Potent Artful Trio: Seeger, Hoffman and Schell
There are or were still some giants in the cultural landscape—at least we notice them when we lose them.
Today, we mourn the loss of America’s troubadour of conscience and social justice, and the grandfather of the folk movement, still its remembered leader until his Jan. 27 death at the age of 94.
Today, we mourn the loss of one of our most gifted and sadly troubled actors, the Oscar-winning uncommon man who died apparently of a drug overdose, casting a large shadow of astonishingly unique roles in films and on stage.
Today, we mourn the loss of another Oscar winner, an Austrian-born actor who often specialized in memorable fashion playing Germans from the World War II era.
In 2001, only a day or so after Sept. 11, people in our Adams Morgan neighborhood gathered together in the square in front of a local bank off Columbia Road and 18th Street, talked, mourned, lit candles and signed our names to messages on a wall. Folks from the Lanier Heights neighborhood brought their children and dogs , amid the diverse members of the family of man that characterizes Adams Morgan. We raised our voices in song, and all of us, somehow, remembered the words: “We shall overcome, we shall over come, someday. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.” It was a folk music anthem, the ballad of broken but determined hearts in troubled times.
“We Shall Overcame” was a song Seeger had made hugely popular, a song that was sung by many others (most notably Joan Baez, who added her high, clear and soaring voice to it, along with songs like “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” These songs were later sung by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Byrds, Trini Lopez, and Baez. If he was not the founder of the great surge of popular experienced by folk music in the late 1950s and 1960s, he was certainly its craggy-faced but friendly avatar. Seeger -- along with Woody Guthrie before him and to some extent Rambling Jack Elliott -- was counted as fathering some part of Bob Dylan’s considerable body of work and persona, especially early on.
Seeger was part of a group called the Weavers, a notable folk group, and he appeared on the radio constantly in the 1940s. He was, more than any of his peers, a true singer-activist in the sense that he not only sang but demonstrated, marched, protested for workers, for African Americans and civil rights and against injustice. Early on, he had belonged to a Communist Youth organization, which he later regretted, but which got him into the sights of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy during the 1950s. He survived all that to continue both his work and his activities, which in a way, became interchangeable. He continued to do both—be a banjo picker, 12-string-guitar player, singer, among others things—and an activist to the end of his days, including being part of the protesters who led the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. His voice managed the most intricate trick in the world—sounding inspiring, frail, soaring and flying wingless.
His wife of 70 years, Toshi-Aline Ota, died last year. She was his manager, his organizer and his soul mate.
People called him “the tuning fork of America.” Bruce Springsteen, who made an incredibly wonderful tribute album to Seeger’s music said, “I lost a great friend and a great hero.” President Barack Obama said, “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along.”
On the Internet, his voice is everywhere. But sometimes, many people, myself included, remember him most when we gathered together to sing his songs.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN
Hoffman, who died of an apparent drug overdose at the age of 46 Feb. 2, was what some folks like to call a character actor, noting that he could play anything and anyone, but also, without saying it, that he was never a real movie star.
He was not necessarily everyman either, although he could play one, as he did memorable and to critical praise in a Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” as Willy Lohman, the weary traveling salesman counting up his life and finding it wanting.
If you saw Hoffman on the screen , you never forgot him—the cult leader in “The Leader,” an Oscar for for “Capote” as the strange-voiced wispy Truman Capote, the anxious follower in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s examination of the 1970s porn industry, “Boogie Nights,” a slick, funny CIA operative in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a priest suspected of abuse in “Doubt.” He also shone in more accessible works, such as “Twister” and “Patch Adams,” not to mention villains in blockbusters like the fourth “Mission Impossible” and “Hunger Games.”
He was also, as it turns out, a troubled soul—he had kicked a drug habit at age 22, and apparently returned to it in 2012. He was found, according to reports, with a needle in his arm, and quantities of bags of heroin beside him.
There is not much to say to that picture except to harbor a tremendous sadness and our loss and the absence of future roles.
Maximilian Schell was an Austrian, whose family was forced to leaves Austria when the Nazis complete their popular annexation of his country, to which Adolf Hitler was native. His was an illustrious creative and artistic family—his older and much beloved sister was Maria Schell, who was an international movie star who also made a name for herself in the U.S. with the critical role of Grushenka in the film version of “The Brothers Karamazov.”
Ironically, because he could speak German and English, Schell ended up playing Germans and Nazis often. He first came to notice as a Wehrmacht captain in “The Young Lions," which starred Marlon Brando a super-blonde German army officer and Montgomery Clift as a Jewish-American soldier. Next, he starred (as part of an all-star cast, which included Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Clift) as a German defense attorney, representing members of the Nazi legal establishment in the Nuremberg trials. He was intense, impassioned, coldly logical, fiery and stern in the role, and it won him an Oscar, as did a supporting gig in “Julia,” in which he played a German Jew fleeing Nazi Germany in the film, starring Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman.
He would work steadily, with a major role in “Deep Impact,” which featured Morgan Freeman as the President of the United States, as well as roles in “The Black Hole,” “The Condemned of Altona” and “A Bridge Too Far.”
He also contributed a major documentary on the life and legend of singer Marlene Dietrich, called simply “Marlene,” in which the legendary German actress and chanteuse was never seen on camera. He also produced a documentary called, “My Sister Maria,” and was a pianist and conductor. He had the sharp-lined face that seemed often to define him as a European intellectual. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was noted on the international stage as “one of the greatest Hamlets ever.”