They Go in Threes: Reed, Needham and Wallace
The "In Memoriam" section of this year's Oscars was already going to be a lengthy affair, given the passing of Roger Ebert, Ray Harryhausen and James Gandolfini, among others. Many more weekends like this last one, however, and they might as well scrap the awards entirely.
Truly, there was nothing like the life of a Hollywood stuntman.
Eh. I've heard worse ideas.
I don't really buy the "rule of three" when it comes to celebrity deaths. That said, the trio that recently shuffled off this mortal coil -- Lou Reed, Hal Needham and Marcia Wallace -- represent that rare trifecta of deceased famous people all influencing separate entertainment spheres (music, movies and TV, respectively). And yet in spite of decades-spanning careers, each is known primarily for one or two signature efforts.
I'm not going to talk much about Lou Reed, as the NYC media contingent seem to have those tributes sewn up. Like most R.E.M. fans in the '80s, I went through a Velvet Underground phase in college. And a roommate "borrowed" my copy of New York and never returned it, but he was a DJ so I sort of blew it off. Anyway, if I ever feel the need to do a deep dive, I have 22 studio records and 12 live solo Reed albums to choose from.
But "Walk on the Wild Side" was the only solo Reed single to hit the charts (in the States; he was slightly more appreciated in the UK). You can select 100 random people who recognize the name "Lou Reed," and when they're asked what he's famous for, the response breakdown would look something like this:
97 -- "Walk on the Wild Side"
2 -- "That album with the banana on the cover."
1 -- " Didn't he have sex with David Bowie?"
[Incidentally, the Bowie question could probably be asked of any 1970s celebrity.]
And then there's Hal Needham, who -- in spite of working as a stuntman in seemingly every movie made since A Trip to the Moon (he doubled for the Moon) and revolutionizing stunt technology (I'm still not Googling "jerk-off ratchet") -- is mostly remembered for a handful of directorial efforts, including the first two Smokey and the Bandit movies, Hooper and The Cannonball Run.
My personal affection for Persis Khambatta aside, I couldn't in good conscience include MegaForce.
And admit it, you like Needham's films, even if calling them "films" probably has Pauline Kael rolling over in her grave. The first two Bandits are, on the surface, throwaway chase flicks. In reality, they captured a spirit of rebellion, not just against arcane beer distribution laws (would you risk incarceration for Coors?) but restrictions on American freedom imposed by the 1973 oil crisis. The Bandit drove the way we all wanted to, but no longer could, in defiance of the recently imposed 55 mph speed limit and possibly the National Energy Act as well. In many ways, he was the last True American.
I have no such defense of The Cannonball Run, however, except to express my admiration that Needham was able to convince 20th Century Fox to bankroll what was probably the most star-studded cocaine bash to date. Plus, Captain Chaos has provided me with message-board avatars for over a decade.
Finally, Marcia Wallace. Like many who first achieved pop cultural sentience in the 1970s, I vaguely remember the wisecracking Carol Kester from The Bob Newhart Show, and I also quite randomly saw her and Jo Ann Worley perform in a female version of Neil Simon's Odd Couple on a high school trip to Los Angeles in 1987. But from 1990 on, Wallace was dead solid perfect at Bart's perpetual fourth grade teacher, Edna Krabappel, in The Simpsons.
The show got a lot of mileage out of Edna's..."zest for living" in the early years, but also toed the line between hilarity and touchy-feely quite adroitly. This was especially true in the third season episode "Bart the Lover," the first to focus on Mrs. Krabappel (Wallace would win an Emmy for the episode) and her relationship with Bart.
Do they even attempt this type of character development anymore? As one who hasn't watched the show in about eight years, I was surprised to learn that not only was Edna romantically linked to Moe, but she also ended up marrying Ned freaking Flanders during the 23rd season (in what I can only assume is part of the writers' ongoing effort to reduce the show's total viewers to zero).
Were Needham or Wallace as influential as Reed? Unlikely (see that Brian Eno quote), but it's all relative. More to the point, for the folks in my randomly designated age cohort (Generation X), as we lurch further into the 21st century, we'll be saying goodbye to more and more of the people who shaped our lives.
I expect a national day of mourning when Mr. T kicks the bucket.