Monthly Archives: December 2009

Holiday: New Year’s Eve in Times Square

Times Square on New Year's Eve. Here's a good one - drinking isn't permitted at this event. Right. Uploaded by

Some one million people squeeze into New York’s Times Square each New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop, signifying the start of a new year. It’s a scene watched by millions more on live television, and it’s now in its 106th year.

When the New York Times moved to the square in 1904, it convinced the city to name the triangular intersection after the paper. To celebrate, a huge event was held in the new “Times Square” on New Year’s Eve that drew about 200,000 people and started a tradition.

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The ball came three years later, lowered from a flagpole atop One Times Square. Over the years, it’s gone from being constructed of iron and wood to pure iron, to aluminum, and is now composed of 2,688 Waterford crystals. For 2009, the ball is twice the size as 2008, and has three times more LED fixtures. They even had to rebuild the flagpole to accommodate this thing. It’s now capable of putting on a fabulous light show all by itself, and will remain lit in Times Square all year long.

For many years, Guy Lombardo’s orchestra was synonymous with New Year’s Eve, and would play Auld Lang Syne from the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel while images of Times Square were broadcast on CBS. More recently, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve has been the broadcast standard, hosted for many years by the venerable Dick Clark, and now by the Dick Clark of a new generation, Ryan Seacrest.

Sports: Special Olympics

Worldwide, more than 3 million intellectually handicapped people benefit from participation in the Special Olympics. Uploaded by

Eunice Shriver died this year, and she rightfully was hailed for her part in the creation of the Special Olympics program. In 1968, a teacher from Chicago approached Shriver with the idea for a one-time “Olympics” for the mentally handicapped. Shriver recognized the worth of the program, and approved a grant to fund it.

The first International Special Olympics was held in Chicago in 1968, with some 1,000 participants. The International Games are still held every four years, while state Special Olympics organizations often have annual events.

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In 1977, the concept was extended to winter events, and the first International Special Olympics Winter Games were held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Like the regular Olympic Games the summer and winter Special Olympics take place two years apart.

More than 3.1 million people now participate in Special Olympics around the world. I don’t usually quote the Web pages of those who are recognized as Great American Things, but I can’t state the mission of Special Olympics any better than this:

“The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.”

Thank you, Eunice Shriver.

Food: Sweet Iced Tea

If you ask for TEA in the South, be prepared to get sweetened ice tea. The way it was meant to be enjoyed. Uploaded to Flickr by MzScarlett.

Yes, this is a regional thing, I realize that. Which is to say, that if you drink iced tea outside of the South and don’t sweeten it – well, bless your heart, you just don’t get it.

This isn’t to say that unsweet tea is bad. People enjoy it around the world, and the Chinese have been drinking it for 2000 years. But iced tea is a relatively recent variation, as homes and restaurants have only had reliable sources of ice since the mid 20th century.

Some Southerners take the sweet thing a bit too far, however. The drink should be pleasantly sweet, but it’s not unusual to be served tea that’s almost sweet enough to cause tooth decay. Moderation is the key, as it tends to be in much of life.

If you ask for “tea” in the south, you’d better mean sweet iced tea. If that’s not what you want, be specific. Say, “I’d like some unsweet tea,” and don’t be too surprised if your server says, “Y’all ain’t from around here, are you?”

Travel: Yellowstone National Park

Stories of exploding water and boiling mud were dismissed at first as tall tales. Uploaded by

The first American National Park, and arguably still the greatest. It’s located primarily in Wyoming, though it extends into parts of Montana and Idaho as well. Inside the park you’ll find an amazing variety of environments – lakes, canyons, rivers, mountain ranges, geysers, and the largest supervolcano on the continent.

Hikers, boaters, campers, and fishermen all love the park. So do grizzlies, wolves, bison, and elk. With a coverage of 3,468 square miles, there’s room for them all.

This area was so remote that the first serious explorations weren’t undertaken until 1869-70. Till that time, tales of “fire and brimstone,” boiling mud, steaming rivers, and petrified trees were dismissed as fantastic stories.

Interestingly, the new art called “photography” helped convince Congress that the Yellowstone area was a rare treasure. When photos of the region were seen in Washington, DC, it was only a couple of years later that President Ulysses Grant signed the law that created Yellowstone National Park.

These photographs will make you a believer:

Uploaded to Flickr by ixfd64.

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TV Show: The Waltons

The Waltons was slotted opposite the popular series The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad. It blew them both away. Uploaded by

What was rural life like in Virginia during the Depression? It probably wasn’t as sweet as The Waltons, but we can hope. It was a simpler age, but an age when life was lived from day to day. And The Waltons showed us the importance of family in surviving the most difficult times.

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The series was created by Earl Hamner, based on his book Spencer’s Mountain, and was based on his own childhood memories of growing up not far from Charlottesville, Virginia. You may not remember, but there was a Spencer’s Mountain movie first, and Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara were the original Walton parents.

The TV show ran for nine seasons on CBS from 1972-81. It debuted against strong competition – The Flip Wilson Show and The Mod Squad. Wilson’s program was number one the previous two years, and it looked like The Waltons had been given a doomed time slot. But the show blasted the others, leading to the cancellation of The Mod Squad and causing Flip Wilson to pull the plug on his own show.

Lots of elements of the show resonated with a modern audience. Ike Godsy’s general store… the banter between loving but still irascible grandparents… the Baldwin sisters’ “recipe”… the approach of World War II. And, of course, “Good night, Mary Ellen.” “Good night, Ben.” “Good night, John Boy.”

Actress: Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn was named the greatest female movie star of all time by the American Film Institute. Uploaded by

Judging from the number of Academy Awards won for Best Performance, Hepburn is the greatest American actress. She was nominated 12 times and won four: Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981).

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But then you look at those other nominations: The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, The African Queen, and Long Day’s Journey into Night among them. And the other great performances that didn’t even make the list: Little Women, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, Rooster Cogburn. Six Golden Globe awards. The Emmy. The Tony nominations. Awards don’t ever tell the whole story, but these sure do paint a pretty persuasive picture, don’t they?

No wonder the American Film Institute named Hepburn as the greatest female movie star in film history.

No one would ever have considered Katharine Hepburn a conformist, however successful she was in Hollywood. She swam naked in public pools in college. Smoked when that wasn’t considered appropriate for women. Dressed in men’s suits because it was more “comfortable.” Disdained the press, her female colleagues, even her fans. But in many ways this contempt for the conventional helped make her bigger than life on screen.

As famous and wealthy as acting made her, she wasn’t particularly enamored of the work. “Acting is the most minor of gifts,” she said. “After all, Shirley Temple could do it when she was four.”

Kid Stuff: Classic Toys

We could bounce it! Pick up comics with it! Who could have asked for more? Uploaded by

It was tempting to begin this post, “Kids today…” But it’s not that kids of this generation are any different than those in the past. They love the latest, greatest, coolest toys. It’s just that what meets those criteria has changed over the years.

Let’s take a look back and remember some of the toys American kids have loved over the years.

Lincoln Logs

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Interestingly, Lincoln Logs were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The logs originally came with a diagram to build Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin, hence the name.


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This game wasn’t selling particularly well until Eva Gabor and Johnny Carson (Great American Things, June 28, 2009) played it on the Tonight Show on May 3, 1966. I think it’s safe to say this game is played exactly the same by kids and adults, and yet completely differently.

Etch A Sketch

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Somehow, some people could draw the Mona Lisa with Ohio Art’s Etch A Sketch. I could write my name. As if I used my left hand. And it was in a cast.


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Slinky was first demonstrated at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia in November, 1945, and sold its entire inventory of 400 units in 90 minutes. It walks down stairs!

Radio Flyer Wagon

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In 1930, the company stopped making wooden wagons and switched to steel ones instead. Good idea. The #18 Classic Red Wagon has been in continuous production for more than 70 years.

Magic 8 Ball

Uploaded to Flickr by StreetFly JZ.

Each of its 20 sides has a different statement, providing the definitive answer to any question you may have. Should you have invested in the company back in 1948 when the 8 ball was invented? “Signs point to yes.”

Silly Putty

Uploaded to Flickr by unloveablesteve.

Originally discovered during research into rubber substitutes during World War II. Traditionally it was sold in an egg. Silly putty.

Film: White Christmas

With wonderful songs by Irving Berlin, it was the first movie ever filmed in VistaVision. Wow. Uploaded by

Viewing a special movie on Christmas Eve is a tradition in many families. Some watch It’s a Wonderful Life (Great American Things, December 1, 2009), or A Christmas Story (Great American Things, December 9, 2009). At our house, though, it’s the 1954 classic, White Christmas.

Bing Crosby (Great American Things, December 19, 2009) and Danny Kaye are two Army buddies who form a hugely successful musical act. They then fall in love with a sister act (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen) and scheme how to save their commanding general’s Vermont inn.

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As you might expect, though, it’s the music that makes the movie. Great, memorable songs by Irving Berlin, including “Sisters,” “It’s Cold Outside,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” and of course, “White Christmas.”

Some interesting facts about the movie:
* Danny Kaye’s part was originally written for Fred Astaire, then Donald O’Connor, then rewritten for Kaye.
* The film’s recording rights were with Decca, but Rosemary Clooney was contracted to Columbia. As a result there were two “White Christmas” albums. Peggy Lee sang Clooney’s parts on the Decca version. On the Columbia version, Clooney sang “Sisters” with her real-life sister, Betty.
* “White Christmas” did not first appear in this movie. In fact, this was the third movie to include the song.
* It was the top-grossing film of 1954.

Americana: Santa Claus, by Coca-Cola

The first Coca-Cola Santa created by artist Haddon Sundblom in 1931. Uploaded by

Throughout history, around the world, people have had vastly different images of “Sintirklass,” “St. Nicholas,” and “Father Christmas”. In America, we’ve been influenced by the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: “He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…”

Haddon Sundblom self-portrait. Uploaded by

That’s pretty much the way it was before an artist named Haddon Sundblom and the Coca-Cola Company. The Coke folk wanted people to know that their drink was just as good in the winter as in the heat of summer. What better spokesman for such a message than Santa?

Sundblom did indeed take inspiration from Clement Moore’s poem. Starting in 1931, and annually for the next 33 years, Sundblom created the image of Santa that prevails today.

Here are some of the famous Coca-Cola Santas:


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The Arts: The Gift of the Magi

Written more than 100 years ago, the story is still performed regularly by theater groups. Uploaded by

Though it takes a distant back seat to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as our favorite Christmas literature, The Gift of the Magi has two distinct advantages over Scrooge and the Spirits. First, it’s an American story, written by Greensboro native O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). And second, it’s a short story. Very short.

Author O. Henry. Uploaded by

Most everyone knows the basic plot. Poor wife sells her beautiful hair to buy a chain for her husband’s prized pocket watch. Poor husband sells prized pocket watch to buy combs for wife’s beautiful hair. Both are disappointed, and yet realize the love that’s demonstrated by their gifts. It’s a typical O. Henry surprise twist ending.

The story has been told and retold in many forms in the century since it was written. At least four versions have been filmed, the most recent being a Finnish adaptation. You can read the whole thing from start to Finnish (oh, I’m so sorry) in just a few minutes here.

Americana: The Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is an engineering masterpiece. Uploaded by

The Chesapeake Bay is about 200 miles long, from the Susquehanna in the north to the Atlantic Ocean. It touches six states and the District of Columbia, and is North America’s largest estuary. And it is a national treasure.

Everyone seems to agree that its name comes from the Algonquian Chesepiook. Some would translate that as “village at a big river,” while others assert it’s “great shellfish bay.” Our understanding of the name goes back to 1585 or 1586, when members of the Roanoke Colony first explored the Bay.

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I vote for the shellfish interpretation, because we love the Chesapeake’s treasure of seafood. Oysters… blue crabs… rockfish… scallops… clams. The Bay’s oyster population has been damaged due to environmental issues and over-harvesting, but it’s slowly rebounding due to careful attention to this valuable resource.

Some fascinating and charming towns can be found along the bay. You could easily spend a vacation on a driving tour along the Bay’s coastline. From tiny fishing villages like Urbanna, to historic towns like Havre de Grace, to charming Annapolis and richly diverse Baltimore. And the bay offers lots of opportunities for boating and sailing, with abundant marinas and frequent races and regattas.

Person: Brian Regan

Brian Regan is almost as funny to watch as to hear. Uploaded to Flickr by jeremyhall.

I don’t think everyone knows Brian Regan’s comedy, which is a terrible shame. He’s clean, he’s visually fascinating, and he’s flat-out hilarious.

Brian has been doing stand-up for about 20 years, and that’s all he does. No movies, no screenwriting, no sitcoms. Just stand-up.

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He has that knack that all great comedians have of seeing everyday life from a different perspective. Whether it’s the instructions on a box of Pop Tarts (Great American Things, May 28, 2009), buying a refrigerator, or playing Little League baseball (Great American Things, July 26, 2009), Brian brings out the funny side of life.

It’s silly to try to describe comedy, especially when you can see it. So here are some of his best bits available on YouTube:

Singer: Bing Crosby

Suave. Cool. And it wouldn't be Christmas without him. Uploaded by

How popular was Bing Crosby? Well, he sold more than a half billion records. In addition, he was a megastar in movies and on radio and TV. His “cool” style set the pace for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Buble.

And when it comes to the holidays, Bing Crosby gave us the music of Christmas.

Uploaded to Flickr by captnyro.

Bing was the first person to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys. He was nominated for three Academy Awards, and won for Going My Way. As for ticket sales, it’s estimated that 1.07 billion tickets were bought for Bing’s movies, making him the third-most-popular movie star of all time, behind Clark Gable and John Wayne.

The very peak of Bing’s career may have been 1948, when he was voted the most admired man alive – even ahead of the Pope. And that year Music Digest estimated that Crosby recordings filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music. That’s hard to grasp.

But now it’s Christmas, the time most associated with Bing Crosby music today. His “White Christmas” is the best-selling single of all time, and his “Merry Christmas” is the all-time number one Christmas album. We love us some Bing Crosby at Christmas.

Song: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

I wouldn't want to live where it snows all winter, but I love the one or two we get each year. Uploaded by

Okay, I have to admit that, as I write this, the first snow of the season is pouring down outside. And “it doesn’t show signs of stopping.” It’s a week before Christmas, we have a fire in the fireplace, and I hope we don’t have to go out for days.

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“Let It Snow!” (as we’ll call it for brevity purposes) is one of those songs, like “Winter Wonderland”, that’s not really about Christmas, but has become adopted as part of the season. In fact, its authors, the brilliant Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, are both Jewish. And like “The Christmas Song” (Great American Things, December 5, 2009), it was written in the middle of summer.

The song was first recorded by Vaughn Monroe (“Racing with the Moon”) in 1945. Although no singer’s version is the “standard”, it’s become one of the best-selling songs of all time.

Here’s a cool video – a homeowner has synched Chicago’s jazzy version to his Christmas lights:

Americana: The F.A.O. Schwartz Big Piano

The piano scene in F.A.O. Schwartz was the, uh, heart and soul of the movie Big. Uploaded by

F.A.O. Schwartz on 5th Avenue in New York is a fun place to visit, as much an experience as a store. But the highlight is the huge floor piano, featured in the Tom Hanks movie Big.

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F.A.O. Schwartz started as a family toy business, was bought out, expanded, bought and sold repeatedly, and finally declared bankruptcy in 2004. It was revived, downsized, and is now owned by Toys”R”Us. Fortunately, current management is smart enough to realize that the piano is what people now identify most closely with the brand.

The notoriety, of course, comes from the scene in Big where Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia “dance” to both “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” It was a delightful moment in a charming movie, and now want people want to try it for themselves when they come to New York.

Here’s the original scene that made the piano an icon, followed by what some people have been able to do with it since:

Sports: Jesse Owens

While at Ohio State, Jesse Owens set three gold records and tied a fourth - all within 45 minutes. Uploaded to Flickr by LALO 5.6.

Adolph Hitler had it all mapped out. He was hosting the Olympic Games in Berlin, the perfect showcase for his claim of Aryan superiority. Only one thing went wrong with his plan: Jesse Owens.

Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics – the long jump, 100 meters, 200 meters, and the 4-by-100 relay. And though he foiled the Fuhrer’s public relations ploy, the German people admired and rallied behind him in his demonstration of athletic greatness.

Uploaded to Flickr by discoverblackheritage.

The long-held belief is that he was snubbed by Hitler. But Owens says he was indeed recognized by the German leader. “When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”

He also said, “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” FDR also never invited Owens to the White House to recognize his accomplishments.

His life after the Olympics spiraled downward, first in gimmicky sports promotions, then to bankruptcy and tax evasion. But he later picked himself up, and became a respected goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Ford Motor Company.

Song: “Silver Bells”

The song Silver Bells first was heard in the Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid. Uploaded by

This reminds me of my childhood more than almost any other Christmas song. Its imagery calls to mind the way Christmas used to be. Before malls, when people shopped for Christmas downtown. And people actually dressed like Santa Claus to ring the silver bells at the Salvation Army kettles.

The REAL Santa Claus at Miller & Rhoads, Richmond. Uploaded to Flickr by Cindy Woods.

And when everyone knew the real Santa Claus was at Miller & Rhoads in Richmond.

“Silver Bells” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and was first recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards in 1950. Bing also recorded it with Ella Fitzgerald, with Rosemary Clooney, and by himself. Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell performed it in the 1951 film, Lemon Drop Kid.

Believe it or not, the song was originally written as “Tinkle Bells.” Fortunately, Jay Livingston went home and told his wife about the song. Mrs. L. informed her clueless husband what “tinkle” was slang for.

“Silver Bells” has been recorded by just about everyone who’s ever made a Christmas record, but here are some of the more unusual artists who have covered it: Jeannie C. Riley, The Brady Bunch, Regis Philbin, R.E.M., Boxcar Willie, and Twisted Sister.

Holiday: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Charlie Brown and the sweet, pitiful, genuine, thankless, encouraging, disheartening tree. Uploaded by

It’s almost nostalgic to remember back to the time when our primary concern was about the commercialization of Christmas. At least Charlie Brown got to do a Christmas play – in school, no less. Not a “holiday” program or a “winter” program. To show how far we’ve drifted, it’s a little surprising that the television execs haven’t renamed this A Charlie Brown Holiday.

This was the first attempt to bring Charles Schulz’s characters to the small screen, and it was almost the last. Network executives didn’t want the King James Bible being read, they wanted adult voice actors to speak the parts, and they wanted a laugh track. They were horrified at the idea of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz music on the track. Rumor has it that they were appalled when they saw the finished product.

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And yet, the show was both a critical and a popular hit. Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram said, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”

We love to watch Snoopy dancing. We delight at Vince Guaraldi’s music. (“Christmas Time Is Here” is now a seasonal standard.) We feel Charlie Brown’s hope at the choice of his scrawny Christmas tree, and his despair as it’s ridiculed.

And we never get tired of the kids shouting, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” before singing “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” at the end. What a great, great special.

Singers: The Mills Brothers

John Mills, Jr. died young due to pneumonia complications. So his father, John Sr. took his place in the group. Uploaded by

Sometimes the voices of siblings are similar, yet individual enough that when joined together they produce a distinctive sound. Phil and Don Everly. The Osmonds. The Andrews Sisters. But perhaps the smoothest of them all was a group whose popularity stretched over four decades – The Mills Brothers.

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They were discovered by Duke Ellington, who took them to see the great William S. Paley at CBS Radio. Paley was so impressed that he signed them to a contract and made them the first African-American group to host their own radio program.

There were originally four brothers, but one died in 1936. Who would they find with a compatible voice to take the fallen brother’s place? Why not dad? So John Mills, Sr. recorded and toured with his boys until finally deciding to retire in 1957. At that time, the Mills Brothers continued as a trio.

They produced some memorable recordings from the 30s until their last hit in 1968. Memorable songs by the Mills Brothers include “Lazy River”… “Paper Doll”… “Glow Worm”… “Standin’ on the Corner”… “Till Then”… “You Always Hurt the One You Love”… and “Cab Driver.”

Actor: Marlon Brando

Which Brando do you like better - young, sex symbol Brando or mature Godfather Brando? uploaded by

IMDb says Brando is considered the greatest movie actor of all time. The AFI named him the fourth-greatest male star of all time. Personally, I wouldn’t rank him so high. But there’s no denying that he belongs in any discussion of Great American Things.

Seldom has an actor changed so much as he aged. It’s hard to believe the young Brando of On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire is the same person as the mature Brando of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather (Great American Things, June 21, 2009). His appearance changed, but so did his acting style, reflecting some of the problems that he experienced in his off-screen life.

Uploaded to Flickr by groovy wallpaper.

Even so, look at the films he’s been in. In addition to the four listed above, he starred in The Wild OneGuys and DollsMutiny on the Bounty… and Last Tango in Paris. Most actors would have considered any of those as the movie of their lives, and Brando had eight. He won the Oscar for Best Actor twice, Supporing Actor once, and was nominated a total of eight times. (Of course, he didn’t always accept his awards, but that’s for another blog to explain.)

He essentially parodied his Don Corleone part in the movie The Freshman, but it’s always been one of my favorite small films. Even so, Martin Scorsese said, “He’s the marker. There’s ‘Before Brando’ and ‘After Brando’.” Brando became somewhat more cynical in later life, saying, “The only reason I’m in Hollywood is that I don’t have the moral courage to refuse the money.”