Maury Chaykin, RIP

July 29, 2010

Canadian character actor Maury Chaykin passed away in Toronto on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, on his 61st birthday; according to the Canadian newspapers, he had been suffering from a kidney ailment. He was famous for his “comic roles with disturbing undertones, and disturbing roles with comic undertones”, according to his New York Times obit. Chaykin was a favorite of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who cast him in “The Adjuster”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, and “Where the Truth Lies”. His career was by no means limited to Canadian productions, though; he had strong roles in “Dances With Wolves”, “My Cousin Vinny”, and the HBO series “Entourage”.

Far and away his best known role among mystery aficionados, though, was his portrayal of the iconic detective Nero Wolfe, first in an an A&E movie, “The Golden Spiders”, then later in a television series (also on A&E) that expanded upon the film. Timothy Hutton co-starred as Wolfe’s wisecracking right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. It was wildly popular at the time (2000), with the fourth highest viewership of any A&E movie.

Wolfe was, in many ways, the original slacker; among Goodwin’s duties as confidential assistant was the constant goading of Wolfe to drum up new business, as Wolfe’s expensive habits (a Manhattan brownstone, live-in help, an orchid greenhouse, his taste for fine beers, and of course his notorious gourmandizing) routinely nudged the bank accounts to the edge of insolvency. Chaykin played the part to a tee: he was physically suited to play Wolfe, to be sure (Stout once described Wolfe as weighing one-seventh of a ton, about 286 pounds), and he brought the requisite petulance and “sniffiness” to the role. Hutton provided the humorous counterpoint, and the two played off one another magnificently. Critic Martin Sieff, writing for UPI, had this to say about the dynamic duo: “The great veteran actor Maury Chaykin was born to play Nero. And Timothy Hutton is equally perfect as his leg-man and always squabbling employee/amanuensis/Dr. Watson/Captain Hastings sidekick, Archie Goodwin. Hutton, an Oscar winner, and Chaykin are at the heart of it all. They have done many prestigious things in their careers and no doubt will do many more. But it is clear they know they will never have more fun than doing this.”

Never having met or known Maury Chaykin, I can only imagine what a huge personal loss his passing must represent to his loved ones. As an outside observer, though, I followed his career from high spot to high spot; he could occasionally be in a clinker of a movie, but his performances were invariably inspired. Over the years he won numerous awards, but perhaps the coolest (and weirdest) was the 2006 “Career So Far Award” from the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film. Chaykin had this to say about the award, in the Toronto Star: “I got this strange call from Chlotrudis…I thought it was a disease. It’s a society for independent film, and they said, ‘We’re giving you The Career So Far Award. Not The Lifetime Achievement Award. We hope you will do a lot more indie films.’ They want me to fly down to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last year’s winner was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I looked up their website and they are legit. Nero Wolfe raised orchids. Maybe he had a rare form of Chlotrudis.”

Sleep ye well, Maury Chaykin.

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Whingeing One’s Way Around the World

July 29, 2010

While traveling in Turkey several years ago, I learned the meaning of the verb “whinge” from Mike Andrews, an Englishman with whom I became acquainted on a Mediterranean sailboat cruise (one of the famously inexpensive and fun “Blue Cruises” that ply the south coast of Turkey from Antalya to Fethiye). Although whinge is an English word, it is one that has sadly gained little purchase on the west side of the Atlantic. I say “sadly” because it is such a choice word for describing the discontent of certain privileged American (and British, and German, and Japanese, to name but a few) tourists who find facilities in foreign countries to come up short when compared to analogous amenities at home. (An example, which should be rendered in the snootiest and whiniest English accent you can muster: “It’s just bloody awful, in’ it? The people are so, well—there’s just no other word for it, is there—swarthy.  Nobody speaks a word of English, and try as we might, it is simply not possible to find a scone or a drinkable cup of tea.”) There is, in my estimation, a delicious irony to be found in the notion that the English, of all people, would lodge any sort of complaint about cuisine, except perhaps their own, but that is perhaps another story for another day.

(whinge: to complain or protest, particularly in an annoying or persistent manner)

Anyway, I began to clandestinely observe whingeing, and even to egg it on when the opportunity arose. On one memorable occasion, my Japanese traveling companion became quite pouty and petulant about the lackadaisical Greek approach to timeliness, especially as it pertained to our ferry, which not only arrived late to each port of call, but entirely skipped the island stop where we were to be deposited. As a result, we made a pointless round trip and had to start all over again from Athens twelve hours later. “This would never happen in Japan,” she fumed. “I am going to complain about this (‘to anyone who will listen’, I thought) and write about it in Mixi to warn anyone who is thinking of traveling to Greece.” (Mixi is like the Japanese-only version of Facebook, only more evolved.) I looked over at her from my perch atop a reclining deck chair, where I was basking in the butterscotch glow of the late afternoon Aegean sun. “So, here,” I offered. “Let me help you with your writing. It should maybe go something like this: ‘I cannot believe what an awful experience this is. I am stuck on the upper deck of a luxurious ferry, for an extra dozen hours, a cold drink at hand and Naxos on the horizon; the temperature is a balmy seventy-six, roughly thirty degrees to the correct side of Tokyo’s temperature at the moment. There is a faint sea breeze, and the gentle flapping of the blue and white Greek flag overhead. Waiters come around every so often to attend to our every need, and there is a complimentary stateroom awaiting us when we get tired of sunbathing. Also a pair of meal vouchers and a discount on our next ferry ride.’

I continued: “I can see how your friends in Tokyo will feel quite sorry for you, and be darn glad that they aren’t stuck here as well.” As I waited for her considered reply, she stared at me in a way that could only be described as “baleful”, and with that I realized that I had stumbled upon yet another English word that is woefully underutilized in the New World.

(baleful: foreboding or threatening, filled with ill intent)