Several people commented to me recently that the passing of the great intellectual and Fortean archivist William Corliss was almost totally ignored by the mass media. Of course, I tried to capture some of the flavor of the man’s life and works here, but, except for a routine obituary in the Baltimore Sun, his death was overlooked by the general press and frankly forgotten mostly online too. That’s a shame.
By contrast, I must observe, the death the same day, July 8th, of the actor who is remembered as a small character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind was recalled throughout the media for over a week. This is not to say one life is more important or more significant than another, but the contrast did seem to have a lesson within it. Society still values its popular cultural icons, even those placed in minor roles in movies, as more worthy of long obits and more visually compelling remembrances than its authors, researchers, and illuminating characters. Too bad but that’s reality.
On Friday, July 8, 2011, the New Haven-born actor Roberts Blossom, 87, died in his Santa Monica, California home. He played in dozens of films. As the New York Times noted:
He was an ill-fated patient in the George C. Scott film “The Hospital,” the delirious Wild Bob Cody in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Paul Le Mat’s ornery father in “Citizens Band,” the farmer who once saw Bigfoot in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the convict who paints the warden’s portrait in “Escape From Alcatraz” and the irate judge who sentences Michael J. Fox to community service in the local hospital in “Doc Hollywood.”
In a rare starring role, he was Ezra Cobb, a crazed farmer who unleashes mayhem, in the cult horror film “Deranged.” Posters for the film bore the tag line: “Pretty Sally Mae died a very unnatural death … but the worst hasn’t happened to her yet!”
He played against type in the hugely popular Christmas film “Home Alone.” As Old Man Marley, he was a threatening-looking geezer rumored to have killed his entire family, but the scary Marley turns out to be a sweet old fellow who befriends the character played by Macaulay Culkin.
In the original 1977 release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blossom played the farmer (seen above) who stands up at a UFO press conference and says, “I saw Bigfoot once!”
There is a hush over the room, as those there react. The farmer then states, “1951! It made a sound that I would not want to hear twice in my life!” And sits down.
The obvious link between the ridicule that was being heaped on the film’s UFO witnesses and the silliness projected onto Sasquatch encounters by the crazy looks and words of the Blossom character was not lost on the viewing audience. Or within hominology. Two steps forward, and three backwards.
There seems a cruel irony to the fact that Corliss and Blossom died the same day, and Blossom’s obituary is found coast-to-coast in 232 newspapers, versus Corliss’ notice of death, in one.