
From 1935 to 1939, Temple was the biggest little star in Tinseltown on the strength of movies like “Wee Willie Winkie” and “Heidi,” and helped save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy with films like “Curly Top” and “The Littlest Rebel.”
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Shirley Temple starred in nearly 40 films before the end of the 1930s.
More popular than Clark Gable, Bing Crosby or Greta Garbo, she won an honorary Oscar when she was 6 and made $3 million while still a child. That’s the equivalent of about $45 million today.
Moms dressed their daughters like her. Shirley Temple dolls became the rage. And they even named a drink after the starlet, a chaste but sweet concoction called the Shirley Temple that mixed ginger ale, grenadine and a maraschino cherry — and contained no liquor.
“As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared.
Unlike Dina Lohan, Temple’s mother, Gertrude, kept her grounded and was present for virtually every scene she filmed. Gertrude Temple, the actress told the Los Angeles Times, was a “super mother” who “kept my head on straight.”
Temple was also humble about her success.
“People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin and a little girl,” she said long after the she left the movie business.
Temple rarely dwelled on what it might have been like had she not grown up a child star. But she once told a reporter that she stopped believing in Santa Claus when she was 6.
“Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph,” she said.
MARK J. TERRILL/AP
Actress and former diplomat, Shirley Temple Black, accepts the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 12th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2006 at the age of 77.
Born April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, Calif., Temple was pushed into the pictures by her mother, who the actress unfailing described as loving and persistent.
Blessed with the uncanny ability to cry on cue, a natural gift for mimicry and a phenomenal memory, Temple got her first big break in 1932 when she was cast in “Baby Burlesks.”
These were short films during which diaper-clad kids imitated the grownup stars of the day such as Mae West and Marlene Dietrich.
Two years later, Temple was cast in “Stand Up and Cheer!” — and America did just that when they got a look at her singing and dancing.
That was the start of a string of 40 films, most of them hits, almost all of them featuring a catchy song like “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” which kids for several generations would sing.
But Temple’s career ended where most actresses begin — when she started growing up.
Moviegoers who adored Temple as a girl turned away when she became a young woman and co-starred with Cary Grant in “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and with future President Ronald Reagan in “That Hagen Girl.”
The final blow to her career was when Temple failed to get the title role in “Peter Pan,” a play about a boy who never wants to grow up.
By 22, she was washed up in Hollywood and divorced from her first husband, actor John Agar, the father of her daughter Linda.
Five months after divorcing Agar, she married Black. And they stayed married for 55 years, a happy union that produced two children and ended with his death in 2005.
Shirley Temple and Cesar Romero in the classic 1937 film, ‘Wee Willie Winkie.’
Temple did not fall into despair while she was figuring out her next career move. She did some television work. She did some corporate work. She raised her kids.
During that time, Temple moved to a San Francisco suburb where she became president of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and a prime mover behind the San Francisco International Film Festival.
A supporter of the Vietnam War, Temple tried her hand at politics but lost her run for Congress in 1967 to a more moderate Republican.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon tapped Temple to be part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and launched her on a distinguished diplomatic career.
Temple served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford and was the first President George Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia when communism fell in 1989.
“My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future (Czech) President Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she told The Associated Press in 1999.
In 1972, Temple made headlines again after she underwent successful breast cancer surgery. And she was credited with giving other women the strength to battle the dreaded disease.
“I have much more to accomplish before I am through,” she told her fans.
Temple’s final years in Woodside, Calif., however, were quiet. And when she passed, it was in the company of those nearest and dearest to her.
“She was surrounded by her family and caregivers,” her family said in a statement. “We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and . . . our beloved mother, grandmother (and) great-grandmother.”
The family did not reveal a cause of death.
With Michael Sheridan
SID CEASAR, COMEDIAN OF COMEDIANS FROM TV’S EARLY DAY
By MERVYN ROTHSTEIN and PETER KEEPNEWS
FEB. 12, 2014
- Sid Caesar, a comedic force of nature who became one of television’s first stars in the early 1950s and influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.
His death was announced by Eddy Friedfeld, a family spokesman.
Mr. Caesar largely faded from the public eye in his middle years as he struggled with crippling self-doubt and addiction to alcohol and pills. But from 1950 to 1954, he and his co-stars on the live 90-minute comedy-variety extravaganza “Your Show of Shows” dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans. In New York, a group of Broadway theater owners tried to persuade NBC to switch the show to the middle of the week because, they said, it was ruining their Saturday business.
Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Mr. Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.
Television comedy in its early days was dominated by boisterous veterans of vaudeville and radio who specialized in broad slapstick and snappy one-liners. Mr. Caesar introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations. It left an indelible mark on American comedy.
“If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ “ Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, “check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”
A list of Mr. Caesar’s writers over the years reads like a comedy all-star team. Mel Brooks (who in 1982 called him “the funniest man America has produced to date”) did some of his earliest writing for him, as did Woody Allen. So did the most successful playwright in the history of the American stage, Neil Simon. Carl Reiner created one landmark sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; Larry Gelbart was the principal creative force behind another, “M*A*S*H.” Mel Tolkin wrote numerous scripts for “All in the Family.” The authors of the two longest-running Broadway musicals of the 1960s, Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”), were Caesar alumni as well.
Sketches on “Your Show of Shows” and its successor, “Caesar’s Hour” (1954-57), were as likely to skewer the minutiae of domestic life as to lampoon classic Hollywood movies, arty foreign films and even operas. Mr. Caesar won Emmys for both those shows.
With a rubbery face and the body of a linebacker, Mr. Caesar could get laughs without saying a word, as he did in a pantomime routine in which he and his co-stars, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Mr. Reiner, played mechanical figures on a town clock that goes dangerously out of whack.
Fluent in Fake Languages
Mr. Caesar was a master of improvisation: In a classic moment during a parody of the opera “Pagliacci,” as he was drawing tears on his face in front of a dressing-room mirror, the makeup pencil broke. Suddenly unable to draw anything but straight lines, he made the split-second decision to play tick-tack-toe on his cheek.
He was also deft at handling whatever wordplay his writers gave him. In one guise, as the extremely far-out jazz saxophonist Progress Hornsby, he explained that his new record was in a special kind of hi-fi: “This is the highest they’ve ever fied. If they fi any higher than this, they’re gonna foo!”
He could seem eloquent even when his words were total gibberish: Among his gifts was the ability to mimic the sounds and cadences of foreign languages he didn’t actually speak.
He was equally convincing as a suburban husband slowly figuring out that his wife, played by Ms. Coca, had wrecked the car (a comic conceit that had not yet become a cliché); as an absurdly enthusiastic member of a bouffant-coiffed rock ‘n’ roll trio called the Haircuts; or as a pompous German professor in a battered top hat and moth-eaten frock coat who claimed, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, to be an expert on pretty much everything. One week, the professor was an archaeologist who claimed to have discovered “the secret of Titten-Totten’s tomb.” Asked what the secret was, he became indignant: “You think I’m gonna tell you? You got another guess coming. You take that trip.”
Two decades after “Your Show of Shows” ruled the Saturday-night airwaves, another live 90-minute show, similarly built around a stock company’s wild and often irreverent sketch comedy, helped change the face of television. But there might not have been a “Saturday Night Live” if Sid Caesar and company hadn’t paved the way.
“It was fun, but hard,” Mr. Caesar said in 1984, looking back on his glory years. “I worked six days a week, putting the script together, working with the writers. The show had to be written by Wednesday night because Thursday we had to put it on its feet. Friday we showed it to the technicians, and Saturday was the show. Sunday was our only day off, and I used to stand under the shower and shake.”
He did more than shake. By the age of 30, Mr. Caesar was not just the king of television, earning $1 million a year; he was also an alcoholic and a pill addict. Under his manic exterior, he recalled in “Where Have I Been?,” his 1982 autobiography, he was distraught and filled with self-hatred, tormented by guilt because he did not think he deserved the acclaim he was receiving.
He was also given to explosive rages. Mr. Caesar once dangled a terrified Mr. Brooks from an 18th-story window until colleagues restrained him. With one punch, he knocked out a horse that had thrown his wife off its back, a scene that Mr. Brooks replayed in his movie “Blazing Saddles.”
By the late 1950s, he was off the air, a victim of changing tastes as well as personal problems. He made a triumphant comeback on Broadway in 1962, playing seven characters in “Little Me,” a musical created by Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh and Mr. Simon. (A concert revival of “Little Me” was part of the Encores! series at City Center this month.) A year later, Mr. Caesar held his own among comedy heavyweights like Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters in the hit movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” But his problems soon got the better of him, and his comeback was short-lived.
Most of the 1960s and ’70s were a struggle. They were also a blur: In writing “Where Have I Been?” Mr. Caesar relied on reporting by his collaborator, Bill Davidson, and the recollections of his family, because there was so much he could not remember. (Twenty-one years later, Mr. Caesar and Mr. Friedfeld wrote a second autobiography, “Caesar’s Hours.” This one was more upbeat, mostly because the focus was Mr. Caesar’s comedy career rather than his personal struggles.)
Back Up From Rock Bottom
The low point came in 1978. He was in two movies that year, “Grease” and “The Cheap Detective,” but by the time they hit theaters, he had hit bottom.
Incapacitated by his addictions and neuroses, barely able to get out of bed, he underwent intensive psychotherapy and medical treatment. He found salvation and sanity, he later said, in a form of Jungian self-therapy: recording improvised dialogues each day between himself as Sid, a wise father, and Sidney, his wayward son, whom the father teaches to become a restrained, confident adult. In the 1980s, Mr. Caesar acquired a new addiction: healthful living. He developed a lean, youthful physique by avoiding fat, salt and sugar and by strenuously working out at least one hour each morning.
“Now, instead of knocking life down, tearing it apart, I graciously accept life,” he said.
Sidney Caesar was born on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, the youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants, Max Caesar and the former Ida Rafael. Max, who emigrated from Poland, owned and operated a luncheonette with his wife, who had come from Russia; young Sid Caesar developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele. The family lived over the restaurant and rented rooms to transients.
As a child, Sid was moody, shy, quiet and — although he would later grow to 6 foot 2 — short. He once said he felt “like a midget in the world of giants.” He kept to himself much of the time. He was 3 before he began to talk, and even then, his brothers recalled, he did not say a great deal.
His teachers, interviewed at the time of his early television success, remembered a completely unexceptional child. “Sid Caesar was one of the dumbest pupils I ever had,” one teacher said.
He took up weight lifting. “I developed tremendous muscles, which everyone had to respect,” he said. “The biceps I built were disguises for my fear.”
He also learned how to play the saxophone, which he later said saved his life: “It helped me blow off some steam and get rid of some of the anger.”
Equally important, the saxophone gave him an entree into show business. At 14, he was hired to play at a Catskills hotel on summer vacation. While there, he also began performing in comedy sketches; he still thought of himself primarily as a saxophonist and would go on to work with the bands of Shep Fields, Claude Thornhill and others, but comedy soon became his primary focus.
After graduating from Yonkers High School, he worked as an usher and then a doorman at the Capitol Theater in Manhattan, auditing courses at the Juilliard School because he could not afford to attend. He met Florence Levy in the Catskills and married her in 1943.
In World War II, he enlisted in the Coast Guard and did duty on Brooklyn piers. In his free time, he wrote comic material that helped win him a role in “Tars and Spars,” a Coast Guard revue that toured the country and was made into a movie, in which he also appeared, in 1946. A monologue in which he played multiple characters and provided all the sound effects of a World War I aerial dogfight made a strong impression on audiences — and on the show’s director, Max Liebman.
In 1948, Mr. Liebman directed Mr. Caesar in the hit Broadway revue “Make Mine Manhattan.” The next year, when Mr. Liebman brought him to television on the weekly “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” Mr. Caesar was hailed as the small-screen discovery of the year. His star rose even higher with the debut of “Your Show of Shows,” also overseen by Mr. Liebman, in February 1950.
Although the chemistry between Mr. Caesar and Ms. Coca was a large part of the show’s success, NBC decided to split them up and give Ms. Coca her own show after four years. With Mr. Reiner and Mr. Morris still by his side, Mr. Caesar carried on with “Caesar’s Hour,” but after a strong start, the ratings declined, and the show was canceled in 1957. He returned the next year with “Sid Caesar Invites You,” a half-hour ABC show, which reunited him with Ms. Coca. But the old magic was gone, and the show lasted only a few months.
“I had no experience in failure,” Mr. Caesar later recalled of the years that followed. “And then, when failure comes, oh, boy, it comes in lumps.”
After 20 up-and-down years, Mr. Caesar found himself in 1978 spending four months almost entirely in bed, secretly ordering in beer whenever his wife turned her back. Offered a job in Canada in Mr. Simon’s comedy “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” he was in such a fog of alcohol and pills that he couldn’t remember his lines. Finally, he sought treatment.
“I had to come to terms with myself,” he recalled. “Do you want to live or die? Make up your mind. And I did. I said, ‘I want to live.’ And that was it: the first step on a long journey.”
A Career Rejuvenated
His return to health and sobriety led to a career revival, aided by two events in 1982: the publication of “Where Have I Been?” and the release of the movie “My Favorite Year,” a fictionalized account of life behind the scenes at “Your Show of Shows” produced by Mr. Brooks, with Joseph Bologna as the show’s Caesar-like star.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, until health problems slowed him down, Mr. Caesar worked regularly: on television (he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 1983), in films (he worked for Mr. Brooks again in “History of the World: Part I”), in nightclubs (with Ms. Coca), on Broadway (although his show “Sid Caesar and Company: Does Anybody Know What I’m Talking About?” closed quickly in 1989) and at the Metropolitan Opera, where he appeared as Frosch, the drunken jailer, in a 1987 production of “Die Fledermaus.”
Mr. Caesar was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985.
Mr. Caesar’s wife, Florence, died in 2010. His survivors include a son, Richard; two daughters, Michele and Karen Caesar; and two grandsons.
In a 1987 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Caesar looked back on his early success and subsequent failures, both of which he admitted he had been unprepared to handle, and reflected on the perspective he said he had finally achieved.
“Everybody wants to have a goal: I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal,” he said. “Then you get to that goal, and then you gotta get to another goal. But in between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed — and if you don’t, you’re a fool.”
RALPH WAITE, PATRIARCH IN ‘THE WALTONS’
His death was confirmed by Susan Zachary, his agent, who said the cause had not been determined.
Mr. Waite was a respected New York stage actor when he was offered a role on “The Waltons,” and at first he was not enthusiastic about it. But his agent, he recalled, advised him to take the part so that he could “pick up a couple of bucks” in Hollywood and go back to New York.
“The Waltons” made its debut on CBS in September 1972 against two already popular shows: Flip Wilson’s irreverent comedy-variety show on NBC and, on ABC, “Mod Squad,” a drama about young undercover police officers. What some saw as a cornball newcomer was expected to be buried, but within two seasons it had driven its competitors off the air.
The success of “The Waltons” owed much to the actors and the characters they played, members of a homespun rural family used to surmounting challenges through old-fashioned virtues. The foremost was John Jr., known as John-Boy, the oldest of seven children. Played by Richard Thomas, he was a serious young man with a passion to be a writer.
Almost as significant was Mr. Waite’s John Sr., the family patriarch, who displayed wisdom, goodness, courage and a bit of a temper. He did not approve of hunting animals for sport, but hunted to put food on his hard-pressed family’s table. Though he shunned organized religion, his wife, Olivia, played by Michael Learned, called him “the most God-fearing man I know.”
In 2004, a TV Guide poll of readers ranked him No. 3 on its list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time,” behind Bill Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable (No. 1) on “The Cosby Show” and Lorne Greene’s Ben Cartwright on “Bonanza.”
“The Waltons” lasted nine seasons and produced six made-for-television movie sequels. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush said he wanted to “make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
“Somehow, we struck a vein in the life of the world,” Mr. Waite said in an interview in 2013 with The Lancaster News, a South Carolina newspaper.
Acting was only one aspect of Mr. Waite’s life. He was at various times a Marine, a social worker, an ordained Presbyterian minister, a book editor and a three-time Democratic candidate for Congress from California.
As an actor, he ranged from Shakespeare to Beckett and from Broadway to soap operas, most notably as Father Matt on “Days of Our Lives.” One of his two Emmy nominations was for playing Slater, the first mate of a slave ship, in the 1977 mini-series “Roots” — a glaring contrast to the broad-minded John Walton. The other was for “The Waltons.”
He had small parts in movies like “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), with Paul Newman, and “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), with Jack Nicholson. He appeared on television on “Murder One” (1996), as a clergyman on the HBO series “Carnivàle” (2003-5) and as Jackson Gibbs, the father of Mark Harmon’s character, on “NCIS” (2008-12). He directed 16 episodes of “The Waltons.”
Mr. Waite started the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, an experimental company, and spent more than $1 million of his own money on a failed 1980 movie about skid-row types. The film, “On the Nickel,” which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, appeared in just a few theaters.
Ralph Harold Waite was born in White Plains on June 22, 1928, the oldest of five children, and grew up in a “very secular, nonartistic” environment, he told People magazine in 1977.
“I was never taken to a play or concert or church,” he said. “Yet I was a show-off, a dreamer, a storyteller.”
After high school he joined the Marines, serving from 1946 to 1948, and attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., where he met Beverly Hall, whom he married in 1951. She encouraged him to go into social work, which he did in Westchester County after graduating in 1952.
Tiring of the county bureaucracy, he sought meaning in religion, a reversal of his belief in college that secular philosophy was sufficient. He entered Yale Divinity School and earned a master’s degree. He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and served congregations on Fishers Island, off Long Island, and in Garden City, N.Y.
He later left the ministry, upset with what he saw as hypocrisy in the church, and worked for Harper & Row editing religious books. That did not satisfy him for long either.
Meanwhile, his marriage deteriorated and he drank too much — a problem, he said, that worsened until he gave up alcohol in the mid-1970s. A friend suggested he try acting school.
“I was in my 30s and I had never acted before,” he told The Boston Globe in 1974. “But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I went with him. The first time I just listened. The second time I played a scene. The third time I took the bit in my teeth, and I loved it. I felt alive for the first time since I can’t remember when.”
He impressed his teachers and soon got a job as general understudy in an Off Broadway production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” By the end of its six-month run, he had played all the major roles.
In 1965, he received excellent reviews for his performance in William Alfred’s “Hogan’s Goat,” a drama about Brooklyn politics in the 1890s. Two years later, he won praise in The New York Times from Clive Barnes, who, while savaging a modernistic interpretation of “Hamlet” at the Public Theater in which Hamlet passed out peanuts and balloons to the audience, singled out Mr. Waite for his “bluff, happy villainy” as Claudius.
Mr. Waite began getting movie roles. He wrote a screenplay and showed it to the producer Lee Rich, who ran Lorimar Productions with Merv Adelson. Mr. Rich was not interested in the script, but asked Mr. Waite if he would be interested in playing the father of a Depression family in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Waite became involved in politics and community work, leading an alcohol and drug recovery program, helping to build low-income housing and, in 1990, running for the House of Representatives. Despite contributions from Hollywood friends like Al Pacino, he lost to the Republican incumbent, Al McCandless.
He ran for Congress again in 1998, this time against Mary Bono, the widow of the pop singer and congressman Sonny Bono, who had been killed in a skiing accident. He lost to her both in a special election after Mr. Bono’s death and in the subsequent general election.
Mr. Waite’s campaign was handicapped by his commitment to appear as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at a New Jersey theater, which forced him to commute back and forth to the West Coast.
Mr. Waite’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to Kerry Shear. He is survived by his wife, Linda East; a daughter, Kathleen; a stepson, Liam; and three grandchildren. A daughter, Suzanne, died several years ago.
Mr. Waite returned to the church in his later years, attending a liberal Presbyterian church in Palm Desert. He even preached a sermon or two, including one titled “We Are All Jews.”
Always he was John Walton, the paternal voice of wisdom. He remembered a woman approaching him in a crowd and saying she had been poor as a child and had thought of him as her father. “I went to school and college because of you,” he recalled her saying.
“She said, ‘Now I’m a lawyer, and I don’t think I would be if I hadn’t seen that show,’ ” Mr. Waite said. “I’m still amazed by that. It happens all the time.”
GABRIEL AXEL, DIRECTED ‘BABETTE’S FEAST’
By PAUL VITELLO
FEB. 12, 2014
- Gabriel Axel, a director whose 1987 labor of love, “Babette’s Feast,” received the first foreign-language Oscar awarded to a Danish motion picture — and heralded a growing popular interest in all things food — died on Sunday in Copenhagen. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by a spokesman for the Danish Film Directors Association.
Mr. Axel struggled for more than a decade to find backers for a film in which the characters shared equal billing with plates of ravishingly beautiful blinis, truffles and pastry-crusted quail. He wrote his first draft of the script, based on a short story by the Danish-born writer Isak Dinesen, in 1973.
Working steadily on French and Danish television and movie projects in the 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Axel doggedly pursued his vision for 14 years before the film was completed and released.
“Babette’s Feast” was a surprise Oscar winner as best foreign-language film — it beat the heavy favorite, Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” — partly because of rave reviews and word-of-mouth support, and partly because of new rules adopted in the early 1980s by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences requiring voting members to actually see the films they voted on.
Mr. Axel was a week shy of his 70th birthday when he took the podium in Los Angeles in April 1988 to accept the award. After saying his thank-yous, he quoted a line from his film: “Because of this evening, I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
“Babette’s Feast” tells the story of Babette Hersant, a Cordon Bleu chef in 19th-century Paris who flees political upheaval and personal tragedy to find sanctuary in rural Denmark. There Babette, played by the French actress Stéphane Audran, works as a housemaid and cook for a pair of aging, unmarried sisters living ascetic lives as wardens of a pleasure-shunning, Puritan-like community founded by their father, who is now dead.
The story’s climax involves a five-star meal of many courses prepared by Babette that serves as a kind of revelation, opening the palates (and souls) of her mistresses and their flock to the communal joys — spiritual and sensual — of a shared meal, lovingly prepared.
The film’s spiritual overtones made it a favorite of both dedicated epicures and the devoutly religious. In 2010 Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina — later to become Pope Francis — told journalists that “Babette’s Feast” was his favorite film.
The film’s success coincided with, and helped propel, a broadening popular interest in haute cuisine. In the next decade there would be a proliferation of cookbooks, television shows and movies catering to epicurean tastes — including “Like Water for Chocolate” (1992), “Belle Époque” (1992), “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) and “Big Night” (1996).
“In ‘Babette’s Feast,’ the art of cooking by a dedicated professional chef became a cinematic subject worthy of our attention,” Steve Zimmerman, an anthropologist of food and author of the book “Food in the Movies,” wrote in a 2009 article published in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. In Mr. Axel’s film and others that it inspired, he added, food was not only “exquisitely photographed in close-up,” but also served as a “metaphorically significant” part of the story.
Gabriel Axel was born Gabriel Axel Moerch on April 18, 1918, in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. He spent his childhood in Paris, where his father owned a furniture factory, and returned to Denmark at 18 to study carpentry, with an eye toward joining the family business. But, drawn to the performing arts, he enrolled instead in the Danish Royal Theater Actors School. He graduated in 1945 and dropped the last name Moerch when he joined the Paris theater troupe of the French film and stage artist Louis Jouvet.
Mr. Axel directed several large projects for French television, then returned to Denmark, where he produced series for public television and directed films in the ’50s and ’60s. He also acted in films.
He is survived by four children. His wife of nearly 50 years, Lucie Juliette Laraignou, died in 1996.
Before making “Babette’s Feast,” Mr. Axel was best known for “Hagbard and Signe” (1968), a tragic love story set amid warring Icelandic tribes. Among his other films is “Royal Deceit” (1994), based on the Danish legend of Prince Hamlet.
In interviews, Mr. Axel said “Babette’s Feast” was his most gratifying work because it tested his ability as a storyteller and as a translator of another writer’s poetic imagery. In producing the feast of the film’s title, he recalled, professional chefs prepared over 100 stuffed quails before he completed shooting the dinner for 12. Some birds lost their photogenic beauty under the hot lights and had to be replaced. Others were discarded because actors refused to suck the brains from the quails’ heads, as the script required.
Since it was essential that characters “crushed by pain” be shown coming “alive to love” as a result of real culinary pleasure, he said, he ordered the chefs on the set to prepare substitute brains made from marzipan.