Far too many celebrity deaths lately. Here are three I wanted to mention:
1. Jerry Bock, the composer in the Bock-Harnick songwriting team that gave us the scores for Fiddler On the Roof, Fiorello!, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree and three other shows (as well as uncredited “ghost” songs for a couple of other people’s musicals). Fiorello! and She Loves Me are both usually on my personal list of top 10 favourite musicals, and of course Fiddler is one of the most iconic and well-known of all great musicals. He and Harnick had a gift for writing “organic” scores, which is to say that their songs felt like part of the show rather than interludes or interruptions. Fiddler produced several hit songs, but when you see the show, you’re unaware of them as hit songs, or even as songs — it just flows from dialogue to song to dance, and every moment feels like part of the same whole. That’s partly due to the director, Jerome Robbins, and the writer, Joe Stein (who also died last week) but the Bock-Harnick score has a lot to do with it.
2. Monica Johnson, a superb comedy writer who is best known as Albert Brooks’ writing partner; she co-wrote all but one of his film scripts. Johnson, whose brother Jerry Belson was also one of the great comedy writers, got into the business in the early ’70s when female comedy writers found it even harder to get a break than they do now (and that’s saying something). She recalled that when she’d go to meetings with her writing partner at the time, Marilyn Suzanne Miller (who went on to write great stuff for SNL), “they’d say, ‘look, two women,’ like we were salt and pepper shakers who just walked in the door.” Johnson and Miller’s best-known script as a team was the “Put On a Happy Face” episode of Mary Tyler Moore, one of the show’s funniest. Johnson wrote this short and funny biography of herself for her website.
3. Finally, Sparky Anderson, the first manager to win World Championships in both leagues, has died. His era, unlike ours, was one of colourful managers who had really strong media personalities — Anderson, Whitey Herzog, Earl Weaver. Anderson was hardly a low-pressure manager who created a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, but he was also the kind of manager who was constantly trying to be positive: to tell players they could do it and also tell the media that his players were great (unlike some managers of an earlier era who would blast their players in the press).
Because he liked to talk about intangible factors that made players “winners,” even if they weren’t particularly good players, he was a favourite target of the early sabermetricians, particularly Bill James. And I think there was an argument that his work with the Tigers in the ’80s wasn’t as impressive as it might have been: he was hired to lead a team with an incredible talent base already in place, but took several years to get them a championship against not-particularly-stunning competition. On the other hand, he did a very strong job of managing in 1987, when he led the Tigers to a surprise division championship against a Toronto Blue Jays team that seemed to have the Tigers outclassed in terms of talent. (I remember that season; it wasn’t fun to watch the Jays blow it.) And of course any manager who wins as many pennants as he did has to have something to do with it, no matter how much talent he inherits; with the Reds, he attacked the team’s only weakness — a lack of really top-flight starting pitchers — by using the bullpen aggressively, becoming known as “Captain Hook” for his willingness to take his starters out at the first sign of weakness.
Here’s the first act of his appearance on WKRP after leaving the Reds; the end of the first act basically requires him to carry an entire scene himself — none of the regulars are in the scene with him — and he does it quite well, delivering one of my favourite deadpan lines: “Brought to you by Sunlux Petroleum, makers of gasoline, heating oil, and a crude but very hearty wine.” The voices on the phone in that scene are the episode’s writers, Peter Torokvei and Steven Kampmann, who pitched this as their first story idea after coming over from Toronto Second City.