Marlon Brando

Early Brando screen test

When Marlon Brando died in 2004, aged 80, I lost the final member of my revered trio of maverick heroes: Orson Welles (from whom I once sat six feet away in a recording studio but couldn't muster the nerve to meet), Frank Sinatra (whom I saw perform in concert), and Brando (with whom, a la “six degrees of separation, I came within one actor of meeting). Of the three, Brando was my favorite on screen. I first saw him in one of my generation's first "teen movies," THE WILD ONE. Later, when I saw him in VIVA ZAPATA, which I consider one of the finest films ever made, and ON THE WATERFRONT, I became Brando-branded for life. Then there was ONE-EYED JACKS, THE GODFATHER, THE FRESHMAN, and his last meaty cameo in THE SCORE. Those were some of his best films, and he made other great ones, but he made plenty of stinkers, too. Yet despite his poor film choices and roles far beneath his herculean talents, and even after his weight ballooned to epic proportions (like Welles’) and personal life (like Sinatra's) turned to tab fodder, Brando remained an acting hero to me.

Red Skelton

Red Skelton (1913-97) was one of my generation's earliest comic heroes. We occasionally saw him in the movies, but it's when he came to television that we really got to know him. Early TV featured many great funnymen – Bob Hope, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle – but their humor was mostly aimed at our parents. This big silly man, an overgrown kid, himself, was more our speed. Red's grab bag of goofy characters featured characters that we could easily mimic: Junior the Mean Widdle Kid (who was famous for his expression, "I Dood It"), country boy Clem Kadiddlehopper (left), Sheriff Deadeye, boxer Cauliflower McPugg, drunkard Willy Lump-Lump, con man San Fernando Red, and Freddie the Freeloader, a hobo who never spoke. Skelton's forte was his use of slapstick. Critics often panned Skelton for breaking into laughter at his own material on the air, but we didn't care how many times he succumbed to giggles, took another pratfall, mugged for the camera, or made asides to the audience, we loved him all the more And no matter how raucous he was during the show, Red always ended it with the sweetly sincere words: “Goodnight and may God bless.” R.I.P., Red.

Jane Wyatt

I first saw Jane Wyatt (1910-2006) in LOST HORIZONS. She played Ronald Coleman’s love interest, a woman who, thanks to the preservative powers of Shangri-la, looks a century younger than she actually is. Wyatt was 26 at the time, and continued to look lovely and youthful throughout her long career in films and TV. Her best remembered role was Margaret Anderson, the wise and patient matriarch in "Father Knows Best" (1954-60), the one in the family who really always knew best. She set the benchmark for every sitcom Mom to come. Years later she played another good Mom, Mr. Spock's, on TV's original Star Trek and on the big screen in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. She, Amanda, was the earthling parent who imbued Spock with the human emotions he was forever disavowing.

Amanda (Jane Wyatt): "Spock, does the good of the many outweigh the good of the one?"
Spock (Leonard Nimoy): "I would accept that as an axiom."
Amanda: "Then you stand here alive because of a mistake made by your flawed, feeling, human friends. They have sacrificed their futures because they believed that the good of the one - you - was more important to them."
Spock: "Humans make illogical decisions."
Amanda: "They do indeed."

John Garfield

I continue to be loyal admirer of John Garfield (1913-52), both for his intense acting style – he specialized in brooding, rebellious, working-class types – and for his political courage. In his salad days in the '40s, he brightened the screen with such classics as BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT, and FORCE OF EVIL. But during the Red Scare in the early '50s, Garfield was called to testify before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He refused to name names, but his forced testimony before the committee severely damaged his reputation – and his health – and he was blacklisted. Heart problems, allegedly aggravated by the stress of his blacklisting, led to his early death at 39 soon thereafter.

Edmund O'Brien

The slightly pudgy Edmund O’Brien was a highly respected character actor from the mid-‘40s through late ‘60s, He earned my affection for his everyman looks and personality, the pugnacious swagger when he walked, and the way his hair flopped perfectly when he moved his head, and above all, for his often bombastic but always enjoyable acting. Plus, I liked the characters he played – mostly ordinary Joes just trying to survive – a P.R. man in both THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (for which he won an Oscar in 1954 and A DOUBLE LIFE, an insurance salesman mistakenly poisoned desperately trying to find his own murderer in D.O.A., an earnest undercover cop in WHITE HEAT with James Cagney, a husband on a fishing trip with a buddy who picks up the wrong man in THE HITCH-HIKER, a bourbon-loving senator in SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and a whiskey-swilling newspaper publisher in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERY VALENCE, even Casca to Marlon Brando’s Antony in a big Hollywood version of Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR (Cassius had "a lean and hungry look," but no one could accuse O'Brien's Casca of that!).


Early in his in career, Alan Ladd (1913-64) was carefully photographed to make him appear taller than his 5’4-1/2”. He was a very little guy, but not to the 10-year old me when I saw SHANE (1953) in which Ladd plays the world-weary gunslinger who drifts into a quiet western town and becomes drawn into a conflict between an peaceable homesteader and a ruthless cattle baron. Shane was a hero to the Starrett family (especially little Joey) and, as a man who sacrificed himself to help strangers in need, he was a hero to me. Shaaaaane, come back, Shane.

Andy Hardy

I discovered Andy Hardy in the '50s when I was around the same age as the perennial teen was supposed to be in the '40s, when most of the Andy Hardy films came out. I say, "supposed to be," because Mickey Rooney, the actor who played him, was actually older than his character in most of the films, and toward the end of its 16-entry run (1937-58), a lot older. But I didn't know that at the time or care. I loved Andy. Many of the scrapes and life lessons he went through were like mine. To this day the boy in me longs to be Andy Hardy and live his idyllic life in Carville, U.S.A. After all, he had Judy Garland for a girlfriend and a kindly old judge for a dad. Even Mayberry RFD wasn't as idyllic as that!


My earliest comic book hero was played by both George Reeves (on TV) and Christopher Reeve (on screen), and each actor was a super hero to me, as well, though for different reasons. I had always been a fan of the the Man of Steel in comic books, but when I saw that first black-and-white episode of Superman on TV in 1952, I was hooked for life. The TV actor (though he did make one Superman movie) was George Reeves, (1914-59) and for lads of my generation, he was the one and only Superman, flannel t-shirt, baggy tights and all. Decades later, Hollywood brought the big guy to the big screen, with Christopher Reeve (1952-04), who was already a respected actor. He scored his first role in a Euripides play at 15, costarred with Katharine Hepburn at 22, and was one of two advanced-program students out of 2,000 applicants accepted at Juilliard. I admired him in many of his fine roles, and was terribly saddened when tragically he broke his neck in a horseback riding accident, never to walk again. But how much more I admired him for his courageousness over the next 10 years of his life. Not only did he become a director and act in several more films, he also started a foundation to fund spinal-cord-repair research, lobbied Congress, and tirelessly crisscrossed the country on speaking engagements. Heroes don't get any more super than that.

Henry Fonda

The offscreen life of Henry Fonda (1905-81) wasn't idealistic. But watching his onscreen lives in such classic films as THE GRAPES OF WRATH (heroic young farmer), YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (heroic young lawyer), 12 ANGRY MEN (heroic juror), and FAIL SAFE (heroic U.S. president) – only four of his more than 100 movies – it's impossible not to think of him as anything but, well, heroic.

Richard Widmark

As a kid, I didn’t know anything about his celebrated work in film noir (starting in 1947 in KISS OF DEATH, in which he played a giggling psychopathic killer) or even what film noir was. What I did know is that when I saw Richard Widmark (1914-08) play a tough but good soldier or tough but good cowboy or tough but good cop or other authority figure, I wanted to be just like him.Widmark as Tommy Udo

John Wayne

What 10-year old all-American boy didn't look up to John Wayne (1907-79) – whether as a stalwart cowboy or the stalwart co-pilot in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) trying to keep the pilot, passengers and transatlantic airliner from cracking up. Recently, I watched that film for the first time since it first landed in theaters (complete with a towering music score that still thrills), and though it creaks a bit from old age, I realized I still want to be co-pilot Dan Roman (now there’s a hero’s name for you!).

Hopalong Cassidy

One of my earliest cowboy heroes was Hopalong Cassidy. Created in 1904 by Clarence E. Mulford, he first appeared in a series of popular stories and novels, finally galloping onto the silver screen beginning in 1935, with ex-silent screen star William Boyd (1895-72) in the character's saddle. In print, Hopalong was a rude, rough-talking “galoot,” but Boyd transformed him into an easy smiling, clean-cut hero in 66 immensely popular films. In the late ‘40s, Boyd brought Hoppy to TV, and that’s where I discovered him – or perhaps a little earlier, at Saturday matinees. As portrayed by the white-haired Cassidy, Hoppy wore mostly black (including his hat, contradicting the long-standing western rule that only villains wore black hats). He was reserved and well spoken, with a fine sense of fair play, often called upon to intercede when dishonest characters took advantage of honest citizens. He usually traveled with two companions: one young and trouble-prone with a weakness for damsels in distress, the other comically awkward and outspoken (a formula adopted by both Autrey and Rogers in their own kid-aimed TV shows). A succession of actors played the sidekicks, but Boyd filled Hoppy's boots until he rode off into the last sunset in 1972 – a sad day for us former buckaroos.

Randolph Scott

As a leading man for all but the first three years of his film career (his first major film credit was in 1931), Randolph Scott (1898-87) appeared in a variety of genres, including social dramas, crime dramas, comedies, musicals (albeit in non-singing and non-dancing roles), adventure tales, war pictures, and even a few horror and fantasy films. But by the time I discovered him in my pre-teens, he had already settled into his most enduring image: the taciturn, tall-in-the-saddle, Western hero. Out of his 100+ films more than 60 were in oaters, many of them now cult favorites. Every time I see one of his '50s or early '60s Budd Boetticher-directed Westerns like SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), or RIDE LONESOME (1959), I'm reminded how much of a hero he was to me ... and still is. In his last film, Sam Peckinpah's RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962), he co-starred with Joel McCrea, another actor who had transitioned into oaters later in his career. As a young boy I saw Randy in person in Fort Worth and thought I had gone to cowboy heaven.

Gregory Hines

Five years after his death from cancer at 57, I can never watch Gregory Hines (1946-03) in a movie or TV rerun without missing him. It's common knowledge that he was one of the top tap dancers of his generation, but how many appreciate what a talented actor he was – how natural and funny and cool? I admired him tremendously for both his dancing and acting, but also simply by the warm, open personality he radiated. Every movie with Hines in the cast benefited from his warm and open personality, including the creepy WOLFEN (1981), the witty and action-packed RUNNING SCARED (1986), the colorfully textured THE COTTON CLUB (1984), and the lovingly crafted homage TAP (1989). In the first two he plays a wisecracking sidekick; in the second two, he dances – gloriously! – alongside other giants of tap including Sammy Davis, Jr., Harold Nicholas and Howard "Sandman" Sims. Hines made his movie debut in Mel Brooks’ goofy HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE (1981) as a last-minute replacement for Richard Pryor. He played the anachronistically hip Roman slave Josephus.

Auctioneer: "Where are you from, slave?"
Josephus: "Ethiopia."
Auctioneer: "What part?"
Josephus: "125th Street."