On a sadder note: Four veteran actors pass away – and so does NASA announcer Jack King

by | Jun 26, 2015 | History, NASA | 0 comments

Four veteran British actors passed away in June. At the age of 93, Sir Christopher Lee died of heart failure. After military service in the Long Range Desert Group, Sir Christopher Lee went on to have a long film career stretching over 60 years, made his name in the Hammer horror movies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He was most famous for playing Count Dracula in nine films for which he was almost ordained for as he was, in fact, the son of an Italian Contessa himself.  He also played the diabolical Chinese villain Fu Manchu.

As a very tall actor with a cut glass English accent, Lee had the presence to play other malevolent high class villains including the three-nippled, golden pistol-toting professional assassin, Scaramanga, in the James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun”(1974). Lee was in fact the step-cousin of the James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Lee also played the Lord of the Summerisle in the Horror cult classic “The Wicker Man” (1973). Lee counted this as one of his best roles, though his effort was somewhat overshadowed by the erotic naked dance performed in the film by Britt Ekland’s wanton barmaid character (albeit with the use of bottom doubles), a dance which apparently also affected the formative years of cabinet ministers.

Sir Christopher Lee counted his portrayal of the founder of Pakistan in the TV biopic Jinnah as the other performance he was most proud of.

His space related roles were few and far between, though he did play the bizarrely-named Count Dooku in the Star Wars film series. Latterly he became most recognised by the younger generation for his evil wizard Saruman role in the Lord of the Rings.

Ron Moody who has died at the age of 91, had a less illustrious career than Sir Christopher Lee but apogee in his portrayal of the Fagin character in the stage and film versions of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver (1968).  His performance won plaudits and awards.

Like Alec Guinness’ earlier portrayal of Fagin in David Lean’s classic depiction of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1946), Moody’s excellent portrayal of the miserly Jewish fence and leader and trainer of a gang of boy thieves, is now deemed by some left-of-centre anti-racist groups as being portrayed and written as being anti-semitic.

This is despite the fact that Moody was Jewish himself, and the fact that Charles Dickens was one of the most socially reforming writers of the 19th Century.

Moody describes one of his biggest career regrets as turning down the part of the Doctor in the BBC science fiction series Dr Who. Moody thus had no direct space roles. However he did have a comic turn as the scheming Rupert Mountjoy in the excellent Richard Lester directed comedy film “The Mouse on the Moon” (1963). His character is the Prime Minister of the tiny country of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. In the plot he purloins funding from US government for space research with a view to using it to have new plumbing installed in the Duchy’s castle. The game is up when his son and the in-house chief scientist, played by Bernard Cribbins and David Kossoff respectively, actually do mount an expedition to beat USA and the Soviet Union to the Moon. The film had its premier in Cape Canaveral when several real NASA astronauts met the cast.

Ron Moody also played Merlin in “The Spaceman and King Arthur” (1979) (aka Unidentified Flying Oddball) – and again later in the “The Kid in King Arthur’s Court” (1995), both Disney variations of Mark Twain’s time travelling tale “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

We also note the passing of “English gentleman” actor Patrick Macnee at the age of 93. While he had a bad start in being expelled from Eton for selling pornography and for running a bookmaking operation, the English American actor Macnee later became famous for being the gentle Englishman hero John Steed in the 1960s and 1970s adventure television series, “The Avengers” and “The New Avengers”.  His archetypical English gentleman character with impeccable manners and kind heart wore a Savile Row suit with a lapel flower, a bowler hat and always carried an umbrella – but never a gun.

Before that role, Macnee had a small part in the film dramatisation of The Battle of the River Plate (1956) – a film, by the way, that Christopher Lee had an atypical part in as an Argentinian bar keeper.  Macnee was unsurprisingly  convincing as a Royal Navy officer in the film considering he had been one during World War II.

MacNee had other roles in the latter part of his life. He played both Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in various TV films. He played up his veteran Englishman character in “In The Sea Wolves” (1980) and in the James Bond film, “A View to a Kill” (1985).

MacNee’s only space role was as a villain in the first rendition of the science fiction TV series, “Battlestar Galactica” (1978) in which he also made the opening narration.

Actor Richard Johnson also passed away in June at the age of 87.  The much married actor turned down the part of super spy James Bond, but later found his way into playing a similar role as a modernised Bulldog Drummond in the films “Deadlier Than the Male” (1967) and “Some Girls Do” (1969).  Johnson never had a space role but in the very well done factual part of the semi-fictional “Operation Crossbow” (1965) he convincingly played Duncan Sandys, the government minister trying to defend Britain against the V-1 cruise missile and V-2 ballistic missile attacks by Germany on the UK in 1944.

By the way, while Sandys did good work then, as Minister of Defence in 1957  he inadvertently damaged the UK aerospace industry by cancelling several aircraft projects after believing premature predictions that missiles would soon take over from manned military aircraft.

Away from acting we also say goodbye to NASA launch announcer Jack King at the age of 84. Jack King provided launch countdown commentary for nearly every U.S. human spaceflight mission from Gemini 4 to Apollo 15.

We salute all these men for their excellent work which we have enjoyed through the years.  We give our condolences to their family and friends.

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