Monday, April 25, 2005

Sir John Mills, Actor Who Played the Quintessential British Officer, Dies at 97


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Sir John Mills, the celebrated British actor who portrayed war heroes, Dickensian upstarts and an extraordinary pantheon of English characters in a film, stage and television career that spanned much of the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Denham, west of London. He was 97.

The cause of death was not announced, but The Associated Press quoted a trustee of Sir John's estate as saying he had been ill for about a month with a chest infection. He had been almost blind since 1992, when the retinas of his eyes failed, though he continued acting, appearing earlier this year as A Tramp in a short titled "Lights2."

In a career that spanned 70 years and included more than 100 films and scores of plays in London and New York, Sir John delivered touching, restrained performances that caught cherished notions of what it meant to be a Briton - self-effacing, decent, sentimental, even mawkish, but reliable, cool under fire, the ordinary seaman who pins down a German battleship, the schoolmaster-turned-R.A.F. pilot.

In films, he was the Cockney seaman in Noël Coward's classic "In Which We Serve" (1942), the sailor boy-next-door who goes to war in "This Happy Breed" (1944), the adult orphan Pip in David Lean's "Great Expectations" (1947), the compulsive disciplinarian commander of a Scottish regiment crushed by Alec Guinness's old-boy clique in "Tunes of Glory" (1960), and the Viceroy of India in "Gandhi" (1982).

On stage, Sir John, who began as a song-and-dance man in the 1920's, captivated London audiences with his first major hit as the American, George, in the 1939 production "Of Mice and Men." But he also performed Shakespeare and appeared in many West End plays, including three written by his wife, Mary Hayley Bell - "Men in Shadow" (1942), "Duet for Two Hands" (1945) and "The Uninvited Guest" (1953). He made his Broadway debut in 1961 as Lawrence of Arabia in Terence Rattigan's "Ross."

A small, wiry athletic man with intense gray eyes, wavy brown hair, a high forehead, an angular face and a resonant baritone voice, Sir John became one of Britain's most versatile, beloved and busy actors - and found time for tennis, skiing, swimming, polo and fast cars, which he called his lone vice.

He made forays to America for stage and television work, but resisted the lure of Hollywood, making his base and most of his films in England. "I love it here, and my wife and I wouldn't be happy anywhere else," he once explained. "So if I lived in Hollywood, I would simply be rich and unhappy. What's the point in that?"

He extolled honesty as a key to his craft, advising young actors to imagine the ways in which a character speaks and thinks, and then to act in accordance with those images. "He will be telling the truth and never overact or underact," Sir John said.

The recipient of many awards, including a prize at the 1960 International Film Festival in Venice, he won an Oscar as best supporting actor in 1971 for his portrayal of a village idiot in "Ryan's Daughter," for which he studied the behavior of brain-damaged patients for months. Queen Elizabeth II named him a Commander of the British Empire in 1960 and knighted him in 1976.

Sir John was the father of one of England's leading theatrical families, and appeared with both his daughters in films. He found several roles for Juliet Mills, the first when she was just a few weeks old, in "In Which We Serve," and he introduced Hayley Mills as the defiant girl in "Tiger Bay," taking the role of the police superintendent himself. A son, Jonathan, is a film scriptwriter.

Sir John was born Lewis Ernest Watts Mills on Feb. 22, 1908. His birthplace has been reported as Felixstowe, Suffolk, and as North Elmham, Norfolk. His father was a mathematics teacher and his grandfather a member of the London Corn Exchange, and while he was stagestruck he seemed destined for a career in business until he was 19, when he fled to the West End, determined to try his luck with a new first name, John.

He sold disinfectants and toilet paper to pay the rent, studied tap dancing and, in 1929, was cast in the chorus of a musical at the Hippodrome. A break soon developed. He joined a repertory company called The Quaints, and went on a yearlong tour in Asia, playing roles in dramas, comedies and musicals.

On tour, he met three people who were to be important to him - Aileen Raymond, a member of the troupe, whom he married in 1932 (they were divorced eight years later), Mary Hayley Bell, a 16-year-old girl in the audience in Tientsin who would become his second wife in 1941, and Noël Coward, who was impressed by his acting and became a lifelong friend.

Back in London, the young actor soon found parts in Coward's reviews and plays, including "Cavalcade" (1931), and in other productions. In 1938, he was invited to join the Old Vic Company and played Marlow in "She Stoops to Conquer," and Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." After his 1939 West End success in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," he was offered the lead in Maxwell Anderson's "Key Largo" on Broadway. But World War II intervened.

He joined the Royal Engineers and later won a commission in the Royal Monmouthshire Rifles, but an ulcer ended his military career in 1942, and he returned to the London theater. As his stage career progressed, he turned increasingly to films, acting in four or five a year, so many that he sometimes lost count. His role in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," brought him international stardom in 1939.

Many of his World War II movies were hailed by critics as gems of the genre, a mix of fine acting and patriotic themes. His heroes were not extraordinary men - citizen soldiers, seamen and airmen with boyish faces, the son or brother or boy next door who goes to war, is steady under fire and sometimes does not come home.

In Anthony Asquith's "Way to the Stars" (1945) he was a civilian schoolmaster who joins the R.A.F. In "Forever England" (1935) he was the able-bodied seaman confronting an enemy battleship, and in "Waterloo Road" (1945) he was a tormented soldier absent without leave. Sir John produced some films, including two comedies - "The Rocking Horse Winner" (1950), and "The History of Mr. Polly" (1949).

His later roles included the explorer Robert Falcon Scott in "Scott of the Antarctic" (1948), an inept sailor in "The Baby and the Battleship" (1956), Willie Mossop, a bootmaker clashing with his daughter, in "Hobson's Choice" (1954), Masterman Finsbury in "The Wrong Box" (1966), a submarine commander in "Above Us the Waves" (1955), Cpl. Tubby Bins in "Dunkirk" (1958) and General Kitchener in "Young Winston" (1972).

Sir John made his American television debut in 1956 in a production of Somerset Maugham's play "The Letter," and played a British officer in "The Interrogator," on NBC in 1962. His television work included a western series, "Dundee and the Culhane," in 1967, movie roles, many guest and comedic appearances and roles in "Tales of the Unexpected," in 1980.

In later years, there were other films and appearances, despite his failing eyesight. One of his last roles was a cameo - a man taking cocaine at a party in Stephen Fry's "Bright Young Things," in 2003.

Sir John, who is survived by Mary Hayley Bell and their three children, told David Frost in a 2002 interview that he would never retire. "It's something that I can hardly explain," he said. "It's such warmth that greets me, and I can even say the word love and I feel terrific. It's just wonderful."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company |

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Obituary: Saul Bellow, 89, master of American novel

By Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath The New York Times

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Saul Bellow, 89, the Nobel laureate and self-proclaimed historian of society whose fictional heroes - and whose scathing, unrelenting and darkly comic examination of their struggle for meaning - gave new immediacy to the American novel in the second half of the 20th century, died Tuesday at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"I cannot exceed what I see," he once said. "I am bound, in other words, as the historian is bound by the period he writes about, by the situation I live in."

But his was a history of a particular and idiosyncratic sort. The center of his fictional universe was Chicago, where he grew up and spent most of his life, and which he made into the first city of American letters. Many of his works are set there, and almost all of them have a Midwestern earthiness and brashness. Like their creator, Bellow's heroes were all head and all body. They tended to be dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and wheeler-dealers.

In novels like "The Adventures of Augie March," his breakthrough novel in 1953, "Henderson the Rain King" and "Herzog," Bellow laid a path for old-fashioned, supersized characters and equally big themes and ideas. All his work, long and short, was written in a distinctive, immediately recognizable style that blended high and low, colloquial and mandarin, wisecrack and aphorism, as in the introduction of the poet Humboldt at the beginning of "Humboldt's Gift":

"He was a wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine."

Bellow stuck to an individualistic path, steering clear of cliques, fads and schools of writing. He was frequently lumped together with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud as a Jewish-American writer, but he rejected the label.

Bellow grew up reading the Old Testament, Shakespeare and the great 19th-century Russian novelists, and always looked with respect to the masters, even as he tried to recast himself in the American idiom. A scholar as well as teacher, he read deeply and quoted widely, often referring to Henry James, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. While others were ready to proclaim the death of the novel, he continued to think of it as a vital form. "I never tire of reading the master novelists," he said. "Can anything as vivid as the characters in their books be dead?"

In a long and unusually productive career, Bellow dodged many of the snares that typically entangle American writers. He didn't drink much, and though he was analyzed four times, his mental health was as robust as his physical health. His success came neither too early nor too late, and he took it more or less in stride. He never ran out of ideas and he never stopped writing.

The Nobel Prize, which he won in 1976, was the cornerstone of a career that also included a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, a Presidential Medal and more honors than any other American writer. In contrast with some other winners, who were wary of the albatross of the Nobel, Bellow accepted it matter-of-factly. "The child in me is delighted," he said. "The adult in me is skeptical." He took the award, he said, "on an even keel," aware of "the secret humiliation" that "some of the very great writers of the century didn't get it."

This most American of writers was born in Lachine, Quebec, a poor immigrant suburb of Montreal. He was the last of four children of Abram and Liza Bellow, but as he was always quick to point out, the first to be born in the New World. His parents had emigrated from Russia two years before.

In 1924, when their son was 9, the Bellows moved to Chicago, where the family began to prosper a little as Abram picked up work. The family continued its old ways in the United States, and during his childhood, Saul was steeped in Jewish tradition, learning Hebrew and Yiddish.

But eventually he rebelled against what he considered to be a "suffocating orthodoxy," and he found in Chicago not just a physical home but a spiritual one. Eventually the city became for him what London was for Dickens and Dublin was for Joyce - the center of both his life and his work, and not just a place or a background but almost a character in its own right.

In 1933 he enrolled at the University of Chicago, but two years later transferred to Northwestern. He had hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to infuse his novels. But he was still obsessed by fiction. While doing graduate work in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, he found that "every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story." He added, "I sometimes think the Depression was a great help. It was no use studying for any other profession."

Quitting his graduate studies at Wisconsin after several months, he participated in the WPA Writers' Project in Chicago, preparing biographies of Midwestern novelists, and later joined the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He came to New York "toward the end of the '30s, muddled in the head but keen to educate myself." He later joined the merchant marine and, during his service, he completed "Dangling Man," about the alienation of a young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted. It was published in 1944, before the author was 30, and was followed by "The Victim," a novel about anti-Semitism that he said, was influenced by Dostoyevsky. In 1948, financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, Bellow went to Paris.

His first major novel, "The Adventures of Augie March," was published in 1953, and it became Bellow's breakthrough, his first best seller and the book that established him as a writer of consequence. The beginning of the novel was as striking and as unforgettable as the beginning of "Huckleberry Finn," and it announced a brand-new voice in American fiction, jazzy, brash, exuberant.

With "Henderson the Rain King" in 1959, Bellow envisioned an even more ambitious canvas than that of "Augie March," with the story of an American millionaire who travels in Africa in search of regeneration. "Herzog," in 1964, featured as its title character a Jewish Everyman who is cuckolded by his wife and his best friend. The novel won a National Book Award.

With "Mr. Sammler's Planet" in 1969, a novel about a survivor of the Holocaust living and ruminating in New York, Bellow won his third National Book Award.

"Humboldt's Gift," in 1975, was one of his greatest successes. In it, Charlie Citrine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, must come to terms with the death of his mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Nobel Prize for literature soon followed, with the Royal Swedish Academy citing his "exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion," and Bellow was now placed in a class with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

In "Humboldt's Gift," the protagonist, Charlie Citrine, says, "What a woman-filled life I always led." Those are words that could have been echoed by the author, who was married five times. His wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. All of Bellow's marriages but his last ended in divorce.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Monaco's Prince Rainier dies

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MONACO (CNN) -- World leaders have been mourning the death of Prince Rainier III of Monaco, crediting him with creating wealth and prestige for his tiny nation.

Rainier's marriage to American film star Grace Kelly also brought elegance and glamor to one of Europe's oldest dynasties. Rainier was 81.

He died of heart, lung and kidney failure at 6.35 a.m. local time (0435 GMT) Wednesday, at the hospital where he has been treated for several weeks, a palace official said.

"This is a time for grief, and all of us here feel orphans as he has molded the principality of Monaco with his outstanding personality during this 56 years of his reign," the spokesman said in a recorded statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Rainier's heir, Prince Albert II, that his father "will remain in our memory as a gallant warrior who fought for the liberation of Europe during World War II." (More reaction)

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who succeeds Rainier as Europe's longest-serving monarch, also sent his family a message of condolence and said she was "saddened" to hear of his death, her palace said in a statement.

He is expected to be buried beside his wife close to the palace after at least a week's mourning.

The funeral for Prince Rainier III of Monaco was expected to be held midday April 15, a palace official told The Associated Press Wednesday.

A Mass for the royal family was being held in the palace's Palatine Chapel on Wednesday evening.
Whirlwind courtship

Rainier is given most of the credit for putting and keeping his tiny principality on the map.

Monaco, less than a square mile in area, has been in Grimaldi family hands for more than seven centuries, but it was only when Rainier took the throne in 1949 that the real myth and money making began.

At first the dashing young prince used the reflected glamor of the French Riviera to attract growing numbers of tourists to his casino and hotels.

But it was his whirlwind courtship and eventual marriage to American movie actress Grace Kelly that gave Monaco the glittering image that continues to draw in cruise liners full of visitors.

Her Hollywood connections made Monaco a mandatory stop for the movie crowd, especially in spring when heading for the nearby film festival at Cannes.

Rainier, not always comfortable in public,%2

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Father Guido Sarducci Remembers the Pope

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Hey, I missa the Pope-ah already! He was a so nice and a so smart and stuff. Lemme tell you something the Pope'ah once-ah tolda me-ah in confidence:
Life is a job. You get $14.50 a day, but after you die, you have to pay for your sins. Stealing a hub cap is around $100. Masturbation is 35 cents (it doesn't seem like much, but it adds up). If there's money left when you subtract what you owe from what you've earned, you can go to heaven. If not, you have to go back to work. (Sort of like reincarnation -- many nuns are Mafia guys working it off.)

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Obituary: Pope John Paul II

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Karol Wojtyla's election as Pope in 1978 stunned the Catholic world. Not one expert had tipped the 58-year-old bishop of Krakow for the top job.

His stand against Poland's Communist regime had brought him respect. But he was not part of the Vatican "in-crowd" and, above all, he was the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.

He went on to become one of the most familiar faces in the world. His papal odyssey covered more than 120 countries and he earned himself the reputation of an international fighter for freedom.

But, to his critics, John Paul II was the arch-conservative - an autocrat whose pronouncements on abortion, contraception and women's rights have had an effect on millions of lives.

Theologian in hiding

The youngest pope of the 20th Century was born near Krakow, Poland, in 1920. As a young man he excelled at sports, including soccer and skiing. He also had a great love for the theatre and, at one time, seriously considered becoming an actor.

World War II and the Nazi occupation saw Karol Wojtyla working as a labourer. He studied theology from 1942 and was forced into hiding in 1944 following a crackdown on religious teaching.

Continuing his studies after the war, he was ordained a priest in 1946. Rapid promotion followed and by 1964 he was archbishop of the city. Three years later he was a cardinal.

Throughout, he had continued his theological studies and was often seen in Rome, but no more than dozens of other cardinals from distant and obscure dioceses.


"The Year of the Three Popes" came in 1978. Pope Paul VI died at the age of 80. His successor, elected in a single day, took the name John Paul in memory of his two predecessors. Thirty-three days later he, too, was dead.

Once again the College of Cardinals conducted the centuries-old ritual of a papal election in the Sistine Chapel. After two days of deliberation, Karol Wojtyla became the next successor to St Peter.

Taking the name John Paul II, the new pontiff signalled a new era in Catholic affairs. He was dynamic and approachable, an instantly recognisable leader for the world's largest Christian community.

Above all, he travelled. On an early trip to Ireland, he appealed to the men of violence to return to the ways of peace. American Catholics saw him reject all calls for a change in moral teaching.

Ecumenical services

But his insistence on getting close to crowds almost led to his death in May 1981. Leaning out of his vehicle in St Peter's Square, he was shot and seriously wounded by a Turkish fanatic. After a long recovery, he visited and forgave his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca.

In 1982 he visited Britain. This was a historically charged trip made all the more important as it occurred during the Falklands crisis.

The Pope appealed for a peaceful end to the Falklands issue, a plea which was mirrored in a visit to Argentina days later. He participated in a number of ecumenical services with the Church of England, something unthinkable in previous eras.

Huge crowds, Catholic and Protestant, attended his every move and the talk was of union between Rome and Canterbury - a union which today seems as far away as ever, because of the issue of women priests.

Influential in eastern bloc

With the break-up of the Soviet bloc, relations between the Kremlin and the Vatican gained a new significance. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev visited Rome, the first time a Soviet leader had crossed the threshold of St Peter's.

"The Pope," he told his wife Raisa at the time, "is the pre-eminent moral authority in the world. But he's still a Slav." The understanding between the two men undoubtedly eased the way to democracy in the eastern bloc.

The collapse of Communism coincided with increasing demands in the West for a compromise on religious teaching. By consistently rejecting these calls, John Paul effectively closed the debate before it had started.

He was a complex man. While calling for action to combat world poverty, he insisted that contraception was morally unacceptable. He said that he wanted to improve the status of women while writing that motherhood should be a woman's natural aspiration.

Reign saw great change

He frequently criticised the liberalism which he saw all around him. Homosexuals incurred both his wrath and his pity, to the dismay of campaigners for gay rights.

Although dogged by ill-health in later years, the journeys continued - to Cuba, Nigeria, former Yugoslav republics and the Holy Land, each with its own particular set of pastoral and political problems.

In 2002, the Pope made an emotional and nostalgic final visit to his homeland, flying over his birthplace in Wadowice and visiting the graves of his parents and brother in Krakow.

Once again, vast crowds turned out to see the man many Poles regarded as a living saint and who had, they believed, played a key role in liberating them from Communism.

John Paul's reign also saw other radical changes throughout the world - including the emergence of Aids.

And he had to deal with an increasing number of sex abuse scandals which have recently beset the Catholic Church.

Throughout his reign, his work to maintain the dignity of mankind against what he saw as the dangers of modern life, together with his personal magnetism, made Pope John Paul II one of the most remarkable men of his times.

Story from BBC NEWS: