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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stars from the Sunflower State

A number of Kansas natives have made a name for themselves in movies and TV.

By BOB CURTRIGHT
Eagle correspondent

It seems like a long way from the highways and byways of Kansas to the dreamy streets of Hollywood, but from the earliest days of Thomas Edison's "flickers" more than a century ago, Kansans of every talent stripe have been trekking westward to make movie and TV magic.

We're not talking about the folks most people identify with Kansas, like Dorothy Gale, who rode a tornado over the rainbow for incredible adventures in Oz.

Or Clark Kent, who arrived in Smallville as a tiny survivor of a distant world and dedicated himself as Superman to fighting for truth, justice and the American Way.

Or even the historically plausible Matt Dillon, who patrolled the frontier streets of Dodge City, keeping the peace for a record 20 years on "Gunsmoke."

Call them the Most Famous Kansas Celebs Who Never Lived.

Instead, we're talking about real folks who cropped up during the silent era to help movies find their voice, and folks who made Oscar history by starring in the very first best picture or by breaking the racial barrier in acting awards.

Still other Kansans bypassed the big screen to blossom in that competing but obviously allied medium, television.

As Kansas turns 150, here's a look at some of those famous faces whose journey into America's heart began in the heartland.

Silent pioneers

Louise Brooks (Cherryvale/Wichita, 1906-1985) Drop-dead gorgeous dancer, model, showgirl, writer and, in later years, acerbic critic who created the iconic bobbed-hair image of the Roaring Twenties flapper. She put a face on the free-thinking, independent, liberated woman. Best known for her controversial "Lulu" films with director G.W. Pabst: "Pandora's Box" (1929) and "Diary of a Lost Girl" (1929).

Buster Keaton (Piqua, 1895-1966) Born to vaudeville parents traveling through Kansas, Keaton's career as a pratfall comic actor and an ingenious director stretched well into the sound era, but he is lionized for his 1920-1929 silent films characterized by their elaborate physical comedy topped with deadpan demeanor that earned him the title of The Great Stone Face. Among his classics were "Steamboat Bill Jr.," "The General" and "The Navigator."

ZaSu Pitts (Parsons, 1894-1963) Her wide-eyed, bee-stung innocent beauty in dozens of dramatic silents made her a star — and rival to Mary Pickford — from 1917's "The Princess" to Erick Von Stroheim's legendary "Greed." When talkies arrived, she found success in Hal Roach comedies as a flustered, fretful spinster, creating an image that was lampooned in 1940s cartoons but carried her into 1950s TV sitcoms (notably Gale Storm's "Oh, Susannah") as the lovable, ditsy neighbor.

Phyllis Haver (Douglass, 1899-1960) One of Mack Sennett's original silent comedy Bathing Beauties, she quickly moved from eye candy to leading lady, notably playing Roxie Hart in the first screen version of "Chicago" (1927). She worked with director D.W. Griffith for "Battle of the Sexes" (1928) and starred with Lon Chaney in his final silent, "Thunder" (1929). She made the transition to talkies, but married millionaire businessman William Seeman and retired in 1930.

Claire Windsor (Cawker City, 1897-1972) Born Clara Viola Cronk, she won a beauty contest, moved to Hollywood and changed her name to fit her looks. Throughout the 1920s, she was a top star at the new MGM Studios, cast as society girls and princesses in films like "Rich Men's Wives," "Fashion Madness" and "Blondes by Choice." Her personal style made her a fashion icon of the day, but her career didn't survive the transition to talkies and ended in 1938.

Fatty Arbuckle (Smith Center, 1887-1933) Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, a rotund slapstick pioneer, screenwriter and director, became one of the most popular silent film comics of the 1910s, working with Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd while mentoring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He was also one of the highest paid with a $1 million contract in 1918. But in 1921, a young actress became ill and died after attending one of his famously boozy parties. He was charged with rape and manslaughter, went to trial three times and was ultimately acquitted. But the scandal killed his career.

Big screen stars

Charles "Buddy" Rogers (Olathe, 1904-1991) With 40 major films from 1926 to 1957, Rogers is best remembered starring opposite Clara Bow in the World War I silent film "Wings," which was honored with the first Oscar for best picture. Others that showcased his handsome leading man looks include "My Best Gal," "Someone to Love," "River of Romance" and "This Reckless Age." He was also a noted jazz trombonist, a much-honored humanitarian, and husband to silent film legend Mary Pickford for 42 years.

Hattie McDaniel (Wichita, 1895-1952) Daughter of a Wichita preacher, McDaniel broke the race barrier in the Academy Awards when she won best supporting actress in 1939 for playing Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." She made a career (300-plus films) of playing servants and maids, but became famous for injecting wit and attitude to counteract the slights, such as in "In This Our Life" opposite Bette Davis and "Thank Your Lucky Stars" with Humphrey Bogart. She was also a professional singer, songwriter, stage actress, comedian, radio performer and TV star, and was the first black woman to sing on American radio.

Dennis Hopper (Dodge City, 1936-2010) Hopper appeared with James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), but didn't get noticed for his range and depth until he wrote and directed the iconic, counterculture "Easy Rider" (1969) co-starring Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. He got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay but won the Cannes Film Festival award for best first work. His acting career spanned 55 years and more than 150 films, including "Hoosiers" (Oscar nomination for supporting actor), "Apocalypse Now," "Out of the Blue" and as the creepy, gas-huffing Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet."

Annette Bening (Topeka, born in 1958) Coming off her recent Golden Globe win, Bening is a front-runner for Oscar's best actress this year for "The Kids Are All Right" as half of a lesbian couple whose teen kids seek out their sperm donor father. Her first Oscar nomination came as a tart-tongued scam artist with "The Grifters" (1990). She was also nominated for "American Beauty" (1999) and "Being Julia" (2004). On TV, she was Emmy nominated for "Mrs. Harris," a dramatic portrait of real-life Jean Harris, who was accused of murdering her famous diet-doctor lover. Besides acclaimed acting, she is probably just as famous for taming — and marrying — Hollywood bad boy Warren Beatty, whom she met on "Bugsy."

Shirley Knight (Goessel/Wichita, born in 1936) One of the most prolific actresses working today with two films coming out in 2011, Knight has a stage-film-TV career that goes back to 1960. She was Oscar-nominated for "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" (1960) and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962). On stage, she won the Tony for "Kennedy's Children" (1975) and was nominated for "The Young Man From Atlanta." But everybody knows her TV work, from dozens of movies and miniseries to guest shots on countless series like "ER," "Cold Case" and "Law & Order." She currently has a recurring role as Bree's meddlesome mother-in-law in "Desperate Housewives."

Dee Wallace Stone (Kansas City, Kan., born in 1948) Veteran of more than 85 films, she is best remembered for two very different roles: Elliot's mom in Steven Spielberg's "ET: The Extraterrestrial" (1982) and a TV news anchor who turns into a werewolf on the air in the cult-classic "The Howling" (1981). Other notable films include "Cujo," "10," "The Stepford Wives," "The Hills Have Eyes" and Rob Zombie's 2007 reimagining of "Halloween." Also frequently on TV, she starred in the series "Together We Stand" and "The New Lassie."

Paul Rudd (Lenexa, born in 1969) The prolific (42 films in 15 years) Rudd (born Rudnitsky) has built a comedy career playing the self-effacing nice guy/best friend/sidekick, from his breakthrough in 1995's "Clueless" to such films as "The 40 Year Old Virgin," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "I Love You Man," "Dinner for Schmucks" and the current "How Do You Know." Also a familiar face on TV, he is best remembered as Phoebe's boyfriend and later husband on "Friends."

Small-screen favorites

Vivian Vance (Cherryvale, 1909-1979) Born Vivian Roberta Jones, she changed her name to honor folklorist Vance Randolph and began as a Broadway musical star in the 1930s in "Red, Hot and Blue" and "Anything Goes." But she made her mark in pioneering TV sitcoms as Ethel Mertz, comic co-conspirator with Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy" (1951-57) and "The Lucy Show" (1962-65). Vance won the very first supporting actress Emmy (1953) and was nominated three more times. After TV, she returned to Broadway in 1969 with "My Daughter, Your Son."

Edward Asner (Kansas City, Kan., born 1929) Son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who ran a second-hand shop, he is best known as the gruff but lovable Lou Grant, first as a TV exec on the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" sitcom (1970-77) and then his own dramatic newspaper spin-off, "Lou Grant" (1977-82). He is the only actor to win a comedy and drama Emmy for the same role. Asner holds the record for male performer with eight Emmys. On the big screen, he's made nearly 30 films, from "Fort Apache: The Bronx" to "JFK" to "Elf," and most recently provided his voice talents for the animated, Oscar-winning "Up."

Don Johnson (Wichita, born 1949) A 1967 graduate of Wichita South High where he discovered acting, Johnson's early film career left him only a cult figure ("A Boy and His Dog," 1975). He skyrocketed to fame on TV as hip, sockless, bestubbled undercover cop Sonny Crockett on "Miami Vice" (1984-89), who launched a national trend with his pastel T-shirts under pricey Versace sport coats. He was nominated three times for an Emmy as Sonny and won in 1987. He also found success starring as the lovably rumpled San Francisco inspector "Nash Bridges" (1996-2001), and currently stars in HBO's "Eastbound and Down."

Kirstie Alley (Wichita, born 1951) Once called "the Bacall of the '80s" because of her husky-voiced sensuality, Alley made a handful of movies ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," three "Look Who's Talking" comedies), then turned to TV where she made an indelible mark as a fearless comedy actress, first replacing Shelley Long in "Cheers" (1987-1993), then starring in her own "Veronica's Closet" (1997-2000) and then poking fun at herself in "Fat Actress" (2005-06). In the "Cheers" years, she was nominated for five Emmys and four Golden Globes, winning both in 1991. She showed her dramatic chops in miniseries like "North and South" and "The Last Don" and won a dramatic Emmy for the movie "David's Mother."

Jeff Probst (Wichita, born 1962) Beginning as a correspondent for "Access Hollywood" and host of VH1's "Rock 'n' Roll Jeopardy" (1998-2001), Probst is the first (2008) —and now three-time (2009, 2010) —winner of the prime-time Emmy for best reality competition host for heading up CBS's "Survivor." At the helm since 2000, intoning his signature "the tribe has spoken" and kicking contestants off the island, he recently extended his contract for two more seasons, bringing him to a total of 22.

Some quick surprises

Don Farmer (Pratt, born 1952) Comedian and voice actor Farmer has been Disney's official voice of Goofy since 1986. He also voices Pluto and Horace Horsecollar.

Cassandra Peterson (Manhattan, born 1949) Once a Las Vegas showgirl with a small role in James Bond's "Diamonds Are Forever," Peterson found enduring fame as the campy, overly cleavaged TV horror movie hostess Elvira, Mistress of the Night.

R. Lee Ermey (Emporia, born 1944) A real-life retired Marine Corps drill instructor, he is the quintessential raspy-voiced, prickly personaed military man. Ermey coached Louis Gossett Jr. to Oscar-winning perfection in "An Officer and a Gentleman" and stepped into roles himself from "Full Metal Jacket" to "Toy Story." Recently, he's the unsympathetic drill sergeant psychiatrist for Geico commercials.

Marj Dusay (Hays, born 1936) Queen of the soaps as Alexandra Spaulding on "The Guiding Light" (1993-2009), Vanessa Bennett on "All My Children" (1999-2002), Vivian Alamain on "Days of Our Lives" (1993), Pamela Pepperidge on "Santa Barbara" (1987-88, 1991), Myrna Clegg on "Capitol" (1983-87). She won three Soap Opera Digest Awards (including best villain) and was nominated for two Daytime Emmys.

Hugh Beaumont (Lawrence, 1909-1982) A film, stage and radio star with more than three dozen films, Beaumont will always be best remembered as Ward Cleaver, the sitcom dad of "Leave It to Beaver."

Milburn Stone (Burrton, 1904-1980) Beginning a big screen career in the 1930s with the "Tailspin Tommy" films and starring in the 1945 series "The Master Key," Stone was cast as Doc Adams when "Gunsmoke" went from radio to TV. And after 20 years as the gruff frontier medic, that's the only way most people remember him.

Cynthia Sikes (Coffeyville, born 1954) Miss Kansas 1972 before launching a TV career, Sikes was Dr. Annie Cavanero in the ground-breaking "St. Elsewhere." She put her career on hold to have a family with producer Bud Yorkin, but in recent years returned as the admiral's love interest on "JAG."

Scott Foley (Kansas City, Kan., born 1972) After making a splash in "Dawson's Creek" and winning teen heart-throb status during four years as Noel on "Felicity," he's settled into frequent guest appearances on shows like "Scrubs," "The Unit," "Law & Order SVU" and, most recently, "Cougar Town" and "Grey's Anatomy."

Up and comers

Eric Stonestreet (Kansas City, Kan., born 1971) Actor, comedian and one-time clown, he currently plays Cameron, the plump, Emmy-winning half of the gay couple in ABC's new hit "Modern Family."

Jason Sudeikis (Overland Park, born 1975) Comedian, sketch writer and veteran of Second City, now in his sixth year as a member of the "Saturday Night Live" cast.

Rob Riggle (Overland Park, born 1975) Actor and comedian, he was a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" (2004-05) and correspondent on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (2006-08) before moving to the big screen with "The Hangover" (2009) and "The Other Guys" (2010).

Kendall Schmidt (Wichita, born 1990) Actor, singer and dancer who is currently the star of Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush" as a Minnesota hockey player who becomes the leader of a boy band. In 2009, Schmidt signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.

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