Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Disastrous Demise: Hurtin' Ernie

Recently, we lost another member of the Disaster Movie Club, that (personally-imagined) collection of performers who took part in the glorious cycle of 1970s disaster movies. So many of them are no longer with us, though the ones who were younger at the time have naturally lived on. However, the final wail of the lifeboat station alarm has come for one Ernie Orsatti. Orsatti was a key member of more than one disaster epic and we pay tribute to him today. The son of a World Series-level baseball player and an opera singer, and the nephew of a talent agent, his life would be a mixture of action and acting. 

Orsatti was born on February 13th, 1940 and was an active youth, taking an early interest in physical activities, cars and various aspects of the movie business. (His father had segued from baseball into prop work and stunts with Buster Keaton, eventually joining his brother Vic's talent agency.) At age 28, he landed a role among the large cast of John Wayne's The Green Berets and allegedly appears somewhere in the cheap-jack exploitation flick The Acid Eaters (both 1968.) 

Attempting a legitimate acting career, he was nonetheless utilized chiefly in instances where a role called for someone to drive (as in The Mechanic, 1972, with Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent)...

...and then die! He has his neck snapped by the intimidating Bronson.

A shot at a supporting role in a major motion picture came when he was signed on The Poseidon Adventure (1972) to play Terry, the love interest to Pamela Sue Martin.

At the New Year's Eve ball, he asks her to dance and, though she does, her mind is really on the older, presumably more compelling, Gene Hackman.

Unfortunately, a gargantuan wave turns the ship upside-down shortly after midnight, killing many of the passengers aboard. A few stragglers cling to the edges of dining tables for dear life.

The the most celebrated moment of the sequence, Orsatti is seen holding onto the table until he no longer can...

...then plunges far below into the light fixture to a premature demise. Though he had long done uncredited motorcycle driving, car stunts and physical doubling, he discovered while preparing for this that he was actually afraid of heights! He had intended to work solely on acting and reduce or eliminate stunt-work from his career, but producer Irwin Allen pressed him to do it because "all the other actors are doing their own stunts" (which was only partially true!) He was knocked unconscious by the famous fall.

The eye-popping sequence became a celebrated moment in cinema stunt-work. It also became an iconic moment in the film and was featured time and again in TV ads and promotions for later airings of the film on television. This link shows how he was constantly featured in blurbs for the movie despite minuscule screen time. (It's also incredible how rotten the prints were of movies that we watched on television compared to what we now enjoy on DVD and Blu-Ray! In the case of TPA, though, the darker, grimier, grainier look somehow helped it seem more accurate with regards to the oily, charred, murky filth of the ship.)

Orsatti found himself enjoying a bigger part than he'd previously been granted with The Last American Hero (1973) opposite Jeff Bridges. He played a rival race car driver of the young lead.

The film also gave us a rare, and brief, chance to glimpse his hairy chest in one confrontational scene.

Irwin Allen came calling again when it was time for The Towering Inferno (1974.) Thus, Orsatti figures in two of the most memorable disaster sequences of the 1970s. This glass elevator sequence is a huge favorite of mine. He played a firefighter enlisted to help get the disabled car down 130-something floors to the ground. (It took years before I connected that the hairy, tan boyfriend from Poseidon was the same man as this cleaner-cut, comparatively pale fireman!)

Unfortunately, an explosion knocks the elevator off its track and it dangles helplessly until Steve McQueen as the fire chief can bring a line from a helicopter to it and remove it from the wall.

Orsatti dutifully helps his boss until the car breaks loose and he slips, apparently headed for another grisly demise!

I've seen this cherished movie countless times and have no recollection of ever seeing his battered t-shirt or hairy chest (as shown here) in the finished product. I do have to say that I was never keen on the delivery of his line to Astaire, "She's dead." I get that by then he was dog-tired, but somehow it just always comes off a bit blase and unfeeling to me.

1974 was a key year for Orsatti because it was when he wed his wife Lynda Farrell, a model. They remained wed until his death on September 12th, 2020 and had two sons together. Ernie's brother Frank became a valued stuntman as well and Ernie's sons proceeded in the same vein, making it a true family business. His son Noon Orsatti is a hugely busy and successful stunt coordinator. The man with them here is longtime Irwin Allen stunt coordinator Paul Stader, who shared much of his expertise with Ernie.

Although Inferno was a box-office bonanza, it was 1976 before Orsatti acted in another movie role. In Sky Riders, he was part of a hang-gliding troupe (in clown-face for much of his screen time) who helps James Coburn train for a daring hostage rescue.

1977 brought a supporting role in The Car, which had James Brolin trying to stop a seemingly possessed vehicle from killing everyone in its path.

This time he was helping to pull someone up instead of falling down himself. After this, he worked for Irwin Allen again with small roles in Viva Knievel! (1977) and The Swarm (1978.) At the same time, he was performing stunts in other movies, eventually becoming the coordinator on some, including Underground Aces (1981) and Death Wish II (1982.) In 1985, he took part in Irwin Allen's star-packed presentation of Alice in Wonderland.

Having popped up in bits on Hawkins and Mannix, Orsatti began to appear frequently on TV series which needed a henchman or a bad guy to pop up and then be knocked around some. This pic is from Wonder Woman.

Seen here in The Greatest American Hero, he's a henchman who finds himself on the receiving end of the title character's powers.

His roles most often were that of villain parts where a little bit of emoting came in handy along with the action.

He continued in this vein through the early-1990s while simultaneously working as a stunt coordinator on many, many projects. His longstanding reputation for devising and performing stunts for TV and movies (and notably that big fall in Poseidon) earned him the nickname "The Legend."

For a time, the '70s disaster epics fell out of favor and were derided by mainstream cinema writers, but the fans weren't about to let go of their beloved movies. As celebrations and anniversaries rolled around, Orsatti found himself as an honored guest at various events.

As a handsome young man (though hardly a jaw-dropping actor), he might have enjoyed a few years of decorative roles before petering out, but his decision to go for the stunt from the floor to the ceiling of the capsized liner led him down an entirely different career path. As a result, he was busier than he likely would ever have been had he remained solely a performer. When the stroke claimed him at age 80, he'd been retired for about a decade, but had earned that right after countless cuts and bruises. He could now watch the next generation, including his sons, take their lumps for the pleasure of screen audiences.
The End!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

11th Anniversary "Celeb"-ration 9, 10 & 11

How's that for a cover picture! Ha ha! 2020 has indeed been the year from hell for me on many levels (as I'm sure it's been for countless others), but we're pressing on... As I chose to do these celeb encounters in basically chronological order, I'm afraid that the ending might be anti-climactic due to the fact that the last two occurred after I'd begun blogging and have already been documented here! :::sigh::: Well, it's too late to do anything about that now. But maybe I can try to tack on a surprise photo or two at the end. As we proceed with Number 8, I still shudder when I think of how my light was kept under a bushel.

My pal Robert purchased tickets in September of 2007 for a new show up in Dayton, Ohio that was being developed by Stephen Schwartz.  You may know Schwartz as the composer of "Godspell", "Pippin", "The Baker's Wife", "Children of Eden", "Prince of Egypt" and a little show called "Wicked," among other things.  He had been putting together a revue of his songs, but in a different way than most others.  Dubbed "a musical scrapbook", it was a show called "Snapshots" and he'd taken a large helping of his music and rewritten about 50% of the lyrics in order to fit it to a story about a mid-forties couple who are on the verge of breakup, but who take time to look through a stack of old pictures, which recall many stages in their life.  A quartet of other performers portrayed the couple in their younger years. (This show took until 2011 before it actually debuted!) My first real show on stage was "Godspell", in which I sang "Light of the World," hence the reference to my light being under a bushel.

Fresh faced for my debut on an area stage. Under the blue-green shirt was the heinous, yet typical, '70s-style carnival clown costume used for the bulk of the show...

Prior to the show, Schwartz held a master class from 3:00 to 5:30 and we attended this.  There was the chance to have a Q&A with him and then a select few - drawn from a box - would get to sing for the man himself and receive feedback and instruction. I had prepared a very brief song from "Prince of Egypt" and had worked and worked it until it was rock solid.  The mere notion of singing before the composer was daunting and yet exhilarating. I had to run to the restroom to check my hair and pee, so Robert put our names into the huge box for those who were willing to put themselves out there.

As we settled in and listened to Schwartz speak and answer questions, there was a sense of anticipation in the room, knowing that out of 150 people, about 100 of them wanted to sing, but only 10 probably would.  The first singer was chosen, a guy in his late 20's or so, and he sang a song from "Parade".  He did it once, pretty well, and then did it two more times, with noticeable improvement thanks to the suggestions Schwartz made.  Then they drew the second name:  Robert!!  Lucky DOG!  He trotted down the steps, tossing me his camera, and went over to the accompanist to go over the music.  Three or four minutes later, he was finally ready to begin "This is the Moment".  He chose to sing the very end and so it started with a lot of verve and passion right off the bat (he was being considerate in not singing the entire piece - something a lot of others did do, sadly, but it also limited how much he could vary the emotions of it.)  He gets miffed when I say this, but he was also a little dry in the throat and scratchy at first.  But who wouldn't be?!?  Schwartz gave him some ideas to kick around and asked him to do it again, adding different layers to it and approaching it with more variety and it was indeed improved the second time.  (Schwartz did say that things are always better the second time regardless, but you could also see that his changes and remarks enhanced almost everyone's songs on the next attempt.) 

Then there was a parade of other singers, some good, some so-so and some DREADFUL.  A girl I'll call Brittney Flick was a real stand-out.  This chick HAD IT.  She went up to sing a song from "Children of Eden" and the pianist couldn't master the tempo of it.  He tried three times and finally Schwartz threw his stuff down and said, "You know what...  I'll play it!"  I thought the girl was going to drop from shock as all of us would have.  To sing a song for a successful composer and have him PLAYING it for you, too?  She was exceptional.  She really did well.  Unfortunately, I think the name is going to be a problem.  The YMCA has "Fun & Flick" water classes and they had to change a sign once when I was there because the lettering they used made it look like something else!  "FUN & FLICK".  Can you imagine the horror?  "BRITTNEY FLICK IN SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS"  (The font may not allow this to make much sense, but just think about it!)

As the master class continued, the person drawing names kept picking females. Finally, Schwartz said he wanted another male to sing and not to choose another female until a male sang. Four names in a row were pulled, all girls, and still nothing. I waited with bated breath to hear my name called. Nope... The last singer was a totally untalented (and unaware of such) guy who wasted everyone's time. I never did get to sing for him, which was disappointing. (And all the way home I accused Robert of failing to put my name in the box and putting his own in twice! Ha ha!) But I got to meet Stephen and later ask him a question when the show was over. 

It was still quite a thrill because not only had my first real show been "Godspell" but I was a devoted fan of Pocahontas (1995) as well. A year later, both Robert and I appeared in a sterling and celebrated production of "Children of Eden" which won scads of awards and was completely sold out for every performance. He was able to claim that he'd sung for the show's composer, but I had to settle for having only met the man...

You can spot Robert as "Father" at the top. Four spaces to the right is my bovine self, appropriately relegated to playing Noah's eldest son. LOL

In my prior post, I relayed how Miss America 2000 Heather French Henry had played a part in further adventures of mine. I'm not counting this next experience as one of my encounters because all I got was within airspace of the celebs. No meeting... But it was still quite a night! George Clooney had directed and starred in the 2008 film Leatherheads, all about the early days of football, and chose to have its premiere in li'l ol' Maysville, Kentucky, where his famous family hailed from. In fact, the Maysville Opera House had long ago played host for the premiere of Aunt Rosie's 1953 film The Stars are Singing, a now-obscure musical. Naturally, Ms. French-Henry was there and had to endure me once again.

Heather be thy name... No restraining order has been issued by her. Yet...

I also was on-hand to observe the utter pandemonium when Mr. Clooney and his costar Renee Zellweger pulled up and walked the red carpet. The man was completely swamped. Like scary swamped. He was semi-protected behind a flimsy white picket partition, but in 2008 he was close to the height of his fame, so people were going gaga. 

Lost in, literally, a sea of teeming fans.

He very patiently made his way down the carpet, signing all sorts of memorabilia and occasionally waving to all the folks who were braving the brisk March evening. He seemed painfully thin to me at the time, not only accounting for Hollywood standards. I felt that directing, acting and playing football (!) endlessly had likely worn him down to a spindle. 

At one point, he did respond to a yelp from me and I took this photo. He's looking at me. My camera was above my head in extended arms, the only way to get a clear shot, trust me! I think I was back four or five rows deep in the crowd with no chance to get any closer. 

Renee seemed something of a gangling, unkempt mess to me. Hair all askew and sporting the usual "grapefruit" face that she so often seemed to be sporting for whatever reason. But she was nice enough (and patient) and she realized that in truth the bulk of the crowd was there to swamp see George. 

There were two showings of the film. The early showing was strictly VIP and by invitation only. The second was for 200 people to be drawn from a lottery of tickets that were being handed out. Knowing my luck with any sort of drawing, I was skeptical to say the least. I had to stand there and stand there as close to 100 ticket numbers were called out from the balcony of the opera house. (Each winner could bring one person in with him.) Believe it or not, my number was called! So my accompanying friend and I were admitted to the showing, which was introduced by George, Renee and George's father Nick! My elation at being chosen did result in a reporter interviewing me for the local paper upon winning. The front three rows of the theater were reserved for the state basketball champs, but I was in the fourth! 

Mr. C. was always with a self-deprecating joke and kept his friends, family and the audience in good spirits throughout.


The 10th celebrity encounter in my list of 11 was a doozy as far as I'm concerned. I wrote all about it at the time it happened in December of 2011.  It was the two-day occasion in which West Side Story's (1961) George Chakiris came back to Norwood, Ohio, the place of his birth, to be honored by the mayor and citizens. This was followed by a traipse down to the inevitable Rosemary Clooney Museum the next day at which he was to be on hand for the presentation of the gloves she wore in White Christmas (1954.) This was one of a few a movies in which he was a featured dancer. He was joined in this effort by friend and stage cohort (and former Miss America) Lee Meriwether.

Naturally, I was all in the thick of things causing a ruckus. Poor Heather French was once again besieged by me, both at George Chakiris Day and then down at the museum dedication. But I kept her and the waiting crowd amused while Chakiris and Meriwether's car was delayed in arriving at the appointed time. Remember me saying how I always seemed to meet celebrities when I was at my own personal low point? I was really heavy and not particularly healthy physically when I connected with these two friendly, appealing people, but I wasn't going to miss my chance with them.

I'd shaved my goatee off from the day before which was probably not the greatest plan... But I think you can see that Ms. Meriwether was tickled by me and my inherent lunacy! If you read my original account of that day, you'll understand how I wound up in such a nondescript sweater that day. 

In a hilarious connection to my earlier story about threatening to open my own house as the Vera Ellen Museum, Chakiris and Meriwether actually went to Vera's childhood home and posed on the front porch. And it is literally half a mile from my front door! Vera Ellen's mother used to take her daughter and one Doris Day (who lived several miles further south in Evanston) to dance classes! We did somehow spring some real talent onto the show business map from this area...

I also have posted in detail about the 11th celebrity encounter being listed for this anniversary series. It was close to two years ago when I got the chance to see Maureen McGovern, who make "The Morning After" (the theme song of The Poseidon Adventure, 1972) famous. She had also been the vocalist on several other TV and movie songs that I enjoy. I mean, it was a no-brainer that I was going to be sure to see (and meet!) her given the opportunity. D'ja ever notice how bemused these poor people look once they've been exposed to me? LOL

* * * Bonus Pics * * *

Now that we've reached the end of this series, I have a couple of other brushes with quasi-fame to mention. Anyone recall the show Clean House, in which utterly filthy, cluttered and junk-filled homes were cleared out by a team, who then sold many of the items at a large yard sale for money to help fix the place back up? Hosted for most of its run by Niecy Nash (who recently made headlines after divorcing her second husband and marrying a woman), it also counted among its crew Matt Iseman for 5 seasons. They also did a yearly search for the messiest house in America and, wouldn't you know, they found one in Cincinnati (we adore making national news for all the wrong reasons! LOL) 

I bought nothing at the yard sale, but I did pick something else out!
The day of the gargantuan yard sale, I was back in action to spot me a star. You may have seen Iseman in stand-up comedy or on The New Celebrity Apprentice (which he won) or American Ninja Warrior. Right before I got to him (after having stood outside forevah!), a little girl posed with him and said, "Daddy, I wanna hug him!" Naturally, I stepped up and said, "Daddy, I wanna hug him, too!" and I did! He really didn't seem to mind... and I did not let go until my turn was up. Ha ha!

I've also brushed up against various contestants (and winners) on RuPaul's Drag Race, though I don't suspect that's tremendously difficult to do. This is me (with the infamous Robert from the Sondheim event!) on either side of Mystique Summers Madison (from season 2.) Below, it's my turn to be flanked. On the left is winner Jinkx Monsoon and on the right is runner-up Alaska. Aaaahhh.... from Miss America to America's Next Drag Superstar. What will be next?

I've always liked this photo because I was happy and healthy for once when doing my thing. Thanks to COVID-19, I'm tubby again, but I will be sure to get in shape for the promise of 2021!