Tuesday, September 27, 2011

True Fighters Both

Andy Whitfield: 1972-2011

I start by saying that I've never seen Spartacus: Blood & Sand.  Let's say it was on my To-Do List.  I can say that it appeared to be the beginning of the career for Andy Whitfield.  Who could have imagined that at only 39, it would be his swan song? 

It all just seems so unfair.  Whitfield was starting out his career.  His first credit was in 2004, so his career was only seven years old.   He'd made a few films and television shows in his adopted Australia, but Spartacus: Blood and Sand was making it to the Big Time.   Here he was, not just making his American television debut, but being the star of a major television project.  Whitfield's career was about to go places, perhaps following in the steps of another Australian Sam Worthington.

Then came an awful twist: near the end of Season One for Spartacus, he's diagnosed with non-Hogkins lymphoma.   That in itself would be devastating, but to come at that time for Whitfield made an already terrible situation even worse.  With his illness taking precedent, there was no way he could get treatment and star in a major hit television program at the same time.  Something had to give, and what gave was Spartacus.

To Starz's credit, they decided not to recast Spartacus to keep to schedule.  Instead, Whitfield was given the time he needed to get treatment, and Starz had an unexpected time slot to fill, and with that, a chance to expand the story.  From Whitfield's illness, came a prequel: Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.  It was hoped that this mini-series would not only allow for an expansion of the Spartacus mythology, but give Whitfield the chance to recover.  Why wouldn't he: Whitfield was young and physically fit.  At first, it looked like treatment had been successful and he would be able to return.  It would have been a great ending.

However, life is almost never accompanied by a Hollywood ending.  The non-Hogkins lymphoma came back, and there was no choice but for Whitfield to withdraw, and for the star-making turn he had worked so hard for to be recast.  Despite his youth, the treatment, and his incredible fighting spirit (which would have made the real Spartacus proud), Andy Whitfield passed away at only 39.

I think what makes this more sad is that refrain of 'what might have been'.  I can't say whether Andy Whitfield would have become a great actor, a big star, or just famous for this one role.  Rather, it is the fact that someone who had gained fame for being a symbol of physical strength was felled by his own body, and that whatever potential he had was taken very early.  If it is any comfort to his fans, it is that in spite of his short career and lifespan he still managed to make himself into a figure other men could admire, even more so after fighting so much for so long against such a terrible adversary.  It's always sad when anyone dies, even more so when they die so young, not through self-inflicted causes but by illness.  It's sadder when one thinks he was just starting to make a name for himself.  

In the end, one hopes that Andy Whitfield won't just be remembered for being Spartacus, but for being strong and brave and a tough fighter till the very end. 

Cliff Robertson: 1923-2011
Cliff Robertson, unlike Andy Whitfield, had a long life.  However, like Whitfield, he didn't have as long a career as perhaps he should have.   This was an Oscar winner, and one of the few winners to win not only on his first and only nomination, for Charly.  Perhaps in the fact that he won only one and was nominated only once says a lot about Robertson's career.

His performance in Charly shows that he had the talent of a good actor (his training on live television, where he had created the role of Charlie Gordon based on the book No Flowers for Algernon coming especially handy when recreating it on screen).  It wasn't the first time he was praised for a performance: he was already an Emmy winner and had originated the male lead in The Days of Wine & Roses on television (for which Jack Lemmon earned an Oscar nomination for the film version). 

Side note: I saw the film version a long time ago, but have yet to see the television version, which happily still survives.  A comparison between them would be an interesting experiment.

However, Robertson was just one of those actors who was good but who somehow never managed to break through to be a star.  He did have a long career, but when it is said he had a 'comeback' when he played Uncle Ben in Spider-Man, how can one say he had a 'comeback' when he never left? 

The forgery scandal had an odd effect on Robertson's career: he was victimized twice.  In 1977 he had discovered that Columbia Studio head David Begelman had been forging his signature on checks, and he did the right and logical thing: he reported it.  How was he repaid?  By being blacklisted.  Few industries protect their own, even in the most unethical circumstances, than Hollow-wood.  Through no fault of his own, Cliff Robertson found himself virtually exiled for calling out someone who had done him wrong.

If it is any comfort, Robertson still has some great pieces of work and a great legacy as both the humble and tragic Charlie and an entire generation that will remember him as Uncle Ben to Peter Parker.   Overall, not bad.  Despite how Hollywood treated him, Cliff Robertson appeared to have had the last laugh.   


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