Victor Borge, 91, Pianist
Comedy legend and pianist Victor Borge died in his sleep on Sat., Dec. 23, according to the Associated Press. He was 91.
Born in 1909, Borge began his career as a classical pianist but was doing comedy by the 1930s. While mocking the seriousness of classical music, language, and stuffy conventions, he maintained a certain dignity that made his brand of comedy unique.
Borge started in radio and later made appearances in the films "Higher and Higher" (1943) and "Meet the People" (1944). In 1953, his solo show, "Comedy in Music," ran for 849 performances, establishing the Danish musician on the American scene. It ran again for two months in 1977.
Borge performed frequently into his late eighties, and was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1999.
Nick Stewart, 90, Actor
Actor Nick Stewart died on Mon., Dec. 18, according to The Los Angeles Times. He was 90.
Stewart founded The Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles with his wife, Edna, in 1950. The venue was to be a place where African-American actors could play roles other than the stereotypes prevalent in the industry. After tap dancing in jazz clubs and vaudeville choruses with the likes of Cab Calloway, Stewart moved to Los Angeles in 1941, where he became one of Hollywood's many black shoeshine men and porters in the films of the 1940s. He also played the voice of Br'er Bear in Disney's "Song of the South" (1946), and Lightnin', the janitor, on TV's "Amos 'n' Andy."
Stewart's Ebony Showcase Theater was recently forced to close after falling into debt following a 1992 attempt to update the space to seismic codes. The actor appeared in a wheelchair to protest the groundbreaking of the new Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center on the site. Performers including John Amos, Isabel Sanford, Nichelle Nichols, Margaret Avery, and Al Freeman Jr. all got their start at the Ebony, which was also used for concerts, standup comedy, and arts classes for the community.
Stewart won an NAACP lifetime achievement award "for positive portrayals of African-Americans and longevity in the theatre."
Billy Barty, 76, Actor
Diminutive actor Billy Barty died of heart failure on Sat., Dec. 23 at Glendale Memorial Hospital in California, according to The Los Angeles Times. He was 76.
The three-foot, nine-inch Barty made his name known in vaudeville, on stage, and screen. He played Sparky on TV's "Bugaloos," and had roles in the films "Footlight Parade," "Golddiggers of 1933," "Nothing Sacred," "Under the Rainbow," "W.C. Fields and Me," and "Willow." He got his start in "Wedded Blisters," a picture by "Three Stooges" director Jules White, after reportedly flipping and spinning on his head for White, who was shooting in his neighborhood.
Barty's last major NY performance was in Andre Heller's "Wonderhouse" at the Broadhurst Theatre.
The actor founded two awareness and service organizations, the Little People of America and the Billy Barty Foundation, and was working on his autobiography at the time of his death.
Julius Epstein, 91, Screenwriter
Screenwriter Julius J. Epstein died on Sat., Dec. 31 in Los Angeles, according to The New York Times. He was 91.
Epstein, a prolific screenwriter who wrote more than 50 films during his 50-year career, tried his hand at playwriting several times, including "Front Porch in Flatbush," which in 1954 was turned into a musical called "Saturday Night" by a then-unknown Stephen Sondheim. It was slated to open in 1955, but was abandoned after its producer passed away suddenly. The production finally received its New York debut last February.
Epstein is probably best known for scripting "Casablanca" with his identical twin brother, Philip (who was his writing partner during much of his career), and Howard Koch. The trio shared the Academy Award in 1943 for this work.
The screenwriting twins' credits include "The Strawberry Blonde," "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "Arsenic and Old Lace," and "Mr. Skeffington," a 1944 Bette Davis film that tackled the controversial subject of anti-Semitism, the Times reported.
Despite the many anecdotes involving the Epsteins' good humor and easygoing work ethic, they were highly respected, many times called in to liven up another writer's screenplay. It is said that James Cagney refused to take on his Oscar-winning role of George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy" until the Epsteins were guaranteed to perk up the script.
Epstein tried to revive "Casablanca" as a Broadway musical twice, and in the end decided that any production other than the original film would be unsuccessful because Bogart and Bergman were the irreplaceable essence of the project.
Ray Walston, 86, Actor
Actor Ray Walston died after a short illness on New Year's Day at his home in Beverly Hills, according to his agent, Harry Gold. He was 86.
Among the actor's best-known performances were his Tony-winning turn as Mr. Applegate, the Devil, in "Damn Yankees" (1956) opposite Gwen Verdon, and his three-year gig as the martian, Uncle Martin, on TV's "My Favorite Martian" (1963-66). He was also memorable as Navy Seabee Luther Billis in the 1958 movie version of "South Pacific," a role he reprised from the both stage in London and with a road company.
His film credits include "The Apartment" (1960), starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray; "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964), opposite Dean Martin; and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982).
Walston returned to series television in the early 1990s in the CBS drama, "Picket Fences," in a role that won him two Emmys. His last screen appearance was on the season premiere of CBS' "Touched by an Angel" on Oct. 15.
Tanaquil Le Clercq, 71, Ballerina
Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq died from pneumonia on Sun., Dec. 31 at New York Hospital, reported The New York Times. She was 71.
At the age of 27, Le Clercq contracted paralytic polio, putting an end to her professional dancing career after only ten years. However, in that time, she originated 32 roles for Ballet Society and City Ballet, including roles created especially for her in major works by George Balanchine (whose fourth wife she would later become), Jerome Robbins, and Merce Cunningham. These ballets included "Symphonie Concertante," "Wes-tern Symphony," and "La Valse" by Balanchine; and Robbins' "Illu-minations," in which she played the character of Sacred Love.
Le Clercq began training at the age of seven with Mikhail Mordkin, the former star of the Bolshoi Ballet, and at the age of 12 won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. She went on to become the first City Ballet ballerina personally trained since childhood by Balanchine himself.
After becoming paralyzed from the waist down, Le Clercq remained active in dance, teaching classes at the Dance Theater of Harlem, writing two books, and attending dance performances. In 1998, City Ballet opened its 50th-anniversary season with a tribute to her as a charter member of the company and her legendary status within it, said the Times.