Every year the Academy Awards manages to neglect a distinguished actor or actress who has died since the previous Oscars ceremony, and usually it is inexplicable. Two years ago, it was Farrah Fawcett who was snubbed. This year Oscar was more callous and negligent than ever before, robbing at least eight deserving performers of their final curtain calls, and there is just no excuse for it. As usual, Oscar flacks will claim that time was limited, but that won’t fly: why was there time to include, for example, Whitney Houston, who not only had minimal film credentials but who also had an entire awards show dedicated to her just a week ago? Whitney hardly rated a gratuitous nod from Oscar, especially while it was snubbing so many real actors.
I will be generous and apply Hanlon’s Razor, but with reluctance: it seems to me that there were too many blatant omissions and too many obscure insiders included for it all to be accidental. Did the behind-the-scenes members of the Academy stage a coup, and demand that their fallen colleagues get their names displayed this year to millions of Americans who almost certainly never heard of them? If so, that still couldn’t justify the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences showing such apathy and disrespect for deceased actors that audiences do remember, or if not, should be reminded of one last time.
Here are the actors who Oscar neglected to help us remember, appreciate, and thank:
Dana Wynter (1931-2011)
You would think that having a starring role in both a film classic and one of the most famous TV episodes of all time would have guaranteed a tribute from the Academy, but in Dana Wynter’s case, you would be wrong. She starred in several popular films in both the U.S. and Great Britain, such as “The List of Adrian Messenger” and “Sink the Bismarck!”, but the cool and beautiful actress made nightmares for a generation with her role in “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” as a doomed young nurse trapped in a house with a maniac—a show with one of the most shocking climaxes ever to air. Even that paled, however, compared to her role as “Becky” in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as the love interest of hero Kevin McCarthy. When Wynter stares into McCarthy’s horrified face with her new pod-gaze, it is one of the creepiest moments in film history.
James Arness (1923-2011)
Arness is famous for starring as Matt Dillon in TV’s longest-running drama, “Gunsmoke,” but he made over 20 films before becoming a TV icon. One of them was “Hondo,” with John Wayne, which led to Wayne’s recommending Arness for the Dillon role after it was first offered to the Duke himself. But Arness’s greatest film role was undoubtedly as the so-called “killer carrot” (left) in Howard Hawks’ classic, “The Thing from Another World.” Oddly, the Academy also ignored the passing of Arness’s brother, Peter Graves, a couple years ago. Graves’s career in film and TV were vastly inferior to that of big brother Jim, but he was an well-known and well-loved actor. What did the Arness family ever do to Oscar?
Bubba Smith (1945-2011)
Smith was an NFL Hall of Famer, but he made a successful transition to acting, most famously as the giant police trainee “Moses Hightower” in all six “Police Academy” films, as well as their TV spin-off. You can deride the legitimacy of his output if you like, but he was a core cast member of a successful Hollywood franchise, and by any standard, a far more legitimate representative of the film industry than…Steve Jobs, who somehow made the cut.
Charles Napier (1936-2011)
One of those faces you immediately recognize but can never identify, Napier was ubiquitous in TV series ( especially “Dallas,””B.J and the Bear,” and “The Simpsons”) for three decades and also was featured in films like “Rambo,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Silence of the Lambs.” He was exactly the kind of hard-working, useful and too often unappreciated professional character actor that needs to be given the spotlight, just once, before he fades into obscurity.
John Neville (1925-2011)
A flat-out wonderful British actor who was a fixture on British TV, Neville gave a marvelous performance as the hero of Terry Gilliam’s famous box office disaster, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988), which is, I must confess, one of my favorite films of all time. He also had significant roles in films like “The Fifth Element,” “Urban Legends,” “Little Women,” and “Dangerous Minds.”
Jeff Conaway (1950-2011)
Talented, tragic Jeff Conaway was one of the co-stars of “Grease” on stage and in film, and then a regular on “Taxi” before substance abuse problems sent him into a classic career death spiral of bad made-for-TV movies, worse independent films, reality shows, “Celebrity Rehab,” and finally a premature demise. Are Hollywood’s elite embarrassed by Conaway, whose story could so easily have been any of theirs as well? He was a casualty of the business, and attention should be paid.
Michael Gough (1916-2011)
Cross Charles Napier and John Neville, and you get Michael Gough, a hardy and versatile British character actor who seldom had a lead role, but was always memorable and fun to watch. Until Michael Caine took over, Gough was Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler in the first set of Batman movies. He also appeared in classics like Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” in the Sixties, and was a member of Tim Burton’s film rep company until his death, doing the voice of the Dodo bird in 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland.” You would think a career so long and distinguished would ensure more respect.
Harry Morgan (1915-2011)
How could Oscar fail to note the death of Harry Morgan? Yes, he was best remembered as a TV star in “MASH” and “Dragnet,” but Morgan had important and memorable roles in classic Hollywood films, such as “The Ox Bow Incident,” “High Noon,’ “State Fair”, “Bend in the River” and “The Shootist.” Is it possible that whoever was charged with compiling the “In Memoriam” list this year was confused by Morgan’s mid-career name change from “Henry,” which was the name he used in those films, to “Harry”? Could the Academy be that careless?
Well, my tribute isn’t the Oscars, but that’s the best I can do, guys (and Dana). You were all part of my movie-watching experience, and I’m grateful for it. Don’t mind your foolish colleagues. You know what they’re like, I’m sure.