Of all the actors who have joined the real stars in the heavens this year, two hold special places in my heart.
This is not to give the back of my hand to the many great artists who passed away in 2013.
Jack Klugman was impossible to ignore in any work he ever did, whether it was the juror who taught Henry Fonda how a switchblade is used in “12 Angry Men” or Jack Lemmon’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor in “Days of Wine and Roses.”
Esther Williams didn’t make much of a splash as a dramatic actress, but she was undefeated as the queen of the swimming pool. She combined her beauty and competitive swimming athleticism in light-hearted MGM fare that made us all smile.
But two of the talents we lost this year made more of an impression on me than the others.
Jean Stapleton was a veteran of stage and screen, but she became a star by bringing Edith Bunker into our lives on the sitcom “All in the Family.”
Even as bigoted Archie Bunker ruffled feathers and raised blood pressures all across the country, Stapleton, as his wife, Edith, buffered the controversy.
Her unflagging love and devotion, despite all of Archie’s many faults, reminded us that even racists are human beings, compendiums of their upbringing and other experiences that limited their development.
Dotty as she was with a giggle that was infectious, Edith was not so much a throwback to pre-feminist days as she was a reminder that our pre-feminist mothers had qualities that should not be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant.
The other star we lost this year left permanent etchings on my consciousness as “Lawrence of Arabia,” a wild man who must have been a kindred spirit.
Peter O’Toole, whose blue eyes were lasers that penetrated the screen, drank like Richard Burton, rivaled Cary Grant for sheer charisma, and equaled any Shakespearean veteran at the Old Vic for theatricality.
My three favorite O’Toole movies expose very different aspects of the man. One is a comedy, one is a drama, and one, oddly enough, is a musical.
“My Favorite Year” is a brilliant send-up of the golden age of television and Errol Flynn’s intoxicated appearance on Sid Caesar’s popular program in the 1950s. O’Toole realized it to be enough of a parody of himself to play it realistically, which makes the sentimental moments all the more credible.
In “The Lion in Winter,” O’Toole, as King Henry II, does battle with his wife, played by Katharine Hepburn, and finds her to be almost more than he can handle. This is O’Toole at his best, the closest he came to equaling the quality of his stunning debut in “Lawrence.”
In the musical version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” O’Toole repressed his customary exuberance for the role of the shy prep school professor who emerges from his shell after falling in love with a showgirl. He couldn’t sing a note, but that didn’t stop Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady” either.
Thanks for the memories, and thank goodness for film and videotape.