We Remember: A Star, A Poet and A Bruin

Rue McClanahan, Peter Orlovsky, John Wooden.

Rue McClanahan of the Golden Girls

If you’re a television star, as opposed to any other kind of star, you are who you play even unto death.

This is why A-list movie stars were and are rarely seen on television, except when promoting their latest project on late night talk shows.

In the kingdom of television, Seinfeld will always be, well, Seinfeld, Carroll O’Connor will always be remembered as Archie Bunker, Ted Danson, no matter what he does, will be Sam the bartender on “Cheers” and the late Dixie Carter will always be remembered first and foremost as Julia Sugarbaker.

And so on.

“The Golden Girls”, the mid-’80s and early ’90s sitcom about four women of a certain age, which defied the conventional wisdom that people wouldn’t watch a show about women of a certain age, is a splendid example of the adage that on TV you are and will always remain who you play.

And so on “The Golden Girls”, Bea Arthur will always be the retired school teacher Dorothy Zborniak, Estelle Getty will always be her crusty Sicilian mother, Sophia Petrillo, and Betty White will always be the dimly long-winded Rose Nyland.

And Rue McClanahan, who died recently at the age of 76, will always be Blanche Deveraux, man-hungry and slightly slutty, but with dash, a breathy languorous, dishy way about her that gave Scarlett O’Hara a run for her Confederate money.

No question it wasn’t all that McClanahan did in her showbiz life. She was a dazzling hoofer, stepping her way to stardom in numerous shows, and also criss-crossing with Arthur on “Maude” (the other role Arthur will be forever remembered for) and with White on “Mama’s Family.” She starred on stage in “The Vagina Monologues,” among other plays, and in 2008 starred in a cable series called “Texas Sordid.”

“The Golden Girls” was an anomaly among TV shows in an age where the young audience was already courted for its spending power. It was a big hit for seven years and lives on mightily in syndication on Lifetime. Shows like that become national mantras for a reason, in this case, because the women were complex, funny and struggling with life issues that were familiar to anyone getting older, or younger people with parents. And that the women were portrayed by gifted, vivid actresses who remain hard to forget.

McClanahan had a sassiness about her, a certain shamelessness that refused to bow to age. She was going to be the prom queen for as long as they had proms and young guys with eyes that roved everywhere.

They’re almost all gone now. Arthur died last year, and Getty passed away the year before. All four actresses won Emmys for their roles at one time or another.

Only one of the Golden Girls remains standing, and that’s Betty White, who defies the rule. Rose may be memorable, but White goes beyond any television role. She is television, and was television, going back to her roles on radio, game shows, daytime soaps, trashy movies (she played a monster mom who controlled a deadly alligator), memorable commercials and, most recently, an acclaimed appearance as the oldest person to ever host “Saturday Night Live,” courtesy of a wild campaign on Facebook.

Those Golden Girls, they’re golden.


Peter Orlovsky of the Beat Generation

Peter Orlovsky died May 30 of lung cancer.

If you want to find Peter, really see him in sunshine and splendor, go to the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, where he remains luminous in black and white in the exhibition of beat poet and icon Allan Ginsberg’s photographs.

Orlovsky’s prominent presence in this exhibition — along with Ginsberg himself, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso — can be accounted for by the fact that he was, off and on, through thick and thin and other relationships, Ginsberg’s great love and companion for over 40 years.

In the exhibition, Ginsberg, in front of the camera and behind it, reigns supreme, as guru, jester, enthusiast supreme. Orlovsky, supine, up front with his stunning face, seems bemused, a kind of passive Pan to all the other great writers and cavorters. He was one of the true boys, like Neil Cassady or the often sullen Kerouac.

Orlovsky was, of course, more than Ginsberg’s muse and companion, even inspiration. He was a poet himself, and became quite a fine one, though never quite attained the quality or style that could blot out the literary sky like Ginsberg with his “Howl.” He published several books of poetry, including one with Ginsberg, “Straight Hearts Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters.”

Ginsberg died in 1997. Orlovsky continued to write. Both appear very much alive in Ginsberg’s photos, which not only resurrects their life as a couple, but a whole culture that was counter to the Eisenhower’s placid small-town, suburban 1950s America long before there was a counter-culture that went by that name.
Coach John Wooden

John Wooden, who died at the fine age of 99, was the best basketball coach ever. Period.
Coaching the UCLA Bruins of the ’60s and ’70s, he won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, including seven in a row between1967 to 1973, the height of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton eras. He won 620 games in 27 seasons. His record of NCAA titles is not likely to be topped in the men’s game any time soon, if ever, given that most college players with an aptitude for the pros are drafted before becoming upperclassmen, and the kind of consistency and solidity provided by four-year players no longer exists.

Wooden, known as the Wizard of Westwood, a nickname he apparently hated, was not much for razzle-dazzle. In fact, he was both one of a kind and a throwback, a man who was deeply devoted to his religion and to his family in a way that would brook no hint that he was anything other than what he appeared to be. He wrote love letters to his wife for years after she passed away, and, speaking of his Christian faith, was famously quoted as saying that “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”

He coached teams, not individuals, even though he had spectacular stars among his list of players. He was no overnight sensation — he didn’t win his first NCAA title until his 16th year at UCLA — but by the end he had won a record 88 games in a row, 38 straight NCAA tournament games in a row and 98 straight home games.

The record also shows that he never made more than $35,000 a year. He obviously did not have an agent, never asked for a raise and turned down an offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. Imagine all that.

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