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James Shigeta Dies At 85; Starred In ‘Flower Drum Song’ And ‘Die Hard’

By David Colker, Los Angeles Times

Actor James Shigeta played the leading male role in the lavish movie musical “Flower Drum Song” in 1961. The year before, he won a Golden Globe as most promising newcomer.

But after “Flower Drum Song” he never again played the leading man in a major film.

“He was so handsome, debonair,” said actor James Hong, who appeared in several films and TV shows with Shigeta. “But there was the stigma in Hollywood about Asian leading men.”

Shigeta, 85, died Monday at an assisted-living facility in Beverly Hills, Calif. He had been in declining health since suffering a stroke about two years ago, said his sister-in-law, Ellie Shigeta.

In “Flower Drum Song,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about clashing traditional Chinese and American cultures in San Francisco, Shigeta had several numbers to sing, including the lyrical “You Are Beautiful.” In a 2004 interview with The Los Angeles Times, he dismissed the movie as “a delightful little piece, very frothy.”

He played Wang Ta, a character confused about whether he loves demure Mei Le or the brassy nightclub performer Linda “I Enjoy Being a Girl” Low. In the Times interview, Shigeta described his character as “naive, almost stupid.”

But he was hopeful the film would lead to meatier roles not only for himself, but other Asian American actors. “For a while after ‘Flower Drum Song,’ things got better for Asians in Hollywood,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 2006. “Finally, they started portraying the Asian American as something other than the poor man in a menial job, as a doctor or attorney.”

But much of the stereotyping and limited acting opportunities continued. USC film professor Akira Lippit said Tuesday that even now, many roles offered to Asian American actors were designated as Asian characters. With some exceptions, he said, “They are not yet perceived as just playing generic parts that could be played by a non-Asian.”

Shigeta felt that in some ways, the situation had worsened. “It seems to have regressed lately to the more stereotypical gangsters and thugs,” he said in the 2006 interview. “I’ve been offered scripts recently that were just awful.”

Shigeta was born in Honolulu to parents of Japanese heritage on June 17, 1929, according to his sister-in-law, though some movie biographies list the year as 1933. He graduated from high school in Hawaii, where he sang in a choir, and later joined the Marines. His singing earned him his first national fame — he was a grand prize winner in early television’s best-known talent show, “The Original Amateur Hour.”

That led to his performing in Japan (though he spoke almost none of the language) and in Las Vegas in a revue called “Holiday in Japan.” From there, he got into the movies.

His favorite film, Ellie Shigeta said, is the now little-seen “Bridge to the Sun” (1961), based on a true story. Shigeta played a Japanese diplomat in Washington who falls in love with an American woman, played by Carroll Baker, before the onset of World War II. Los Angeles Times reviewer Philip Scheuer praised both actors, but wrote, “of the pair, Shigeta registers more strongly and at the same time more delicately.”

Into the 1990s, he appeared in numerous TV series and a handful of movies. He refused, his sister-in-law said, to play roles he felt demeaning to Asian Americans.

One of Shigeta’s best known later roles was a small but pivotal part in the first “Die Hard” movie (1988), in which he played corporate executive Joseph Takagi. He’s shot by terrorists in the head when he refuses to give them the codes to a vault. Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the actor gave a performance embodying bravery that showed someone “about to die can steal back a bit of dignity by summoning their courage and refusing to be cowed.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Martin Tahse, TV Producer Of ‘ABC Afterschool Specials,’ Dies At 84

By David Colker, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Martin Tahse, a stage and television producer best known for his work on “ABC Afterschool Specials” and other programs aimed at young audiences, died July 1 in a nursing home in Los Angeles. The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his friend, Michael Vodde. Tahse was 84.

Tahse was a producer on more than 20 of the “Afterschool” dramas from 1974 to 1989 that touched on a variety of teen problems, including pregnancy, suicide, and bullying. They were shows full of teachable moments, but Tahse strove for authenticity in the productions and didn’t allow endings in which a parent solved a dilemma.

“The kid had to resolve the problem by him or herself,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Boston Globe.

Some of the episodes he produced featured young actors who went on to have big careers. Rob Lowe was in “Schoolboy Father” (1980), about a teen who finds out his former girlfriend is pregnant with their child. Felicity Huffman (as Flicka Huffman) was in “A Home Run for Love” (1978), about the friendship between a young white boy and an elderly black man.

The “Afterschool Specials” were sometimes mocked in subsequent years for being preachy. But Tahse took them seriously.

“He was passionate about them,” said his friend Tom Jordan, who worked with Tahse on an “Afterschool Special” and other shows. That was especially true of the last episode Tahse produced, “Just Tipsy, Honey” (1989), about dealing with a parent with a drinking problem. “He was the child of an alcoholic parent,” Jordan said of Tahse. “He knew what it was like to deal with them one way when they were drinking, another when they were not. It was his story.”

Tahse won Daytime Emmy awards in 1978 and 1981 for “Afterschool Specials.” A 1979 episode, “A Special Gift,” about a 14-year-old basketball player who wants to be a ballet dancer, won a Peabody Award. The Peabody organization said the program “took a story in which a personable young boy faced the first great dilemma of his life and brought it to life in such a way that no viewer was spared the agony of helping him make the choice.”

Tahse was born April 24, 1930, in Cincinnati. His early show business career mostly involved theater — Tahse produced numerous road tours of shows that played Broadway, including “Funny Girl,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

He wrote a one-woman play based on the 1989 novel by Allan Gurganus, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” When it played the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2003, with Ellen Burstyn in the role, Los Angeles Times critic Don Shirley said the stories from the original novel were so strong, “and Burstyn proves such an adept storyteller, that Tahse’s Classics Illustrated-style edition becomes an engaging experience, both funny and sad.”

But when the show went to Broadway later that year, it opened and closed the same night.

A more successful project was his producing of the last 13 television episodes of the sweetly funny and warm “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” television puppet show in the early 1970s. The show, which first went on the air in 1947, was largely improvised by its creator, puppeteer Burr Tillstrom.

“There was no way I could creatively add to anything he did,” Tahse told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “It was a one-camera show, so if he made a mistake, we would have had to start again at the beginning of the show.

“But in all the shows we did, we didn’t stop once.”

No information was available on Tahse’s survivors.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Ruth Ziolkowski, Key Figure Behind Crazy Horse Memorial, Dies At 87

By David Colker, Los Angeles Times

It was sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who took on the enormous task of carving a mountain in South Dakota to create a sculpture so mammoth it would dwarf the presidents on nearby Mount Rushmore.

But it was his wife, Ruth, who made the pragmatic financial and public relations decisions that were key to keeping the project — a depiction of Native American warrior Crazy Horse — on track, especially after her husband died in 1982.

“If you don’t have faith,” she said in a 2007 interview at the site of the far-from-completed sculpture, “if you don’t have any imagination, if you don’t have a dream — what are you doing here?”

Ruth Ziolkowski, 87, died May 21 at a hospice care facility in Rapid City, S.D. The cause was cancer, said Mike Morgan, a spokesman for the Crazy Horse Memorial project.

The ongoing operation now has 60 employees year-round, swelling to about 200 in summer when about a million ticket-buying tourists come to the more than 550-foot-tall site. The visitors are a chief source of funding for the project, which, in accord with Korczak Ziolkowski’s instructions, does not accept any government funding.

But Ruth Ziolkowski (pronounced jewel-CUFF-ski) varied from a pivotal aspect of his plan after he died, and her decision went a long way toward attracting tourists.

He had been concentrating on a massive section of the work to depict the horse that Crazy Horse was to be shown riding.

But the strategic blasting and carving was taking so long, it was likely to be years or even decades before much of the horse would be discernible.

She shifted focus to the far smaller section atop the mountain that was to be Crazy Horse’s face. “She knew that something had to be done to keep the interest of visitors and people who donate to the project,” Morgan said.

The face was completed in 1998 and a dedication was held. “She had an appreciation of media coverage,” Morgan said. The face was a huge draw, even though it was basically a guess — no verifiable photos of Crazy Horse, who died in 1877, have been found.

Other crowd attractions at the memorial include night dynamite blasts and laser shows.

Ruth Ziolkowski was a hands-on administrator and ambassador who could often be spotted in the tourist center’s Laughing Water restaurant, talking to visitors. And even after she was moved to hospice care, she participated in meetings via telephone until a few days before her death.

Born Ruth Ross on June 26, 1926, in Hartford, Conn., she met her future husband, briefly, when she was 13 years old. He was an already established sculptor living in the area — she and a few friends went to his house because movie actor Richard Bennett was visiting and they wanted his autograph.

In 1947, when she was 20, she traveled to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a volunteer to help with the recently started project to honor Crazy Horse, best known for his role in defeating federal troops in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn. She helped build the main residence and a 741-step wooden staircase leading to the top of the mountain.

Ruth and Korczak married in 1950, and over the years had 10 children. While he worked the mountain, she helped run income-producing projects, including a dairy farm, lumber mill, and the visitors center that has vastly grown over the years.

She didn’t expect to live to see the completion of the sculpture. It’s not even sure that her children, most of whom have been involved with the project in some way, will see it done.

But in a 1989 Los Angeles Times interview, she said that didn’t matter. “When you grow up with something, it becomes a part of you,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what else to do. As a matter of fact, I like what I do, I thoroughly enjoy every bit of it.”

Ruth Ziolkowski is survived by nine of her children: daughters Dawn, Jadwiga, Monique and Marinka; sons John, Adam, Casimir, Mark and Joel; 23 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Her daughter Anne died in 2011.

Photo via Flickr

Al Feldstein, Editor Of Mad Magazine, Dies At 88

By David Colker, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The goofy, cartoon face of Alfred E. Neuman looked out from the cover of Mad magazine for decades in various guises, always with the same message: “What, Me Worry?”

“He looked like a boob, but he had a very interesting philosophy” said Al Feldstein, who as editor built Mad from near-obscurity in the 1950s into a satirical powerhouse. “Meaning no matter how bad things get, if you maintain a sense of humor, you can get through it,” Feldstein told the Kansas City Star in 1998.

Under Feldstein, who edited Mad from 1956 to 1984, the magazine skewered presidents, the Cold War, the tobacco industry, Madison Avenue advertising, Hollywood and numerous other targets. And its legacy from that time lives on.

“Basically, everyone who was young between 1955 and 1975 read Mad,” comedy writer/producer Bill Oakley said in the book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History.” “That’s where your sense of humor came from.”

Feldstein, 88, died Tuesday at home on his ranch near Livingston, Mont., of natural causes, said his wife, Michelle.

Though Mad was the forerunner of current satirical outlets such as The Onion, “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” Feldstein had long ago left that high-pressure comedy life behind. After retiring from the magazine, which left him well off because he owned a portion of the profits, he moved to Montana, where he painted realistic scenes of wildlife, Native Americans, cowboys and Western landscapes — with no laughs intended.

“I’ve had a wonderful career, and now I’m trying another one,” Feldstein said in a 1997 Denver Post interview. “Thank God I don’t have to make a living at it.”

Feldstein was not the original editor of Mad and he was far from the wittiest person in the office. But his intense, micromanaging approach to putting out a magazine aimed at young readers and adults was a proven success. When he took over as editor in 1956, circulation hovered around 375,000. When it peaked in 1974, it was more than 2 million.

“He was not a warm and fuzzy guy,” said Grant Geissman, whose biography, “Feldstein: The Mad Life and Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein,” came out in August. “But he knew how to get the magazine out. It was his commercialization of Mad that made it such an American institution.”

Albert Feldstein was born Oct. 24, 1925, in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, N.Y. His father worked in the dental industry, which did not shield the family when the economy plummeted. “My father made false teeth, Feldstein told the Denver Post in 1997. “Unfortunately, during the Depression, not many people could afford them and my parents lost their home.”

The financial situation killed his dream of going to medical school. But a teacher who noticed his love of drawing steered him to the High School for Music and Art in Manhattan, and while still enrolled there, he got a job at a comic book company.

In the 1940s, he began drawing comics for William Gaines, head of EC Comics. They collaborated on creepy publications such as “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror,” that were a hit among teenage readers, but were called a scourge to the nation by some politicians and parents. A comic books code that was essentially forced on the industry killed EC’s more sensational titles, but Mad — founded in 1952 — was able to continue.

With fake ads for products such as Carry-On cigarettes (in the face of medical reports on smoking), the humor was not always subtle. But that was by design.

“We wrote hard-hitting, very clear and concise, satirical criticism, and that’s what the kids dug,” Feldstein told the Denver Post. “It wasn’t Jonathan Swift, but it reached a large audience.”

Feldstein’s survivors, in addition to his wife of 25 years, include his stepdaughter Katrina Oppelt, also of Montana; and stepson Mark Feldstein of Tustin.

Photo: Christian Montone via Flickr