Tuesday, July 10, 2007
THE FINAL VOYAGE OF SINBAD: R.I.P. KERWIN MATHEWS (1926-2007)
I was having a good day. I really was. And then I found out that Sinbad had died.
To those of you too young to have seen it on the big screen — I saw it large during a rerelease when I was ten — it's hard to explain just what THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) meant to the kids it dazzled. In every way it may just be the greatest fantasy film of all time, brimming with unbridled imagination and combining magic, monsters, romance and swashbuckling to create the pinnacle of old-school fairy tale cinema. I can hear Jewish Warrior Princess screaming in favor of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940), and while it is a completely fucking excellent movie it falls short of the grandeur found in 7TH VOYAGE. I mean the motherfucker doesn't even steal Bagdad, so it's kind of dishonest.
Kerwin Mathews as Sinbad was not only handsome and personable, he could also immediately shift gears to become a deadly, sword-slinging man of action, fighting when he had to,
but also having enough sense to haul ass away from that humongous carnivorous cyclops.
I'll spare you the long and short of it all, but here's his obit. And, yes, Mathews was gay, lending concrete proof to my theory that he was too good looking to be straight. If you don't believe me, scroll down to the bottom of this post and check out the photo. Seriously, how fucking cool was this guy?
I have plans tonight, but I'd like to see if I can talk a certain young lady into sitting through THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD in lieu of hitting the funeral, whenever that may be.
Anyway, good luck in "the land beyond Beyond," Kerwin. You made a part of my mostly miserable childhood wondrous and exciting, and for that I'll hoist one in your honor.
From the San Francisco Chronicle-
KERWIN MATHEWS -- Movie Star
Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Kerwin Mathews was a devilishly handsome actor once hailed by Variety magazine as "both thoughtful and virile," and he appeared alongside the likes of Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy during a film career that spanned more than 20 years.
Mr. Mathews is not a household name like Novak, Sinatra and Tracy, but only because too few households watch the swashbuckling adventure movies of the 1950s and '60s. Such films were Mr. Mathews' bread and butter, and he is revered among their devotees for having starred in "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," which can only be called a classic of the genre and a milestone in the history of cinema. It was released 49 years ago, and not a week has gone by in all those years when Mr. Mathews did not receive a note from a fan.
Mr. Mathews died in his sleep at home in San Francisco sometime Wednesday night or Thursday morning. He was 81.
"He would, until the end, answer every piece of fan mail," said Tom Nicoll, his partner of 46 years. "If the movie was shown somewhere, he would get a flood of fan mail. If his name was in a magazine somewhere, he'd get a flood of fan mail."
Mr. Mathews was born in Seattle and moved to Janesville, Wis., with his mother when she fled a bad marriage. Money was tight, but Mr. Mathews had a knack for acting and earned a scholarship to Beloit (Wis.) College, which was known for its theater program.
After graduating, Mr. Mathews spent a few years teaching high school English in Lake Geneva, Wis., before the stage bug bit again and he went to Hollywood, Mr. Nicoll said. Mr. Mathews had nothing more than an aunt waiting for him there, but he was undeterred. He wanted to act. Hollywood was the place to do it. Mr. Mathews caught a lucky break and landed a gig at the Pasadena Playhouse, a groundbreaking theater that launched many an acting career. He soon caught the attention of an agent with good connections. "He was approached by an agent, who got him an appointment with Harry Cohn at Columbia, the big boss," Nicoll said. "Harry took a liking to him and signed him up." Cohn was the president of Columbia Pictures. He saw a big future for Mr. Mathews and cast him in "5 Against the House," a caper flick about five college kids who rob a casino. It starred Novak and was released in 1955. "The Garment Jungle," another noir film, followed before Mr. Mathews landed the role of Sinbad and cemented his place in cinematic history.
In "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad," Sinbad travels to the island of Colossa to save a beautiful princess. He and his men are confronted by all manner of evil beasts, including marauding cyclopes, fire-breathing dragons and a swashbuckling skeleton.
The film was made for $650,000 in 1958, but remains a showcase of dazzling special effects by Ray Harryhausen and a touchstone among practitioners and devotees of filmmaking special effects. Among its most famous sequences is a sword fight between Mr. Mathews and a skeleton; the skeleton was an elaborate model painstakingly filmed frame by frame in a process called stop-motion animation. "Fighting with a nonexistent skeleton wasn't easy," Nicoll said. "They added all of that later."
A war picture with Julie Andrews and a thriller with Ernest Borgnine followed before Mr. Mathews teamed up with Harryhausen again for "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver." The film tells the story of Dr. Lemuel Gulliver, who is thrown overboard during a voyage to India and washes up on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people who enlist Gulliver in their war against giants larger than he. It was another special effects extravaganza made in an era long before computer animation and movies with nine-figure budgets.
Mr. Mathews soon found himself typecast. For the rest of his career, he appeared mostly in films about pirates, giants, deranged killers and general mayhem. Among the biggest was "The Devil at 4 O'Clock," starring Sinatra and Tracy. It was about a priest and three convicts who save a children's leper colony from a volcano.
Mr. Mathews did a lot of acting work in Europe, and he starred in several Disney TV movies. Among them was "The Waltz King," an animated biography of Johann Strauss Jr., in which Mr. Mathews portrayed the famous composer. It was his favorite role, Nicoll said. "It was one of the things he was proudest of," Nicoll said. Perhaps that's because Mr. Mathews, who retired from acting in 1978 because he had grown weary of life in Los Angeles, adored the arts. He moved to San Francisco, where he sold antiques for a time and was a devoted fan of the city's opera, symphony and ballet.
His movies -- he made 32 in all -- still run on television from time to time; "Sinbad" and "Gulliver" were on Turner Classic Movies not long ago. As usual, they generated more fan mail, which Mr. Mathews happily answered. He never minded that most of his movies have long been forgotten and those that endure are considered campy cult classics. All that mattered was that he was an actor and spent 20 years doing something he loved.
"A little kid from the Midwest was in all these big movies," Nicoll said. "What's not to like?"
Mr. Mathews lived alone in San Francisco with his partner, Nicoll, and two cats. Services are pending.