A final Huck’s Hero salute to a true American hero: Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Donald Stratton passed away in his sleep at age 97. The Navy veteran was one of the last survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack on the USS Arizona. 1,177 of his shipmates were killed when Japanese planes bombed the USS Arizona. But he and at least five other sailors survived when another sailor threw them a lifeline from a nearby ship. They struggled hand-over-hand for about 70 feet, with the other sailor calling, “Come on, sailor! You can make it!”

For decades, Stratton never knew the identity of his rescuer. But during a reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors in 2001, he learned it was Chief Petty Officer Joe George, who had died in 1996. Stratton and fellow USS Arizona survivor Lauren Bruner then took on another urgent battle: to get official recognition of George’s heroism. They even traveled to Washington to meet with President Trump. Thanks to their efforts, in 2017, the Navy finally awarded George a posthumous Bronze Star with valor.

There’s more at the link, including photos and video I know you’ll want to see. Rest in peace, George Stratton. A grateful nation thanks you for your duty and sacrifice. And our prayers and condolences to his family and his wife of nearly 70 years, Velma Stratton.

https://www.foxnews.com/us/donald-stratton-pearl-harbor-uss-arizona-died

By “Huckabee” writer/pop culture historian and lifelong Monty Python geek, Pat Reeder (http://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook)

We are saddened to report that Terry Jones of the massively influential British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus passed away Tuesday evening at 77 with his wife by his side. Jones had been fighting a long battle against FTD, a rare form of dementia. He was quietly slipping away over the past few days as his children, friends and family gathered to say their final goodbyes.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/terry-jones-dead-monty-python-founder-british-comedy-icon-was-77-963478

A throwback to the era of really intelligent humor, Jones studied English at Oxford, where he met his lifelong friend and collaborator, Michael Palin. The two worked on other comedy projects and shows before joining Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, John Cleese and the late Graham Chapman to form Monty Python. In addition to writing and performing, Jones also directed TV shows and movies, including Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life.” With Gilliam, he co-directed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” often cited as one of the funniest and most-quoted movies ever made.

He wrote a number of acclaimed books, both humorous and non-fiction. He also created and starred in several TV documentary series about British history, earning a 2004 Emmy nomination for “Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives.” (Maybe that's why, for all its crazy jokes and plot elements, "Holy Grail" was praised for looking more authentic than many serious movies set in the Middle Ages.)

A biographer once said that if you spoke to him "on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or modern China…in a moment, you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge."

But with all that on his resume, he will likely be best remembered as Brian's mom who scolded him for being a naughty boy, or Prince Herbert who lived in a swamp and just wanted to sing, or the wise knight who can tell someone’s a witch because she weighs the same as a duck. I like to think he would be perfectly happy with that unparalleled legacy.

Buck Henry, RIP

January 9, 2020

By “Huckabee” writer/pop culture historian Pat Reeder (http://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook )

As a fellow comedy writer who greatly admired Buck Henry, I’m sad to report that he has died in a Los Angeles hospital at 89 with his wife Irene by his side.

Henry was a familiar face to the public for his many movie and TV comedy roles as a bespectacled, unassuming everyman, but he was most known to fans of the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” It became tradition that he hosted the final show of each season. His ten shows held a record finally broken by Steve Martin. In his most famous sketches, he played the customer trying to get some product or service from John Belushi’s Samurai butcher, tailor, etc.  In one notorious sketch, Belushi’s wild sword swinging accidentally nicked Henry’s forehead on live TV.  He had to do the rest of the show with a bandage on his head to stop the bleeding. 

But Henry was actually best known behind the camera.  He wrote or co-wrote a number of movies, including “Catch-22,” “What’s Up, Doc,” “The Day of the Dolphin,” and a terrific black comedy with Nicole Kidman that you should definitely check out called “To Die For.”  In his early days, he wrote for such classic TV comics as Steve Allen and Garry Moore, and the pioneering topical humor show, “That Was the Week That Was.”  His most famous gigs were his Oscar nominations for co-writing “The Graduate” and co-directing Warren Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait,” and to me, the thing that will forever cement his place in comedy history: he co-created “Get Smart” with Mel Brooks. 

Rest in peace to one of the genuine major multi-talents of 20th century entertainment.

https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/buck-henry-screenwriter-of-the-graduate-co-creator-of-get-smart-dies-at-89

Last Respects of 2019

January 3, 2020

By “Huckabee” writer/pop culture maven Pat Reeder (http://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook )

During our brief holiday break from the daily news, a number of prominent people passed away.  We’d feel remiss if we didn’t take a moment to tell you about them and pay our final respects.

The beautiful actress/model Sue Lyon passed away in Los Angeles at 73. She first came to fame in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film “Lolita,” then appeared in many movies and TV shows throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s before leaving show business in 1980.

It seems somehow sadly appropriate that TV animation producer Lee Mendelson died on Christmas Day at 88, of heart failure after a long fight with cancer. He was remembered by many who worked with him as one of the nicest and most honorable men in a sometimes disreputable industry. Mendelson and partner Bill Melendez won 12 Emmys and 4 Peabody Awards for their work, mostly for all the classic “Peanuts” specials.  Those include the first, and still the greatest Christmas special in history, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” for which Mendelson wrote the lyrics of “Christmas Time is Here.” CBS nearly refused to air it originally because it broke every rule in the then-book, from using real kids as voice talent to the Vince Guaraldi Trio jazz score.  But what they most objected to was Linus explaining what Christmas is all about by quoting the story of Christ’s birth from the Bible.  Charles M. Schulz refused to budge, CBS caved, and the rest is history.  Can you even imagine being able to do that today, when networks cringe in fear that some triggered atheist will complain on Twitter?

One of Broadway’s greatest composers and lyricists, Jerry Herman, died at 88 on the day after Christmas (ironically, he wrote one of our most beloved Christmas songs, “We Need a Little Christmas.”)  Sometimes derided by critics for his crowd-pleasing shows and catchy melodies, he gave the world such timeless hits as “Hello Dolly,” “Mame” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”  Even his rare flops, like “Mack and Mabel,” are fondly remembered for their great scores. For some reason, his trademark became songs in which the male chorus hailed the female lead as she entered down a big staircase.  Songs like “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame” and “When Mabel Comes in the Room” became known in the biz as “staircase numbers.”

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jerry-herman-dead-broadway-composer-lyricist-hello-dolly-was-88-1141052

Two days after Christmas, radio legend Don Imus died at 79 of undisclosed causes.  In his long and tumultuous career, he was a DJ, stand-up comic, and eventually, one of the most listened-to interviewers and commentators in the worlds of politics and pop culture, with a caustic, uncensored style that sometimes got him in trouble with the PC set. His career covers too many interesting corridors to explore here, so check out the link for more.   

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/don-imus-legendary-imus-morning-host-dies-at-79-1265052

Also on December 27th, trumpet master Jack Sheldon passed away at 88.  He worked with many jazz and pop greats, from Stan Kenton to Frank Sinatra.  But he was best known to the public as Merv Griffin’s wisecracking bandleader/sidekick on his TV talk show, and of course, to a generation of kids for providing the gravely vocals on “Schoolhouse Rock.”  That’s him singing the iconic and often-parodied lyrics of “I’m Just a Bill” (“…and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…”

https://youtu.be/cd4fVFwE4j4

https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/tv/2019/12/31/jazz-musician-jack-sheldon-known-schoolhouse-rock-dies/2788216001/

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Neil Innes died at 75 on December 29th.  His mixture of music and surreal comedy in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band helped inspire such influential British comedians as the Monty Python troupe.  He later contributed music to Python’s shows and records, and with Eric Idle created the best pre-Spinal Tap fictitious rock band, the Rutles (a parody of the Beatles.) 

I’ll leave you with my favorite Neil Innes quote.  He sometimes performed as a parody of a Bob Dylan-style folk protest singer, and before launching into an off-key song, he would tell the audience:

“I’ve suffered for my music…Now, it’s your turn.” 

Danny Aiello RIP

December 16, 2019

My staff and I are greatly saddened to report that actor Danny Aiello died Thursday night in New Jersey at 86 after being struck with a sudden illness. 

https://www.westernjournal.com/academy-award-nominee-danny-aiello-dead-age-86/

Danny Aiello was the furthest thing from a stuck-up, overnight Hollywood success.  He didn’t even start acting until he was 35. Growing up poor, he hustled to survive, doing everything from selling papers to shining shoes, even a little numbers running for the mob and stealing change from cigarette machines when he was desperate to feed his family (although he insisted he would never rob a human being.) After three years in the Army, he handled bags for Greyhound and worked his way up to an executive spot in the bus driver’s union, but quit after being falsely accused of sparking a wildcat strike.  While working as a bouncer at a comedy club, he overcame his stage fright to emcee the show, and that was the start of his life in the spotlight.

His first break came in the movie “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and he quickly began racking up a resume filled with some of the most famous films of the past 40 years, working for such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Spike Lee: “Do The Right Thing,” (for which he scored an Oscar nomination), “The Godfather Part II,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Moonstruck,” “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and many more. He was equally adept at serious and comic roles, and was a true multi-talent, launching another successful late-life career as a Sinatra-style club singer and recording artist.  One of his albums of swingin’ standards, “I Just Wanted to Hear the Words,” made the top 10 on Billboard’s jazz chart.

I had the good fortune of meeting, interviewing and playing with him on several occasions.  Here he is on my Fox News show, performing a great big band arrangement of the old Sophie Tucker tune, “Some of These Days.”

https://youtu.be/4Lng5VQIGak

Perhaps because he grew up poor and had so much experience in the real world, Aiello was one of the rare outspoken conservatives in showbiz (he was once named one of Hollywood’s 50 Most Influential Republicans – yes, they actually found 50!) He was known for blasting Hollywood liberals for saying they cared so much about the little guy, then shooting movies in non-union states where they could pay the crew less than scale. He also criticized all the cursing on “The Sopranos,” claiming that nobody talks like that in an Italian household (he said he wouldn’t even dare say “Hell” in front of his mother.) And here he is again on my Fox News show, expressing his anger over the 9/11 plotters being given a civilian trial in his hometown of New York City, and jokingly describing his politics as “to the right of Attila the Hun.”

https://youtu.be/Ew8Kic3Cqhs

Danny Aiello may have had a late start in show business, but he built an incredibly rich legacy of movie, TV and Broadway roles, as well as concerts and recordings.  His work will be enjoyed for generations to come.  And while he sometimes played bad guys in the movies, he was truly one of the good guys in the entertainment industry.

If you’d like to learn more about him, he published an autobiography a few years ago called “I Only Know Who I Am When I Am Somebody Else: My Life on the Street, on the Stage, and in the Movies.”

My staff and I send our prayers and deepest sympathies to his family, especially to his three surviving children and his wife of 64 years, Sandy Cohen.  Here’s an article in which she shares the surprising secret of their long marriage:

https://people.com/movies/inside-danny-aiello-64-year-marriage-wife-sandy-cohen/

And here’s a round-up of tributes from his many admiring co-stars and colleagues:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/danny-aiello-dead-spike-lee-cher-celebs-remember-do-right-thing-actor-1262533