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Memoriam

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The House that Egon Built.

“‘He’s the least changed by success of anyone I know in terms of sense of humor, of humility, sense of self,'[said] the late Second City founder Bernie Sahlins…’He’s the same Harold he was 30 years ago. He’s had enormous success relatively, but none of it has gone to his head in any way.'”

Actor, writer, and director Harold Ramis, 19442014. Whether it’s Groundhog Day Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House, Caddyshack or some other film in his roster, at some point he probably made you laugh.

“These comedies have several things in common. They attack the smugness of institutional life, trashing the fraternity system, country clubs, the Army — even local weathermen — with an impish good will that is unmistakably American. Will Rogers would have made films like these, if Will Rogers had lived through Vietnam and Watergate and decided that the only logical course of action was getting wasted or getting laid or — better — both.”

Related from The New Yorker, 2004: Why Ramis’s comedies are still funny today. “The voice that Ramis originated — a defanged sixties rebelliousness that doesn’t so much seek to oust the powerful as to embolden the powerless — remains the dominant mode in comedy today.”

Update: “The ones who cultivate an inner calm while others are dropping around them might well have the tougher job. He was a straight man on and off the screen. But oh, what timing.” David Edelstein on Ramis.

The King of Comedy.

“‘If you want to find the ur-texts of “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” of “Sleeper” and “Annie Hall,” of “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” and “Saturday Night Live,”‘ Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, ‘check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.'”

Television pioneer Sid Caesar, 19222014. “Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Mr. Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.”

R.I.P. Berkeley 2000-2014.

Yesterday morning, two weeks before his 14th birthday, Berkeley and I went to the vet. This was just for a check-up and a bordetella vaccine, and Berk seemed chipper as always — He was always especially happy and excited when we broke our morning routine to venture somewhere else. I told the vet that I was actually surprised by the good health he’d been in. Since the bad bite and lost toe in 2012, Berk had been the picture of vitality — Just the night before, we’d played a solid half-hour of “apartment Frisbee.” From what they could tell, the vet agreed — they said his heart seemed normal, his movement lively, his disposition upbeat, his joie de vivre intact. He did have an ear infection in one ear, so they gave me some topical meds for that. I took him home, applied them, scratched him behind his ear, and went to work.

Yesterday evening, I came home from work to find Berk splayed out on the floor, dead for many hours. (His body seemed like it was in a violent position – legs up, head half under the couch. But now that I think about it, what probably happened is he died on the couch, hopefully sleeping, and his body fell off sometime later — hence the contortion when the rictus sent in.) My friend Arjun and I carried his corpse downstairs and drove it to the vet for cremation. In the space of ten hours, he’s gone from being happy to just being gone. Looking out at the snow everywhere this morning, I can’t help but think that this is the type of day he would have loved.

The shock of it all notwithstanding, I know that this a pretty fortunate way for the old man to go. He was happy and in good health — still able to jump to his perch on the table whenever he wanted, still interested in smelling things and exploring the world, still eager for a bite or three of whatever I was having for dinner — on the day he died. Neither of us had to go through the long fade, as it were. And, y’know, he would have been fourteen in two weeks: We had an amazing run together. I knew this day was coming sometime in the relatively near future. I just thought — and hoped — it wouldn’t be today. What do we say to the God of Death? Not today. But today — or yesterday — it was. And now his watch is ended, his perch is empty.

Berkeley was born on February 25th, 2000. My ex-wife and I got him on May 15 of that year. We knew we wanted a sheltie, and I had seen a Mother’s Day sale for them out near Harper’s Ferry. We ended up seeing three or four pups in a barn — three brown-eyed shelties barking and licking our hand, and one blue-eyed one, watching us silently from afar. I knew right away I wanted the introvert.

My ex-wife and I divorced the following year, in 2001. I knew I wanted Berk and gave up all our other (very few) common possessions — Berk coming with me was never really in doubt. And for the next twelve+ years, he was my constant companion and power animal. We’d walk the streets of New York and DC together, spend the weekends in Riverside and Central Park, Dupont Circle and the Mall, and days and nights just hanging around the pad — him circling or on watch.

There was a year or two of grad school there where Berk was the only living entity I had consistent contact with. I remember at least twice in our time together, when I was devastated after a scorched-earth break-up and the general despair of the long-term PhD process, where the only thing I could do for days was stagger around my apartment sobbing, clutching a half-gallon of water so I didn’t completely dry out. Berk would dutifully follow me around, tail wagging, and lick my face dry when I got in a place where he could reach me. Despair or no, there was salt to be had here.

He was a great dog. Lived happy until the day he died.

And he was my best friend. I can think of a lot of times when he felt like my only friend.

RIP, little buddy. I’ll miss you.

[0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.5, 13, 13.5, 13.9, Archives]

The Lollipop Sails.

“‘People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,’ Mrs. Black often said in appraising her success.” Child star, Depression icon, Republican diplomat, and cancer survivor Shirley Temple Black, 19282014.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014.

“‘For me, acting is torturous,’ Hoffman told the New York Times in 2008, ‘and it’s torturous because you know it’s a beautiful thing. I was young once, and I said, That’s beautiful and I want that. Wanting it is easy, but trying to be great—well, that’s absolutely torturous.’ Philip Seymour Hoffman, 19672014.

A.O. Scott: “We did not lose just a very good actor. We may have lost the best one we had. He was only 46, and his death, apparently from a drug overdose, foreshortened a career that was already monumental…He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”

Derek Thompson: “He could puff himself up and play larger than life, but his specialty was to find the quiet dignity in life-sized characters—losers, outcasts, and human marginalia. It’s not clear that there were roles Philip Seymour Hoffman could not do. He had so many lives within him — and more, undiscovered and unseen. Those are the lives, aside from his own, we’ve now lost.”

Ugh. Easily the most depressing early celebrity death since Heath Ledger, all the more because of the circumstances involved. Note this must-read piece: “There is a particularly chilling aspect to Hoffman’s death that only another recovering addict can feel. He had 23 years clean, and then went back out.”

And, as the testimonials above indicate, Hoffman was arguably the best character actor working today. (His only peers I can think of offhand: Paul Giamatti, Sam Rockwell, and Jeffrey Wright.) He will be missed. As one inspired commenter put it at AICN, “Strong men also cry…strong men also cry.”

Must-See Hoffman: The 25th Hour, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Big Lebowski, Capote, Charlie Wilson’s War, Happiness, MI:3, The Savages, Synechdoche, New York, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Dr. Reinhardt Rests.

“‘The world doesn’t change. The balance of evil will always be the same,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2001…’I think all the poets and artists have always written for peace and love, and it hasn’t changed much in the last two or three thousand years. But we hope.'” Maximillian Schell, 1930-2014.

His many Nazi turns aside, Schell will always be a part of my mental landscape because of his Dr. Reinhardt in The Black Hole, which is one trippy little number to lay on a five-year-old kid. A Disney movie — clearly geared for the Star Wars set — where the bad guy ends up perched on the cliffs of Hell, trapped for eternity inside his killer robot? They don’t make them like they used to.

This Man was Made For You and Me.

“‘My job,’ he said in 2009, ‘is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.'” Pete Seeger, songwriter, archivist, activist, and godfather of the folk revival, 19192014. “‘The key to the future of the world,’ he said in 1994, ‘is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.'”

Rebecca and Lawrence.

“‘You see, in our family Olivia was always the breadwinner, and I the no-talent, no-future little sister not good for much more than paying her share of the rent’ Fontaine told columnist Hedda Hopper in 1949…’My sister was born a lion, and I a tiger, and in the laws of the jungle, they were never friends.'” Joan Fontaine, 1917-2013.

“Burton called him ‘the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war,’ with ‘something odd, mystical and deeply disturbing’ in his work.'” Peter O’Toole, 1932-2013. “‘I’m a professional,’ he said in one interview, ‘and I’ll do anything — a poetry reading, television, cinema, anything that allows me to act.'”

An Unconquerable Soul.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela, the liberator of South Africa, 1918-2013.

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