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Hollywood friends passed away in 2015

by Jim Longworth

Photo Courtesy of Pam Cook Communications

Jim Longworth and actor James Best (Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard). Best’s wife Dorothy in the center.

Over the past forty years I’ve been fortunate to interview a number of Hollywood icons, 99% of who were gracious, down to earth folks (I won’t name the other 1%). This past year, six of those wonderful performers passed away, so I wanted to recognize and celebrate them as we say goodbye to 2015.

DONNA DOUGLAS who played Elly May Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies”, passed away on New Year’s Day at her home in Louisiana. She was 82 years young. I interviewed Donna at the 2010 Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem, just days after the BP Deep Water Horizon spill had finally been capped, but not before discharging nearly 5 million barrels of oil into Donna’s beloved gulf coast. I asked her what she thought of the government’s proposed moratorium on drilling, and Donna said that would be bad because people in her area need those jobs. And in typical Ellie May fashion, Donna also worried about the “critters” who had been affected by the spill. Naturally we spoke of her time on the “Hillbillies”, and she recalled how wonderful it was to work with Buddy Ebsen. Then she ended our interview with a famous line from the show, saying “Ya’ll come back now. You hear?” That was followed by Donna letting out one of her famous whistles, which I had always assumed had been dubbed for her all those years. It wasn’t. Her whistle was authentic and deafening. My ears are still ringing. In her Hollywood years I was smitten by Donna’s outward beauty, and in her retirement years I was smitten by her inner beauty. Donna Douglas was simply a beautiful person.

JAMES BEST was an accomplished dramatic actor who appeared in over 80 films and 600 TV shows. He was also an acting coach, a director, a producer, and a painter. But he was best known as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on “The Dukes of Hazzard”. Jim passed away on April 6 at the age of 88. Over the past few years Best and his wife Dorothy lived just up the road in Hickory, North Carolina. They stopped by the Triad Today studio in 2012 to tape a couple of segments about Jim’s multifaceted career, and to promote his artwork and his autobiography, Best in Hollywood. My friend Norman Lloyd, who produced the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including a spooky segment in which Best appeared, referred to Jim as “a scoundrel.” The title was fitting. I asked the scoundrel to talk about the incident that occurred when he was a young contract player at Universal, and was warned not to date any of the studio starlets. Best failed to heed that warning and got involved with one of the actresses. “I made a mistake, but she was so beautiful, I mean, she had been on the cover of Look magazine. But she was a blabber mouth, and she came back to the studio and told everyone that she had been out with me. All of a sudden the studio bosses called me in to their office. (Needless to say) they didn’t give me a raise (laughs).”

I also asked Jim to tell me about his not so authentic guitar playing on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. “I’m not in the habit of lying unless it’s really important (laughs), but when the producer asked if I played the guitar, I said, ‘Are you kidding? I have two guitars!” Well I got on set and we started to film, and the Director told me to play a piece of music and I told him I couldn’t play it. “You lied. You said you could play the guitar,” he shouted. “No, I said I HAD two guitars” (laughs).

James Best was a relevant part of our pop culture for seven decades, and a scoundrel to the end. He will be missed.

JAYNE MEADOWS was often confused with her younger sister Audrey who played Alice in The Honeymooners. But Jayne was an accomplished actress in her own right, and one of TV’s best game show panelists. She was also married to my hero/mentor, the great Steve Allen who invented the late night talk show. The couple teamed up often, appearing in such shows as Diagnosis Murder and St. Elsewhere. Jayne died on April 26 at the age of 95.

I first met Jayne and Steve in the late 1990’s when it fell upon me to arrange for the couple to attend a party for retiring CBS studio boss Bernie Oseransky. Jayne was always dressed to the nines and gave off an aristocratic air, but inside she was a very warm person who could do subtle comedy better than just about anyone. She not only loved Steve, but she understood his legacy. I once confessed to her that I was nervous the first time I met her husband. “Jayne I’ve interviewed hundreds of celebrities, but -“ She interrupted me and said, “I know. He’s Steve Allen.”

Jayne Meadows was a consummate professional and an underrated actress. It was an honor to know her.

DICK VAN PATTEN was one of the last Hollywood stars who excelled in every facet of show business, from radio and theatre, to film and television. He was also an author and an entrepreneur. But Dick was perhaps most famous for his role as the patriarch in “Eight is Enough”. Dick passed away on June 23. He was 86 years old.

I first got to know Dick when he appeared at a “TV Dads” event which I moderated for the Television Academy back in 2009. Because he was soft spoken, most people assumed that Dick was an introverted man. But don’t tell that to anyone who ever competed against him in a game of tennis or poker. He also had a great sense of humor, and was a master storyteller. I laughed as he told about the baby alligator he kept in his tub when he was a little boy, and he cracked up our audience when recalling his reaction to his Father telling him the “facts of life”. Said Dick, “I thought to myself, boy I hope he’s right (laughs).”

But nothing will ever top the time I asked Dick if it was true that at age 16 he dated a stripper who made him get a tattoo. “Yeah that’s true. It was on my arm, it was a horseshoe. She made me get it. It was stupid (laughs). She said, I bet you’re not brave enough to get a tattoo.’ And I said, ‘No I’m brave enough.’ I was trying to impress her, and in those days they didn’t have electric needles, they used a real needle, and I can’t stand blood. And the blood is streaming down my arm, and she says, Does it hurt you?’ , and I said No, no.” What a dopey thing to do. And then I thought after all that, I’d get to make out with her or something.

NOTHING ! Dick’s little co-star Adam Rich once told me, “Dick is one of the nicest people you’d ever wish to meet.” He’s right.

MARTY INGELS was a comedy genius who regrettably only starred in one sitcom, “I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster”. The show about two handymen only had a short run in the early 1960’s, after which Marty was in demand as a guest star in shows like The Addams Family, all the way up to “CSI”, covering a period of six decades. Along the way he also became a Hollywood agent, and later, had steady work as a voice over talent. He died on October 21 at the age of 79.

I first met Marty through his Oscar winning wife Shirley Jones, who is best known to younger audiences as the singing Mom in “The Partridge Family.” Over the years, Pam and I kept in touch regularly with Marty and Shirley, including a visit to their home in Encino. Marty and I became frequent email pals in which I would write something funny, then he would respond with an even funnier quip. I will also miss the annual holiday cards which featured Shirley and Marty in hilarious poses. The last one pictured Marty with tape over his mouth and Shirley saying, “It was a quiet Christmas.” Rest in peace, Pal.

MARJORIE LORD was one of the most naturally beautiful actresses in the history of Hollywood, first appearing in B Westerns and mysteries, and later achieving stardom as the wife of Danny Thomas on the hit TV series “Make Room for Daddy.” As a young boy I had a major crush on Marjorie, but I didn’t realize that a nine year old boy was not allowed to marry a woman 35 years his senior. Bummer. I eventually got to meet my “crush” in 2008 when Maggie participated in my “TV Moms” event for the Television Academy. She was 90 at the time and still beautiful. Marjorie Lord passed away on November 28. She was 97.

During the “TV Moms” event I asked Marjorie to comment on the age-old double standard of aging that plagues actresses. “When I was in my ’40’s, I was playing 27 year old people on stage, but if they printed in the paper that I was in my ’40’s, it would be harder for the audience to buy me as a young woman. And you would never tell a producer your real age, because he gets that age fixed in his mind. So we were very quiet about our age back then.”

Maggie’s daughter, actress Anne Archer told me that her mother had “an inner beauty that radiated in everything she did.” Angela Cartwright, who played Lord’s daughter in “Daddy”, and appeared in “The Sound of Music” and “Lost in Space”, said of her co-star, “Marjorie always made me feel so loved and comfortable…I thought she was a princess.” I couldn’t agree more.

(Books by Marjorie, Dick, Marty, and James are available on Amazon.com., while interviews with Donna, Dick, and James can be viewed on www.jimlongworth.com) !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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