Passings: Don Cornelius and Ben Gazzara

Don Cornelius, left, and Ben Gazzara, right
Don Cornelius, left, and Ben Gazzara, right

Don Cornelius, 75

He was the cool-sounding television host with the mike and the big Afro. He created a show that was the sound of the hippest train ever running.

He was Don Cornelius, the creator of “Soul Train,” which was a lively, eye-opening answer to the long-running “American Bandstand”, but with a difference. Here was a daily dance show that brought black music, entertainers, singers, bands, performers and kids to the forefront.

Cornelius, who died February 1 of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, was hailed as providing a platform for black musicians and music, but he did a lot more than that. “Soul Train,” which ran in syndication for over 30 years, was a venue where black kids not only appeared, but were seen all across the nation on a regular basis, dancing away to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and James Brown, among many top drawer performers

More than that, the show was a kind of explosion of black popular culture—the dances, the clothes, the looks, the fads and fades and the music that rose out of the grandfather of all black popular music contributions, the blues.

The show wasn’t overtly political—it was a kaleidoscope, a positive, swinging, trend-setting regular event presided over by Cornelius, whose hair changed shape and size frequently over the years, reflecting and sometimes pacing the culture.

But it wasn’t just black kids and black entertainers who were into “Soul Train.” New white rockers like David Bowie and Elton John found a place there, too.

If the audience was primarily African American, a kind of mirror for black young people that was full of positive style and energy, it was also a window for suburban white kids who picked up every soul-flavored trend, move, and look, their hearts bursting with the sound of the streets.

Ben Gazzara, 81

“I coulda been a contender,” could have been a trademark line for the gritty actor Ben Gazzara, who died at 81 of cancer on February 3. He originated the iconic role of Biff in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway, and easily could have—and maybe should have—gotten the role in the movie version opposite Elizabeth Taylor. (But it went to Paul Newman, instead. That’s showbiz.)

What was more than show biz was Gazzara’s unique talent, style and way of being, and his list of diverse roles, some more memorable than others. Some live on in the theater memory including a stint as the George to Colleen Dewhurst’s Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” (I wish badly that I had seen it, as does anybody reading that credit.)

Gazzara, the son of Italian immigrants, was born Biago Anthony Gazzara, and drifted into acting early on, becoming one of the serious acting students of his generation, studying under Lee Strasberg alongside folks like James Dean and Paul Newman.

He had a mixed career that flared up like fireworks: a Tony on Broadway for “A Hatful of Rain” (Don Murray in the movie version); a starring role in Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie”; and the role of Lee Remick’s mayhap murderous husband in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” a hugely entertaining courtroom drama, opposite James Stewart.

He had fine roles in a series of raw films by John Cassavettes, a good friend who cast him in “Husbands,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and others. He also starred in “Run for Your Life,” a successful television series that ran for three years in the 1970s and paid the bill.

He had at one point pitch-black hair, a sharply angled handsome face, and a faintly sinister demeanor, which made him an ideal “Capone.” He worked—worked hard by his own description—and was married three times. His most popular film was probably “Road House,” an implausibly fun Patrick Swayze action flick in which he played the spewing, cussing, maniacal villain.

In his memoir, he alluded to have many affairs, including relationships with Audrey Hepburn, Eva Gabor and Elain Stritch, an eclectic trifecta if there ever was one. He will be missed.

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Tue, 21 Oct 2014 20:01:08 -0400

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