Thursday, July 14, 2011

RIP: Roberts Blossom

(Roberts Blossom as "Doc Wallace" in the 1995 Sam Raimi film The Quick and the Dead.)

RIP: Roberts Blossom
Tuesday, 25th March 1924 - Friday, 8th July 2011

Born in 1924 (and, depending on your source, on either January 1st or March 25th) as Bartholomew Roberts Blossom in New Haven, Connecticut, and raised in Cleveland, the 6'1" character actor, who gained his stride as in his field in his late forties, is anything but a truly recognizable name. Nevertheless, the actor and poet, who retired from acting at the turn of the last century to concentrate on writing poetry, was a recognizable face that often graced the role of the local doc, grandpa, oddball or codger who, be as it may, was either a harmless eccentric, a loner (either friendly or unfriendly) or a nutcase.
A 1941 graduate of Asheville School, Blossom attended Harvard before entering the army and getting shipped overseas. Initially becoming a therapist in Cleveland after returning from Europe, he decided to become an actor and moved to NYC, making his debut Off Broadway in 1955 in a production of George Bernard Shaw's Village Wooing, for which he received his first Obie. During his theatrical career, he worked both on and off Broadway and eventually won three more Obies. In the late-fifties, he made his television debut – according to imdb, in 1958 on the classic detective program Naked City in the Christmas episode And a Merry Christmas to the Force on Patrol. Thereafter, he found regular employment in bit parts both on television and on the silver screen. From 1976 to 77, he had a reoccurring role on the daytime soap Another World, for which he won a Soapy Award. He only ever received star billing at most for two or three films, one of which is a true exploitation classic – and what a classic it is! In 1974 he gave a tour de force performance playing "Ezra Cobb" in the grindhouse masterpiece Deranged, one of the first and best films ever made presenting a relatively realistic version of the famous killer and necrophilia, Ed Gein. And though Blossom made relatively few horror or exploitation films in his career, that film alone burned him into the memory of untold horror-film fanatics, including mine.
Roberts Blossom died at the age of 87 on the 8th of July, 2011, and is survived by a daughter, Debbie, of Los Angeles, and a son, Michael, of Chicago, both from his first marriage to the modern dance choreographer, Beverly Schmidt Blossom. His second wife, Marylin Orshan Blossom, died in 1982.

The year Roberts Blossom retired, in 2000, the filmmaker James Brih Abee made a documentary of the good man entitled Full Blossom: The Life of Poet/Actor Roberts Blossom. Here is the trailer:

And now, a review of Roberts Blossom's films of note – the good, the great and the crappy.

The Sin of Jesus
1961, dir. Robert Frank
Roberts Blossom made his "film" debut in this art film, a forty-minute short by Robert Frank, a well-known photographer who went on to be the creative mastermind behind the infamous Rolling Stones "documentary," Cocksucker Blues (1972 / the first ten minutes). The Sin of Jesus, based on a story by Issac Babel, was supposedly filmed at George Segal's chicken farm in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and the tale it tells, as according to photopedium, is as follows: "[...] A woman on a chicken farm who spends her days working at an egg-sorting machine. 'I'm the only woman here' She is pregnant, her husband spends his days lying in bed, and his friends encourage him to go out on the town with them. The woman talks to herself as she works, lost in the monotony of human existence. She counts the passing days in the same way she counts eggs. Even extraordinary events, such as the appearance of Jesus Christ in the barn, go under the stream of this melancholy solipsism."

The Hospital
1971, dir. Arthur Hiller
Ten years after his art-film debut, Blossom had a small part in this black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and starring George C. Scott and the great Diana Rigg. The film won the 1972 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and in 1995 it was even selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Blossom plays a patient named Guernsey, who ends up dying due to medical malpractice in a hospital with a murderer on the loose and a head doctor whose life is falling apart. His death is eventually revealed as being the important incendiary to other specific events in the film.
Couldn't find the trailer to the film, but here's George C. Scott explaining the advantages of impotence to Diana Rigg...
"Impotence is beautiful, baby!"

The Witches of Salem: The Horror and the Hope
1972, writ & dir. Dennis Azzarella
A short docudrama telling the true story of the Salem Witch Trials, a bit dry for home viewing but good for educational purposes. Director Dennis Azzarella's career as a documentary filmmaker was cut short while working on documentary project for National Geographic: on March 13, 1974, the Corvair 440 Sierra Pacific Airlines plane he was on exploded on takeoff, killing all 35 on board. Blossom plays the part of Gov. William Phips.
A clip of some scenes from the film – none with Blossom:

1972, dir. George Roy Hill
The film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s famous cult novel, about which the author himself said: "I love George Roy Hill and Universal Pictures, who made a flawless translation of my novel Slaughterhouse-Five to the silver screen [...] I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book." It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim's life after he becomes unstuck in time; during Billy's life in the future in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore, he shares his "cage" with a young and delectable Valerie Perrine, who spends a lot of time topless. Blossom has a small part as the delirious military officer Wild Bob Cody.

The Great Gatsby
1974, dir. Jack Clayton
"Rich girls don't marry poor boys." An all-star, big-budget production of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel which, much like the novel, was a critical bomb when it was released but, unlike the novel, has never been reappraised as a classic. If you like lush and lifeless big-budget period dramas, you could do worse than this film – despite Robert Redford's absolutely lousy interpretation of Jay Gatsby. In this, the third film version of the book, Blossoms has the small part of Mr. Gatz, the father of Jay Gatsby.
Trailer taken from the tube:

Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile
1974, dirs. Jeff Gillen & Alan Ormsby
The same year that he had a small part as a hypocritical preacher in a dying Bible Belt town in the PBS production of Lanford Wilson's play The Rimers of Eldritch, Roberts Blossom also had his only feature film leading role and poster credit in this 42nd Street classic, and boy does he walk away with the film. He is absolutely unforgettable as Ezra Cobb, a small-town eccentric with a thing for his dead mommy. A film truly worth seeing if you get the chance. For A Wasted Life's full review of the Deranged, go here.

Citizen's Band
1977, dir. Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme, a graduate of the Roger Corman Film School, made this flick three years after his directorial debut Caged Heat (1974 / trailer / full film), but though Citizen's Band is an obvious attempt to exploit the then-current CB fad, it is much closer in flavor to the Roger Altman school of multi-character interlocking narratives than Roger Corman's T&A with a side of guns and ketchup – which might explain why the film flopped when it came out. Paul LeMat plays "Spider," a CB repairman and volunteer for REACT International who responds to emergency calls and tries to clear the airwaves of frivolous or undesirable CBers such as "The Red Baron," who broadcasts white supremacist monologues, or "The Hustler," a teen that reads porno over the air. Complications ensue between him and others as well as between others and others before everyone joins in together to look for the disappeared "Papa Thermodyne" (Roberts Blossom), Spider's dad, who's only a nice person over the airwaves. A fluff of a film, if my memory serves me right (I saw it years ago on HBO). It was later rereleased as Handle with Care.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1977, dir. Steven Spielberg
There's really nothing that needs to be said about this little film by the forgotten director Steven Spielberg. Blossom is in yet another tiny but memorable role as a farmer whose had more than a few brushes with the Fortean. He is, of course, seen nowhere in the trailer.

Escape from Alcatraz
1979, dir. Don Siegel
So, who hasn't seen this film? Another film by real men for real men, set in a prison in which no one ever bends to pick up the soap but one man does eat some. The movie tells the tale of the only successful escape from "The Rock," and Ol' Squinty Eyes himself (Clint Eastwood) plays the man who led it, Frank Morris. Roberts Blossom has another small but extremely memorable performance as Doc, an elderly inmate whose only joy left in life is painting. When the vindictive warden (Patrick McGoohan) takes offense at a portrait of him painted by Doc, he has Doc's painting privileges revoked. In a tragic act of crazed defiance, Doc cuts off his own fingers in front of the warden's eyes.

1983, dir. John Carpenter
Carpenter's first film after his first commercial flop, The Thing (1982 / trailer), and he made it primarily because it was the only project offered him. And although it is arguably one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King novel, it is still less than memorable – like most movies based on something written by King. Blossom has a small but important part as George LeBay, the old man that sells Arnie Cunningham the demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury, Christine.

Reuben, Reuben
1983, dir. Robert Ellis Miller
Actually, this film, loosely inspired by Dylan Thomas and directed by a TV director whose next biggest credit is probably the Brooke Shield's vehicle Brenda Starr (1989 / trailer), is exactly the kind of film that we here at A Wasted Life gag over. But it is also the type of film full of "scintillatingly clever" dialog that actors so love to make, so it was surely must have been one of Roberts Blossom's favorite projects. It is also the debut film of Kelly McGillis, who plays Geneva, the love interest of the poet Gowan McGland (Tom Conti) – "He drinks and lies. Sleeps with other men's wives. He hasn't written a word in years...but every woman he meets falls in love with him." Blossom plays Frank Spofford, the owner of the Old English Sheepdog Reuben, after whom the film is named. In the following clip, Blossom delivers some of the scintillatingly clever dialog... to background music that makes me want to go postal.
Film clip:

1984, dir. William Tannen
The debut film of former TV commercial director William Tannen as well as the first theatrical film to be produced by HBO, starring the then-still-hunky Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams as two Texas border guards that find a buried Jeep in the desert, complete with a skeleton, a scoped rifle, and $800,000 in cash. They decide to keep the money, but stupidly ask questions. Soon the Feds are crawling all over the place, out to eliminate everyone connected with the find. The great soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream. Blossom is in a small part as "Amarillo."

Vision Quest
1985, dir. Harold Becker
A crappy coming-of-age film directed by a man better known (if at all) for cop films and thrillers. Louden (Mathew Modine) is an 18-year-old high school wrestler who wants to do something meaningful with his life, so he drops two weight classes to be able to wrestle the hunky Brian (Frank Jasper) from a rival school. Along the way, he starts a relationship with an "older" woman named Carla (Linda Fiorentino) who is passing through town on her way to San Francisco. Blossoms plays Louden's granddad in a film primarily remembered today, if at all, as the first film appearance of Madonna (as a singer in a local bar). The film got renamed Crazy for You pretty quickly after her song of that title for the film became a hit.
Music video to Crazy for You:

Candy Mountain
1988, dir. Robert Frank
Roberts Blossom appears briefly in this film by the maker of The Sin of Jesus (1961) as Archie, the father cop to the son cop (Leon Redbone) who arrests the flick's main character Julius (Kevin J. O'Connor) when he crashes into a parked boat. A road movie of the type that could suddenly get made after Jim Jarmusch gifted the world with Stranger than Paradise (1984 / trailer) and Down by Law (1986 / trailer). Written by Rudy Wurlitzer, who wrote Two Lane Blacktop (1971 / trailer) and Walker (1987 / trailer), the film has cameos galore as it follows a third-rate musician out to find a legendary guitar maker.

The Last Temptation of Christ
1988, dir. Martin Scorsese
Another tiny part in a big film, Blossom appears somewhere in this thing as the "Aged Master." No, contrary to popular opinion at the time The Last Temptation of Christ was released, it was not a remake of I Saw Jesus Die (1974).

Home Alone
1990, dir. Chris Columbus
We here at A Wasted Life hate this film, but seeing that it is the film for which most people recognize Blossom's face, it must be included. A big hit. Blossom has a relatively large part for him as the reclusive neighbor and local pariah Old Man Marley who proves to be a sad but friendly man. Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) does his good Christmas deed by convincing Marley to reconnect and reconcile with his son.

Death Falls
1991, dir. June Samson
Beverly Garland's final feature film, the only known film by the director, and a rare film in that Roberts Blossom (as Hals Johnson) gets misspelled headlining credit on the poster alongside Garland, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Combs (!!!). Who knows if it's any good or what it's really about or who's who, but according to imdb: "A terminally ill man gets his buddy to bust him out of the hospital. But, in the process, the duo antagonizes a city policeman, who trails them to the boonies surrounding their hometown. The local sheriff and their lady friend (who think more kindly of the pair) strive to find the fugitives before the less-compassionate posse, which includes a deranged, rifle-toting foe of the two."

Murder in the Heartland
1993, dir. Robert Markowitz
Yet another film version of the Starkweather and Fugate murders, this time for television. Starring Tim Roth as Starkweather and the eternally desirable Fairuza Balk as Fugate, the flick is (slightly) historically inaccurate but, for a TV flick, exceptionally well made and well acted. (The best take on Starkweather still remains the first film he ever inspired, the B&W exploitation classic The Sadist [1963 / full film] starring the infamous Arch Hall, Jr.) Roberts Blossom appears as Gus Meyer – his first appearance is directly after the credits.
The first 88 minutes of the film:

The Quick and the Dead
1995 dir. Sam Raimi
Roberts Blossom appears in his last theatrical release as the town doctor, Doc Wallace. He's only one of a truly memorable cast – Raimi's cartoony, kinetic take on the classic spaghetti western has the best cast of character actors since Carpenter's The Thing! This tale of a mysterious but hot female gunslinger (Sharon Stone) with a secret agenda who arrives in the town of Redemption, which is ruled with a bloodthirsty, iron hand by Herod (Gene Hackman), features the first appearance in a US film by Russell Crowe and the last film appearance of the great Woody Strode. Unbelievably and unreasonably, the film flopped. If you haven't seen it, you should – it ain't no masterpiece, but it is vintage Raimi and highly entertaining. A worthy last cinema credit for Blossom if there ever was one.

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