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December 27, 2006-January 2, 2007

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Cult Leader

The Dead Pool: Giving some cult greats their due

By Steve Palopoli


FILM ART lost a lot of true artists in 2006. But what can I say that hasn't already been said about Robert Altman (died Nov. 20)? Or Dennis Weaver (died Feb. 24)? Or Jack Palance (died Nov. 10)? Though all three did offbeat work, they were better known for mainstream hits and were all Hollywood stars in their own way. But there were certain film icons whose passing could only be properly marked by fans of cult cinema. So Cult Leader salutes:

Gary Graver The cinematographer behind Orson Welles' unorthodox 1974 masterpiece F For Fake. After cold-calling Welles (who said the only other cinematographer to have done so was Citizen Kane's Gregg Toland—and after all, that worked out pretty well), the two became friends. They worked together on several of Welles' later projects, including his unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind. I was lucky enough to meet Graver at last year's Silent Film Festival in San Francisco. He seemed pretty open about his unusual career, which also included a lot of exploitation and sexploitation flicks. Luckily, Graver committed his memories of working with Welles to some documentaries and at least one commentary track (on Criterion's F For Fake DVD), but I hope there's a more complete chronicling of his memoirs out there. He died Nov. 16.

Darren McGavin A working-class actor whose weird anonymity despite decades of nonstop work in film and television became sort of an industry in-joke. The cornerstone of his cult following was his portrayal of reporter Carl Kolchak in the groundbreaking TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. He brought the role back in 1974 for a TV series that lasted 20 episodes. His Kolchak was the blueprint for the paranormal investigator-hero, which Chris Carter acknowledged by casting him as Fox Mulder's mentor in two episodes of The X-Files. The producers of the updated Night Stalker series gave him a similar nod by asking him to appear as an unnamed reporter in their pilot episode. His other claim to cult movie fame was his scene-stealing performance as the dad (once again, unnamed) in A Christmas Story. I love the loyalty that great character actors like McGavin, who died Feb. 25, inspire—after we watched A Christmas Story recently, I told my dad that Jack Nicholson had also been considered for the father role. He rolled his eyes and said "Pfft, Darren McGavin did a better job in that movie that Nicholson could possibly do."

Dan Curtis Speaking of Kolchak, the original TV movies were produced by Dan Curtis, who also directed the second one. However, Curtis is far better known as the creator of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows. He was the Joss Whedon of his time, mixing genres in a way no one had previously dared to do—and coming up with some out-there storylines in the process. My favorite Curtis cultural contribution, though, is the Trilogy of Terror TV movie from 1975. It's a safe bet the third story, featuring Karen Black battling the Zuni Fetish Doll, is burned into the memories of anyone who saw it as a kid—or maybe even as an adult. Curtis died March 27.

Gordon Parks After working as a photographer for Life magazine for 20 years, Gordon Parks became the first African American to direct a film for a major studio with 1969's The Learning Tree, which was based on his own autobiography. Parks, who died March 7, never wanted to be remembered for fathering the blaxploitation genre, so let's put it like this: his second film, 1971's Shaft, is one of the coolest movies of all time, in any genre.

Akira Ifukube The master of Japanese monster-movie music. Not only did he score Godzilla movies from the '50s all the way into their '90s comeback, he actually created the sounds Godzilla makes when he roars and stomps. No one will ever say this guy didn't have a fun job. He died Feb. 8.

Tony Franciosa Tom Waits sang about him in "Goin' Out West": "Goin' out West where the wind blows tall/ 'Cause Tony Franciosa used to date my Ma." Unfortunately, that's probably more likely to inspire name recognition than his actual career, despite movie and TV roles since the '50s. As far as cult films go, his most memorable portrayal was the suave but seriously complicated writer Peter Neal in Dario Argento's 1982 thriller Tenebrae. He died Jan. 19.



Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or the cult celebrity you'll miss most to here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.


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