Peter Shelton

The Oscar and the killer whale

Posted in At the Movies, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on March 10, 2010

It was nice to see Jeff Bridges win the best actor Oscar for Crazy Heart. He’s been at it a long time, with obvious relish and humor.

What’s not to love about The Dude in The Big Lebowski? (“Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here.”) As the late, great Pauline Kael said of Bridges’ style: “[he] may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who has ever lived.”

I taught his older brother Beau how to ski at Bear Valley in California when Ellen and I were there in the early 1970s. The whole family hung out at Bear: Jeff, Beau, their actor father Lloyd. Jeff was the handsomer, more famous brother. He had already earned an Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show in 1971. But I drew Beau, and that was cool. He made progress on skis. They were all regular folks.

Thanks to the small screen, Lloyd was the one, actually, who rocked my boat. I had worshipped him as Mike Nelson, the scuba-diving hero of Sea Hunt, which ran, in stark black-and-white, for three seasons from 1958 to 1961. Mike Nelson could dodge the zig-zag bullets fired at him from a boat above, and he could survive the bad guy cutting his air hose in a vicious underwater tango.

But the episode that is seared into my brain still was the one in which killer whales home in on a disabled dinghy. Those six-foot tall dorsal fins, like ink-black conning towers, gliding, with ultimate menace, and the outboard motor won’t start, the man’s arm pulling and pulling the cord. . .

This image came rushing back a couple of weeks ago when the captive killer whale, Tillikum, dragged a Sea World trainer underwater and drowned her. Nobody knows why he did it. Experts surmise that it was a case of 11,000-pound “whale playfulness.” Or that it was a flash of deep, and more malevolent, instinct. Animal rights people see it as an understandable lashing out at human captors, human humiliators.

Back in the Sea Hunt days, before Namu became the first named, aquarium killer whale in 1965, no one knew that orcas could be trained, domesticated, could be anything but magnificent killers. Neither Mike Nelson nor his writers could have seen them otherwise.

Neither for that matter could Clint Eastwood or Merv Griffin or Robert Conrad, or any of the other stars who frequented Bear Valley in those halcyon days. Bear had quite the Hollywood connection then. Our ski school director, Peter Brinkman, was the son of Jeanne Crain, who made scores of pictures in the studio era of the 1940s and 50s. She was the dark-haired Irish/English beauty in State Fair and Cheaper by the Dozen. She won an Oscar nomination in 1949 for Pinky, in which she played a light-skinned African-American who “passes” up North. (Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t think American audiences were ready for a black woman in the role, especially given the love scenes with a white man.)

The Brink, as he was known, affectionately, schmoozed like he was born to it. He was. He squired a Playboy Playmate of the Month (Miss March 1976) up to Bear and into our rustic ski school room. He decided to give her ski lessons himself, and she promptly broke her leg. The Brink himself starred in the utterly forgettable Winter A-Go-Go in 1965.

Lloyd Bridges never earned an Academy Award (nor did he live long enough to see son Jeff win his this week). But he did get two Emmy nominations, the second for a couple of hysterically funny appearances on Seinfeld.

Comedy, it turned out, was his great gift, at least later in life. Even greater than his ability to outswim killer whales. My kids know him as the overwhelmed air traffic controller Steve McCroskey in 1980’s Airplane! It’s a stormy dark night. There’s a jet airliner coming in for a crash landing—both captain and co-pilot ate the bad fish for dinner—and the plane is being flown by a traumatized former fighter pilot. In scenes of progressive disarray, McCroskey says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.” And “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.” And “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.” Etcetera.

The wobbling jetliner finally appears out of the fog, right on top of him, and McCroskey dives through the tower window as if it were the plate-glass surface of the sea. Lloyd Bridges should at least have been nominated for that one.

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