This Day in History (February 3)

Feb 3, 1989: John Cassavetes dies

The film director, writer and actor John Cassavetes, hailed as a fiercely independent filmmaker and a pioneer of American cinema verite, dies on this day in 1989 at the age of 59, in Los Angeles.

Born in New York City, Cassavetes studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts there. As an actor, he subscribed to the Method school, in which actors attempt to replicate the emotional conditions under which the character they are portraying is operating. Cassavetes racked up an impressive number of TV roles in the 1950s, on programs such as Studio One, Kraft Theater and Playhouse 90; he also reprised some of them on the big screen. In the late 1950s, Cassavetes starred in the well-reviewed TV series Johnny Staccato. By that time, he had met and married the actress Gena Rowlands, who would go on to star in many of his films; they would have three children, Nicholas, Xan and Zoe.

Cassavetes got funding for Shadows (1960), his first film as a director, by making an appeal on a radio show to listeners who wanted an alternative to the standard Hollywood fare. Filmed on the streets of New York City on a shoestring budget, the movie was shot on 16-millimeter film stock using a hand-held camera; the script was partially improvised and the actors were from a Method class Cassavetes had been teaching. When the film was released, its images were blown up to 35-millimeter, causing them to take on a grainy, “real-life” look that was praised by film critics, especially in Europe, where Shadows won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. The movement in cinema verite, films that portrayed their characters in everyday situations with dialogue and settings that were as natural as possible, was gaining ground in France, and Cassavetes’ film became one of the first American examples of the genre.

The success of Shadows got Cassavetes contracts for two studio films, Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child is Waiting (1963). He took so long over filming and editing that the studios eventually took control away from him, and both films flopped at the box office. Over the next two decades, Cassavetes acted in movies to earn money for his own projects. Among his many notable film roles were The Dirty Dozen (1967), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which he played Mia Farrow’s sinister husband.

As a director, Cassavetes was best known for complicated domestic dramas such as Faces (1968) and Husbands (1970), in which he starred with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. He had his biggest mainstream success with A Woman Under the Influence (1974), for which Rowlands garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director. His later films included The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Gloria (1980), which won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival; Love Streams (1984) and Big Trouble (1986).

Perhaps due to the strongly personal nature of Cassavetes’ films, reviews were usually divided equally between raves and pans. In the years after his death, however, his films were issued in DVD sets and studied in film school classes, and his reputation as a pioneering filmmaker became more generally acknowledged. Cassavetes’ son Nick followed in his footsteps, directing 1996’s Unhook the Stars, starring Rowlands, and 1997’s She’s So Lovely, an adaptation of one of his father’s unfinished screenplays.


This Day in History (January 22)

Jan 22, 2008: Heath Ledger dies of accidental prescription drug overdose

On this day in 2008, Hollywood mourns a talented young actor’s life cut tragically short, after the body of 28-year-old Heath Ledger is found by his masseuse and housekeeper on the floor of his rented apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

Best known for his Academy Award-nominated turn as the closeted gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in the director Ang Lee’s acclaimed Brokeback Mountain (2005), Ledger was a former child actor from Australia who first became known to American audiences in the 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. He later passed up other teen comedies and was rewarded with a big break when he landed the role of Mel Gibson’s son in the Revolutionary War drama The Patriot (2000). After appearing in the well-reviewed Monster’s Ball (2001), Ledger starred in two critical and commercial flops, A Knight’s Tale (2001) and The Four Feathers (2002). He roared back in 2005, with lead roles in no fewer than four films, including Casanova, in which he played the title role.

It was Brokeback Mountain, however, that truly made Ledger a star and earned him comparisons to acting greats such as Marlon Brando. Ledger lost the Best Actor Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) but Brokeback Mountain cemented his reputation as an A-list actor and a fixture in the pages of celebrity-obsessed magazines. This last role–which he fulfilled uneasily–was intensified by his relationship with the actress Michelle Williams, whom he met on the set of Brokeback Mountain. The couple had a daughter, Matilda, born in October 2005, and were often photographed in various scenes of domestic bliss. In September 2007, however, Ledger and Williams announced they were separating, and Ledger moved from their house in Brooklyn to the rented SoHo apartment.

Though his personal life might have been in turmoil, Ledger’s professional life was flourishing in the months before his death. Near the end of 2007, he was in London filming Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In addition to a role as one of several Bob Dylan alter egos in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, he had also recently finished work on The Dark Knight, the latest Batman film, in which Ledger played a younger version of the Joker, the villainous role originated by Jack Nicholson. In interviews that would be scrutinized exhaustively after his death, the actor admitted that the Joker role had been difficult for him and that he had been using prescription drugs to manage recurring bouts of stress and insomnia.

Soon after the masseuse and housekeeper discovered Ledger’s body, emergency crews arrived on the scene but were unable to revive him. Media speculation about his possible illegal drug use intensified over the next two weeks, until on February 8, the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office released the results of toxicology tests performed on Ledger’s body. The report stated that he died of an accidental “abuse of prescription medications” that included commonly known painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills. After memorial services in New York and Los Angeles, Ledger’s family took his body back to their native Australia; he is buried next to his grandparents, in his hometown of Perth.

This Day in History (January 21)

Jan 21, 1998: Hilary Swank moves on

On this day in 1998, Hilary Swank makes her final appearance in a multi-episode arc on the Fox prime-time soap opera Beverly Hills, 90210. Barely two years later, in a somewhat unexpected turn of events, Swank would be standing onstage at the Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Boys Don’t Cry.

Born in Nebraska on July 30, 1974, Swank grew up mostly in Bellingham, Washington. She performed in school plays and was a talented athlete, swimming in the Junior Olympics and competing in gymnastics. After her parents separated, Swank’s mother Judy moved with her daughter to Los Angeles to support Hilary’s desire to become an actress. After arriving in L.A., mother and daughter lived out of their car for a couple of weeks until Judy was able to save enough money to rent an apartment.

In 1992, Swank made her film debut in a bit role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two years later, she landed the title role in The Next Karate Kid (1994), the fourth and final movie in the Karate Kid series. Playing a troubled teenager who learns karate from Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), Swank was a replacement for Ralph Macchio (then 32 years old), who had starred in the first three films. The film was received poorly by critics and earned only $8.9 million at the box office–by far the least money of all the Karate Kid movies.

Swank joined the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 for the beginning of the show’s eighth season, when its popularity was waning (it was canceled in early 2000 after ten seasons).  The show’s central characters had graduated from college and were embarking on their first jobs and other challenges of adulthood. Swank played Carly Reynolds, a single mom who gets involved with Steve Sanders (Ian Ziering) and works as a waitress at the gang’s hangout, the Peach Pit. After 16 episodes, Swank was dropped from the series.

In a 2005 interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes (shortly before she took home her second Best Actress Oscar, for her role as a female boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby) Swank was candid about how the firing affected her confidence: “I thought if I’m not a good enough actor for 90210, then maybe I should [pack it in]….I was devastated.”

It turned out to be a stroke of luck, however, as the out-of- work Swank was able to audition for and win the lead role in the independent film Boys Don’t Cry (1999), directed by Kimberly Peirce and based on the tragic real-life story of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man in small-town Nebraska who was raped and murdered by his male acquaintances after they discovered his secret. Swank was paid just $75 per week–a total of $3,000–for Boys Don’t Cry, but it would make her career. She won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actress and was catapulted onto the Hollywood A-list, leaving the days of prime-time soap operas well behind her.

This Day in History (January 20)

Jan 20, 1993: Actress Audrey Hepburn dies

One of America’s most beloved actresses, Audrey Hepburn, dies on this day in 1993, near her home in Lausanne, Switzerland. The 63-year-old Hepburn had undergone surgery for colon cancer the previous November.

The daughter of an aristocratic Dutch mother and an English businessman father, Hepburn was born in Brussels, Belgium, and educated mostly in England. During World War II, the young Audrey and her mother were in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded that country. The war left a permanent mark on Hepburn’s family: An uncle and a cousin were executed, and one of her brothers was interned in a Nazi labor camp. At war’s end, Hepburn was finally able to return to England, where she modeled and began landing parts in movies as a chorus girl and dancer. While shooting one of these films in Monaco, the lithe and graceful Hepburn was spotted by the French author Colette, who recommended her for the starring role in the upcoming theatrical adaptation of her novel Gigi.

Gigi opened in November 1951 at New York City’s Fulton Theater, and Hepburn received glowing reviews for her performance. Impressed with her screen test, the director William Wyler held production on his film Roman Holiday while Hepburn finished her run on Broadway. “That girl,” Wyler is said to have remarked after filming was completed, “is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.” After the release of Roman Holiday in 1953, his prediction seemed well on its way to coming true: Hepburn won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as a princess on the loose in Rome who falls in love with a journalist (Gregory Peck). The same year, she won a Tony Award for her starring turn in Broadway’s Ondine.

Slim, elegant and unfailingly stylish, Hepburn turned the image of the bosomy blonde Hollywood starlet on its head, presenting a new ideal of beauty for millions of moviegoers. In Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), she matched off with Hollywood’s leading men (William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper, respectively). Hepburn’s embodiment of Holly Golightly, the ultimate free spirit, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) was one of her most enduringly popular roles, and earned her a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress. (She was also nominated for Sabrina and 1959’s A Nun’s Story). In 1964, controversy flared when Hepburn was chosen to play Eliza Doolittle in the film version of the musical My Fair Lady, beating out Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on Broadway. Playing opposite Rex Harrison, Hepburn acquitted herself well, although her singing was dubbed (by Marni Nixon).

In 1967, Hepburn got her fifth Academy Award nomination for her performance as a blind woman whose house is burglarized in Wait Until Dark. Soon after that, she left full-time acting and lived mostly in Switzerland, appearing infrequently in movies that were both praised (1976’s Robin and Marian with Sean Connery) and panned (1979’s Bloodline and 1981’s They All Laughed). Married to the actor Mel Ferrer in 1954, Hepburn had two sons with him before they divorced in 1968; the following year she married Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist, with whom she had one son. They later divorced, and she began a relationship with Robert Wolders, a Dutch actor, in 1980.

Hepburn’s most significant work over the last two decades of her life was not captured on film. Named a special ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nation’s children’s fund, in 1988, Hepburn traveled extensively raising money and awareness for the organization. Her UNICEF field trips spanned the globe, from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador, to Turkey, Thailand, Bangladesh and Sudan. In addition to field work, Hepburn was an eloquent public voice for the organization, testifying before the U.S. Congress, participating in the World Summit for Children and giving numerous speeches and interviews about UNICEF’s work. In 1992, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, Hepburn continued her travel and work for UNICEF. Mourned by countless fans, she was posthumously given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 1993 Academy Awards, which her son accepted on her behalf. In her last screen appearance–Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989)–Hepburn played an angel guiding the movie’s protagonist to heaven, and the role served as a fitting reflection of the screen goddess’s public image during the last years of her life.

This Day in History (January 14)

Jan 14, 1954: Marilyn Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio

It was the ultimate All-American romance: the tall, handsome hero of the country’s national pastime captures the heart of the beautiful, glamorous Hollywood star. But the brief, volatile marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio–the couple wed on this day in 1954–barely got past the honeymoon before cracks began to show in its brilliant veneer.

In 1952, the New York Yankees slugger DiMaggio asked an acquaintance to arrange a dinner date with Monroe, a buxom blonde model-turned-actress whose star was on the rise after supporting roles in films such as Monkey Business (1952) and a leading role in the B-movie thriller Don’t Bother to Knock (1952). The press immediately picked up on the relationship and began to cover it exhaustively, though Monroe and DiMaggio preferred to keep a low profile, spending evenings at home or in a back corner of DiMaggio’s restaurant. On January 14, 1954, they were married at San Francisco City Hall, where they were mobbed by reporters and fans. Monroe had apparently mentioned the wedding plans to someone at her film studio, who leaked it to the press.

While Monroe and DiMaggio were on their honeymoon in Japan, Monroe was asked to travel to Korea and perform for the American soldiers stationed there. She complied, leaving her unhappy new husband in Japan. After they returned to the United States, tension continued to build, particularly around DiMaggio’s discomfort with his wife’s sexy image. One memorable blow-up occurred in September 1954, on the New York City set of the director Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch. As Monroe filmed the now-famous scene in which she stands over a subway grate with the air blowing up her skirt, a crowd of onlookers and press gathered; Wilder himself had reportedly arranged the media attention. As her skirt blew up again and again, the crowd cheered uproariously, and DiMaggio, who was on set, became irate.

DiMaggio and Monroe were divorced in October 1954, just 274 days after they were married. In her filing, Monroe accused her husband of “mental cruelty.” She married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956, but their marriage also ended in divorce in January 1961, leaving Monroe in a state of emotional fragility. In February 1961, she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic; it was DiMaggio who secured her release, and took her to the Yankees’ Florida spring training camp for rest and relaxation. Though rumors swirled about their remarriage, they maintained their “good friends” status. When the 36-year-old Monroe died of a drug overdose on August 5, 1962, DiMaggio arranged the funeral. For the next two decades, until his own death in 1999, he sent roses several times a week to her grave in Los Angeles.

This Day in History (December 31)

Dec 31, 1937: Anthony Hopkins born

On this day in 1937, Anthony Hopkins, who will become known for playing one of the greatest villains in movie history, the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs and its two sequels, is born in Port Talbot, Wales. In addition to portraying Lecter, a role which earned Hopkins his first Academy Award, the versatile actor, considered one of the best of his generation, has appeared in a long list of films, including Remains of the Day and Fracture.

Hopkins studied acting at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In the 1960s, Sir Laurence Olivier asked Hopkins to join the Royal National Theatre and serve as his understudy. In 1968, Hopkins landed his first big-screen role in the Academy Award-winning The Lion in Winter, with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. Hopkins went on to co-star in such films as The Elephant Man (1980), directed by David Lynch, and The Bounty (1984), in which he played Captain William Bligh to Mel Gibson’s Fletcher Christian.

In 1990, Hopkins starred in the thriller The Silence of the Lambs as the murderous psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, a character who originated in a series of novels by Thomas Harris. (The actor Brian Cox first played Lecter on the silver screen in 1986’s Manhunter.) Directed by Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs co-starred Jodie Foster as the FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who asks for the incarcerated Lecter’s help in catching another serial killer. The film won Academy Awards in all five major categories, including Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Actress for Foster, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The American Film Institute later named Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter the top villain in movie history. Hopkins reprised his role for 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.

In addition to The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins was featured in a lengthy list of films during the 1990s, including director James Ivory’s Howards End (1992); Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); The Remains of the Day (1993), which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as aging English butler James Stevens; Shadowlands (1993), in which he played Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis; Old West epic Legends of the Fall (1994), with Brad Pitt, Henry Thomas, Aidan Quinn and Julia Ormond; and director Oliver Stone’s biopic Nixon (1995), for which Hopkins earned another Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of America’s 37th president.

Hopkins received his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Steven Spielberg’s slavery drama Amistad (1996), in which he played John Quincy Adams. Among the actor’s more recent film credits are The Human Stain (2003), with Nicole Kidman; The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), based on the real-life story of New Zealander Burt Munro, who built a motorcycle that set the land-speed record; and the thriller Fracture (2007), with Ryan Gosling, in which Hopkins plays a manipulative murderer.

In 1993, Hopkins was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

This Day in History (December 29)

Dec 29, 1947: Cheers star Ted Danson born

On this day in 1947, the actor Ted Danson, who will become best known for his role as bar owner Sam Malone on the mega-hit TV sitcom Cheers, which originally aired from 1982 to 1983, is born in San Diego, California.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied drama, Danson appeared on the 1970s soap opera Somerset and starred in TV commercials, most notably for the men’s fragrance Aramis. Danson catapulted to Hollywood stardom with his role as Sam Malone, a former professional baseball player and ladies man who runs a Boston-based bar called Cheers in the sitcom of the same name. The show, which premiered on NBC on September 30, 1982, and opened with the now-classic theme song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” centers around a group of regulars who hang out at Cheers, including lovable but dim-witted bartender Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), frequently unemployed Norm Peterson (George Wendt), feisty waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) and snooty psychiatrist Fraser Crane (Kelsey Grammer). (Crane later got his own long-running sitcom, Frasier, which originally aired from 1993 to 2004). Among the main storylines on Cheers were Sam Malone’s lengthy on-again, off-again romantic relationships with waitress-grad student Diane Chambers (Shelley Long, who was a Cheers cast member from 1982-1987) and businesswoman Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley, a regular from 1987-1993). During its 11-season run, Cheers featured guest appearances by a number of celebrities and public figures, including Johnny Carson, then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.

Created by James Burrows and brothers Glen and Les Charles, Cheers was almost cancelled due to poor ratings during its first season; it hung on, however, and eventually became a massive hit with audiences. The show was nominated for a total of more than 100 Emmy Awards, and it won 28. The final episode of Cheers aired on May 20, 1993, and attracted more than 80 million viewers, making it one of the top-rated finales in TV history. (The all-time record holder, the 1983 M*A*S*H finale, was seen by some 106 million people, while more than 76 million viewers tuned in to the 1998 finale of Seinfeld.)

Following Cheers, Danson starred as a cranky doctor in the TV sitcom Becker, which aired on CBS from 1998 to 2004. Among his more recent TV credits are recurring roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and Damages. Danson has also appeared in a number of movies, including 1979’s The Onion Field, which marked his big-screen debut; 1981’s Body Heat, featuring Kathleen Turner and William Hurt; the 1987 hit comedy Three Men and a Baby, with Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg; Made in America (1993), which co-starred Danson’s then-paramour Whoopi Goldberg; and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Danson has been married to his third wife, the actress Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Elf) since 1995.