Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Best Classic Stars You Might Not Have Known Were Still Alive

Today is Kirk Douglas's 94th birthday. While I was aware that Kirk was still alive, I'm sure a good many people either didn't know or assumed otherwise. There really aren't too many stars from Hollywood's Classic Period (roughly 1918-1960, give or take a few years on either end) who are still alive and (relatively) well. But Kirk Douglas certainly qualifies, there. From his first film appearances in the wonderful noirs The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), to his celebrated heroic turns in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), to his work on films by such prestigious directors as John Sturges, Vincente MinelliJoe Mankiewicz, and Billy Wilder, Douglas might well be one of the most acclaimed screen legends still with us -- even if I'll always remember him best for singing "A Whale of a Tale" in a red-and-white striped shirt in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Still, Douglas's longevity -- he most recently appeared in a TV movie, Empire State Building Murders, in 2008 -- got me thinking about the other classic-era stars whose long lives have taken them from the studio system's heyday through to the on-demand twenty-tens. After the jump, you'll find a list of a few such stars.

Eva-Marie Saint (born 07/04/1924)

One of the most iconic "Hitchcock Blondes," Eva-Marie Saint was a stage actor and one of the biggest stars in the early days of television before making her feature film debut in 1954's On the Waterfront, a role which won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Later, her performance as the saucy, inscrutable Eve Kendall in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) subverted her typical screen presence and helped cement her cinematic legacy. While she mostly worked in TV after the 1960s, Saint still occasionally appears on film, most recently as Martha Kent in Bryan Singer's attempted reboot, Superman Returns (2006).

Mickey Rooney (born 09/23/1920)

Whether you like his work or not, it's hard to deny that Mickey Rooney has been a force in popular entertainment for over eighty years. By the time he was sixteen, he had already appeared in over seventy short films in the Mickey McGuire series, and would go on to appear in another 16 movies in the exceedingly popular Andy Hardy series. Rooney could sing, dance, and play music, and while he was more than a little hammy, he had boundless energy and great comedic timing, making him one of the more versatile stars of the classic era. He even attempted Shakespeare, playing Puck in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and his serious performance in 1938's Boys Town holds up against his costar, the legendary Spencer Tracy. He earned four Oscar nominations, in addition to winning a special juvenile award in 1939 and an honorary Oscar in 1983.

Despite Rooney's rough voice and braying laugh, his voice work is still heard every year in the classic Christmas specials Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970)  and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), which he reprised in 2008's A Miser Brothers Christmas. While his off-screen tribulations and a horribly broad stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) may have lost him a few fans, he continues working on film and TV to this day -- his IMDb page lists SIX films currently in production. If you want to see more of his work, he's the Turner Classic Movies "Star of the Month," and every Thursday in December, TCM will be filling their schedule with as many Rooney films as they can.

Eli Wallach (born 12/07/1915)

I may be cheating a little to include Wallach, who really wasn't in many movies prior to the 1960 cutoff date I mentioned above. But I think it's only fair to bring attention to this elder statesmen of character actors, who appeared in two major feature films this year (The Ghost Writer and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) despite his age. Wallach was another of the gifted actors to make the transition from  New York's Method-inflected stage scene to television, and from there into feature films. His first film role was in former theatrical director Elia Kazan's 1956 Tennessee Williams adaptation, Baby Doll. However, his debut MIGHT have happened years earlier, when he was cast in Fred Zinnemann's From Here To Eternity (1953), though Wallach dropped out to perform on Broadway. The role he passed up eventually went to Frank Sinatra, who won an Oscar for his performance.

Wallach's film career didn't really get heated up until 1960's The Magnificent Seven, in which he played the primary antagonist. However, he's best known for his performance in Sergio Leone's 1966 epic, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, in which he played the titular "ugly" character, Tuco. Never really a leading man, Wallach's charisma and talent have kept him working in supporting roles on film and TV for the last sixty years. While he's never won a competitive Oscar, Wallach was finally recognized this year with an Honorary Award "for a lifetime's worth of indelible screen characters." Oh, and on December 20th, Wallach will be curating a night of films as TCM's Guest Programmer, so be sure to tune in for that!

Olivia de Havilland (born 07/01/1916) and Joan Fontaine (born 10/27/1917)

It's fitting that both sides of Hollywood's most bitter sibling rivalry should live such long lives. de Havilland, the elder of the two, made her film debut in the same production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that featured Mickey Rooney. She quickly rose to stardom after being paired with the dashing Errol Flynn in a number of films, and earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as Melanie Wilkes in Gone With The Wind (1939). She famously fought the studios over their unfair contracts, and won, resulting in a change in Hollywood practice and a wider variety of roles for de Havilland -- including two Best Actress-winning performances in To Each His Own (1947) and The Heiress (1949). She worked regularly on film and TV through 1980s, and still makes occasional public appearances for documentaries, award shows, and the like. She received the Knight of the Legion of Honor from her adopted home country, France, earlier this year.

Her younger sister, Joan, also became an actress, finding success after changing her name to Joan Fontaine. She appeared in a number of small roles in the 1930s, but began to hit her stride with performances in 1939's Gunga Din and The Women, culminating in her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for Rebecca (1940). She would be nominated again for her next film, Suspicion (1941), famously becoming the first and only performer to win an Oscar for a Hitchcock-directed film. This also fueled on her already-contentious relationship with Olivia, who she defeated and supposedly snubbed. Fontaine's third nomination, for 1943's The Constant Nymph, would prove to be her last, and while her screen career continued into the 1960s (along with turns on stage and TV through the 1980s), she never quite recaptured the limelight.


These aren't the ONLY surviving stars from classic Hollywood. Joan Fontaine's Wikipedia page notes that Luise Rainer (born 01/12/1910; the first two-time Best Actress Oscar winner), Deanna Durbin (born 12/04/1921; mainly a star of musicals, she shared the special Juvenile award with Mickey Rooney in 1939), and Maureen O'Hara (born 08/17/1920; best known for her frequent pairing with John Wayne) are all still living in various states of retirement, though I'm not familiar enough with any of the three to list them here. Others include Marsha Hunt (born 10/17/1917), who I've recently seen on TCM's Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, and Ben Gazzara (born 08/28/1930) who also crept into movies just before the start of the 60s. Oddly, Gazzara, Hunt, Rooney, and Douglas ALL appeared in Empire State Building Murders in 2008... quite a collection of classic stars for a TV film, no?

Who would YOU add to this list? Feel free to share!


  1. I heard someone comment when some actor died recently (can't remember which) that with every celebrity death de Havilland just gets stronger. I want to make a movie about THAT.

  2. @Jen: I'd watch that movie. Especially if it involved Joan Fontaine having to prevent her sister/nemesis from killing more celebs. That's QUALITY CINEMA right there.