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20 Famous Actors Who ‘Disappeared’ After Their Prime

01 February 2015 | Features, People Lists | by Woodson Hughes

7. Elliott Gould (M*A*S*H)

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Elliott Gould is often cited as a casebook example of someone who really had it and really lost it, thanks to lots of bad judgment. Gould had been a promising young stage actor when he met and subsequently married his co-star in the stage show “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.” That co-star was Barbra Streisand. He should have seen the inevitable coming when this untried, unconventionally beautiful young woman managed to steal the show and wipe all of the much more established people in it, including her husband, off the map.

After she became a big star in “Funny Girl”, he followed her and was seen as “Mr. Streisand,” something that didn’t help the failing marriage. As it was ending, he was cast in a supporting role in the surprise hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and he and his co-star, Dyan Cannon, got great reviews and Oscar nominations. This set the stage for the actor’s big moment in the sun.

He, along with a number of other then little-knowns, was cast in what could have been just another service comedy spoof but, instead, under the direction of a veteran helmer, it became a pointed stab at war and the military that was much needed in the Vietnam days. The director was Robert Altman and the film was his biggest hit by far, M*A*S*H.

After many years of imitation and a famous TV version, that film doesn’t look that ground-breaking today but it was a big deal then. Gould and Donald Sutherland played two highly irreverent army doctors maintaining their sanity in war with loads of crazy antics. The actors didn’t get on with the director, though Gould eventually came around and would be cast by the director in later years, though never in a hit again.

Gould milked it for all it was worth and Hollywood was glad to embrace the cast-off of a woman who was already majorly rubbing the town the wrong way. Gould had his chance…and royally blew it. He had five films released within a year of M*A*S*H and there could be a contest to determine the biggest box office flop among them.

Little Murders, from a stage success, was actually a good film but this ultra-dark satire of a then-depleted N.Y.C. was never going to be hit. Move was probably the worst. However, the trendy Getting Straight, with the actor as an overage professional student, was somehow the one that showed where his careerl went wrong for it and Gould are the definition of the word “smarmy.”

He almost came back in the mid-1970s with Altman’s California Split and The Long Goodbye (critical darlings) but more bad choices (such as Harry and Walter Go to New York) put an end to that. These days he’s known for supporting work in the OCEAN’S 11 series and Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”

 

8. Clevon Little (Blazing Saddles)

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Writer-director Mel Brooks, after two excellent box office misses (The Producers and The Twelve Chairs) hit pay dirt with his raucous, tastelessly funny 1974 film, Blazing Saddles, a satire of both Hollywood western and modern race relations in its story of an African-American incongruously sent to be the sheriff of a backward little town in the old west by crooked politicos in hopes of running the populace off as part of a land-swindle plot.

Though a success with the public and many critics, a real classic was missed and the credits give a clue as to why. Listed among the writers is comic/actor Richard Pryor, the most dangerously funny black stand-up ever. He was to have played the role of the sheriff and recent Oscar-winner Gig Young, a great comic actor in the day, was to have played the sheriff’s right hand man, an elegant gentleman now gone to seed as an alcoholic reprobate.

The trouble was that Young, known to be an alcoholic, was closer to being a reprobate than anyone could have known and Pryor had severe behavioral issues fueled by other substances. Brooks dismissed both and quickly recast. Young was replaced by Brooks’ Oscar nominated actor from The Producers, Gene Wilder. The role of the Sheriff, Black Bart was trickier.

Rather than going with another funny, rough customer like Pryor, he went in the opposite direction with stage and TV actor Clevon Little, perhaps the smoothest black actor in the U.S. of that day. A Tony winner for his Broadway hit “Purlie,” Little was known to film audiences, if at all, for his supporting performance as the blind DJ trying to help the fugitive driver in the cult classic, Vanishing Point (1971).

Playing Black Bart as an uptown sophisticate (with no reason as to how he got to be that way) fits in well enough with the surreal texture of the film but the makers should have retailored jokes designed for the no-holds barred Pryor, for they don’t come across as presented and Wilder didn’t quite fit his role, either. Someone must have noticed since, within a year, Little was complaining about how when you have a big hit people won’t hire you since they think that they can’t afford you.

What he overlooked was that if they think you’ll make them money, they will pony up. He was very professional and kept working in TV(including an Afterschool Special !), supporting movie roles, and his beloved stage, where hehad a hit with “I’m Not Rappaport” there, but, sadly, died at age 53.

 

9. Madeline Kahn (Paper Moon/Blazing Saddles)

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The career of Little’s co-star in Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn, demonstrates how unfair show biz and life in general can be. This lady, another arrival from Broadway, should have had, if not a starring career, at least a long one. Pretty, if not beautiful (she had a bit of a weight problem), funny, if in a rather arch, sophisticated way, Kahn might well have had a great supporting life in movies had she come along in the era of classic Hollywood.

She was perfect for the kind of brittle, overdressed women who are engaged to the hero at the start of the film but was not by the end, after the star-heroine gets hold of him. In fact, an updated version of that role was her film intro—1972’s What’s up Doc?, in which she played the ultra-dumpy, ultra-pushy fiancée of Ryan O’Neal’s geologist character, before Barbra Streisand puts an end to that. (The actress shrewdly downplayed her looks per rumors of what Streisand did to attractive women in her earlier films.

This, though, was a sign of troubling things to come.) Kahn was redolent of earlier eras of the twentieth century and that worked for her in the movies of the nostalgia-crazed early 70s. It helped that both DOC’s director, Peter Bogdanovich, and her subsequent champion, Mel Brooks, were both playing on the past regularly in their films.

In fact, Bogdanovich immediately asked her to be in his next big film, a 1930s comedy-drama about a father-daughter con team, in which Kahn would play “Trixie Delight,” a carnival dancer who hooks on the side. The film was Paper Moon and it was a big hit. The actress, who was only around for a while in the middle of the film was tremendous.

She received her first Oscar nomination and the second was on the way with her next film, and her first with Brooks, Blazing Saddle (the two came out close together but just far enough apart to be listed in different Oscar years). Her performance as Lilli Von Shtupp was a take off on Marlene Dietrich. It was very funny, but very short and too much of a caricature to be a serious contender for an Oscar.

She had a real chance at winning for Paper Moon, though, but she made her first big mistake in complaining to the press that it was odd that she and co-star and co-nominee Tatum O’Neal were in the same category since O’Neal was on screen for about 98 percent of the film’s length as opposed to her own approximately ten minutes. She had a point but it was bad form, especially since it looked like she was picking on a little girl.

Next came another piece of bad news in the form of the movie Mame. This musical had been a hit on Broadway not quite a decade before, though it was a bit dated even by then. However, the role of the again, frumpy nursemaid/secretary Agnes Gooch looked to be another plum for Kahn. Unfortunately, this was a troubled production from the start and star Lucille Ball seem to sense (rightly)that this was her last shot in the movies and that she was both too old and miscast for it too work.

Added to this were whispers that her supporting player would be better cast in the lead role. It all came to a head when Kahn answered back to a derisive remark Ball made about her subtle performance in front of the cast and crew. She was canned that day and, though it was surely better to be out of such a monster of a film, it did her no good to go up against an established star.

The final blow came with her last film for Bogdanovich, the misbegotten Cole Porter musical tribute, At Long Last Love. It was meant to show the musical talents of the director’s beloved protégé, Cybil Sheppard, but it turned out that she didn’t have much in that direction and one of his solutions was to trim as much footage of Kahn as he could, since her real talents were showing up the leading lady. Kahn told everyone that she had had it with the director (and meant it, too, as it turned out).

The film finished him in the big leagues and, just as bad, Mel Brooks’ career started to run out of steam after High Anxiety, his Hitchcock spoof, and he stopped making old movie parodies. Kahn got a few similar period roles but her performance in the Bogart-satire, The Cheap Detective, didn’t quite come off and Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood was a major disaster. Kahn went back to Broadway and success (including a Tony for “The Sisters Rosensweig”), did some TV and, sadly, died of cancer at 57.

 

10. Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)

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Nearly everything and everyone has an historical precedent if history is studied carefully enough. Madeline Kahn might have found a cautionary tale for herself had she studied the life of a woman who came to the movies some two decades before her but was much like her: Judy Holliday.

Like Kahn, Holliday was taken by the stage. She had made her real start by joining with friends in the business to form “The Reviewers,” a cabaret act that updated its act on a weekly basis in order to satirize current news events and people. They were a hit and were invited to Hollywood to appear in the Fox movie, Greenwhich Village (1942).

Why the studio asked this topical act to be in a period comedy is anyone’s guess but most of their footage was cut. However, Fox thought Ho;liday had potential and cast her in a few pictures. She didn’t hit but she made an important connection in veteran director George Cukor, who directed her in the wartime drama, Winged Victory (1943). He was taken with both her talent and intelligence (she literally had a genius level I.Q. despite a career portraying dimwits).

A few years later, back in New York, he remembered her when star Jean Arthur, one skittish lady, left his show, playwright Garson Kanin’s “Born Yesterday,” two days before opening. Holliday not only memorized the whole thing but gave a star-making performance as the brassy mistress of a course gangster who has her social consciousness awakened. It was a big hit and Columbia Pictures bought it and studio chief Harry Cohn wanted…well, anyone but Holliday to star in it. He referred to her, and never changed his tune, as “that fat Jewish broad.”

Cukor and Kanin weren’t to be outdone and created (along with Kanin’s wife and screenwriting partner, actress Ruth Gordon)the now classic film Adam’s Rib. They gave Holliday a prime supporting role with a big scene that was a virtual screen test. Cohn begrudgingly said yes. Holliday, under Cukor’s direction, won a surprise Oscar against All about Eve’s Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and Sunset Blvd’s Gloria Swanson. It did her little good.

Cohn signed her to, not a long term contract, but a multi-picture deal and the films almost seemed to have been made with no support from the studio. None were in color or widescreen and none got a big push or were big hits. This is too bad since some of them, such as the pregnancy comedy-drama, Full of Life, and her rematches with Cukor, It Should Happen to You and The Marrying Kind (which many think contains her finest performance) were charmers.

She knew her days in movies were numbered and was planning to go into TV when she ran afoul of the dreaded HCUA, due to her proudly liberal politics. After giving a closed committee what some think was her finest nit wit performance, she was not blacklisted but, rather, gray listed, meaning that she could be hired but it was advisable not to do so.

Her TV deal was off and she went back to Broadway, where she had a hit with “Bells Are Ringing,” where she played an answering service operator looking for love, singing the standard “The Party’s Over.” She was asked to come back to Hollywood for the film version, her only film in color and widescreen but the party really was over.

The film was the last musical for famed producer Arthur Freed and the last major one for director Vincente Minnelli. “Farewell” seemed to be written all over it, including the star’s lively performance that, nevertheless, contained a layer of sadness. This was the end of her film career and the last five years of her life would see no more hits, even on her beloved stage. Like Madeline Kahn, she died of cancer. The waste of so much of her career was a true loss.

 

11. Linda Blair (The Exorcist)/Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon)

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When Madeline Kahn unfairly lost the supporting actress Oscar for 1973 the real hell of it was that her big competitors were two little girls who shouldn’t have been mentioned in the same breath as Kahn.

The supernatural novel, The Exorcist, one of the hit books of the early 1970s, told the terrifying tale of the demonic possession of a little girl and the subsequent religious ritual which frees her, albeit at great cost. It was considered an extremely adult treatment of the subject and its author, William Peter Blatty, best known up until then as a screenwriter, made no secret that he wanted it to be a movie.

Casting went smoothly for the adult roles but the role of the possessed child was a challenge since many established child actresses and their management were not interested in the role. This should have alerted the management of the many unknowns who did end up vying for the role but it didn’t. The mother of child model Linda Blair was fine with it all, despite the fact that her daughter would have to say, do and witness many profane and sacrilegious things in the course of making the film (and suffer a great deal of physical pain due to special effects, as it turned out).

The film, controversial in its day, was a huge hit and Blair got a lot of acclaim, mostly for the unspeakably ancient and evil-sounding voice that emanates from her after she has become possessed. Today it’s hard to believe that anyone was naïve enough to believe that she actually supplied the voice but the media was stunned when after the nominations were announced, veteran Oscar-winning actress Mercedes MacCambridge had the temerity to claim credit for the vocal performance simply by virtue of having actually recorded the dialog heard in the film!

Director William Friedkin had double-crossed her in denying credit and it came back on him in a big way. The film won very few awards and Blair’s Oscar chances went right out of the window, largely because of MacCambridge’s revelation. She later proved to be a mediocre actress and never was in anything like a movie hit again, though she had a TV career playing troubled teens until substance abuse stopped it cold.

All of this proved to be a boon for Tatum O’Neal but her win was ironic. Cast at the insistence of her father, star Ryan O’Neal, Miss O’Neal, despite being the child of two actors, had no experience (dad was not an attentive father and the girl’s mother, Joanna Moore, his ex-wife, had become an alcoholic after a somewhat promising start in the late 50s).

However, director Peter Bogdanovich, who had a working relationship with her father, thought that the father-daughter vibe worked for the story (and it did), and knew the casting would bring much publicity (and it did). However, after the little girl took home the little gold man, the director began claiming that the performance was more his than hers since he had to use every trick in the book and a few he had to invent in order to get the few moments of usable footage he needed from her and then he and the editor had to carefully put it all together.

This is something he asserts to this day. It wasn’t nice to say all of this (and many said that Miss O’Neal wasn’t nice, either) but the sad fact is that the only other decent performance she ever gave was in Nickelodeon, her only other film with Bogdanovich. A measure of her career is that, despite being the youngest winner of all time, when the Academy did a tribute to all living Oscar winners years ago it somehow forgot to invite Miss O’Neal.

 

12. Macaulay Caulkin (Home Alone)

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The lot of a child actor isn’t easy. Unlike most adult actors, who not only chose to be actors, but, in many cases, would have all but killed to be one, a child actor usually has no say in the matter. Interviews with child actors and their parents usually always have a moment where the parent(s) say something to the effect that the kid’s career came about only because “(s)he really, really, wanted to do this.”

Good thing the kid didn’t really want to be a terrorist. Some of the biggest child actor successes often have the biggest falls since, often, the same qualities that made them shine as kids don’t work for them as adults. This scenario fits the story of Macaulay Caulkin all too well. One of seven children of a frustrated actor and his common-law wife, Macaulay, along with his siblings, was bred for show biz.

The boy had a notable supporting role in the John Candy film, Uncle Buck. The creative forces behind that film thought of him for a another script, a rare film with a kid at the center. The story has a young boy accidentally left behind at home when his family goes away on vacation.

After many a contrived situation it’s determined that A. they can’t get right back to him, B. he can’t get to them or even call them and C. a pair of bumbling thieves are going to rob the kid’s home and D. he can’t tell the police. Oh, Hollywood! Still, it was the very rare film that the whole family could enjoy and young Mr. Caulkin was a big hit as the plucky boy.

Too bad that good child roles are harder to find than good adult roles and none of his follow-ups, including the inevitable sequels quite hit the spot. A comeback seems unlikely as the now adult Macaualy—he’s in his thirties—hasn’t made a film in many years and seems beset with all kinds of personal demons. At least the choice is his own now.

 

13. Ron Moody/Jack Wild/Mark Lester (all Oliver!)

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In his book “Movie Star,” author Ethan Mordden wrote that “big ones” (films, that is) can kill you. He has a point. Just like an Oscar coming at the wrong time in a career can fatally up the ante for someone with no background to fall back on, so a huge hit can mark a career but good.

Today the 1968 musical Oliver! is looked at with scorn due to having won Best Picture against so many memorable and innovative films of that year (yes, one being 2001: A Space Odyssey). However, under the skilled direction of the great Carol Reed it was a highly competent, skilled entertainment widely embraced by many who couldn’t get the groove of the more modern films of the time.

Was it deserving? No, but it doesn’t deserve scorn and the odd downfall of most of its cast was undeserving as well. Sadly, most of the actors had little to no screen history (Oliver Reed, the one survivor, was a big exception). It is no surprise the Mark Lester, the rather wan little actor who portrayed the title role in this loose adaptation of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”, didn’t go on to a big career.

No actor who has ever played the role on stage ever did either. As it happened, Lester hated acting, wasn’t keen on his parents for making him do it, and left the business as soon as he could in 1977. Today he’s a doctor. More promising was Jack Wild, Oscar-nominated for his role as the rascally Artful Dodger. He gave a tremendous performance but had nowhere to go in films (a kid character actor isn’t in high demand).

Despite many thinking it crazy, his management accepted the offer for him to do the kid’s TV show “H.R.Puffenstuff,” still his most visible credit after Oliver! Sadly, after lots of hard years as an adult actor, he died at 53 of throat cancer.

The adult who most suffered a letdown from Oliver! was its Best Actor nominee, Ron Moody. A character actor staple on stage, screen and TV in England, Moody thought that his ship had come in with the acclaim for his portrayal. He always said that his big mistake was in not moving to Hollywood after the film was a hit but, honestly, it came a bit too late to change his career. He did have a fine lead role in the early Mel Brooks film The Twelve Chairs but mostly he continued on as before, as an actor in small supporting roles.

 

 

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