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Category: Ten years ago

Ten years ago: Roebuck 'Pops' Staples

PopsAlt Roebuck "Pops" Staples led his children in the Staple Singers, a group that started performing gospel music in Chicago churches in the 1940s. They were moved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s preaching in the '60s to advance a secular social message, and their uplifting R&B hits eventually topped the pop music charts. Staples was 84 when he died in Chicago 10 years ago.

"We just kept on singing and praying, and we let our music carry the message," Staples said later of the ensemble's moving beyond gospel music. "When people realized that our music still had the message of love, our audience grew -- old people came back, and new people kept coming."

The group was most successful in the 1970s, recording "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There" and "If You're Ready [Come Go With Me]." Their last chart hit was the title song from the soundtrack of "Let's Do It Again," the Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby comedy. Collaboration with Talking Heads -- and, for "Pops" Staples, some film appearances and a Grammy Award win in 1994 -- followed.


'Pops' Staples dies at 84 (Dec. 20, 2000)

-- Michael Owen

Photo: Roebuck "Pops" Staples is flanked by his daughters, Cleotha, left, and Mavis, at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

Credit: Associated Press

Ten years ago: Emil Zatopek

Zta Emil Zatopek, a Czech distance runner who won gold medals in three events at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, died 10 years ago. He was 78. (Early reports from Prague said he died Nov. 21, but most subsequent accounts give Nov. 22 as his date of death.)

After winning the 10,000 meters in Helsinki, Zatopek was asked why he wanted to run the 5,000 just four days later. "The marathon contest won't be for a long time yet," he said, "so I simply must do something until then."

Zatopek was a dramatic figure on the track, according to the Times obituarywritten by the late Earl Gustkey:

"He ran with the facial expressions of a man undergoing torture. His head lolled about, from side to side and back to front, his face contorted in a series of pained, eyes-shut expressions."

Traveling one of the bleaker paths of Soviet heroism, Zatopek returned home to promotions in the Czech army and in the Communist Party. But his tepid commitment to the party got him sent to labor in a uranium mine, then to drive a sprinkler truck for the Prague sanitation department. Eventually he got a reprieve, working as a "sports spy" until he retired. After the Velvet Revolution, he was celebrated nationally again in what became the Czech Republic.

In addition to the obit, The Times ran coverage of Zatopek's funeral at the ornate National Theater in Prague.

-- Michael Owen

Photo: Emil Zatopek, shown winning the Olympic 10,000 meters in London in 1948, set 18 world records. Credit: Associated Press

Ten years ago: David Brower

57352299-04144426 The Sierra Club that David Brower joined in 1933 was a friendly group of outdoors enthusiasts; he became a leader in the outings program. Three decades later, the organization he ultimately led was drawing the wrath of the IRS (for political advocating as a nonprofit) in a fight against putting dams in the Grand Canyon -- a fight the Sierra Club won, obviously. On the flip side, his great regret was acquiescing to the Glen Canyon Dam that created Lake Powell. 

Brower's rise tracked a basic shift in the American posture toward wilderness. He had shepherded a conservationism of leisure into a robust, disciplined political force.

Brower wasn't just an activist or an executive. He was an inventor, an oracle (as his lively Times obituary by John Balzar puts it), a vivid and charismatic prototype of what we now think of as the environmentalist. The obituary places Brower in the company of John Muir, Rachel Carson and the philosopher Aldo Leopold as the "four towering figures" of the 20th century environmental movement. Martin Litton, a fellow crusader, called Brower, "in his time, the soul of the movement to save the Earth."

But his biography isn't all steely passion or first-up-the-mountain triumph. Brower was good at getting fired -- it happened at least three times, including at the Sierra Club and then at Friends of the Earth, which he founded to "make the Sierra Club appear reasonable." And when a friend asked him about a quotation inscribed at the National Aquarium -- "We do not inherit the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children" -- Brower didn't recognize the words as his. He later figured out he had uttered them in "an interview that had taken place in a North Carolina bar so noisy I could only marvel that I was heard at all. Possibly, I didn't remember saying it because by then they had me on my third martini."

David Brower was 88 when he died of cancer on Nov. 5, 2000.

-- Michael Owen

Photo: David Brower, climbing a Pinnacles National Monument formation in the Salinas Valley in 1934. Credit: Brower family collection

10 years ago: Ring Lardner Jr.


Ring Lardner Jr. was the last living member of the Hollywood 10, a group of writers and filmmakers who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and were imprisoned and blacklisted. He was 85 when he died of cancer 10 years ago.

Lardner, a screenwriter, won an Academy Award with Michael Kanin for "Woman of the Year" in 1942, and another in 1970 for "MASH." His career survived the confrontation with HUAC -- he used pseudonyms and worked in Mexico and London -- but he was denied credit for 17 years of work.

When asked by Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas if he was or had been a Communist, the wry Lardner answered famously: "I could answer that question the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but if I did I'd hate myself in the morning." Lardner was banished from the hearing room, and he ultimately served 10 months in federal prison.

In fact Lardner was a Communist -- privately but unapologetically. He had become infatuated with Communism during a visit to the Soviet Union when he was 18, in 1934. "It seemed like there was a lot of hope in the air [in Russia]," his son James said, "whereas in Germany he saw awful stuff and in America he saw bread lines." Lardner's politics may have blurred -- "He discarded all that '30s garbage and went on with his life," said Stefan Kanfer, who wrote a book about the blacklist era -- but he never yielded in his refusal to name other members of the party.

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Ten years ago: Steve Allen


Comedian Steve Allen wrote a lot of books -- more than 50 -- and a lot of songs -- several thousand, including 50 a day for a week once, in a shop window -- but his enduring cultural mark is the late-night TV format he invented as original host of the "Tonight" show.

Allen's stunts on "Tonight" in the mid-'50s -- emotional readings of letters to the editor, diving into Jell-O -- are obvious influences on several of his successors in the genre, maybe the similarly towering David Letterman and Conan O'Brien in particular. But it wasn't just the content he helped pioneer, it was its most permanent packaging. "I want to give you the bad news first, folks," Allen told the "Tonight" show's national audience. "This show is going to go on forever."

Like the man, the show during his tenure combined zany with deadly serious:

With a giddiness that belied his scholarly looking spectacles, Allen plunged his 6-foot, 3-inch frame into a huge bowl of salad for a "Tonight" wrestling match. Another time, he donned a vendor's togs to peddle hot dogs on the street. Occasionally, Allen abandoned the entertainment format to tackle more substantive issues. He devoted one entire show to a news program on organized crime. And to demonstrate the perils of drinking and driving, he downed six double vodkas on air, then let his fumbling drunkenness speak for itself.

Later on, Allen "tooled around Southern California in an aquamarine Rolls-Royce." And he campaigned against violence and vulgarity on TV. Allen wasn't a typical family-values crusader; his politics were liberal, but his sensibility tilted against the low-brow:

. . . He coined a term, "dumbth," to express his view of most Americans as slow-witted, gullible and bumbling. Although he sprinkled his observations with humor, Allen was dead serious about dumbth, alarmed that Americans seemed oblivious to world events, ignorant of history and clueless about geography.

The full obit has more on the son of vaudevillians who became a film actor, grandfather and husband (twice, the second time happily), pitchman, composer, TV dramatist, short-story author and activist. And it recounts Allen's televised staging of Elvis Presley, before Ed Sullivan and alongside an actual hound dog.

--Michael Owen

Photo: Allen in 1959. Credit: Associated Press

Ten years ago: Pierre Trudeau

image from If Pierre Trudeau's life were a movie, at least part of it would be a '70s spy-thriller spoof costarring Barbra Streisand (whom the former Canadian prime minister dated in real life). A heady montage would feature the energetic, popular premier -- who was elected in 1968 on a tide of "Trudeaumania," the phenomenon spun by his irreverence, bachelorhood and glamour -- sliding down a banister at Buckingham Palace and making an obscene gesture at protesting constituents, which he really did. And that sequence would run over the rhythmic piano chords of a Beatles track, since Trudeau once welcomed John Lennon and Yoko Ono to his office in Ottawa.

Flashy though he was -- Trudeau once charged five grizzly bears up a hillside -- he was also a firm statesman, a defender of Canada's unity against its own linguistic and cultural divisions, and a champion of civil rights. Long after colonial rule, Canada existed as an act of British parliament; Trudeau brought the constitution home, appending a Bill of Rights-like charter in the process. And when he died, on Sept. 28, 2000, mourning for Trudeau bore the full weight of his generational 16 years as a head of state. (He served until 1984, with a few months off imposed by voters in the 1979 elections.)

Trudeau's politics featured trademarks of the left. He constructed a European-style welfare state and, earlier, as justice minister, liberalized laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality. But he also disdained the "bleeding hearts" who protested his swift and severe crackdown on violent Quebecois separatists in October 1970. Trudeau's martial reaction was "overkill," his biographer said in The Times' obituary, "but there's no question it was a success."

The obituary has more on the grizzly-charging incident and on Trudeau's relationship with his wife, Margaret, whom he married in 1971 and who betrayed him for -- as is really only fitting -- the Rolling Stones.

-- Michael Owen

Photo: Trudeau in London, in 1975. Credit: Agence France-Presse

Ten years ago: Loretta Young

image from A Golden Age film actress who collaborated with a long roster of leading men, on screen and off, won an Oscar and then made a successful jump to early TV, Loretta Young died at age 87 on Aug. 12, 2000.

"Young's gritty determination to be a star -- and her hardheaded business sense -- kept her in front of the cameras for decades after most stars from Hollywood's Golden Age had faded into nostalgia," noted her Times obituary. Young, a devout and demonstrative Catholic, may have been equally hardheaded -- at least in public statements -- about Judy Lewis, the girl Young adopted in 1937 but who was long rumored to be her biological daughter with Clark Gable. (Lewis made that claim herself in a 1994 autobiography.)

Loretta Young -- then going by her birth name, Gretchen -- debuted in the movies at age 4, as a child weeping on an operating table. Her ambition was evident almost from the start: "She would run to the front of the pack during crowd scenes to make sure her face flashed prominently," the obituary recalled. "I was always sure," she reportedly said, "that I was going to be a big star, not just an actress."

A big star she was: She made nearly 100 movies, and her role as a Swedish immigrant in "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947) won her an Academy Award. After another Oscar nomination for "Come to the Stable," she moved to television in the '50s and '60s, then turned to charity work. The obituary goes into more depth on Young's contradictions -- the twice-divorced actress wouldn't say the word "divorce" on screen -- and her third marriage, as an octogenarian.

-- Michael Owen

Photo: Loretta Young in an undated file photo. Credit: Reuters

Ten years ago: Alec Guinness

image from The year before he died, Sir Alec Guinness bemoaned the "worldwide taste for a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities" to which "Star Wars" had given rise. But his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi knight, provided Guinness -- an Academy-Award winner from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" -- with a second fame in a sphere literally worlds apart from the (many) stage and screen roles that had established him as "one of the most flexible actors of the last half-century," as his obituary in The Times put it.

Guinness died in England at age 86, on August 5, 2000. By that time his work had been curtailed for 20 years by health problems; he'd already been a famous recluse, anyway: "A dark horse," said fellow actor and friend Laurence Olivier, "and a deep one." He was also a frenetically versatile actor:

. . . by turns a larcenous bank clerk, a bootlegging genius, a sea-commuting bigamist, a buck-toothed fiend, a middle-aged suffragette, a bullying Scots soldier, a steely European cardinal, a garden editor who liked vegetables more than people, an intellectual ant, a coldly determined master spy, the contents of a cannibal stew, a family of eight, a misguided British sovereign, an artistic bum and the spiritual essence of an interstellar knight.

"One hates," he said long ago, "to let oneself get into a rut."

The full obituary has details on Guinness' uncertain personal origins, his three-role stage debut and the film in which he played that family of eight, as well as unfailingly third-person quotes, like this: "One wonders that one was not stoned to death in the street. . . ."

--Michael Owen

Photo: Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977's "Star Wars." Credit: Associated Press


Alec Guinness, a master of disguise (Feb. 1, 2009)


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