December 10: Happy Birthday Kenneth Branagh and Michael Clarke Duncan
Sir Kenneth Branagh is celebrating his 56th birthday today. Born in Ireland, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and immediately on graduating started to make a mark in British theater. By 1987 he was not only starring in major productions, he had co-founded his own theater company. As you might expect if you are familiar with his career, a good deal of his stage work, although far from all of it, involved Shakespeare. Likewise, when Branagh first became known to movie audiences, it was in a Shakespeare adaptation:
Branagh was nominated for Oscars for Best Actor and Best Director for Henry V. He has made four additional Shakespeare films—Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and As You Like It (acting in all but the last as well)—and also played Iago in Oliver Parker’s film of Othello.
Branagh also has an impressive non-Shakespeare filmography, both as actor and director. The individual films haven’t always been impressive, mind you—he’d probably prefer that we all forgot about Wild Wild West–but he has done a wide variety of work. In 2002 alone, he played Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and A. O. Neville, Chief “Protector” of Aborigines, in Rabbit Proof Fence. His directing output includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thor, and last year’s live-action Cinderella. Next year he will appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and will direct and star (as Hercule Poirot) in a new production of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
Michael Clarke Duncan (1957-2012) did not begin acting until he was nearly forty. He worked for many years in a variety of blue collar jobs—ditch-digger, bouncer, bodyguard, etc. A few of his first movie roles were bit parts as bouncers or bodyguards. In 1998 he had a more substantial part in Armageddon, followed by his breakthrough role in a Stephen King adaptation, a sort of prison drama/fantasy genre blender:
Duncan was nominated for an Oscar and a lot of other acting awards for The Green Mile. What’s striking is that his post-Green Mile career is not terribly impressive—when one of your high points is appearing in Daredevil, you don’t have a lot of career high points. Nevertheless, he remained an easily recognizable presence on film. In the summer of 2012 he suffered a heart attack; although he survived the initial seizure, he died of complications several weeks later.
Raven-Symoné, who turns 31 today, made her acting debut when she was just three, as Olivia Kendall, Denise Huxtable’s stepdaughter, on The Cosby Show. The former child actress has gone on to a respectable adult career as an actress, singer and television host. Emmanuelle Chriqui, who celebrates her 39th, is best known as Sloan McQuewick in the series and film Entourage. Patrick Flueger, who stars on NBC’s Chicago P.D. as Adam Ruzek, is 33 today. Xavier Samuel also turns 33. He has something in common with one of our headliners today; like Kenneth Branagh, he had a substantial role in a Frankenstein movie, playing the monster in a 2015 direct-to-video version. Our sports birthday today is NHL Hall-of-Famer Rob Blake, one of the top defensemen in the league for most of his career. Blake turns 47 today.
Actress and R&B singer Nia Peeples, who is turning 55, plays Pam Fields on Pretty Little Liars and had a #12 hit in 1991 with “Street of Dreams.” Susan Dey, who turns 64, made her acting debut as Laurie Partridge on The Partridge Family. Unlike many of her cast-mates from that series, her career had a substantial second act, as a Golden Globe winner and three-time Emmy nominee as Grace Van Owen on L.A. Law. Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan is 75 today. A regular in American film and television, she won an Emmy for the 1970s miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man.
In music, today was the birthday of two of France’s leading composers. César Franck (1822-1890) was actually born in Belgium, but spent almost all his career in France. He was the composer of a symphony, a set of Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra, and a body of organ music that leads some to call him the greatest composer for that instrument since J. S. Bach. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was also a noted organist and composer for the organ; he is also noted for his Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed while in a Nazi prison camp, for the only four instruments the prisoners had available: a cello, a clarinet, a piano and a violin. Other music birthdays include Meg White, who turns 42. She is a four-time Grammy winner as half of the rock duo White Stripes (she is the drummer and shares the vocals). Sarah Chang, who turns 36, is a Korean-American violinist who made her first album when she was ten, and has been performing and recording with orchestras all over the world ever since. Alexander Courage (1919-2008) had a long career as a composer for film and television that included composing the theme music for Star Trek (the original series, that is).
Una Merkel (1903-1986) was a prominent film actress in the 1930s, known especially for her catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. She also worked on stage, winning a Tony in 1956. Dorothy Lamour (1914-1996), known as the “Sarong Queen” for her roles in films like The Jungle Princess, is best remembered for starring in the Road to… pictures with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Anne Gwynne (1918-2003) was a contract player at Universal who was something of a “scream queen” of the 1940s, appearing in horror films like Black Friday and House of Frankenstein. Actor Chris Pine is her grandson. Dan Blocker (1928-1972) had been acting for only a few years when he was cast as Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza, the role he will always be remembered for. Mako Iwamatsu, usually billed simply as Mako (1933-2006), played Asian characters of all nationalities for over 40 years. He was Oscar-nominated for The Sand Pebbles and played Akiro, the wizard, in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. Harold Gould (1923-2010) was a five-time Emmy nominee in a long television career; one of his best-known roles was as Martin Morgenstern, father of a young woman named Rhoda.
Two actors who were well-known to viewers of family-oriented entertainment of the 1950s and early ’60s were born on the same day. Tommy Rettig (1941-1996) appeared in films like River of No Return, where he played Robert Mitchum’s son, but was best known for playing Jeff Miller, a boy who had a dog named Lassie. Tommy Kirk, who turns 75, appeared in several Disney features of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, and The Swiss Family Robinson. Both actors eventually went into other lines of work, Rettig as a database programmer, and Kirk running, of all things, a carpet-cleaning business.
Our literary birthday today is the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Almost unknown during her lifetime—only a handful of her poems were published prior to her death—she is now ranked as one of the greatest American poets. Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson in a biopic, A Quiet Passion, which is currently making the rounds of film festivals.
Some readers may recall one of our ongoing Movieline series posts from several months back about depictions of Ireland in film. Some of the films discussed in that article starred Victor McLaglen (1886-1959). McLaglen starred in the silent classic What Price Glory? and was one of the leads in Gunga Din in 1939, but many of his best-known roles were in films directed by John Ford. McLaglen starred as Gypo Nolan, and won an Oscar, in Ford’s The Informer, played a boisterous, hard-drinking sergeant in the so-called “Cavalry Trilogy,” and had a very famous brawl with John Wayne in The Quiet Man.
If today is your birthday, congratulations on sharing your big day with these notable names. Birthday wishes to everyone celebrating a big day today. Come back tomorrow for more celebrity birthdays.
Posted on December 10, 2016, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged Alexander Courage, Dan Blocker, Dorothy Lamour, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Clarke Duncan, Susan Dey, Victor McLaglen. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.