Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tommy Noonan

b.29th April 1921;
d.24th April 1968

The not-that-great 1955 heist film Violent Saturday had pretty much only two highlights for me - one was seeing Ernest Borgnine, playing an Amish farmer, of all things, finally get angry enough to go against his pacifist code and plunge a pitchfork through Lee Marvin's chest, and the other was seeing Tommy Noonan in a weird, meandering subplot about a shy banker who is a peeping tom. When the pretty nurse he's been spying on finds out he's been following her home and looking through her window, she laughs and says she'll remember to draw her curtains from now on. You see that attitude in popular culture a lot - that if the guy being a creeper is a bashful nerd then it's treated as sort of harmless. It's messed up!

Noonan played shy nerds often - he's possibly best known for his part in Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where he's Mr. Augustus Esmond, the fiance of Marilyn Monroe's character. He plays Mr. Esmond as a nervous fool, with hesitant vocal tics that feel like they're modeled on the ones Cary Grant used in Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. Another notable role was as Judy Garland's pianist buddy in the George Cukor musical melodrama A Star is Born, which I haven't seen (though it sounds neat).

Primarily, Noonan was a comedian - half of the comedy duo Noonan and Marshall, with Peter Marshall. They appeared on TV a bunch in the 1950s, including on the Ed Sullivan show. A lot of the film work Noonan did was in comedies which sound awful but which have great titles: What, No Cigarettes?; How to be Very, Very Popular; Ding Dong Williams; the painfully dismal sounding Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers. Later in his life he wrote, directed and starred in softcore sex comedies, including 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt, which starred Mamie van Dooren - the trailer promises that "You'll wheeeee with glee at Mamie's uninhibited love stuff!"

Tommy Noonan's brother was the actor John Ireland, who was in Spartacus, All The King's Men, and My Darling Clementine, among about a million other things. He is unrelated and not to be confused with the awesome actor Tom Noonan, star of Manhunter, Heat and Robocop 2. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Mark Williams

b. August 22, 1959.

Mark Williams is one of those British actors who shows up in absolutely everything in small roles - probably most recognisable as Arthur Weasley (Ron's dad) in the Harry Potter movies, though for Dr. Who fans he's Rory's dad, and Red Dwarf nerds he's Lister's buddy Olaf.

Aside from those, Williams often appears in TV comedy, most famously in 'The Fast Show', some just awful children's films (the horrible live action adaptations of The Borrowers and
101 Dalmatians;  Agent Cody Banks 2), and period piece dramas, from the awesome (Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story) to the forgettable (Albert Nobbs). He also presents documentary shows, such as the excellently titled 'Mark Williams' Big Bangs', about the history of explosives. Even when he's in something terrible like the nigh-blasphemous BBC adaptation of 'Gormenghast', he's really enjoyable to watch. He's not handsome and has no chin but his manner makes me think he's sweet and funny, even when playing decidedly unsweet characters. The decidedly unsweet character Deggsy, in Steve Coogan's throughly underrated show 'Saxondale', appears in only one episode, but it is one of my favourite Mark Williams roles - he's an old, leering roadie who is limping with gout but insists on partying like he isn't falling apart at the seams.

I found a lot of fascinating claims about Mark Williams on the internet, but that's partly because there are billions of people named Mark Williams - I know two personally - and I'm really sad to say that this guy is not the Mark Williams who is married to pornstar Linsey Dawn McKenzie, star of Maximum Insertion who has appeared on shows like 'The Weakest Link' and 'I'm Famous and Frightened!' (her husband Mark Williams is a former soccer player), nor is he the Mark Williams who wrote The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness. Darn it.

If you want to write to Mark Williams, you could try this address:
Mark Williams,
c/o Caroline Dawson Associates,
2nd Floor,
125, Gloucester Road,

Some people have done so, but beware!

Post subject: Mark Williams successI sent a letter and SAE to Mark on: 11th August 2011, and today I recieved this signed and personalized photo back from him, altogether i think the personaliztion is a sec. :cry: 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Jeremie Renier

b. January 6th, 1981.

Ok so it has been a while (again) since I’ve written anything here, but I still enjoy recognising character actors, and then finding out trivia about them, and as long as that’s a thing in my life then I may well keep adding little bits here and there when I can.
Almost all the actors and actresses I’ve written about here so far have been from the USA, (except Eric Blore, who was British but mostly starred in American movies, and Art Hindle who is Canadian) so I’m going to try and write about a few from other places. The one difficult thing I’ve found with this is that the whole feeling of discovery or recognition of a non-star which I’ve been using as criterion for this blog is often compromised the minute you start talking about stars of non-English language films: I mean, I get a sweet flash of “oh shit, it’s that one girl from The Host and Linda Linda Linda!” whenever I see Doona Bae crop up in anything, but in South Korea she’s a HUGE star, so huge that it’s a bit ridiculous to be pointing her out in the introductory way I do in these posts. It’d be like, Hey everyone, have you also heard of this one actress called Meryl Streep possibly?
So, that’s my rationale for not including more non-English speaking actors. However, I really really like this one: though he’s probably one of the biggest, most easily recognised Belgian film stars, I’m going to include him because he still has ‘That One Guy’ status in English language films. Jeremie Renier.
I first saw Renier in some films by the amazing, amazing Belgian directing team Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne – first L’Enfant (2005), then going back through their catalogue, La Promesse (1996), which Renier starred in when he was only 16, followed by Lorna’s Silence (2008), and the slightly disappointing The Kid With A Bike (2011). The Dardennes tend to make understated, thoughtful films about blue collar work (or the struggle to find and hold on to it) and often concern characters who are forced into making difficult ethical decisions. In most of his roles in their films, Renier plays likeable flakes who make terrible life choices: in L’Enfant he and his girlfriend are homeless so he sells their baby; in La Promesse he hides the death of an illegal immigrant from the immigrant’s wife in an effort to ease her pain; in The Kid with a Bike he’s a responsibility-shy father who lets his son down when he’s most needed. On paper, these characters sound like jerks, and I guess onscreen they are as well, though they aren’t stupid jerks – they always seem be able to see paths they could take that would lead them to more ethical behaviour towards others, but a combination of their life situations and incredible passivity keep them from taking those paths.
Renier is also, it would appear, the go – to guy for slick big-budget English language films when they need a generic cute Belgian or French guy. He crops up in the egregious In Bruges, and as a wounded soldier in Atonement. He’s the rough hewn vintner in The Vintner’s Luck. He often shows up in the sort of lighthearted ‘arthouse’ films that middle class, middle aged white women seem to really like – Potiche, Summer Hours.
It’s probably only because he’s in it, but I’m curious now about the recently released biopic Renier stars in – Cloclo, about the singer Claude Francois. I really hope it means I’ll get to see Renier recreate videos like this one:  

Sunday, 12 August 2012


b. 12 December 1957
d. 11 November 1975

At one point in the 1987 film Benji the Hunted, a man shoots a cougar. I was four when I saw this, and this scene caused me to run screaming into the lobby: it remains one of the more traumatic film-going experiences of my life. I didn’t revisit the Benji franchise until adulthood.

Director Joe Camp has made a career of churning out films about Benji, a little dog who solves problems. Like Star Wars, the first three are the only ones you really need to bother about: Benji the Hunted (1987); For the Love of Benji (1977) and the first one, Benji (1974), starring Higgins in the title role. Joe Camp, as made clear by his website, is a Christian, family-values-y type filmmaker, keen on ‘cleaning up’ children’s entertainment. Nevertheless, my four-year-old experience rings true to my adult reception of the film – while the films are charming and wholesome, they’re also really, really distressing. In Benji, our hero lives in an abandoned house, which later becomes a hideout for some bumbling thugs who have kidnapped two children. Just to let you know that these are really bad guys, at one point one of them kicks Benji’s little dog girlfriend across the room, breaking her leg. It’s a moment of surprising violence that’s typical of the world of the Benji films, a comforting, friendly place in which there is some dark and disturbing shit lurking.

But anyway, Higgins. He gives an amazing performance in this film, part of the credit for which must go to his incredible trainer, Frank Inn. Inn found Higgins in a Berkeley animal shelter when he was a puppy (Higgins, not Inn), and the two had a very close working relationship. Higgins rose to fame as Dog in the TV series Petticoat Junction, which he appeared on regularly from 1964 to 1970. He also had appearances on Greenacres and The Beverly Hillbillies. Inn coached Higgins in a range of tricks, many of them complex: the dog could climb ladders; open boxes and pudding cups; sneeze, yawn, salute and cover his eyes with his eyes with his paws on command. This lovely post at praises his lack of “trainer eye” – he never appears to be looking offscreen for cues from Inn. However, it is his range of facial expressions which really set Higgins apart as an actor. The promotional material for Benji states he has “the most expressive face in dogdom”, and it’s not a shallow boast. His performance is far more impressive than those of many of his human co-stars.

After his TV roles, Higgins had been ‘retired’ from showbusiness, but was brought out in his old age to star as Benji. He was 16 when the film was released, and died a year later. His daughter, Benjean, took over the role in subsequent Benji films, and her appearance in For the Love of Benji also shows some impressive canine acting chops. Joe Camp is still making Benji movies, and doing good work in encouraging adopting animals from shelters, but I have to say, the dogs he has playing Benji these days are nowhere near as appealing looking as Higgins. Camp’s children are also involved in the film industry – one son wrote and directed the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Love Happens (2009), and another has been a first assistant director on many, many films, from Barton Fink (1991) to Brothers (2009).

Frank Inn died in 2002. In his later life, he wrote several poems about Higgins, which are terrible, but in terms of the subject matter, also very touching. When he died, Higgins’ ashes were interred with him.

We all know that Polish film posters are awesome, yes? Here's the one for Benji. it's like he's sweating lovehearts!

I've written about Benji elsewhere online, at