Tag Archives: actor

An unexpected life in sci-fi: An interview with Sigourney Weaver

A movie has a way of sitting up straight whenever Sigourney Weaver is in it. Whether the part is small or large, she reliably jolts any film alive with her intelligence and commanding presence. She usually means business.

That, of course, has been apparent since her breakthrough role as Ellen Ripley in “Alien.” But it’s no less true of Weaver at 67. She has an almost queen-like status on today’s movie landscape, particularly in science-fiction.

She has defined one mega franchise (“Alien,” with one more on the way) and been the MVP of another (“Avatar,” with four sequels coming). Just her voice is enough to lend sci-fi credibility, whether as the ship’s voice in “WALL-E” or as the all-powerful Director in “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Weaver has been particularly ubiquitous in 2016, gracing the year’s top box-office hit, “Finding Dory,” with its best gag (her aquatic center greeting), and popping in to reprise her original role in the contentious “Ghostbusters” reboot. She was even glimpsed in Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” as a young, rabid Beatlemaniac.

But she ends the year with “A Monster Calls,” a smaller film that uses fantasy to plumb deeper emotional depths. Directed by J.A. Bayona (who’s helming the next “Jurassic Park” film), the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel is about a boy coping with his mother’s terminal illness. Aside from approaching grief with uncommon seriousness, the film flips some genre tropes, including Weaver’s grandmother character.

The actress (who hasn’t lost a bit of her glamour) recently reflected on “A Monster Calls,” her re-entry to Pandora and her legacy of strong female protagonists.

AP: Your father, Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver was president of NBC and created the “Tonight Show.” Was it like you grew up in show business?

Weaver: At the time, I thought everyone’s father ran a network. I thought everyone got to go on the set of “Peter Pan” and meet Mary Martin. I always used to think I was going to go to school and then come home and be a different girl and go to a different house. It took me a while to realize I was stuck with me. Maybe that’s the early awareness of an actor that we’re all changeable. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I’m so amazed I’m in this body for so long.”

AP: You have such an impact on a film, regardless of how large your part is.

Weaver: I really love being part of a good story. I don’t need to be the center of the story. That’s why I really loved “A Monster Calls” because the grandmother was unlike anyone I’ve played before _ not completely unlike my mother, who was British. It’s a movie I hope families go to together.

AP: Was your small role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” your first film?

Weaver: Woody offered me a bigger part but I turned it down because I was in a play. I played a multiple schizophrenic who kept a hedgehog in her vagina and I wasn’t going to give that part up.

AP: “Alien” was quite a follow-up.

Weaver: It didn’t feel like a big movie to me. It felt like a very small, dark, strange movie and I could relate to that because I was used to doing very strange things off-Broadway. I thought: This is fine. This is like a workshop movie.

AP: Ripley was one of the first strong female protagonists in an action film. Is that a legacy you’re proud of?

Weaver: I am. I’ve since read other scripts and I go, “Well that’s kind of an interesting part but I’d rather play this guy.” Because I always feel still, like in our world, there’s a lot of testosterone in some of these movies where really legitimately a woman would be involved.

AP: Do you think that’s changing?

Weaver: I think by the time your daughters are in the world, everything will be different.

AP: What did you think of the backlash to Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters”?

Weaver: I was very surprised by it. I enjoyed the movie. I love all those women. I think Feig is brilliant. I do think it has something to do with the misogyny Trump has unearthed. I thought it was very charming. Does it also make you remember how much you loved the first one? I think so, but not to the extent that I’m going to boycott it. We’re sitting at the table. You’ve got to make room for us. We’re not going to go away.

AP: Ang Lee’s “Ice Storm” must be a film you’re particularly proud of.

Weaver: I was discussing a character I might play with someone and they said, “This woman’s cold.” I said I find that a nonsensical adjective for a woman. I’m sure you could describe Janey in “Ice Storm” as cold but she wasn’t cold. She was so disconnected from her life and bored by it.

AP: You’re soon to head into one mammoth “Avatar” production.

Weaver: The scripts for “Avatar” are absolutely incredible. I have committed to a very interesting movie about a woman (“Second Saturn”) that I hope to do in May. It’s like: This is my wonderful meal before I go into Pandora.

 

 

Jessica Williams, Cate Blanchett star in Sundance premieres

Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams flexes her dramatic chops. Cate Blanchett pays homage to great 20th century artists and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani tells a very personal story in some of the films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Programmers announced their selections for the documentary and narrative premiere sections at the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched films like “Boyhood,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

As with many years, the Sundance premiere slate can be a place for well-known comedians to take a stab at more dramatic and serious roles.

In what’s expected to be one of the breakout films and performances of the festival, comedian Jessica Williams stars in Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a New York playwright recovering from a breakup and finding solace in a recent divorcee.

Nanjiani is another who might surprise audiences in “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon and is based on their own courtship. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed pic.

The festival also has films featuring veteran stars in different kinds of roles.

Shirley MacLaine stars in “The Last Word,” about a retired businesswoman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist (Amanda Seyfried) after writing her own obituary.

Festival founder Robert Redford, too, is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” about a world where the afterlife has been proven. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also star.

Cate Blanchett re-enacts artistic statements of Dadaists, Lars von Trier and everyone in between in “Manifesto.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland co-star in the drama “Where is Kyra.”

“Avengers” Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-team in the FBI crime thriller “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan.

“Bessie” director Dee Rees is poised to be a standout with “Mudbound,” a racial drama set in the post-WWII South and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.

“It’s quite topical to this time even though it’s a period piece,” said festival director John Cooper.

Among the documentaries premiering are a look at the Oklahoma City bombing from Barak Goodman; Stanley Nelson’s examination of black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We Are Rising”; and Barbara Kopple’s account of a champion diver who announces he is transgender, “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous.”

“The beauty of independent film is it’s not a copycat world, unlike some of the Hollywood stuff where they follow trends,” said programming director Trevor Groth. “Independent film has always been about originality and choice and something different.”

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19- 29.

 

On the Web

www.sundance.org/festival

Revelation about ‘Last Tango in Paris’ rape scene sparks outrage

Last Tango in Paris is making headlines again 44 years after the controversial film came out. A recently unearthed video interview with Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci from 2013 has renewed interest, and outrage, over what happened to actress Maria Schneider on set during the infamous butter rape scene.

Bertolucci said neither he nor Marlon Brando told Schneider of their plans to use the stick of butter during the simulated rape scene — a concept they came up with the morning of the shoot — because he wanted her to react “as a girl not as an actress.” He wanted her, he said, to feel “the rage and the humiliation.”

Schneider, who died in 2011 at age 58 after a lengthy illness, spoke a number of times about the scene between her, then aged 19, and Marlon Brando, then 48, even saying in a 2007 Daily Mail interview that she “felt a little raped” by her co-star and director.

“They only told me about it before we had to film the scene, and I was so angry,” Schneider said. “I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script. But at the time, I didn’t know that.”

Outrage today

But despite Schneider’s past comments, the video interview with Bertolucci struck a chord this weekend as it circulated on social media that the director was admitting the scene was non-consensual.

Actress Jessica Chastain wrote on Twitter that she felt “sick” over the revelation that “the director planned her attack.”

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay called it “inexcusable.”

“As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it,” DuVernay wrote.

Chris Evans also expressed his rage and said it was “beyond disgusting,” while Anna Kendrick weighed in that she “used to get eye-rolls” when she brought the incident up to people previously and that she was “glad at least it will be taken seriously now.”

Some, like actress Jenna Fischer, took a more extreme stance, writing that “all copies of this film should be destroyed immediately.”

Schneider, a relative unknown when she was cast in the film, said that the “whole circus” of suddenly being famous made her turn to drugs and she even attempted suicide a few times.

She stayed friends with Brando until his death in 2004, but she said that “for a while we couldn’t talk about the movie.”

Bertolucci, however, did not maintain a relationship with Schneider. He said he knew she hated him for life in that interview two years after her death.

And while he doesn’t regret the scene, he said he does feel guilty about it.

Milwaukee-born actor Gene Wilder dies at age 83

Gene Wilder, whose wild curls and startling blue eyes brought a frantic air to roles in the movies “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles,” died on Aug. 29 at the age of 83, his family said.

Wilder, whose best work included collaborations with director-writer Mel Brooks and actor-comedian Richard Pryor, died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, the family said in a statement.

Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said the actor had chosen to keep his illness secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.

Wilder’s barely contained hysteria made him a go-to lead for Brooks, who cast him in “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” and “The Producers” in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Gene Wilder – one of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship,” Brooks said on Twitter.

Besides his classic collaborations with Brooks, Wilder paired memorably with comedian Richard Pryor in hits “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy.”

Wilder also was active in promoting ovarian cancer awareness and treatment after his wife, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984, died of the disease in 1989.

He helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founded Gilda’s Club, a support organization that has branches throughout the United States.

Born Jerome Silberman to Russian immigrants in Milwaukee, Wilder studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, England, and then studied method acting at the Actors Studio.

A leading role in a play that also starred Anne Bancroft, who was dating her future husband Brooks, led to Wilder becoming a top member of Brooks’ stock company of crazies, some of whom branched out with Wilder into other film ventures.

Wilder’s first movie role was a small part as a terrified undertaker who was abducted by Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film of the same name.

The following year he was panic-stricken Leo Bloom to Zero Mostel’s conniving Max Bialystock in Brooks’ “The Producers,” picking up an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

While it initially got a tepid response, the movie with its over-the-top song “Springtime for Hitler,” went on to become a cult favorite and, years later with a different cast, a monster hit on Broadway.

Wilder was a last-minute fill-in as the “Waco Kid” in Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” in 1974, and with Brooks wrote the screenplay for “Young Frankenstein” released later that year, also to big box office returns.

The two were nominated for best screenplay Oscars, but lost to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for “The Godfather Part II.”

With Brooks alumni Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, Wilder made his directorial debut with 1975’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” and directed several other movies with uneven results.

Wilder’s title role in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” earned him a Golden Globe nomination in 1971, and he was nominated again in that category in 1976 for “Silver Streak.”

He won an Emmy in 2003 for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for appearances on “Will and Grace.”

Wilder’s memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art,” was released in 2005 and he collaborated with oncologist Steven Piver on the book “Gilda’s Disease” in 1998.

He was hospitalized in 1999 with non-Hodgkin lymphoma but was said to be in complete remission in 2005.

Wilder lived in Stamford in a house built in 1734 that he had shared with Radner, writing and painting watercolors with his wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991.

American actor Gene Wilder (L) performs alongside compatriot Rolf Saxon, October 2, during the rehearsal of a scene from Neil Simon's 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor'.
American actor Gene Wilder (L) performs alongside compatriot Rolf Saxon, October 2, during the rehearsal of a scene from Neil Simon’s ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’.

Henry Winkler dreams of a Tony, stars in new NBC reality series

During an hour-long chat at his Los Angeles home, Henry Winkler does impressions of George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and William Shatner (his co-stars in the new NBC reality series Better Late Than Never), walks like a ninja who suddenly sports jazz hands, and improvises a scene as the intolerant acting coach he plays in a new HBO comedy.

The 70-year-old entertainer is visibly animated as he discusses his career, which spans four decades and counting. But the overriding vibe from the former Fonz is one of gratitude. It’s not long before he launches into how thankful he is for the opportunities and success he continues to enjoy.

“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every inch of earth that I tread on in my life.”

Acting remains a passion. Winkler is also a successful author of children’s books (his 32nd was just published) and travels the country as a motivational speaker. And he’s a doting grandfather of four, including 4 1/2-year-old Ace, a redheaded sprite who calls him “Papa” and stays close to him during this interview.

(Ace just started requesting Winkler’s Here’s Hank books as bedtime stories. “I think I’m about to faint,” Winkler said.)

His next television endeavor is Better Late Than Never.

The four-episode reality series follows Winkler, Foreman, Bradshaw, Shatner and comedian Jeff Dye on various cultural and culinary adventures in Asia.

As an executive producer, Winkler helped assemble the quintet, who barely knew one another before embarking on the 35-day trip through Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. But talk about your bonding experiences: Together, they appeared on a Japanese game show, studied with samurai warriors, danced in a K-pop video and befriended elephants at an animal sanctuary.

Now “it’s friends for life,” Winkler said. “It might have been the trip of a lifetime.”

He’s so confident about the show — “to the point that I will come to your house and do the dishes” — if each episode isn’t better than the last.

“The reason that it gets better and better is — if you feel us being a tight unit in the first (episode) — it gets tighter and tighter and we get looser and looser and more outrageous with each other,” he said.

Winkler is also embracing the outrageous in scripted form with Barry, a new HBO series that starts production in January. Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader stars as a middling hit man who finds unexpected community among a group of theater hopefuls in Los Angeles. Winkler is their cantankerous acting coach.

Rather than describe the role, he breaks into character.

Winkler studied drama at Yale and has pursued the craft with vigor since he graduated. He only started writing children’s books when he had difficulty shedding the Fonz persona after Happy Days ended its 10-year run. But he’s never stopped looking for the next great part. Even now, he still goes out on auditions and dreams big.

“It makes me so happy,” he said. “And now that I’m getting better, that I’m more relaxed, that I’m more in touch with what I’m doing, it’s like I step into nirvana.

“My favorite role is the next role I do,” he continued. “I love going to work.”

Winkler’s joy and gratitude is palpable. He knocks on the wooden table when he mentions his hopes and blessings. He’s kept every single script from Happy Days (and every other show and film he’s done) and had them bound in hardback leather like a treasured collection of encyclopedias.

“You cannot take for granted one single second,” he said.

Though he is still yearning for one particular piece of hardware.

“Here’s my bucket list,” Winkler said. “I would like to see my grandchildren thrive. I would like to work until I absolutely cannot anymore. I would like to win a Tony. I watch the Tony Awards and cry every year. I love it. That is my dream. That is my dream. Whatever it is, that is my dream: to win a Tony.”

His thank-you speech may already be written.

Matt Damon reflects on being ‘Bourne’ again

It’s a sweltering afternoon in Hollywood and Matt Damon has just gotten out of couple’s therapy.

Don’t worry, it was just with Jimmy Kimmel — a continuation of the fake feud that started over 10 years ago before the two had even met.

“It takes a really surreal turn because we got a real therapist and we play it totally straight,” said Damon seated in the green room of Kimmel Studios. After “therapy,” Damon had about 10 minutes to do a photo shoot, film an intro for a festival he can’t attend and scarf down a salad. This is life on the blockbuster circuit.

Damon, 45, is promoting Jason Bourne, a film that nine years ago both he and director Paul Greengrass thought would never happen. After three movies exploring the story of the super spy created by Robert Ludlum, the last two of which were directed by Greengrass, and a particularly difficult shooting experience with The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon was done.

The name would come up often, though, in meetings and from fans. In 2009, around the time Damon and Greengrass did Green Zone, they flirted with getting another one going but there just wasn’t a story. Universal Pictures, meanwhile, moved on, expanding the Bourne universe with a film focused on another agent played by Jeremy Renner. It did well enough, and a sequel was in the works. Then, in 2014, Greengrass and Damon took a look at the world and realized how much had changed.

“Paul called and said that the first set piece would be an austerity riot in Athens,” Damon said. “I’m like, ‘OK, we’re back.’”

But they made sure to structure their production schedule so they weren’t coming up with the script while they were shooting — as was the case with Ultimatum.

“When you’re in production, you’re lighting money on fire and you can feel it. What (co-writers) Paul (Greengrass) and Chris (Rouse) did this time, which is great, was they took a whole year and showed up with 120 pages that you want to shoot,” Damon said. “We knew once we said we were going to do it, that we were going to get a release date, so we just got all of our ducks in a row.”

And it worked.

For Ultimatum, they shot for 138 days. Jason Bourne was a trim 95.

The film is partially about the world of government surveillance, introducing CIA agents played by Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander.

The high octane hunt takes Bourne to the requisite international locales and even a few domestic ones — including Las Vegas, where one set piece features a SWAT vehicle plowing through cars on the strip. It’s eerily reminiscent of the recent incident in France.

The marketing team pulled the scene from European ads immediately, he said.

“That was just horrific,” Damon said. “None of us felt like it was a copy-cat thing, but we didn’t want to be insensitive with those images out there.”

It makes him think of the objections to the posters showing him wielding a gun — a sentiment he keenly understands.

“Movies are a tool for empathy. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t believe that,” he said. “But violence is a part of the human condition and so sometimes you end up playing violent characters. Jason Bourne is a violent character.”

He hopes that the series, which has shown Bourne atoning for his actions, has a mindfulness that distinguishes it from others.

Damon may be one of the most bankable movie stars in the business, but he still feels the pressure of a big opening — especially from a franchise like Bourne.

“A lot is at stake,” Damon said. “The movie was expensive to make and if the audience doesn’t show up then, yeah, that would be a big deal that would be bad … Our jobs are constantly hanging in the balance. It’s an insecure profession and an insecure industry.”

He’s keeping busy, though.

Almost too busy.

His packed schedule meant giving up a plum role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea to his pal Casey Affleck. The film, based on an idea from John Krasinski and Damon, who also produced, was rapturously received at Sundance and will come out in November.

“Casey’s no dummy. He was like ‘I’ll do it! I’ll clear everything from my schedule!” Damon laughed.

But Damon has some big things on the horizon, too, including Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, and Yimou Zhang’s historical fantasy The Great Wall, a massive American and Chinese co-production that’s out in February. He moved his wife and kids to China for six months during the shoot.

“There were 50 translators running around in every department. But everyone had made a lot of movies so we had that common language,” Damon said.

Next he’s shooting the George Clooney-directed and Joel and Ethan Coen-scripted crime mystery Suburbicon.

And maybe after that he’ll get around to taking a break and finally figuring out what he wants to direct.

Right now it’s all Bourne.

He’s just wrapped a big international tour and is off to New York to do the talk show circuit.

“Then I’m done!” Damon said. “Well, I still have to go to China and Japan. But that’s like two weeks away. I’m not looking that far ahead.”

Blair Brown is happy to be sentenced to a role on ‘Orange’

On last season’s finale of Orange is the New Black, Judy King, nailed for tax evasion, arrived at Litchfield Penitentiary to surrender. But she found no one at the front desk to receive her.

Judy had a fit. A big-time TV chef, she wasn’t used to being made to wait.

With Netflix’s release of the entire 13-episode fourth season June 17, viewers will find Judy has subsequently gotten a warm welcome at Litchfield from many of her fellow female inmates (she’s a TV star!). And from the warden, too, who handles her with kid gloves: He worries that, if anything ugly should befall her, bad publicity or even a lawsuit would result.

Suffice it to say that Judy will help make this Orange season cook as Blair Brown joins the cast of this prison comedy-drama for an exploration of fame compelled to coexist with hoi polloi.

In a recent interview, Brown takes pains to say Judy King isn’t meant to be a Martha Stewart knockoff, although the similarities (including their mutual incarceration) are obvious. But so is the nod to down-South culinarian Paula Deen, as evidenced by Judy’s luxurious drawl.

“Judy’s Southern all right,” says Brown. “She’s also very outgoing, very friendly, and a complete egotist in the sense that whatever is good for her, she figures is very good for you. She is a survivor, and her attitude in being in prison is, she just wants to get this done.”

In the process, she rises to the occasion. Here, as with most places, she loves the spotlight.

“It’s interesting to come into this story playing a privileged person,” Brown says. “There are a lot of feelings both on the administrative side and the inmate side as to what that means, and why that is.”

Brown, 69, is a veteran actress with a wide range of roles whose only commonality may be her signature red hair and luminous smile.

Her film work includes a trio of major releases within two years (1980-81): One-Trick Pony, Altered States and Continental Divide. Her many theater credits include a Tony Award-winning turn in the play Copenhagen.

Recent TV appearances include a recurring role last season on Limitless, and before that as the steely corporate boss on the Fox sci-fi series Fringe.

And, of course, there’s her celebrated run as the title character of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which, though not a smash hit, helped change TV.

Brown says she has been an Orange fan since its inception.

“When it first started, I thought, ‘Is there any room for me on this?’ But I decided they had plenty of people, with enough stories to tell.

“Then I got the call to play Judy,” she smiles, “and the character was easy, because she came in wondering how does all this work? So did I. All the stuff I’m trying to find out as a new cast member works hand in hand with Judy’s journey. So that’s been a happy coincidence.”

Another happy coincidence: The role has brought her back to Kaufman Astoria Studios, the Queens, New York, production center where Molly Dodd was shot three decades ago.

Premiering on NBC in May 1987, Molly Dodd centered on a mid-30s divorcee living in New York who, by turns, was a free spirit and a Yuppie hewing to no clear professional or romantic path.

While many viewers loved this new form, many more didn’t get it. Nor would some of them accept Molly: She was a bit too liberated, too unpredictable, too complex.

For Brown, it was all a much simpler experience.

“It just seemed so easy,” she recalls. “We told these little half-hour stories. We didn’t have a laugh track and we didn’t have to go for big yuks. We thought, ‘Let’s just have a person who lives her life. What would that be like?’ And that, of course, is what some people loved. But other people hated it.”

NBC, as perplexed by Molly Dodd as some viewers, bounced the show from slot to slot for a year. Then Lifetime came to its rescue, where it aired until 1991.

Along the way, it helped stake out a genre dubbed “dramedy,” a term also applied to similarly groundbreaking shows Hooperman, Frank’s Place and Doogie Howser, M.D., which launched Neil Patrick Harris.

It was a form that greatly stretched the possibilities of the strictly comic half-hour sitcom as well as the strictly dramatic hour-long dramas of that day. Without Molly Dodd, it’s possible that Orange would never have happened.

“But now,” says Brown, “many, many years later, I’m back in Queens, at the same studio, doing another show that’s funny when it wants to be funny, serious and scary when it wants to be serious and scary. It’s a very similar idea. It’s just about people. And you don’t have to blow anything up.”

Legendary rock star David Bowie dies at 69 after battle with cancer

Legendary British rock star David Bowie has died aged 69 after a secret battle with cancer.

A chameleon and a visionary, Bowie straddled the worlds of hedonistic rock, fashion and drama for five decades, pushing the boundaries of music and his own sanity to produce some of the most innovative songs of his generation.

“David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer,” read a statement on Bowie’s Facebook page dated Sunday. Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, confirmed the death.

Mourners laid flowers and lit candles beside a memorial to Bowie in the Brixton area of south London where he was born, and tributes poured in from some of the biggest names in music, including the Rolling Stones, Madonna and rapper Kanye West.

“The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie,” the Stones said. “He was an extraordinary artist, and a true original.”

Madonna said on Twitter: “Talented. Unique. Genius. Game Changer. The Man who Fell to Earth. Your Spirit Lives on Forever!”

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had grown up with Bowie’s music and described his death as “a huge loss.”

In a music video accompanying Bowie’s new Blackstar album, which was released on his 69th birthday last Friday, the singer was shown in a hospital bed with bandages around his eyes.

Born David Jones in south London two years after the end of World War Two, he took up the saxophone at 13 before changing his name to David Bowie to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ Davy Jones, according to Rolling Stone.

He shot to fame in Britain in 1969 with “Space Oddity,” whose lyrics he said were inspired by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” while stoned.

Bowie’s hollow lyrics summed up the loneliness of the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union and coincided with the Apollo landing on the moon.

“Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on … For here am I sitting in my tin can. Far above the world. Planet Earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do.”

“SPACE ODDITY ZIGGY”

But it was Bowie’s 1972 portrayal of a doomed bisexual rock envoy from space, Ziggy Stardust, that propelled him to global stardom. Bowie and Ziggy, wearing outrageous costumes, makeup and bright orange hair, took the rock world by storm.

“Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly,” according to the lyrics which Bowie sang with a red lightning bolt across his face and flamboyant jumpsuits.

“Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind. Like a leper messiah,” according the lyrics.

Bowie, ever the innovator ahead of public opinion, told the Melody Maker newspaper in 1972 that he was gay, a step that helped pioneer sexual openness in Britain, which had only decriminalized homosexuality in 1967. Bowie had married in 1970.

He told Playboy four years later he was bisexual, but in the 1980s he told Rolling Stone magazine that the declaration was “the biggest mistake I ever made” and that he was “always a closet heterosexual”.

This was a period which saw Bowie sporting an array of fantastic costumes, some reportedly based on the chilling Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”.

Now one of the top transatlantic rock stars, Bowie continued to innovate, helping to produce Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” delving into America’s R&B and working with John Lennon.

“He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way,” said Tony Visconti, the U.S. producer who helped lift Bowie to stardom.

“He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry,” he said.

“LET’S DANCE”

Bowie reinvented himself again in the mid-seventies, adopting a soul and funk sound, and abandoning stack heels for designer suits and flat shoes.

He scored his first U.S. number one with “Fame” and created a new persona, the “Thin White Duke,” for his “Station to Station” album.

But the excesses were taking their toll. In a reference to his prodigious appetite for cocaine, he said: ““I blew my nose one day in California. “And half my brains came out. Something had to be done.”

Bowie moved from the United States to Switzerland and then to Cold War-era Berlin to recuperate, working with Brian Eno from Roxy Music to produce some of his least commercial and most ambitious music, including ““Low” and “”Heroes” in 1977.

In 1983 Bowie changed tack again, signing a multi-million-dollar five-album deal with EMI. The first, “”Let’s Dance,” returned him to chart success and almost paid off his advance.

“If you say run, I’ll run with you. If you say hide, we’ll hide. Because my love for you. Would break my heart in two,” he sang in Let’s Dance.

He starred on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” at the start of the decade and appeared in an array of films including “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence,” “The Snowman,” “Absolute Beginners” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”.

His love-life fascinated gossip columnists and his marriage to stunning Somali supermodel Iman in 1992 guaranteed headlines.

Bowie kept a low profile after undergoing emergency heart surgery in 2004. It was not widely known that he was fighting cancer.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings from a hospital bed in the video accompanying his last album.

“I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen. Everybody knows me now. Look up here, man, I’m in danger. I’ve got nothing left to lose.”

Locally grown baritone gets villainous in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Some performing artists find their career path through trial and error, but operatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek knows exactly when and where he decided to become a professional singer.

The Milwaukee-born Smith-Kotlarek, who was raised in Neenah, was a voice student at UW-Madison when he saw Madison Opera’s 2007 production of Puccini’s La Boheme. He already knew music would be a part of his life, but when tenor Dinyar Vania, playing Rodolpho, began a particular aria in Act II, it struck a chord with the college senior.

“There is a scene in which Rodolpho tells Mimi how much he loves her and how difficult it will be to leave her,” Smith-Kotlarek remembers. “Puccini’s music hit a high note and the orchestra swelled up underneath to create an incredibly intense moment. I thought, ‘I want to sing like that!’”

Since that time, Smith-Kotlarek has pursued a career in vocal performance that has spanned both opera and musical theater. The 29-year-old singer/actor may have hit his stride this season as the villain Gaston in the current national touring production of Beauty and the Beast. The traveling Broadway show opens at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton for a five-show run Dec. 18-20, then goes to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Jan. 13-17 (a different cast not including Smith-Kotlarek will visit Milwaukee in March).

Smith-Kotlarek, who played John Wilkes Booth in Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in Madison this past December, will once again get to test his mettle as the villainous suitor of the Beauty and ultimately battle the Beast for her hand. But this is Disney and true love triumphs, much to Gaston’s dismay, all in the name of an evening of entertaining theater.

“When you include the animated film version, Beauty and the Beast has been around for 24 years and it already has its own traditions,” Smith-Kotlarek says. “That’s long enough to establish a full set of audience expectations.”

Until the fateful performance of La Boheme, Smith-Kotlarek had no specific expectations for his career. But he did develop quite a few interests along the way, following multiple musical threads that matured with time and training.

Smith-Kotlarek began taking Suzuki piano lessons at age 7, but at age 10, he switched to guitar, eventually joining a punk band in middle school. By high school, his tastes had tamed and he became more interested in what he calls “the singer-y, songwriter type of stuff.”

While still in high school, he started taking voice lessons and studying jazz guitar at Appleton’s Lawrence University. Arriving at UW-Madison in 2004, he pursued a degree in vocal performance and music, working with a variety of professors, including baritone Paul Rowe and legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis.

“I had a number of realizations while studying with (Davis),” Smith-Kotlarek says. ”He played with everyone from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein. His career always fascinated me and he inspired me a lot.”

In addition to singing, Smith-Kotlarek continued his work as a jazz guitarist, fronting a group called Simply Put that played in various Madison-area clubs. The combo’s momentary brush with fame came in 2007 when it was hired to open for a then-relatively unknown presidential candidate named Barack Obama, who visited Madison while on the campaign trail.

“I got to play some of my original songs,” the musician remembers. “I also ran the sound board for the group.”

He also sang with the University of Wisconsin Opera and in the chorus for the Madison Opera, which helped confirm his musical interests. He decided to immerse himself in opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, which netted him his first major role as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

While at IU, Smith-Kotlarek studied with his professor and fellow baritone Timothy Noble, whom he credits with talking him into auditioning for the role of Gaston. Noble, he notes, also is a jazz fan.

After receiving his master’s degree, Smith-Kotlarek was chosen as one of 12 vocalists to attend the Opera Institute, part of Boston University’s School of Fine Arts. It was at BU that the singer first performed the role of Booth in a university production of Assassins.

BU also allowed Smith-Kotlarek to meet and work with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, a Terrence McNally adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book about death row convicts. The singer would eventually perform the opera’s lead role, murderer Joseph De Rocher.

“Jake gave me a real feel for his work and even gave me a small mentorship in opera,” says Smith-Kotlarek, who most recently performed the part in 2014 at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I loved that role.”

The baritone’s 6’4” athletic frame made him a good physical fit for the DeRocher part, just as it has for the part of Gaston. However, he’s added a little more muscle to that frame to support what he describes as Gaston’s athleticism.

“I am not necessarily the size of Gaston, so that required some gym time for me, not to mention an adjustment to his arrogance and misogynist point of view,” Smith-Kotlarek says.

The main thing the various roles, performances and higher education have taught Smith-Kotlarek is how to function as part of a team when it comes to putting on a show as complex as Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a lesson that all performers learn right out of school, but one he believes to be invaluable for a performer’s success.

“The show’s creative team had developed specific and useful ways of mounting each performance, and it’s nice just to walk in, get your blocking and know that if you follow instructions, things will look good,” Smith-Kotlarek explains. “But there is still room to put yourself into the character, which is expected. And for a performer, that’s the best of both worlds.”

ONSTAGE

Beauty and the Beast will appear Dec. 18-20 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, 400 W. College Ave., Appleton. Tickets start at $50 and can be ordered at 920-730-3760 or foxcitiespac.org. The show returns to Madison Jan. 13 to 17 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets range from $45 to $100 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org.

Charlie Sheen says he is HIV positive, was blackmailed over status

Charlie Sheen, former star of the hit television comedy “Two and A Half Men,” said on Nov. 17 he was diagnosed HIV positive some four years ago and had been extorted for more than $10 million to keep the information quiet

Sheen, 50, told NBC’s “Today” TV show he was speaking out because he was being blackmailed, and to refute tabloid reports that he has AIDS and was spreading it to other people.

“I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of subtruths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, that threaten the health of so many others that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said.

“I am here to admit that I am in fact HIV positive,” Sheen said, adding he was “not entirely sure” how he contracted the virus.

“It started with what I thought was a series of crushing headaches,” he said. “I thought I had a brain tumor. I thought it was over.”

Sheen’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, also appeared on the “Today” show and said the actor “does not have AIDS.”

Sheen, who is three times divorced, played the womanizing bachelor Charlie Harper on top-rated comedy series “Two and A Half Men” for eight years before being fired in 2011 for bad behavior that included cocaine-fueled partying with porn stars and a conviction for assaulting his ex-wife.

At the time, he was the highest paid actor on television, with a reported salary of some $1.8 million per episode.

Asked whether he had transmitted HIV to anyone since his diagnosis, Sheen said, Iimpossible.” He said he had informed his ex-wives immediately after getting his diagnosis.

The actor said he had “always led with condoms and honesty when it came to my condition.”

Sheen acknowledged he had paid people “upwards of $10 million” in recent years for their silence about his condition but said he would no longer do so.

“I think I released myself from this prison today,” he said.

After being fired from “Two and A Half Men,” Sheen set up home with a number of porn stars he called “goddesses” and boasted on YouTube of having “tiger blood” in his veins.

Reaction to Sheen’s announcement was largely compassionate on social media where the actor won sympathy for disclosing his condition.

He has five children from his marriages to model Donna Peele, actresses Denise Richards and Brooke Mueller, and other relationships.