Saturday, February 04, 2012

Gilman and Gazzara — Gone

New Jersey-born author Dorothy Gilman, who’s best remembered for creating the character of grandmother-spy Emily Pollifax, died on Thursday at age 88 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. As her son Jonathan Butters remarked in a note to the Mrs. Pollifax Fan Blog, she had suffered from Alzheimer’s “for the past nine years so her death is both sad and a relief.”

Gilman, who received the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award in 2010, attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1940 to 1945, and shortly thereafter witnessed the publication of her first novel, a children’s book titled Enchanted Caravan (1949). It wasn’t until seven years later that The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, the first entry in what would eventually become a 14-book series, saw print. The Mrs. Pollifax Fan Blog offers this plot synopsis:
Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a widow with grown, married children. She was tired of attending her garden club meetings. She wanted to do something for her country. So, naturally, she became a CIA agent. She takes on a “job” in Mexico City. The assignment doesn’t sound dangerous at first, but then, as often happens, something goes wrong. Now our dear Mrs. Pollifax finds herself embroiled in quite a cold war--and her country’s enemies find themselves entangled with one unbelievably feisty lady.
The Mrs. Pollifax espionage tales transported their protagonist (as well as Gilman’s readers) to far-flung corners of the globe and into all sorts of trouble, but never found their heroine lacking in resourcefulness. “Clever, lucky and naïvely intrepid,” The New York Times recalls in its obituary of Gilman, “Mrs. Pollifax employs common sense and a little karate to rescue the kidnapped; aid the resistance (when you are a suburban lady spy, a fashionable hat is ideal for concealing forged passports); and engage in all manner of cheery deception (when doing business with a malefactor who is expecting a can of plutonium, a can of peaches makes an excellent if short-term substitute).” The series’ final installment, Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled (2000), found Gilman’s ripened protagonist in the Middle East, looking to find a missing American woman--and avoid an international crisis.

Until I started poking around the Web for more information about Gilman today, I hadn’t realized that The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax was adapted twice by Hollywood. A 1971 big-screen picture, Mrs. Pollifax—Spy, starred Rosalind Russell and Darren McGavin. (You can watch a delightful behind-the-scenes video associated with that movie here.) And in 1999, Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote fame starred in what many critics describe as a mediocre CBS-TV film, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

But for most fans of Dorothy Gilman’s series, the Mrs. Pollifax who resides in their imagination can’t be replaced. And will not be forgotten, even after the death of her creator.

* * *

Meanwhile, we must also report that 81-year-old film and TV actor Ben Gazzara passed away on Friday in Manhattan as a result of pancreatic cancer. Born in New York City to Italian immigrants, Gazzara (originally Biagio Anthony Gazzarra) first came to widespread attention in a mid-1950s Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He subsequently appeared as a soldier being tried for the murder of his wife’s rapist in the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, which was headlined by Jimmy Stewart and based on Robert Traver’s popular 1958 novel of the same name.

Gazzara’s first serious leap into series television came in 1963, when he starred with Chuck Connors in a short-lived 90-minute ABC series called Arrest and Trial, the format of which was similar to the later NBC-TV hit, Law & Order. Soon afterwards, he accepted the lead in the Roy Huggins drama Run for Your Life (1965-1968), playing a lawyer who’s informed that he has no more than 18 more months to live, and so embarks on a cross-country journey, trying to make the most of whatever time he has remaining. Gazarra went on to star in the 1974 TV miniseries QB VII, based on Leon Uris’ 1970 novel, as well as the theatrical releases The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977). He even did turns in The Big Lebowski (1998), portraying a porno-movie producer, and was cast as private-equity tycoon Thomas Crown’s attorney in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. In addition, Gazarra directed two episodes of the NBC Mystery Movie series Columbo in the mid-’70s.

Because whenever I think of Ben Gazarra I always think of Run for Your Life, I’ve decided to post the opening and closing sequences from that series (with theme music by Pete Rugolo) below. Enjoy.

READ MORE:Ben Gazzara (1930-2012),” by Edward Copeland (Edward Copeland on Film ... and More); “Ben and Zal,” by Stephen Bowie (The Classic TV History Blog); “The Late, Great Ben Gazarra,” by Mercurie (A Shroud of Thoughts).


Linda Pendleton said...

I loved Dorothy Gilman's writing! I started reading her books way back. I also enjoyed her nonfiction book, A New Kind of Country, and her discovery of herself and life. Her death is sad to hear.

I also enjoyed Ben's acting.

Barbara said...

I didn't know Dorothy Gilman had Alzheimer's. Since my father also died from complications of that disease, I know exactly what her son means that it is sad and a relief.

Ben Gazarra was a wonderful actor. I liked him in his many roles.

Anonymous said...

How could the editor forget T.H.E. CAT?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hmm. I don't understand. Ben Gazzara didn't star in T.H.E. Cat, the 1966-1967 NBC-TV series; instead, the cast of that program was led by Robert Loggia. And a look at Gazzara's résumé on the International Movie Database doesn't show him having guest-starred on that show, either. So why would I have mentioned T.H.E. Cat in this post? Please explain.