August 14, 2014

Ed Nelson, R.I.P.

I passed through Greensboro several times during the year I lived in North Carolina, having no idea that Ed Nelson lived there.  To be honest, his was a name I didn't think about that often, though I certainly knew who he was.  After all, if you're an aficionado of classic television, you're most assuredly familiar with one of the stars of Peyton Place.  

Ed Nelson died in Greensboro this past weekend, and our loyal reader Mike Doran brought it up in a comment on my Robin Williams piece from Tuesday, pointing out that his death would likely go unnoticed compared to someone like Williams.  He also mentioned Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday, doubting that she'd get the space that Williams got.  The gist of his comment, quoting David Frost, was that "... even in death, it seems, we're not equal ... "

I thought about that, and though Ed Nelson got an obituary in The New York Times, which I wager is going to be read by just a few more people than read this site*, it seemed appropriate that I spend a moment in consideration of Ed Nelson, if for no other reason than to try and equal things up a bit.  I would be a bad steward of my avocation if I didn't do so.

*I'll stake the quality of my readers against theirs any day, though.

As the Times obit mentions, Nelson was a staple of television in the '50s and '60s.  If you watch enough television from that era, you'll recognize his name, but even if by chance you don't, it's highly likely you remember having seen him.  Peyton Place, which was a hell of a lot bigger deal than we realize today, ran from 1964 to 1969.  He played Dr. Michael Rossi, one of the more stable elements of the show.  Every soap opera*, it seems, needs a good-looking male lead, and Ed Nelson fit the bill perfectly.

*By the way, if you're inclined, as I might have been, to dismiss Peyton Place as a prime time soap, you wouldn't have wanted to voice that opinion around Nelson, who felt that calling it a soap "kind of cheapens it.” Unlike most soaps, Peyton Place was on film rather than tape, and did far more exterior shots and complex setups than a regular soap.  Better to compare it to Dallas than to daytime television.

Peyton Place wasn't seen much in our house when I was growing up; I remember the iconography of the church steeple in the opening credits, and the theme song, but that's about it; I don't even remember Mia Farrow (more on her in the upcoming Saturday TV Guide story).  But I saw Ed Nelson in countless other shows, guest shots in programs like The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and The FBI, and westerns from Have Gun - Will Travel to The Rifleman to Gunsmoke.  He appeared on Perry Mason twice, as the defendant - not the killer.  (That tells you something right there.)  Variety lists some of his credits from the '70s:  Marcus Welby, M.D., Cannon, Night Gallery, The Mod Squad, Mission: Impossible, Kung Fu, Ironside, Police Woman.  So no matter your television tastes, I can almost guarantee you'd have seen Ed Nelson at  least two dozen times without even searching him out.

As was the case with other actors of the time, he did movies and theater as well, an extremely successful career by any measurement.  If he wasn't on the A list of actors, he nonetheless was never hurting for work.  Which brings us in a roundabout way, perhaps, to the point of Mike's comment.  Ed Nelson was a successful actor, a very well-known one of the time, but maybe he wasn't a celebrity.  Maybe his "problem," the reason why we don't devote as much space to his death as we do to others, is that he was primarily known for his work, not for being a celebrity.  He wasn't a larger-than-life character offscreen, he didn't do shtick,  he wasn't married and divorce a half-dozen times, as far as I know he didn't do multiple stints in rehab.  He was a working actor.  He appeared in a lot of TV shows, and did more than his share of movies.  People liked what he did, and liked the shows he was in.

And I think that deserves to be mentioned, and honored, every bit as much as that of the oversized celebrity. Don't you think?

4 comments

  1. Right this minute, I'm looking at The Rockford Files on MeTV.
    They've broken the regular broadcast order to run Lauren Bacall's guest star appearance from the last season. Publicized it in advance and everything. Started off with a commemorative slide, with Ms. Bacall and her dates (MeTV often does that when name stars pass on - Jim Garner got a whole week's worth). All perfectly appropriate.
    Would you like to guess what other well-known TV character actor can also be seen in this same episode?

    Just to keep this in perspective:
    Back around 1990, Ed Nelson gave an interview to Tom Weaver, who's spent the last thirty years or so getting interviews with film makers of all sorts, which he's collected into about ten books.
    The Nelson interview appears in Attack Of The Monster Movie Makers, Weaver's third collection.
    I'll just excerpt the pull-quote that appears at the beginning:

    "I was always looking to sustain myself (in the business) for a long period of time rather than ever being a 'star', so to speak, or going for 'The Big Time'. That was never important to me ...
    " I have six children and eleven grandchildren, a very happy marriage - it's been that way for forty years. And that kind of solidification was more important to me than being an unhappy star."

    In the years since, Ed Nelson's marriage reached sixty-three years, and his six children ultimately gave him fourteen grandchildren, who in their turn have provided ten great-grandchildren to date.

    Just to be clear, none of the above is intended as a slight against either Robin Williams or Lauren Bacall.
    Each of us leads his/her own life, and there are no guarantees one way or the other. But the ones who plug along, a level or so below "superstardom", can achieve a kind of "good life" of their own - and that can be worth at least a look.

    In conclusion, I commend Tom Weaver's books - all of them - to your attention. They're mostly published by McFarland, and even the paperbacks are pricey, but they're all very much worth it.

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  2. NICE tribute to Ed Nelson, Mitchel and Mike-

    It was just a few weeks ago I caught him in an early Perry Mason episode. Of course, I had to look up him on IMDB.
    Man, the guy did everything!

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  3. Looking through the listings for that week:

    - You have to be a major movie buff to remember that before he started doing TV series, Leo G. Carroll most often played villains: tricky barristers, shifty uncles, master spies, and the like.
    The Topper series pretty much changed all that, so this Studio One was probably a welcome change for him.
    Side note: it was a couple of years later that Leo G. Carroll got the Barry Fitzgerald role in the Going My Way series, with Gene Kelly in the Crosby role. That stirred up a bit of a fuss at the time - there was no more British actor around than Carroll.
    But then someone looked it up and found that Leo Grattan Carroll, though born in England, was as Irish and Catholic as you could want (born in 1892, he was named for the then-incumbent Pope and an MP who favored home rule for Ireland).

    - Also on the anthology beat:
    On Friday night, Schlitz Playhouse has Edmond O'Brien in "The Town That Slept with The Lights On", about a search for a serial killer.
    Of particular note: Edmond O'Brien directed this show, which was written for him by his brother Liam.
    The brothers O'Brien did quite a bit of work together over the years, on big screen and small, including their own syndie series, Johnny Midnight.

    - Meanwhile, on Thursday, Playhouse 90 is repeating "No Time At All", one of a handful of shows that P90 made on film.
    As it happens, I've got this one on a (bootleg) DVD, complete with the original commercials - and are there ever a lot of them.
    The show itself concerns an airliner that loses its lights and communication while coming in for a landing - but we never go inside the plane.
    The story is about the people on the ground - airport personnel, families and friends of the passengers, and such like - and how they deal with the crisis.
    It's based on a novel by Charles Einstein - of which, by incredible coincidence, I've got a copy (when I collect, I don't kid around).
    But the really interesting part of all this is the cast, which you can read for yourself in the Guide listing -and they left a few out (you can find the opening of this one on YouTube if you look for it).

    - Local note:
    On Sunday afternoon, Channel 5 ran "Pier 23", an ultra-low budget detective flick from 1951.
    Its interest stems from the fact that it's an hour-long movie with two separate stories (you know, like two episodes of a TV series stuck together) and yet it was made for theatrical release - followed by two more in the same format.
    Once again (Coincidence Time!), I've got all three of these Kinema Klassix in my DVD wall here; They're worth at least a look-see, mainly for their rough, tough, manly leading man - Hugh Beaumont.

    There's loads of other stuff here, but it's 1 AM (CDT), so I'll stand down for the nonce.

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  4. he was the greatest man , and the best grandfather . i miss him !

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