Summer, in the news business, is commonly known as the “silly season” since normally weighty events of the year seem to go on vacation along with the rest of the country. That designation hasn’t seemed to apply to this summer or 2016’s, but there’s still room for the inconsequential kind of stuff that fills pages, computer screens and air time. You know, everything from strange things that have grown in folks’ gardens, bears cooling off in pools, or which celebrity wowed or shocked crowds with what they wore. Somewhere in between during the past week was the passing of two men who made their mark in the field of horror and science fiction entertainment, and the casting of a new Doctor Who.
All are probably as meaningless to some people as the stories surrounding what some Hollywood star or wannabe has or hasn’t done, but are pretty important to others. Somehow, the deaths of actor Martin Landau and filmmaker George A. Romero last weekend struck a chord with lovers of horror and science fiction cinema, while Jodie Whittaker’s appointment to the iconic role of the benevolent Time Lord is a radical but, we hope, welcome change to the long-running British TV series that has won fans all over the world.
Landau, who died July 15 at 89, won the 1994 Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of real-life horror film star Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” The title role was played by Johnny Depp as the independent producer-director who befriended and employed the all-but-forgotten Lugosi in 1950s Tinseltown. Landau was honored for maintaining the one-time screen Dracula’s dignity and bearing despite Lugosi’s unfortunate association with Wood’s pitifully low-budget endeavors; his “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1958) is widely regarded as the worst movie ever made, but take my word for it, there are numerous other flicks that rightly qualify for that honor.
Landau’s receipt of the Oscar was not only seen as a vindication for Lugosi but for Landau himself, whose career peaked in the mid-to-late ’60s as master of disguise Rollin Hand, a member of the original “Mission Impossible” team on TV. Interestingly, Landau was offered the role of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” but turned it down, paving the way for Leonard Nimoy’s casting and resulting fame. Ironically, Nimoy replaced Landau in 1969 when the latter left “MI” along with his then-wife, Barbara Bain. The Landaus went on to star in “Space: 1999” (1975-1977), a British-made sci-fi series that sought to capture the allure and audience of “Star Trek.” Landau spent a decade in lesser-quality film roles until Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), in which the actor delivered, in the words of Leonard Maltin and associates, “a poignant characterization” that put him back on the A list.
Romero’s name may not immediately command recognition, but for devotees of zombies and gore in their viewing, he will be forever identified as the director and creative talent behind “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), its several sequels, and their effect on U.S. and overseas cinema. Romero, who was 77 when he passed July 16, saw “Night of the Living Dead” arise from humble origins as a black-and-white, low-budget, Pittsburgh-shot attempt at a new kind of horror movie to national success and a cult following. It was a heady beginning for a local TV technician who’d previously worked on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Night of the Living Dead” was roundly condemned at the time for its Grand Guignol excesses. I still recall a Reader’s Digest piece by U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine who, in listing all of the film’s visual horrors and shocks, said it amply demonstrated the need for a movie rating system that soon followed. Yet, “Night of the Living Dead” somehow struck a note with audiences then coping with the Vietnam War, dissent and the rise of a counterculture.
In later years, his role in pioneering a bolder approach to horror hailed, Romero often smiled broadly in interviews discussing “Night of the Living Dead” and the deeper meanings read into it by critics and fans. It was if he was saying, “Come on, it’s only a MOVIE!” Although he later made several more respectable films in addition to creating and executive-producing the 1980s syndicated TV favorite “Tales from the Darkside,” Romero knew he’d always be followed by the specter of his initial directorial effort, but seemed to be okay with that fact.
Now, no memorials but a welcome to the BBC’s announcement that Whittaker will be the next Doctor Who, itself a bold step as her 12 predecessors in the role have been all male. Whittaker, 35, is already a veteran of United Kingdom film and TV, where she appeared in “Return to Cranford” and in the mystery miniseries “Broadchurch,” co-starring in the latter with David Tennant, who played the 10th Doctor from 2005 to 2010. Whittaker will make her debut as the quirky yet lovable sole survivor of the vanished world of Gallifrey who routinely saves the Earth and universe from destruction with this year’s BBC Christmas special.
The move came as “Doctor Who,” which originally ran on the BBC from 1963 to 1989, and returned to production in 2005, had come under criticism in recent years. Some fans even called for its cancellation due to dissatisfaction with storylines and Scottish-born actor Peter Capaldi’s interpretation of the part. Whittaker’s portrayal will no doubt cause changes in the Doctor Who saga, but hopefully for the better (and with more coherent plots).
Carping about a woman taking on the role, carrying with it echoes of the hubbub surrounding Kate Mulgrew’s casting as the captain on “Star Trek: Voyager” more than 20 years ago, was perhaps inevitable, but is irrelevant. Just as the Doctor must regenerate himself periodically into a younger version, “Doctor Who” needs to do the same to retain its audience.
As I said before, this is silly season stuff, for which I can only hope I provided our readers with some diversion on a weekend afternoon.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.