January 8: Happy Birthday Sarah Polley and Elvis Presley

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Canadian actress, writer and director Sarah Polley celebrates her 38th today.  She began working as a child performer in Canadian television, first as the title character in Ramona, a series adapted from Beverly Cleary’s series of children’s novels, and then starring for several years as Sara Stanley, the lead character of Road to Avonlea, adapted from the novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In the late 1990s, Polley began to build an impressive resume in independent films.  She had a pivotal role in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, and in 1999 appeared in several films, including David Cronenberg’s Existenz and Doug Liman’s Go:

Cameron Crowe then cast Polley as Penny Lane in Almost Famous, which might well have been a traditional Hollywood “breakthrough” role for her, but she decided to drop out of the film early in production.  Instead, she seems to have made a deliberate choice to be a more independent artist.  Since then, her most acclaimed acting performances have been in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words, while probably the most unexpected one in her filmography is the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

Polley has also begun working on the other side of the camera.  She directed and wrote Away from Her in 2006, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and Genie Awards for both writing and directing.  She was writer, director and producer for Take This Waltz, and then directed and wrote the autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell.  Her latest project is producing and writing the upcoming Canadian TV series Alias Grace.

We have a number of major music birthdays today, but the biggest of all is the King.  Elvis Presley (1935-1977) began singing and playing guitar while in high school in Memphis, TN.  In 1953 he began making a few trial recordings for Sun Records, and late the next year he began appearing regularly on Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio show, and soon began touring.  As he did so, he began to develop a new, unique sound to his music.  In 1955 he signed a recording contract with RCA, which release his first major hit single early the next year:

I’m sure you all know the basic outline of the rest of the story.  With 18 Number One singles and 9 Number One albums in his lifetime, Presley was one of the most successful recording artists in history—the only debate is whether, to date, anyone has actually sold more records than him.  He had at least a moderately successful film career.  And, along the way, he picked up more than his share of substance abuse problems, which caught up with him in 1977.

John McTiernan, who turns 66 today, made a name directing action films like Predator and Die Hard.  Then, over time, his directing career went to pieces.  Then, he went to federal prison.  Which might make a person wonder, what the hell happened?

Buffy fans will insist that we remember that today is Amber Benson’s 40th birthday.  Since her role as Tara Maclay, she has appeared in a number of indies films, including a few she has produced and directed as well.  She has also written or co-written a number of novels.  Sam Riley, who turns 37, made his feature film debut with an acclaimed performance as short-lived singer Ian Curtis in the biopic Control, and has since been seen in films like Brighton Rock, Maleficent, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Born the same day as Riley, Rachel Nichols starred in the thriller P2 and on the Canadian sci-fi series Continuum.  Gaby Hoffman, who celebrates her 35th, had a lot of work as a child actress in films like Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle; recently she has been an Emmy nominee for the Amazon series Transparent and for a guest role on HBO’s Girls.

Larry Storch, who turns 94, is a retired comedian and actor remembered for his regular role on F Troop and for his enormous variety of voice work and celebrity impressions.  Bob Eubanks, the long-time host of The Newlywed Game, was also the manager of country performers like Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrell.  He turns 79 today.

More music birthdays now.  Robert Sylvester Kelly, who performs and records as R. Kelly, is turning 50.  He won three Grammys for his R&B/soul hit “I Believe I Can Fly” in 1998 and has had ten Top 10 hits during his career; his first eight studio albums all reached at least #2 on the Billboard 200.  That’s not to mention his career as a producer.  Robbie Krieger, the guitarist for The Doors, who was ranked as one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists, turns 71 today.  Dame Shirley Bassey, the traditional pop singer who many will remember for singing the themes to three Bond films, including Goldfinger, celebrates her 80th.  Jenny Lewis, who turns 41, had a modest film career, possibly highlighted by Troop Beverly Hills, and a more substantial musical one.  She was the lead singer of the indie rock band Rilo Kiley, and has also released three solo albums.

Terry Brooks, one of the most important fantasy authors of the post-Tolkien era, turns 73 today.  It has been forty years since Brooks’ first novel, The Sword of Shannara, was released.  Criticized by some fantasy buffs for being too derivative of Tolkien, it was nevertheless a big success, and helped open the door for fantasy to be successful with a mass audience.  Brooks has kept writing steadily; there are now somewhere in the vicinity of thirty Shannara novels, while the separate Magic Kingdom of Landover series is currently six books in length.

Stephen Hawking turns 75 today.  The wheelchair-bound theoretical physicist wrote one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, A Brief History of Time.  Eddie Redmayne played Hawking in the biopic The Theory of Everything, sweeping the major Best Actor awards.  Radio and television journalist Charles Osgood turns 84.  He is best known for his long-running CBS radio program The Osgood File; Osgood delivers many of the three-minute broadcasts in rhyme, and is know as CBS’s “poet in residence.”

José Ferrer (1912-1992), a Puerto Rican actor and director, won a Tony for a 1946 Broadway revival of Cyrano de Bergerac, and then starred in a film adaptation which brought him the Oscar for Best Actor and made him the first Hispanic actor to win an Oscar.  Like Ferrer, Ron Moody (1924-2015) was best known for a role he played both on stage and screen, Fagin in Oliver!, for which Moody was both an Oscar and a Tony nominee.  Graham Chapman (1941-1989) was one of the members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, and starred as King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and as Brian Cohen in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Rose Louise Hovick, better known by her stage name of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970), may have been the most famous striptease performer in American history.  The musical Gypsy is about her early career and her relations with her mother, Rose Thompson Hovick.

British character actor Roy Kinnear (1934-1988) had some of his best roles in Richard Lester’s films, such as Clapper in How I Won the War and Planchet in The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.  Sadly, he died while filming another Musketeers film, Return of the Musketeers—he fell from a horse and his injuries brought on a heart attack.  American actor/comedian Soupy Sales (1926-2009) hosted the childrens show Lunch with Soupy Sales for over a decade; his comic trademark was being hit with a pie in the face.  Saeed Jaffrey (1929-2015) had a long and versatile career in Indian, British and American film.  He was a regular in Merchant-Ivory films and had roles in The Man Who Would Be King (as Billy Fish), Gandhi, My Beautiful Laundrette, and many more.  William Hartnell (1908-1975) had an extensive career in British television, but worldwide he will be remembered as the First Doctor on Doctor Who.

A variety of historical birthdays begins with Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the English scientist and explorer who was the co-discoverer of the principle of evolution through natural selection.  Novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is best known for writing what is considered the first full length detective novel in English, The MoonstoneJames Longstreet (1821-1904) was a leading general on the Confederate side in the American Civil War; he has been played in film by Tom Berenger and Bruce Boxleitner.

To wrap for today, we have one last really big name (but not a King) from the music world.  David Bowie (1947-2016) was one of the great innovators in rock history, with an influence on several rock subgenres, including punk, new wave, funk and more.  Remarkably, he won only a single Grammy in his career, which may say more about the Grammys than about him.  Although he isn’t the first person many people would think of as a hit-maker, he had quite a bit of commercial success over the years; he sold an estimated 100-140 million records in his career.

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 January 8, 2017, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I always liked Gaby Hoffman. She was funny in “Sleepless in Seattle” where she talked in abbreviations and got Ross Malinger in trouble and Tom Hanks in a tizzy. I also liked when Burt Lancaster saved her in “Field of Dreams”.

    David Bowie was truly the first artist to make crazy cool. No wonder I respect Bowie and Lady Gaga.

    Jose Ferrer was wonderful in “The Caine Mutiny”. He made Fred MacMurray look like a complete moron while doing his job. If you look very closely, Ferrer has a broken arm throughout the film. Ferrer’s character, Barney Greenwald, mentions in the film his injury happened in a plane crash, but I think that line was in to allude to his injury. I have yet to see “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Moulin Rouge”.

    I always liked Graham Chapman, and it’s a shame he died so young. He did his own stunts on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, which included doing a sketch hanging by a rope. A lot of people don’t know this, but Chapman’s mother was a stage mother who shuttles him between activities. Singing lessons, dancing lessons, archery team, lacrosse team, rock climbing, you name it. Chapman was also going to be a doctor but chose show business, which pleased his mother, but it broke his father’s heart.

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  2. I’m one of the few people I know who likes Existenz. I recommended it to some people who still make a point of telling me how much they didn’t like it. The first movie where I remember taking note of Sarah Polley was Go which was a good movie but suffered a bit from being part of the post-Pulp Fiction Tarantino copycat wave. It was superior to most of the other wannabes, but it still felt like lesser Pulp when I first saw it. I did enjoy the Dawn of the Dead remake.

    Speaking of Pulp Fiction, there’s a deleted scene in which Umma Thurman quizzes John Travolta on his preference between the Beatles and Elvis. Her theory is that while you can like them both a lot, you can’t possibly love them equally. You’re in one camp or another. I’m a Beatles guy, but my father-in-law is solidly in the Elvis camp.

    We don’t have a lot of directors in WTHH, but few have fallen as far as John McTiernan.

    I know Amber Benson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I also know I have seen her in other things. For a while, she was writing some Buffy comic books, but I never read them. Joss Whedon actually wanted to bring her character back to the show and had to scramble to come up with an alternate storyline when she passed on the offer.

    I’m surprised to hear that is still around. Good for him. I have watched a fair amount of Bob Eubanks without realizing he had a background as a manager. Of today’s musical birthdays, Shirley Bassey is the one that is nearest and dearest.

    It was José Ferrer’s Cyrano that inspired Steve Martin to write one half of today’s bracket game, Roxanne. As a member of Monty Python, Graham Chapman made me laugh a lot. How on earth do I know who Soupy Sales is. Am I really that old? Guess so.

    David Bowie’s passing still feels like a fresh loss. Here’s hoping 2017 goes easy on us in the celeb deaths department.

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  3. When I first started doing the research for this article I was wondering if I would have to break my rule about always having at least one living person in the headlines. Elvis and Bowie are such big names in music, after all. But Sarah Polley has been a favorite of mine since I saw her in The Sweet Hereafter and then Go and The Secret Life of Words, so once I realized it was her birthday picking her as a headliner was easy. She is a very talented individual (with the stress on “individual”).

    Looking over the WTHH roster, it seems we have only four people there who have been directors first and foremost (as opposed to actors who also direct), and two of the four have had birthdays in the last three days.

    Amber Benson was a favorite of mine on Buffy—both for the character she played and for her own, multiple talents.

    I remember both Roy Kinnear and Saeed Jaffrey for their roles in a few of my favorite films from the 1970s; Kinnear as Planchet in Richard Lester’s Musketeers films (my favorite Dumas-to-screen adaptations), and Jaffrey as Billy Fish in The Man Who Would Be King.

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    • If you had done the Bowie/Elvis route, I don’t think anyone would have quibbled. But I like Sarah Polley too.

      That cluster of WTHH director birthdays is a pretty funny coincidence. I’m surprised I didn’t notice when I was putting up photo galleries. But the directors didn’t get galleries because more often than not they aren’t in the photos. Also I have yet to write a WTHH about a director who wasn’t primarily known for acting.

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  4. I mentioned Sarah Polley was the little kid in “The Big Town”, but I really first remember her from 1999’s “Go”, then films like 2000’s “The Weight of Water, 2003’s “My Life Without Me” and 2004’s “Siblings”. I think she’s a film fan’s actress.
    Trivia Today had a ton of Elvis stuff today, and I got both questions right (who his manager was was easy, and the other was what his favorite sandwich was). I think Elvis is solid, but my late aunt was a big, big fan: Elvis would be the first picture you’d see if you went through the front door.
    John McTiernan, he had a nice run for a while there as a director.
    Amber Benson, I bumped into her at an E3 in Los Angeles in the 2000’s once, but otherwise I don’t know much about her film career. She looked real pretty in person for that 3 seconds I saw her though.
    I’m not too familiar with Rachel Nichols either, I’m more familiar with the Rachel Nichols that works for ESPN.
    R. Kelly, I don’t think “I Can Believe I Can Fly” will ever leave my head, or anyone that heard easy listening at their workplace in the late 1990’s.
    Like the article, I end with David Bowie. He had a remarkable career, and I like the ways he reinvented himself, since it seemed he did it because he was creative, but not desperate.

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