I’m sad to have to report the deaths of four popular show business figures over the past week. We extend our condolences to all their families.
Actor James Michael Tyler, best known as Central Perk coffee shop owner Gunther on “Friends,” died Sunday in Los Angeles at 59 of prostate cancer that spread to his bones.
He was working as an actual barista when he was hired as an extra on “Friends” because he knew how to work an espresso machine. It took two years and 33 episodes before he got a name and his first line. The show’s creators liked him so much, they gave him his own story line about his unrequited love for Rachel and remembered him as “a genuinely kind, sweet man.”
He appeared on the “Friends” reunion in May, but only by Zoom because he didn’t want to “bring a downer” on the show. He devoted his last days to promoting prostate cancer exams. He said his goals were to reach his 59th birthday, which he did, and to at least save one life.
Comic actor Peter Scolari has died at 66 after a two-year battle with leukemia.
Scolari first came to fame on the short-lived ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” where he and Tom Hanks played two guys who had to dress as women to keep their apartment, back when we were still allowed to laugh at that. It was originally conceived as a male “Laverne & Shirley,” but not literally. The creators made the mistake of comparing it to a Billy Wilder comedy during the pitch to ABC. Asked to name one of those, they said “Some Like It Hot.” So ABC bought it only on condition that it be retooled to include men in drag. In the second season, they moved away from that and got back to the original premise.
The sitcom allowed for lots of ad-libbing by Scolari and Hanks, who had great comic chemistry. But while Hanks went on to become a superstar, Scolari remained a working actor, constantly appearing in various TV and stage shows. He was nominated for an Emmy three times for “Newhart” and won for a guest role on “Girls.” He and Hanks remained lifelong friends. They reunited on Broadway in 2013 in the play “Lucky Guy,” and Scolari appeared in the Hanks-directed movie, “That Thing You Do.”
Composer/lyricist/playwright Leslie Bricusse died last week at 90. He wrote or co-wrote a number of hit songs that have become standards, many with his partner, singer/actor Anthony Newley, back in the days when Broadway scores birthed pop hits.
Some of his songs include “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (the 1963 Grammy-winning Song of the Year) from the Broadway show, “Stop the World, I Want To Get Off;” “Who Can I Turn To,” “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” and “Feeling Good” (recently made ubiquitous by the “American Idol” crowd) from “Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd;” “My Kind of Girl;” “Can You Read My Mind” from “Superman;” “Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man” from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory;” “When I Look In Your Eyes” and Best Song Oscar winner “Talk to the Animals” from “Dr. Doolittle;” “If I Ruled the World” from the musical “Pickwick;” and “Le Jazz Hot” from “Victor/Victoria.” And in the era when people actually looked forward to the next James Bond movie, he co-wrote with John Barry the themes from “You Only Live Twice” and “Goldfinger.”
If you’d like to learn more, Mark Steyn’s latest “Song of the Week” podcast is about “Goldfinger.”
And finally (I hope, for a long time), Jay Black, lead singer of Jay & The Americans, has died at 82 of complications from pneumonia. The group opened for the Beatles on their first US tour and scored 21 chart hits in the '60s, including “Come A Little Bit Closer,” “Only In America,” “Cara Mia” and hit covers of the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” and the Ronettes’ “Walkin’ In The Rain.” Trivia: Black’s real name was David Blatt, but he changed it to Jay Black when he took over from the band’s original lead singer, Jay Traynor.