CYRIL D. TYSON, POVERTY FIGHTER
Cyril D. Tyson, who led antipoverty programs from inside and outside government in New York City and Newark in the 1960s in a tense racial atmosphere punctuated by violence, died on Thursday at his home in North Salem, N.Y. He was 89.
His wife of 64 years, Sunchita, said he died after a series of strokes.
“Athlete, educator, civil rights activist, public servant, dad,” his son Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, television host and director of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, said on Twitter.
In 1963, Cyril Tyson was a former college track star who had worked on the staffs of the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations and its successor, the Commission on Human Rights, when he joined Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a new, government-financed antipoverty organization that became widely known as Haryou.
He played a major role in designing the group’s programs, which were aimed at improving the area’s public schools and its residents’ job skills and opportunities. It included after-school remedial study centers and on-the-job training projects.
Urban affairs specialists at the time were urging such programs to remedy shortcomings that, they argued, fueled racial unrest — of the kind that erupted within months. In July 1964, the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police lieutenant led to rioting and looting in Harlem that left one person dead, many injured and extensive property damage.
He also defended welfare recipients, saying they had been unjustly stigmatized.
“The implication was there, in public attitudes and administrative regulations, that people in need were somehow innately inferior to other human beings,” he wrote in The Boston Globe. “In fact, the majority of those on welfare who are not children, aged or disabled are people who want the opportunity to be productive.”
While he worked on shaping Haryou’s programs, a fight for control of the group flared between its most prominent founder, Kenneth B. Clark, the psychologist and educator whose studies had influenced the Supreme Court a decade earlier, when it ruled against racial segregation in public schools, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the congressman from Harlem.
Mr. Clark, with whom Mr. Tyson had worked closely, resigned from the group, and Mr. Tyson, then the acting executive director, followed suit in late 1964, when Mr. Powell was about to prevail in his choice for a permanent executive director. Mr. Tyson became executive director of the nonprofit United Community Corporation in Newark, newly created to run that troubled city’s antipoverty program.
The Newark organization, too, was soon involved in a battle with politicians. A City Council committee demanded that United Community be replaced by a commission controlled by City Hall. The committee contended that the group lacked controls to keep it from becoming a “grab bag and a pork barrel,” and that it paid excessive salaries. United Community said the “real issue” was a desire for political control over the programs.
The group was still running the programs when Mr. Tyson resigned in 1966 to became deputy administrator for minority economic development at the New York City Human Resources Administration under Mayor John V. Lindsay. (A year later, five days of rioting by blacks in Newark took 26 lives and inflicted millions of dollars in property damage.)
In New York, Mr. Tyson was later named commissioner of the city’s Manpower and Career Development Agency, where he centralized efforts to help the poor find work. The “piecemeal approach of the past,” he said, with programs carried out by numerous public and private agencies, was rife with inefficiencies.
But he found critics in New York, as well. A City Council committee said his agency’s job-training courses had failed to meet the needs of business. Mr. Tyson argued otherwise. He offered statistics from August 1970 showing that the agency had placed nearly 19,000 people in jobs and trained 15,000 others during the previous year.
Cyril deGrasse Tyson was born on Oct. 19, 1927, in Manhattan to Albert Tyson, a security guard, and Altima Tyson, who was active in community affairs.
He competed in military track and field events while in the Army. Later, as a member of the track team at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, he was the metropolitan intercollegiate 600-yard champion in 1950 and 1951. He earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University.
Mr. Tyson married Sunchita Feliciano in 1952. In addition to his wife and son Neil, he is survived by another son, Stephen Joseph Tyson, a painter; a daughter, Lynn Antipas Tyson, a business executive; a sister, Joan Fortuné; and six grandchildren.
CARRIE FISHER, CHILD OF HOLLYWOOD AND ‘STAR WARS’ ROYALTY
Carrie Fisher, the actress, author and screenwriter who brought a rare combination of nerve, grit and hopefulness to her most indelible role, as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” movie franchise, died on Tuesday morning. She was 60.
A family spokesman, Simon Halls, said Ms. Fisher died at 8:55 a.m. She had a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles on Friday and had been hospitalized in Los Angeles.
After her “Star Wars” success, Ms. Fisher, the daughter of the pop singer Eddie Fisher and the actress Debbie Reynolds, went on to use her perch among Hollywood royalty to offer wry commentary in her books on the paradoxes and absurdities of the entertainment industry.
“Star Wars,” released in 1977, turned her overnight into an international movie star. The film, written and directed by George Lucas, traveled around the world, breaking box-office records. It proved to be the first installment of a blockbuster series whose vivid, even preposterous characters — living “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” as the opening sequence announced — became pop culture legends and the progenitors of a merchandising bonanza.
[ What Carrie Fisher’s career meant ]
Ms. Fisher established Princess Leia as a damsel who could very much deal with her own distress, whether facing down the villainy of the dreaded Darth Vader or the romantic interests of the roguish smuggler Han Solo.
Lucasfilm said on Tuesday that Ms. Fisher had completed her work in an as-yet-untitled eighth episode of the main “Star Wars” saga, which is scheduled to be released in December 2017.
Winning the admiration of countless fans, Ms. Fisher never played Leia as helpless. She had the toughness to escape the clutches of the monstrous gangster Jabba the Hutt and the tenderness to tell Han Solo, as he is about to be frozen in carbonite, “I love you.” (Solo, played by Harrison Ford, caddishly replies, “I know.”)
Offscreen, Ms. Fisher was open about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She gave her dueling dispositions the nicknames Roy (“the wild ride of a mood,” she said) and Pam (“who stands on the shore and sobs”). She channeled her struggles with depression and substance abuse into fiercely comic works, including the semiautobiographical novel “Postcards From the Edge” and the one-woman show “Wishful Drinking,” which she turned into a memoir.
For all the attention she received for playing Princess Leia, Ms. Fisher enjoyed poking wicked fun at the character, as well as at the fantastical “Star Wars” universe. “Who wears that much lip gloss into battle?” she asked in a recent memoir, “The Princess Diarist.”
Having seen fame’s light and dark sides, Ms. Fisher did not take it too seriously, or consider it an enduring commodity.
As she wrote in “The Princess Diarist”:
“Perpetual celebrity — the kind where any mention of you will interest a significant percentage of the public until the day you die, even if that day comes decades after your last real contribution to the culture — is exceedingly rare, reserved for the likes of Muhammad Ali.”
Carrie Frances Fisher was born on Oct. 21, 1956, in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was the first child of her highly visible parents (they later had a son, Todd), and said in “Wishful Drinking” that, while her mother was under anesthetic delivering her, her father fainted.
In 1959, Ms. Reynolds divorced Eddie Fisher in the wake of his affair with Elizabeth Taylor, whom he married that same year. (Ms. Taylor later left him to marry Richard Burton.)
Any semblance of a normal childhood was impossible for Ms. Fisher. At 15, she played a debutante in the Broadway musical “Irene,” which starred her mother, and appeared in Ms. Reynolds’s Las Vegas nightclub act. At 17, Ms. Fisher made her first movie, “Shampoo” (1975), Hal Ashby’s satire of Nixon-era politics and the libidinous Los Angeles culture of the time, in which she played the precocious daughter of a wealthy woman (Lee Grant) having an affair with a promiscuous hairdresser (Warren Beatty).
She was one of roughly two dozen young actresses considered for the role of Princess Leia in Mr. Lucas’s marathon casting sessions for “Star Wars.” (Cindy Williams, Amy Irving, Sissy Spacek and Jodie Foster were among those who also read for the part.)
Many of Ms. Fisher’s line readings from that film have since become part of the cinematic canon: her repeated, almost hypnotic exhortation, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”; her wryly unimpressed reaction when Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) arrives in disguise to rescue her from a detention cell: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”
“Star Wars” became a financial and cultural phenomenon, launching more movies and a merchandising machine that splashed Ms. Fisher’s likeness on all manner of action figures and products while casting her into an uneasy limelight.
She partied with the Rolling Stones during the making of “The Empire Strikes Back,” hosted “Saturday Night Live” and had romantic relationships with Dan Aykroyd (with whom she appeared in “The Blues Brothers”) and Paul Simon. She and Mr. Simon had a marriage that lasted less than a year, and he was inspired to write his song “Hearts and Bones” about their time together.
As its lyrics go:
Two people were married
The act was outrageous
The bride was contagious
She burned like a bride.
These events may have had some effect
On the man with the girl by his side.
In “The Princess Diarist,” she admitted what many fans had long suspected: During the filming of the first “Star Wars” movie, she and Harrison Ford (who was married at the time) had an affair.
Ms. Fisher acknowledged taking drugs like LSD and Percodan throughout the 1970s and ’80s and later said that she was using cocaine while making “The Empire Strikes Back.”
As the main character, Suzanne, writes of her rehab stay: “Mom brought me some peanut butter cookies and a biography of Judy Garland. She told me she thought my problem was that I was too impatient, my fuse was too short, that I was only interested in instant gratification. I said, ‘Instant gratification takes too long.’”
The book was later made into a movie, directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Ms. Fisher. Released in 1990, it starred Meryl Streep as Suzanne and Shirley MacLaine as her movie-star mother.
On film, Ms. Fisher also played the scene-stealing best friend of Meg Ryan’s title character in the 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally…” On television, she played satirical versions of herself on shows like “Sex and the City” and “The Big Bang Theory.” She had a recurring role on the British comedy “Catastrophe” (seen here on Amazon) as the mother of the character played by Rob Delaney, one of the show’s creators.
Her survivors include her mother; her brother, Todd; her daughter, Billie Lourd, from a relationship with the talent agent Bryan Lourd; and her half sisters, Joely Fisher and Tricia Leigh Fisher, the daughters of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens.
Ms. Fisher had a Dorothy Parker-like presence on Twitter, where she ruminated on the inexplicable mania surrounding “Star Wars” and on her French bulldog, Gary, in playful messages filled with emoji.
Last year, after the release of “The Force Awakens,” she wrote, in part: “Please stop debating about whether OR not [eye emoji] aged well. unfortunately it hurts all 3 of my feelings. My BODY hasn’t aged as well as I have.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misspelled the surname of the spokesman who confirmed the death. He is Simon Halls, not Hall.SOURCE*****************************************************DEBBIE REYNOLDS, ‘SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’ STAR AND CARRIE FISHER’S MOTHER
December 28, 2016 | 05:40PM PT
Debbie Reynolds, the Oscar-nominated singer-actress who was the mother of late actress Carrie Fisher, has died at Cedars-Sinai hospital. She was 84.
“She wanted to be with Carrie,” her son Todd Fisher told Variety.
She was taken to the hospital from Carrie Fisher’s Beverly Hills house Wednesday after suffering a stroke, the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died.
Reynolds received the SAG lifetime achievement award in January 2015; in August of that year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted to present the actress with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Nov. 14 Governors Awards, but she was unable to attend the ceremony due to an “unexpectedly long recovery from a recent surgery.”
Reynolds had a wholesome girl-next-door look which was coupled with a no-nonsense attitude in her roles. They ranged from sweet vehicles like “Tammy” to more serious fare such as “The Rat Race” and “How the West Was Won.” But amid all the success, her private life was at the center of one of the decade’s biggest scandals when then-husband, singer Eddie Fisher, left her for Elizabeth Taylor in 1958.
Reynolds handled it well personally, but got more tabloid coverage when she divorced her second husband, shoe manufacturer Harry Karl, claiming that he had wiped away all of her money with his gambling. The 1987 novel “Postcards From the Edge,” written by Carrie Fisher, and the film adaptation three years later, were regarded as an embellishment on Reynolds’ up-and-down relationship with her actress daughter. In 1997, Reynolds declared personal bankruptcy after the Debbie Reynolds Hotel & Casino closed after years of financial troubles.
She continued to work well into her 80s, via film and TV work, guesting on “The Golden Girls” and “Roseanne” and drawing an Emmy nomination in 2000 for her recurring role on “Will and Grace” as the latter’s entertainer mother. She also did a number of TV movies, including an almost-unrecognizable turn as Liberace’s mother in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” for HBO in 2013. Younger audiences treasured her in the role of Aggie Cromwell in Disney Channel’s “Halloweentown” and its three sequels. She also frequently did voice work for “Kim Possible” and “Family Guy.”
For movie fans, she was always the pert star of movies, TV, nightclubs and Broadway. But to industry people, she was known for her philanthropy, including more than 60 years of working with the organization the Thalians on mental-health care. She was also known for her energetic battles to preserve Hollywood heritage. She bought thousands of pieces when MGM auctioned off its costumes and props, including Marilyn Monroe’s “subway dress” from “The Seven Year Itch,” a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat and a copy of the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” Reynolds spent decades trying to get these items showcased in a museum.
Marie Frances Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas; when she was 8, her carpenter father moved the family to Burbank. At age 16, “Frannie” entered the Miss Burbank Contest, winning in 1948 for her imitation of Betty Hutton singing “My Rockin’ Horse Ran Away.” She was spotted by Warner Bros. talent scout Solly Baiano, who signed her to a $65-a-week contract. Studio head Jack Warner renamed her Debbie — against her wishes, she said.
Reynolds languished at the studio, often having to perform errands such as escorting visitors on tours or addressing envelopes; she appeared in front of the cameras only for a bit part in “June Bride” and then a flashier role as June Haver’s sister in “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady.”
When the contract lapsed, MGM picked her up at $300 a week. The studio, where she would reside for the next 20 years, first assigned her a role lip-synching Helen Kane’s voice as the original Betty Boop in the musical “Three Little Words.” In romantic musical “Two Weeks With Love,” she used her own voice to put across “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” and she was also given a supporting role in “Mr. Imperium,” starring Lana Turner.
After the studio insisted on her as the romantic lead in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly put her through rigorous dance training, which she admitted she needed. “They took this virgin talent, this little thing, and expected her to hold her own with Gene and with Donald O’Connor, two of the best dancers in the business,” she once told an interviewer. Many years later, “Singin’ in the Rain” was No. 1 on AFI’s 100 Years of Musicals list, and ranked No. 5 in its 2007 list of the greatest American films.
She was 20 when the film opened and her career kicked into high gear. She was next given the female lead in “The Affairs of Dobie Gillis,” co-starring Bobby Van, and segued into another musical comedy, “Give a Girl a Break,” with Marge and Gower Champion.
On loan to RKO, she impressed in the comedy “Susan Slept Here,” with Dick Powell as a screenwriter who must deal with a juvenile delinquent, played by Reynolds, on Christmas Eve. After the film became a hit, Reynolds’ contract was renegotiated. While she was assigned to lackluster musicals such as “Athena” and “Hit the Deck,” the comedies were better, such as “The Tender Trap,” with Frank Sinatra.
And she made a big impression in her dramatic turn as Bette Davis’s daughter in Gore Vidal’s adaptation of Paddy Chayevsky’s “The Catered Affair” (1956).
In 1956, she also starred in RKO’s “Bundle of Joy” (a musical remake of “Bachelor Mother”) opposite crooner Eddie Fisher, whom she had recently married.
“Tammy and the Bachelor,” which featured her million-selling single of the ballad “Tammy,” defined Reynolds and may have limited her to roles as the wholesome all-American type. She went on to play essentially the same part in such films as “The Mating Game” and “The Pleasure of His Company,” with only the occasional tart turn in movies such as “The Rat Race.”
Reynolds had one of the principal roles in 1962’s all-star Cinerama epic “How the West Was Won.” And in the 1960s she remained a star, despite the ho-hum box office performances of “Mary, Mary,” “Goodbye Charlie” and “The Singing Nun.”
When Shirley MacLaine dropped out of 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Reynolds got her best chance to shine centerstage in a musical comedy about the real-life woman who went from rags to riches and survived the Titanic sinking. (One of the show’s signature songs, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” became an unofficial anthem for the actress as she survived all the turmoil in her life.)
She had two of her best roles in “Divorce, American Style,” directed by Bud Yorkin and co-written by Norman Lear; and the 1971 black-comedy suspenser “What’s the Matter With Helen?” with Shelley Winters. But her movie roles were slowing down and the actress tried series television; “The Debbie Reynolds Show” lasted only one season on NBC from 1969-70.
In 1973, the actress divorced Karl and discovered she was almost $3 million in debt as a result of his gambling losses. She worked it off by appearing 42 weeks a year in nightclubs and Las Vegas and Reno.
She also established the Debbie Reynolds Professional Studios in Burbank. She went to Broadway in a revival of “Irene,” drawing a 1973 Tony nomination for best actress in a musical, which gave daughter Carrie Fisher one of her first roles. After doing “Annie Get Your Gun” on tour, Reynolds returned to Broadway in a short-lived turn in “Woman of the Year.” She toured with Meredith Willson’s stage musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in 1989, 25 years after the film debuted.
Reynolds appeared in a number of successful exercise tapes for older women, “Do It Debbie’s Way,” and co-authored the autobiography “Debbie, My Life” in 1987.
That same year, Reynolds’ private life was again in the spotlight when Carrie Fisher’s novel “Postcards From the Edge” debuted. The work centered on the stormy relationship between an actress and her showbiz-star mother. Though many were convinced this was a roman a clef, Reynolds laughingly pooh-poohed comparisons with the self-centered mom. (MacLaine, the original choice for MGM’s “Molly Brown,” played the mother in the 1990 film adaptation.)
In 1993, the Debbie Reynolds Hotel & Casino opened in Vegas, where she appeared for most weekends in the showroom with Rip Taylor. The next year she opened her Hollywood Movie Museum in Vegas. Reynolds said she got the idea for the hotel as an afterthought, as she was looking for a permanent home for her collection of movie memorabilia.
Reynolds appeared in a number of films in the 1990s, including the title character in the Albert Brooks comedy “Mother.” She also cameo’d as herself in “The Bodyguard”; appeared in Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth”; and played a mother determined to marry off her son whether he’s gay or not in the 1997 “In and Out.” She also appeared in a broadly comic role as the grandmother in Katherine Heigl vehicle “One for the Money” in 2012.
Reynolds also did voice work for many animated film and TV works, starting with the title character in 1973’s “Charlotte’s Web.” and providing voices for the English version of anime “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie,” “Rugrats in Paris” and “Light of Olympia.”
In 2005 she won the President’s Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards “for her collection and conservation of classic Hollywood costumes.” However, a deal for placement of the collection fell through, and Reynolds was forced to auction off most of the collection, which was valued at almost $11 million.
In 1955 Reynolds was among the young actors who founded the Thalians, a charitable organization aimed at raising awareness and providing treatment and support for those suffering from mental health issues; Reynolds was elected president of the organization in 1957 and served in that role for more than five decades, and she and actress Ruta Lee alternated as chair of the board. Through Reynolds’ efforts, the Thalians donated millions of dollars to the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai (closed in 2012) and to UCLA’s Operation Mend, which provides medical and psychological services to wounded veterans and their families.
Reynolds was married to third husband Richard Hamlett, a real estate developer, from 1984-96.
Daughter Carrie Fisher died Dec. 27, 2016; Reynolds is survived by her son Todd, a TV commercial director from her marriage to Eddie Fisher; and granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd.
VERA RUBIN, WHO FORCED THE COSMOLOGICAL THEORISTS TO THINK AGAIN
Astronomer found evidence that much of the universe is ‘dark matter’
On her way to becoming an eminent astronomer who changed the way scientists think of the cosmos, Vera Rubin bumped into some earthly obstacles.
A high school physics teacher, discussing her career prospects, told her that “as long as you stay away from science you should do okay.” When she sent a postcard to Princeton University in 1947 requesting a graduate-school catalog, a dean there informed her that women weren’t accepted into the program. After she married at age 19, she followed her husband to Cornell University, where he was studying physics. That meant giving up a chance to attend Harvard.
Because she didn’t study at an elite center of astronomy, she said in a 1992 interview, “I had to learn an enormous amount by myself.”
Her unconventional path had its benefits. Outside the mainstream of astronomy, she was free to pursue research more experienced astronomers might have dismissed with a laugh or a shrug. Her reputation eventually was made by finding evidence—acknowledged only gradually by her mostly male peers—that much of the universe is dark matter, invisible to the human eye.
Dr. Rubin died Dec. 25 at an assisted-living home in Princeton, N.J. She was 88 and suffered from dementia.
Her findings highlighted how much we don’t know. Astronomers thought they were studying the universe, she once said, “and now we learn that we are just studying the 5% or 10% that is luminous.”
Her breakthrough arose from research—started in the 1960s and conducted with Kent Ford—into how fast stars orbited around galaxies. It was assumed that mass in galaxies was concentrated in their luminous centers. If so, the stars farthest from that center were expected to orbit more slowly because they would be subject to less gravitational pull. Instead, Dr. Rubin found they orbited at about the same speed. The finding suggested there must be some other, unseen masses exerting gravitational force.
Dark matter had been posited by the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky in 1933, but now there was powerful evidence for it. Her observations of orbital speeds forced other theorists to rethink their ideas. She considered herself an observer, not a theorist. “The role of observers,” she wrote in 1995, “is to confound the theorists,” spurring them toward better models.
Vera Florence Cooper was born July 23, 1928, in Philadelphia. One of her earliest memories was riding in a car at night and noticing that the moon seemed to be following her steadily even as trees and hills whirred past; she wondered how the moon knew where she was heading. Her father, an electrical engineer, helped her fashion a telescope from a cardboard tube. It “was really a total flop, but was sort of fun,” she said in an interview with the American Institute of Physics.
In 1948, she was the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar College. She went on to earn a master’s in astronomy at Cornell, where a professor advised her to consider a different subject with better job prospects, and her doctorate at Georgetown University. After teaching at Georgetown, she obtained a research job at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.
While doing some work at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California, she noticed it had only one bathroom, labeled “men.” She rendered it unisex by cutting out a paper figure in a skirt and taping it to the door.
When she received the National Medal of Science in 1993, the citation mentioned her contributions to “the realization that the universe is more complex and more mysterious than had been imagined.” She also was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and often mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize contender.
Her advice on balancing work and family life was to “just sort of muddle through. It gets easier.” It helped that she had a supportive husband and a large house. “The kids had their rooms, and I never cared what they looked like,” she said.
Her husband, Robert Rubin, died in 2008, and her daughter Judy Young, an astronomer, died in 2014. She is survived by a sister, three sons, five grandchildren and a great granddaughter.
In the midst of her busy life, she took time in 1992 to answer a letter from a fifth-grader in Massachusetts who had questions about the big-bang theory and dark matter. “I believe that the Big Bang model of the universe is better at present than any other model” to explain observations made by astronomers, she wrote, adding: “The history of science teaches us that many theories must ultimately be modified, so it is likely that some of our current ideas concerning the Big Bang are wrong.”
And what exactly was that dark matter? “At present, ‘We don’t know’ is the only honest answer,” she wrote.
Write to James R. Hagerty at email@example.com
TYRUS WONG, ARTIST WHOSE PAINTINGS INSPIRED DISNEY’S ‘BAMBI’ AND OTHER FILMS
In the late 1930s, when few doors were open to the son of a poor Chinese immigrant, Tyrus Wong landed a job at Walt Disney’s studio as a lowly “in-betweener,” whose artwork filled the gaps between the animator’s key drawings. But he arrived at an opportune moment.
Disney’s animators were struggling to bring “Bambi” to the screen. The wide-eyed fawn and his feathered and furry friends were literally lost in the forest, overwhelmed by leaves, twigs, branches and other realistic touches in the ornately drawn backgrounds
“Too much detail,” Wong thought when he saw the sketches.
On his own time, he made a series of tiny drawings and watercolors and showed them to his superiors. Dreamy and impressionistic, like a Chinese landscape, Wong’s approach was to “create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” It turned out to be just what “Bambi” needed.
Wong, who brought a poetic quality to “Bambi” that has helped it endure as a classic of animation, died of natural causes early Friday morning in his Sunland home, said his daughter Kim Wong. He was 106.
“I can’t emphasize how significant a figure he is for L.A. and for the industry,” said filmmaker Pamela Tom, whose documentary about Wong premiered last year. “There will never be another Tyrus Wong.”
Called the film’s “most significant stylist” by animation historian John Canemaker, Wong influenced later generations of animators, including Andreas Deja, the Disney artist behind Lilo of “Lilo and Stitch” and Jafar in “Aladdin.”
“I was 12 or 13 when I saw ‘Bambi.’ It changed me,” Deja told The Times in 2015. “There was something about the way the forest was depicted that had a layer of magic to it.
“Tyrus Wong really made that film look the way it did.”
Wong worked at Disney only a few years, his employment cut short by a strike in 1941. But he quickly was picked up by Warner Bros., where for more than 25 years he drew storyboards and set designs for such movies as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild Bunch.”
A trained painter, Wong also gained recognition in international art circles.
In 1934, the Art Institute of Chicago held an exhibition of prints from artists around the globe, including a landscape piece Wong had done using the dry-point printmaking technique. Featured in the same exhibit was an etching by Pablo Picasso titled “Two Nudes” and a lithograph by Diego Rivera.
Around that same time, Wong partnered with other artists in Los Angeles — including Japanese American Benji Okubo — to set up local exhibitions, which offered rare moments of visibility for the city’s Asian artists.
When he retired from Warner Bros. in 1968, he continued to paint, turning some of his work into top-selling Christmas cards for Hallmark. He also channeled his artistry into kitemaking and in his 10th decade was still flying his creations — swallows, snow cranes, a 100-foot-long centipede — at Santa Monica State Beach.
In the award-winning documentary “Tyrus,” Wong opened up about racism within the industry, something Tom said the artist didn’t like to dwell on. The discrimination sometimes came in the form of coldness from other artists, but other times it was more direct. On his first day at a now-defunct studio, the art director referred to Wong using an offensive racial slur.
For Tom, a fifth-generation Chinese American who worked at Disney in the ’90s, Wong became a hero. She discovered him almost two decades ago while watching “Bambi” with her young daughter. At the end of the movie, there was a special feature on a man she’d never heard of before.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute, what? A Chinese artist working in Hollywood in the ’30s, and at Disney of all things?’” she said, adding that she almost immediately tracked him down and invited him to lunch at her family’s restaurant.
By the end of the meal, she said she knew she needed to make a film about him. After some convincing — it wasn’t just about him, she reminded him, but about the history, the art and the Chinese American community — he agreed. The process took more than a decade.
During Wong’s starving artist years, Tom said, he scraped together money in a variety of ways: picking asparagus, working as a janitor, designing greeting cards.
His reputation for creating Christmas cards spread, reportedly even catching the attention of Joan Crawford, who contacted him about making one.
“She wanted me to design an original Christmas card for her, but she didn’t want to pay the $15! Fifteen dollars!” he told The Times in a 2004 interview.
Wong was born in Guangdong province in southern China on Oct. 25, 1910. Pigs and chickens lived under the family roof, which leaked, and food was suspended from a hook in the ceiling “so that the rats wouldn’t eat it,” Wong recounted in “On Gold Mountain,” a memoir by Lisa See.
At age 9 he said goodbye to his mother and sister and sailed to America with his father, Look Get Wong. On Dec. 30, 1920, they landed at Angel Island.
His father was free to head to the mainland because he had immigrated earlier and had his papers. Tyrus, however, was confined to the immigration station. As he tried to control his nerves, he recalled chewing on a piece of gum he’d gotten from a guard until it had no taste, before turning it into a toy. “It was just like jail,” he later said of the lonely month he spent there.
Immigration officials quizzed him about his family and home back in China to ascertain if he really was Look Get Wong’s son. On Jan. 31, 1921, they issued his identification papers and he was reunited with his father. He never saw his mother and sister again.
He went to Sacramento, where his father tried to scrape by working for a cobbler. But the elder Wong knew nothing about repairing shoes, so when a better opportunity arose in Los Angeles, he moved there, leaving Tyrus behind until he got settled.
He wound up sending for his son sooner than he had planned. With his father gone, Tyrus started skipping school. Notified of the boy’s delinquency after a month of absences, the senior Wong had him put on a train to L.A..
“When I got off the train,” Wong told See, “my father hit me for doing so badly.”
He placed a high value on education, but he was, Wong later said, “a very, very good father.” He recited classical Chinese poetry to his son and taught him to paint, draw and write calligraphy. Unable to afford proper paper and ink, Tyrus practiced on newsprint with a brush dipped in water.
They lived in Chinatown but he attended school in Pasadena, where he painted posters for school events. His junior high principal was impressed by his artistic ability and helped him obtain a scholarship for one term at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). Wong later received a full scholarship.
At Otis he studied the giants of Western art, such as Daumier. He spent much of his spare time looking at Japanese and Chinese brush painting, particularly Song dynasty landscapes that
conveyed mountains, mist and trees with minimal strokes.
“I learned that nature is always greater than man,” he said in See’s book. “It is the balance and harmony between man and nature that is important.”
After graduating from Otis in 1935, he joined the Depression-era Federal Arts Project, creating paintings for public libraries and government buildings.
In 1938 he was hired at Disney but didn’t think he would last long. Being an “in-betweener” required little creativity and a lot of eye-straining tedium.
Then he heard about “Bambi,” based on the book by Felix Salten.
“I said, ‘Gee, this is all outdoor scenery [and] I’m a landscape painter. This will be great,’” he recalled in a video for the Disney Family Museum, which showcased his work in a 2013 exhibit.
When “Bambi” art director Tom Codrick saw Wong’s sketches, Wong recalled later, “He said, ‘Maybe we put you in the wrong department.’” The rest of the team agreed, including Walt Disney.
“I like that indefinite effect in the background — it’s effective. I like it better than a bunch of junk behind them,” Disney said in Thomas’ and Johnston’s book, “Walt Disney’s Bambi: The Story and the Film.” Disney later said that of all the animated films he produced, “Bambi” was his favorite.
“He set the color schemes along with the appearance of the forest in painting after painting, hundreds of them, depicting Bambi’s world in an unforgettable way,” Johnston and Thomas wrote. “Here at last was the beauty of Salten’s writing, created not in script or with character development, but in paintings that captured the poetic feeling that had eluded us for so long.”
In Wong’s last decades he was known for the magnificent kites he made at home in Sunland and flew on the beach to the delight of passers-by.
“You get a certain satisfaction in making them, and you get a certain satisfaction flying them,” Wong said in a 1995 interview with The Times. “Some are attention-getters, but that’s not what I’m after. I used to go fishing a lot, and I love fishing. This is just like fishing, except in fishing you look down. Kite flying, you look up.”
Times staff writers Frank Shyong, Marisa Gerber and Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.
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