The Rule of Three, Maybe Four

Casey St. Charnez - December 16, 2013

New Mexico's ties to some of Hollywood's late great actors

This isn’t the column I’d planned to write today. I’ve been working on a piece about P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and her 1940s sojourn in the Southwest, including a goodly stay in Santa Fe. That’s back-burnered.

For over the weekend, superstars Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine went nova, as did nebulous Tom Laughlin, joining last week’s pulsar Eleanor Parker in the heavens.

Interestingly, there are some ties to New Mexico in this group.

There’s a Hollywood superstition that celebrity deaths come in three, probably a perception perpetuated by the media--including this one—but sometimes the timing seems more than coincidental.

While that is a quandary ponderable only by statisticians and obituary writers, this trio of passings, plus one, does inspire some reflection.

Peter O’Toole, of course, remains larger than life. His eight Oscar nominations, with never a win, place him in an elevated actors pantheon, while his off-screen persona as a hard-drinking Irish hellraiser was consistently bold-faced and defiant. Personally, I think his best work is his semi-autobiographical turn as the dashing Alan Swann in My Favorite Year (1982). His voice role as restaurant critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille (2007) was also something of a career high.

Though he never visited New Mexico (to my knowledge), at least we’ll get to see him here on the big screen one more time, and soon. He will remain best-remembered for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which will have a timely local screening at 7 p.m. on Friday December 27th, in 35mm at the Lensic, no less, as part of their Motion Picture Academy Archive Film Series. That’s 3 ½ hours extremely well spent, I must say.

Joan Fontaine, Oscared as Best Actress for Suspicion (1941), really deserved one for playing the second Mrs. De Winter in the Hitchcock/du Maurier Rebecca (1940), but lost to Ginger Rogers’ unwed mother Kitty Foyle. Often cast as a beleaguered innocent, she was anything but, as I learned for myself in 1973 while having a dance with her at a Lincoln Center party for Fred Astaire. She certainly had a mind of her own, and a sharp one, as she later limned in her autobiography No Bed of Roses (1979).

Fontaine has a major connection here in town, in the person of Deborah Leslie Dozier Potter, her only child with second husband William Dozier (producer of the TV Batman). Debbie, long-married to attorney Earl Potter (himself the son of classic movie director H.C. Potter), has mucho local cachet as a co-owner of the Plaza’s new icon, the Five & Dime. I’d also like this to be the only Fontaine eulogy that does not mention her older sister by name. You know who I mean.

Then there’s Tom Laughlin. Who, you ask? Well, what if I said that once upon a time he was Billy Jack? Now you’ve got him. He was a major presence in Northern New Mexico in 1970 as he filmed Billy Jack for Warner Bros. Writer, producer, director, and star Laughlin used numerous locations, including Santa Clara Pueblo, Bandelier, the Cumbres & Toltec RR in Chama, and he included many scenes with the old Plaza Café, the Plaza itself, and the Santa Fe Indian School, as they were over 40 years ago. Moreover, its storyline about a principled loner out to prevent the slaughter of wild horses, has considerable contemporary pertinence.

Famously, and precedentially, when Laughlin became fed up with what he saw as Warners’ mismarketing of the release, he sued the studio to have control returned to him, and when he won, he re-released his film in a brand new distribution model, the four-waller. In other words, he rented the theaters himself and showed his own movie, an $800,000 investment that brought in some $65 million worldwide. Basically, Tom Laughlin invented the sleeper with Billy Jack. But he never did as well again.

For me, the saddest exit is that of the classy and talented Eleanor Parker, always one of my faves. She’s absolutely gorgeous as a vivacious Technicolor redhead alongside Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952), though her image usually was that of a versatile and serious actress, thrice nommed—namely, Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), and Interrupted Melody (1955). Her most visible role undoubtedly was the glamorous Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965).

Parker also has one minor NM connection. In 1953, she was in Gallup for MGM’s Escape From Fort Bravo, alongside William Holden for director John Sturges, so it counts, however barely. Mainly, I’m just writing about her because I miss her presence.

Hell, I miss them each and every one, to tell you the truth. Hate that Rule of Three.