Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

Ava Gardner

Ava Lavinia Gardner (December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) was an American actress and singer.

She was signed to a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941 and appeared mainly in small roles until she drew attention with her performance in The Killers (1946). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Mogambo (1953), and also received BAFTA Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for other films.

Gardner appeared in several high-profile films from the 1940s to 1970s, including The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), On the Beach (1959), 55 Days at Peking (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), The Night of the Iguana(1964), The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). Gardner continued to act regularly until 1986, four years before her death in London in 1990 at the age of 67.

 

Early life

Gardner was born near the farming community of Grabtown, North CarolinaShe was the youngest of seven children. She had two older brothers, Raymond and Melvin, and four older sisters, Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez, and Myra. Her parents, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” (née Baker) and Jonas Bailey Gardner, were poor cotton and tobacco farmers. While there are varying accounts of her background, Gardner’s only documented ancestry was English.

She was raised in the Baptist faith of her mother. While the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Molly to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School. When Gardner was seven years old, the family decided to try their luck in a larger city, Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boarding house for the city’s many shipworkers. While in Newport News, Gardner’s father became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After Jonas Gardner’s death, the family moved to Rock Ridge near Wilson, North Carolina, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. Gardner attended high school in Rock Ridge and she graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year.

 

Early career

Gardner was visiting her sister Beatrice in New York in 1941 when Beatrice’s husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed the finished product in the front window of his Tarr Photography Studio on Fifth Avenue.

Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard Duhan, spotted Gardner’s photo in Tarr’s studio. At the time, Duhan often posed as an MGM talent scout to meet girls, using the fact that MGM was a subsidiary of Loews. Duhan entered Tarr’s and tried to get Gardner’s number, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. Duhan made the offhand comment, “Somebody should send her info to MGM”, and the Tarrs did so immediately. Shortly after, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, traveled to New York to be interviewed at MGM’s New York office by Al Altman, head of MGM’s New York talent department. With cameras rolling, he directed the 18-year-old to walk toward the camera, turn and walk away, then rearrange some flowers in a vase. He did not attempt to record her voice because her Southern accent made it almost impossible for him to understand her. Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, however, sent a telegram to Altman: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, She’s terrific!” She was offered a standard contract by MGM, and left school for Hollywood in 1941 with her sister Beatrice accompanying her. MGM’s first order of business was to provide her with a speech coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them.

Films

After five years of bit parts, mostly at MGM and many of them uncredited, Gardner came to prominence in the Mark Hellinger-produced smash-hit film noir The Killers(1946), playing the femme fatale Kitty Collins.

Other films include The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Lone Star (1952), Mogambo(1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and On the Beach (1959). A particularly notable role was in The Barefoot Contessa as the doomed beauty Maria Vargas, a fiercely independent woman who goes from Spanish dancer to international film star with the help of a Hollywood director played by Humphrey Bogart, with tragic consequences.

Gardner starred as Guinevere in 1953’s Knights of the Round Table, opposite actor Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot. Indicative of her sophistication, she portrayed a duchess, a baroness, and other ladies of royal lineage in her films of the 1950s.

Off-camera, she could be witty and pithy, as in her assessment of director John Ford, who directed Mogambo (“The meanest man on earth. Thoroughly evil. Adored him!”).

She was billed between Charlton Heston and David Niven in 55 Days at Peking in 1963, which was set in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The following year, she played her last major leading role in a critically acclaimed film, The Night of the Iguana(1964), based upon a Tennessee Williams play and starring Richard Burton as an atheist clergyman and Deborah Kerr as a gentle artist traveling with her aged poet grandfather. John Huston directed the movie in Puerto VallartaMexico, insisting on making the film in black and white, a decision he later regretted because of the vivid colors of the flora. Gardner received billing below Burton but above Kerr. She was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award for her performance.

She next appeared again with Burt Lancaster, her co-star from The Killers, this time along with Kirk Douglas and Fredric March, in Seven Days in May (1964), a thriller about an attempted military takeover of the US government. Gardner played a former love interest of Lancaster’s who could have been instrumental in Douglas’s preventing a coup against the President of the United States.

John Huston chose Gardner for the part of Sarah, the wife of Abraham (played by George C. Scott), in the Dino De Laurentiis production The Bible: In the Beginning…, which was released in 1966. In a 1964 interview, she explained why she accepted the role:

He [Huston] had more faith in me than I did myself. Now I’m glad I listened, for it is a challenging role and a very demanding one. I start out as a young wife and age through various periods, forcing me to adjust psychologically to each age. It is a complete departure for me and most intriguing. In this role, I must create a character, not just play one.

Two years later, in 1966, Gardner briefly sought the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols‘ The Graduate (1967). She reportedly called Nichols and said, “I want to see you! I want to talk about this Graduate thing!” Nichols never seriously considered her for the part, preferring to cast a younger woman (Anne Bancroft was 36 while Gardner was 43), but he did visit her hotel, where he later recounted that “she sat at a little French desk with a telephone, she went through every movie star cliché. She said, ‘All right, let’s talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.'”

Gardner moved to London in 1968, undergoing an elective hysterectomy to allay her worries of contracting the uterine cancer that had claimed the life of her mother. That year, she appeared in Mayerling, in which she played the supporting role of Austrian Empress Elisabeth of Austria opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph I.

She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably Earthquake (1974) with Heston, The Cassandra Crossing (1976) with Lancaster, and the Canadian movie City on Fire (1979). She appeared briefly as Lillie Langtry at the end of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and in The Blue Bird (1976). Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982), a direct-to-video release. In the 1980s she acted primarily on television, including the mini-series remake of The Long, Hot Summer and in a story arc on Knots Landing (both 1985).

Personal life

Marriages

Soon after Gardner arrived in Los Angeles, she met fellow MGM contract player Mickey Rooney; they married on January 10, 1942. The ceremony was held in the remote town of Ballard, California, because MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was worried that fans would desert Rooney’s Andy Hardy movie series if it became known that their star was married. Largely due to Rooney’s serial adultery, Gardner divorced him in 1943, but agreed not to reveal the cause so as not to affect his career.

Gardner’s second marriage was brief as well, to jazz musician and bandleader Artie Shaw, from 1945 to 1946. Shaw had previously been married to Lana Turner. Gardner’s third and last marriage was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra, from 1951 to 1957. She would later say in her autobiography that he was the love of her life. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, for Gardner and their subsequent marriage made headlines.

Sinatra was blasted by gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Hollywood establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, and by his fans for leaving his wife for a noted femme fatale. Gardner used her considerable influence, particularly with Harry Cohn, to get Sinatra cast in his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity(1953). That role and the award revitalized both Sinatra’s acting and singing careers.

The Gardner-Sinatra marriage was tumultuous. Gardner confided to Artie Shaw, her second husband, that “With him [Frank] it’s impossible…it’s like being with a woman. He’s so gentle. It’s as though he thinks I’ll break, as though I’m a piece of Dresden china and he’s gonna hurt me.” During their marriage Gardner became pregnant twice, but aborted both pregnancies. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies,” according to her autobiography, which was published eight months after her death. Gardner remained good friends with Sinatra for the rest of her life.

Relationships

Gardner became a friend of businessman and aviator Howard Hughes in the early to mid-1940s, and the relationship lasted into the 1950s. Gardner stated in her autobiography, Ava: My Story, that she was never in love with Hughes, but he was in and out of her life for about 20 years. Hughes’ trust in Gardner was what kept their relationship alive. She described him as “painfully shy, completely enigmatic and more eccentric…than anyone [she] had ever met.”

After Gardner divorced Sinatra in 1957, she headed for Spain, where she began a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway (she had starred in an adaptation of his The Sun Also Rises that year, and five years earlier, Hemingway had successfully urged producer Darryl F. Zanuck to cast Gardner in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a film which adapted several of his short stories). While staying with Hemingway at his villa in San Francisco de Paula in Havana, Cuba, Gardner once swam alone without a swimsuit in his pool. After watching her, Hemingway ordered his staff: “The water is not to be emptied”. Her friendship with Hemingway led to her becoming a fan of bullfighting and bullfighters, such as Luis Miguel Dominguín, who became her lover. “It was a sort of madness, honey”, she later said of the time.

Gardner was also involved in a relationship with her live-in boyfriend and companion, American actor Benjamin Tatar, who worked in Spain as a foreign-language dubbing director. Tatar later wrote an autobiography in which he discussed his relationship with Gardner, though the book was never published.

Religion and political views

Although Gardner was exposed to Christianity throughout her early years, she identified herself as an atheist later in life. Religion never played a positive role in her life, according to biographers and Gardner herself, in her autobiography Ava: My Story. Her friend Zoe Sallis, who met her on the set of The Bible: In the Beginning…when Gardner was living with John Huston in Puerto Vallarta, said Gardner always seemed unconcerned about religion. When Sallis asked her about religion once, Gardner replied, “It doesn’t exist.” Another factor that attributed to this was the death of Gardner’s father in her younger days, stating, “Nobody wanted to know Daddy when he was dying. He was so alone. He was scared. I could see the fear in his eyes when he was smiling. I went to see the preacher, the guy who’d baptized me. I begged him to come and visit Daddy, just to talk to him, you know? Give him a blessing or something. But he never did. He never came. God, I hated him. Cold-ass bastards like that ought to … I don’t know … they should be in some other racket, I know that. I had no time for religion after that. I never prayed. I never said another prayer.” Concerning politics, Gardner was a lifelong Democrat.

Death

After a lifetime of smoking, Gardner suffered from emphysema, as well as an unidentified auto-immune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Although Gardner could afford her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her visit to a specialist in the United States, and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically staffed private plane. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words (to her housekeeper) were reportedly “I’m so tired”. She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home, 34 Ennismore Gardens, where she had lived since 1968.

Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her brothers and their parents, Jonas (1878–1938) and Molly Gardner (1883–1943). The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.

 

Don Rickles

Donald JayDonRickles (May 8, 1926 – April 6, 2017) was an American stand-up comedian, actor and author. Although he became well known as an insult comic, his pudgy, balding appearance and pugnacious style led to few leading roles in film or television, including his prominent film roles included Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). Beginning in 1976, he enjoyed a two-year run starring in the sitcom C.P.O. Sharkey.

He received widespread exposure as a popular guest on numerous talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman, and later voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films. He won a Primetime Emmy Award for the 2007 documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project.

 

Early life

Donald Jay Rickles was born to Jewish parents in Queens, New York, on May 8, 1926. His father, Max Rickles, emigrated in 1903 with his Lithuanian parents from Kaunas (then in the Russian Empire), and his mother, Etta (née Feldman), was born in New York City to Austrian immigrant parents. Rickles grew up in Jackson Heights, New York.

After graduating from Newtown High School, Rickles enlisted in the US Navy, and served during World War II on the motor torpedo boat tender USS Cyrene (AGP-13) as a seaman first class. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Two years later, intending to be a dramatic actor, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and then played bit parts on television. Frustrated by a lack of acting work, Rickles began performing comedy in clubs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. He became known as an insult comedian when he responded to his hecklers. The audience enjoyed these insults more than his prepared material, so he incorporated them into his act.

When he began his career in the early 1950s, he started calling ill-mannered members of the audience “hockey pucks.” His style was similar to that of an older insult comic, Jack E. Leonard, though Rickles denied Leonard influenced his style. During an interview on Larry King Live, Rickles credited Milton Berle‘s comedy style for inspiring him to enter show business.

 

Career

 1950s–1960s

While working in the “Murray Franklin’s” nightclub in Miami Beach, Florida, early in his career, Rickles spotted Frank Sinatra and remarked to him, “I just saw your movie The Pride and the Passion and I want to tell you, the cannon’s acting was great.” He added, “Make yourself at home, Frank. Hit somebody!” Sinatra, whose pet name for Rickles was “bullet-head,” enjoyed him so much that he encouraged other celebrities to see Rickles’ act and be insulted by him. Sinatra’s support helped Rickles become a popular headline performer in Las Vegas. During a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast special, Rickles was among those who took part in roasting Sinatra, although Rickles himself was also roasted during another show in the series.

Rickles earned the nicknames, “The Merchant of Venom” and “Mr. Warmth” for his poking fun at people of all ethnicities and walks of life. When he was introduced to an audience or on a television talk show, Spanish matador music, “La Virgen de la Macarena,” would usually be played, subtly foreshadowing someone was about to be metaphorically gored. Rickles said, “I always pictured myself facing the audience as the matador.”

In 1958, Rickles made his film debut in a serious part in Run Silent, Run Deep with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Throughout the 1960s, he often appeared on television in sitcoms and dramatic series. Rickles guest-starred in Get Smart as Sid, an old war buddy of Max who comes to stay with him. In an episode of the 1960s drama series Run for Your Life, Rickles played a distressed comedian whose act culminates when he strangles a patron while imploring the patron to “Laugh!” Rickles took a dramatic turn in the low-budget Roger Corman film X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes as a carnival barker out to exploit the title character (played by Ray Milland).

Rickles appeared in the popular Beach Party film series. He recalled in his 2007 memoir that at a White House dinner, Barbara Bush teased him about his decision to appear in those films. Rickles’ agent, Jack Gilardi, was married to Annette Funicello when Rickles was cast in the Beach Party films. He subsequently began appearing more frequently on television talk shows, first appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965.

He became a frequent guest and guest host, appearing more than 100 times on The Tonight Show during Carson’s era. An early Carson-Rickles Tonight highlight occurred in 1968 when, while two Japanese women treated Carson to a bath and foot massage, Rickles walked onto the set. Rickles also made frequent appearances on The Dean Martin Show and became a fixture on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials.

In 1968, Rickles released a live comedy album, Hello, Dummy!, which reached #54 on the Billboard 200 album chart. The same year he starred in his own variety show on ABC, The Don Rickles Show, with comedy writer Pat McCormick as his sidekick. The show lasted one season. During the 1960s, Rickles made guest appearances on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Mothers-in-Law, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show and I Dream of Jeannie.

1970s–1980s

In 1970, Rickles had a notable role as Crapgame in Kelly’s Heroes, sharing the marquee poster with co-stars Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and Carroll O’Connor. In 1972, he starred in The Don Rickles Show, which lasted for 13 episodes. He also starred in a series of television specials. In his memoir, Rickles acknowledged a scripted sitcom was not well-suited to his ad-lib style of performing.

Starting in 1973, Rickles became a popular comedian appearing on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast specials. In 1976–1978, he starred in C.P.O. Sharkey, which lasted two seasons. The series is primarily remembered for the cigarette box incident when Johnny Carson did an impromptu surprise visit during an episode’s taping because he was “incensed” Rickles broke his cigarette box while he chatted with Bob Newhart (who was sitting in for Carson as the guest host of The Tonight Show) on the previous night’s show. The incident was often replayed in Tonight Show retrospectives and was considered a highlight of the 1970s era of the series.

 

Rickles occasionally appeared as a panelist on Hollywood Squares, and was depicted in comic book form by Jack Kirby during his work on the Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen series.

 

1980s–1990s

 In the early 1980s, Rickles began performing with Steve Lawrence in concerts in Las Vegas. In 1983, the duo co-hosted Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders, an imitation of TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes. In 1985, when Frank Sinatra was asked to perform at Ronald Reagan‘s Second Inaugural Ball, he insisted that Rickles be allowed to perform, and do it unrehearsed. Rickles considered this performance the highlight of his career.

In 1990, he appeared in the second season of Tales from the Crypt in the episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” In 1992, he was cast in Innocent Blood, directed by John Landis. In his memoir, Rickles wrote that he recalled that Landis was a Production Assistant to Brian G. Hutton during the filming of Kelly’s Heroes. During the filming of Innocent Blood, Rickles would kid Landis by ordering him to get coffee or to run other errands befitting his one-time “gofer” status.

In 1993, Rickles starred in another short-lived sitcom, Daddy Dearest, with Richard Lewis. In 1995, he played Billy Sherbert in Casino, and voiced Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story (1995) and reprised his role in Toy Story 2 (1999). Rickles starred as George Wilson in 1998’s Dennis the Menace Strikes Again. In 1998, he portrayed a film theater manager in Dirty Workand voiced Cornwall, one of the heads of a two-headed dragon, in Quest for Camelot.

 

2000s–2010s

Rickles made a cameo appearance as himself in a recurring dream sequence in “Sub Conscious”, an episode of the CBS dramatic series, The Unit which aired in February 2007.

A memoir titled Rickles’ Book was released on May 8, 2007, by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, a documentary about Rickles directed by John Landis, made its debut on HBO on December 2, 2007. Rickles won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, besting a number of notable comics, including David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Rickles remarked, “Stephen Colbert’s a funny man, but he’s too young. He has got plenty of time to win awards, but this may be my last year and I think that I made it count. On second thought it was probably just a mercy award for an old man.” Rickles reprised his role of Mr. Potato Head for the Toy Story Midway Mania! attraction at Disney California Adventure Park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Toy Story 3.

Rickles appeared on Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List in 2009, and met Griffin’s mother, Maggie, to fulfill one item on Maggie’s “bucket list.” In 2010, he appeared in a commercial during Super Bowl XLIV as a talking rose, and appeared on the 37th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards on CBS TV on June 27, 2010. In 2011, Rickles reunited with his Casino co-star Joe Pesci in a Snickers advertisement highlighting the actors known for their “short fuses.” Rickles also played the late husband of Elka (Betty White) on the TV Land original comedy Hot in Cleveland— a “surprise” because his character was thought to be dead.

On May 28, 2014, Rickles was honored by Spike TV‘s “One Night Only: An All-Star Comedy Tribute to Don Rickles”. Recorded live at New York City’s Apollo Theater, Jerry Seinfeld was the master of ceremonies for the two-hour special, with live monologues by Johnny Depp, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams, Regis Philbin, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Recorded segments included bits from Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Kimmel and Eddie Murphy.

“The camaraderie and the comedy made the show a cross between a traditional roast and a dignified lifetime achievement award, spanning emotions ranging from admiration and gratitude to, well, degradation. And as the evening reached its climax, when Rickles got his say after all that had said about him and his nearly 60-year-long career, fittingly, he had the last laugh.”   — TV Week

Rickles was still a frequent guest on late night talk shows, including Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon during the later months of his life. On May 11, 2015, Rickles appeared as a guest on one of the final episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman. He also made a cameo in the show Grandfathered.

In a 2014 interview, Rickles dismissed thoughts of retiring, saying: “I’m in good health. I’m working better than I ever have. The audiences are great. Why should I retire? I’m like a fighter. The bell rings and you come out and fight. My energy comes alive. And I still enjoy it.”

Until his death in 2017, despite being impeded by multiple surgeries following a bout with necrotizing fasciitis in 2013, Rickles continued touring across the United States.

 

Personal life

On March 14, 1965, Rickles married Barbara Sklar of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He admitted having a very difficult time romantically in his 20s and 30s (he married at the age of 38), finally meeting Sklar through his agent and falling for her when she failed to get his sense of humor. They had two children, Mindy and Larry Rickles. According to Rickles’ memoir, his grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison Mann, are much more impressed by his role as Mr. Potato Head than by any of his other achievements.

Although a lifelong Democrat, Rickles performed at the inaugurations of Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush with his friend Frank Sinatra. He considered comedian Bob Newhart to be his best friend, and their wives were also close friends. Rickles and Newhart appeared together on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on January 24, 2005, the Monday following Johnny Carson’s death, reminiscing about their many guest appearances on Carson’s show. The two also appeared together on the television sitcom Newhart, and for previous episodes of The Tonight Show, where Newhart or Rickles were guest-hosts. They and their wives often vacationed together.

 

Death

Rickles died of kidney failure on April 6, 2017, at his home in Beverly Hills, California; he was 90 years old. He was interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery.

 

Tributes

Upon hearing of his death, a number of television hosts and other actors paid tribute to his comedy talents. Among them was a tribute by Jimmy Kimmel, who recalled Rickles as a “towering presence in Las Vegas,” where Kimmel grew up. Seth Meyers, said “there’s nothing better than getting burned by Don Rickles,” while David Letterman noted that Rickles “was always a highlight for me. Just endless mischief and nonsense, and a guy who would make the audience go completely crazy.”

Director Martin Scorsese, who directed him in Casino in 1995, stated:

Don Rickles was a giant, a legend … and I can hear his voice now, skewering me for being so lofty. I had the honor of working with him on my picture Casino. He was a professional. He kept me doubled over with laughter every day on the set — yet he was a complete pro.

For Rickles’ 88th birthday in 2014, a number of stars helped celebrate with a televised special, One Night Only: An All Star Tribute to Don Rickles. Among them was Jerry Seinfeld, who described Rickles as part of “the Mount Rushmore of stand-up comedy.”

 

 

 

 

The Manchurian Candidate

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The Manchurian Candidate (1959), by Richard Condon, is a political thriller about the son of a prominent U.S. political family who is brainwashed into being an unwitting assassin for a Communist conspiracy.

The novel has been adapted twice into a feature film by the same title, in 1962 and again in 2004.

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Plot summary

Major Bennett Marco, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, and the rest of their infantry platoon are kidnapped during the Korean War in 1952. They are taken to Manchuria, and are brainwashed to believe that Shaw saved their lives in combat – for which Congress awards him the Medal of Honor.

Years after the war, Marco, now back in the United States working as an intelligence officer, begins suffering the recurring nightmare of Shaw murdering two of his comrades, all while clinically observed by Chinese and Soviet intelligence officials. When Marco learns that another soldier from the platoon also has been suffering the same nightmare, he sets to uncovering the mystery and its meaning.

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It is revealed that the Communists have been using Shaw as a sleeper agent, a guiltless assassin subconsciously activated by seeing the “Queen of Diamonds” playing card while playing solitaire. Provoked by the appearance of the card, he obeys orders which he then forgets. Shaw’s KGB handler is his domineering mother, Eleanor, a ruthless power broker working with the Communists to execute a “palace coup d’état” to quietly overthrow the U.S. government, with her husband, McCarthy-esque Senator Johnny Iselin, as a puppet dictator.

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Marco discovers the trigger of the “Queen of Diamonds” and meets with Shaw at the Central Park Zoo shortly before Iselin’s party’s national convention. He uses the card to interrogate Shaw as to his final plan; Shaw is to shoot the presidential candidate during the convention in order to win overwhelming support for Senator Iselin, the vice-presidential candidate, and trigger the dictatorial powers he’ll request following the assassination. Marco reprograms Shaw, although the reader is unsure until the final pages if it worked. At the convention, Shaw instead shoots his mother and Senator Iselin. Marco is the first of the authorities to reach Shaw’s sniper’s nest just after Shaw kills himself.


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Plagiarism

In 1998, software developer C.J. Silverio noted that several long passages of the novel seemed to be adapted from Robert Graves‘ 1934 novel, I, Claudius. Forensic linguist John Olsson judged that, “There can be no disputing that Richard Condon plagiarized from Robert Graves.” Olsson went on to state that, “As plagiarists go, Condon is quite creative, he does not confine himself to one source and is prepared to throw other ingredients into the pot.” Jonathan Lethem, in his influential essay, The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism, has identified The Manchurian Candidate as one of a number of “cherished texts that become troubling to their admirers after the discovery of their ‘plagiarized’ elements,” which make it “apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.”

Film adaptations

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The Manchurian Candidate has been adapted twice into a feature film by the same title. The first film, released in 1962, is considered a classic of the political thriller genre. It was directed by John Frankenheimer and starred Laurence Harvey as Shaw, Frank Sinatra as Marco, and Angela Lansbury as Eleanor in an Academy Award-nominated performance.

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The second film, released in 2004, was directed by Jonathan Demme, and starred Liev Schreiber as Shaw, Denzel Washington as Marco, and Meryl Streep as Eleanor. It was generally well received by critics, and moderately successful at the box office. The film updated the conflict (and brainwashing) to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, emphasized the science fiction aspects of the story by setting the action in a dystopian near-future (implied to be 2008), had a U.S. corporation (called “Manchurian Global”) as the perpetrator of the brainwashing and conspiracy instead of foreign Communist groups, and dropped the Johnny Iselin character in favor of making both Shaw and his mother elected politicians. The movie adaptations also omit the novel’s portrayal of incest between Raymond and his mother, only hinting at it with a mouth-to-mouth kiss.

Both adaptations discard several elements of the book. The book spends more time describing the brain-washers and the facility in Manchuria where the Americans were held. The head of the project grants Raymond a “gift”; after his brainwashing, he becomes quite sexually active, in contrast to his reserved nature beforehand, where he hadn’t even kissed his love interest, Jocelyn Jordan.

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In the novel, Mrs. Iselin and her son travel abroad, where she uses him to kill various political figures and possibly Jocelyn Jordan’s first husband. Rosie, Marco’s love interest, is also the ex-fiance of one of his associates handling the Shaw case for Army Intelligence, making things between them tense.

As a child, Mrs. Iselin was sexually abused by her father but fell in love with him and idolized him after his early death. Toward the end of the book, as Raymond is hypnotized by the Queen of Diamonds, he reminds her of her father and she sleeps with him.

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The 1962 version does not state outright the political affiliation of Senators Iselin and Jordan, although in the 2004 film the equivalent characters are Democrats. According to David Willis McCullough, Senator Iselin is modelled on Republican senator Joseph McCarthy and, according to Condon, Shaw’s mother is based on McCarthy’s counsel, Roy Cohn.